Blair’s vincible ignorance

A Facebook post by the editor of The Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, whom I knew many years ago at Oxford, prompted me to send him a short reply, which I think deserves further development here.

Responding to the Chilcot Report about Britain’s war in Iraq, Stephen commented, ‘I still respect Blair’s commitment to doing what he believed was the right thing.’ This echoes the excuse Blair himself has often given for his behaviour – ‘I may have been wrong, but I acted according to conscience’. As Blair said in his own response to the report, ‘Whether people agree or disagree with my decision to take military action against Saddam Hussein; I took it in good faith and in what I believed to be the best interests of the country.’

For simplicity’s sake, let us take Blair at his word, and accept that he acted in ‘good faith’, and that he did what he did because he sincerely believed that it was the right thing to do. Given the disastrous consequences of his decision, does the fact that he was acting according to conscience excuse him?

A good way of answering that question is to turn to Thomas Aquinas and the distinction he drew between ‘vincible’ and ‘invincible’ ignorance. In Summa Theologica, Aquinas asked whether it was sinful to obey an erring conscience. He answered that, ‘absolutely speaking, every will at variance with reason, whether right or erring, is always evil.’ In other words, if your conscience (which Aquinas defined as being the application of reason) tells you that something is right, then you must do it. If your reasoning subsequently turns out to have been wrong, you still won’t have acted sinfully. But Aquinas linked this conclusion to the concept of ‘invincible ignorance’. Aquinas wrote:

It is evident that whoever neglects to have or do what he ought to have or do, commits a sin of omission. Wherefore through negligence, ignorance of what one is bound to know, is a sin; whereas it is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently ignorance of such like things is called ‘invincible,’ because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know.

Following this, Aquinas then asks, ‘whether an erring conscience excuses?’ He replies:

Now this question depends on what has been said above about ignorance … If then reason or conscience err with an error that is voluntary, either directly, or through negligence, so that one errs about what one ought to know; then such an error of reason or conscience does not excuse the will, that abides by that erring reason or conscience, from being evil. But if the error arise from ignorance of some circumstance, and without any negligence, so that it cause the act to be involuntary, then that error of reason or conscience excuses the will, that abides by that erring reason, from being evil.

Simply put, if you do something wrong believing it to be right, your error is excusable if you weren’t to blame for your own ignorance. But if your ignorance was your own fault, because you should or could have known what you did not, then the fact that you were acting according to conscience does not excuse your mistake.

So was Tony Blair vincibly or invincibly ignorant about Iraq? Could he, or should he, have known that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction (WMD), that the invasion of Iraq would lead to the collapse of government authority in that state and bloody civil war, and that the invasion would probably increase the threat of Islamic terrorism? Or were these all things that he could not have known, and which he should not be blamed for not having known?

The Chilcot report provides the answers. As I pointed out in my last post, the report makes it clear that the intelligence Blair received about WMD was not nearly as categorical as he pretended; he was warned that the Americans did not have a decent plan for the post-war occupation; and he was warned that the war would probably increase the danger from terrorism. But he chose to ignore these warnings. In other words, his ignorance was vincible. Consequently, the fact that he was ‘doing what he believed was the right thing’ does not excuse him at all.

13 thoughts on “Blair’s vincible ignorance”

  1. Ignorance? I think everybody in the country except Blair and the other fawning politicals KNEW that invading Afghanistan was a stupid idea and that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. To try and justify it by saying the present situation would have been even worse when the so-called Arab Spring reached Iraq is an extremely warped argument.


    1. As so often, they fixed the intelligence around the policy. In his slimy lawyer’s way, Blair is eager to tell everyone that he acted on “the intelligence” and even that the very papers he relied upon are still on the Web for anyone to read. This may be true. But what he does not admit is that the intelligence papers he eventually used were the outcome of a long process of trial and error, in which the intelligence services wrote and rewrote their conclusions until Blair told them he was satisfied.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Since Blair started off by telling Bush that he would always be with him (actually, trailing behind him like an obedient poodle), the whole question of justification is irrelevant. Regardless of the facts, Blair had pledged his allegiance to Bush. He was Bush’s man, and as such had to follow him to war.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think the wmd and occupation plans are fake controversies. Bush and Blair simply didn’t have the jurisdiction to invade, whatever they believed or didn’t believe. Obviously, say, Hitler and his comrades also thought they were doing the right thing, so what.


    1. Exactly. Back in the day this was called conspiracy to wage aggressive war. It used to be you hanged for it.

      Now you get re-elected.

      Yes, the Anglosphere has fallen that far.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. rkka
        Yes, but there is a very large body of opinion in Britain that wants to see Blair tried for war crimes. Those who want to see him hanged are, I think, a small minority. Most would be happy with a long custodial sentence.

        A point about the material in the Chilcot report is that certain matters of fact can be taken as established.

        Whether or not this provides a basis for legal action against him and others remains a moot point. At the moment, lawyers for the families of the servicemen killed in Iraq are going through the report with a fine toothcomb.

        We shall see.

        What is also important is that, on crucial matters, Chilcot is patently a continuation of previous cover-ups.

        It is obviously preposterous that people should accept any kind of testimony from the likes of Dearlove as accurate.

        Whether people in Britain ‘wise up’ to this is going to be an interesting question.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve finally groked what this general attitude and Blair’s incompetent bleating about “good intentions” reminds me of! Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog – the original short novel, not 1988 Bortko’s screen adaptation. Here professor Preobrazhensky is shown fully, without attempts to whitewash him.

    What did you expect would have happened, if you had neither the moral (or legal) right to do what you did? And why you act so surprised now, if you hadn’t plan in advance?


    1. Lyttenburgh,

      I may be being stupid, but – as a lover of Bulgakov, although one unfortunately lacking the linguistic competence to read him in the original – I do not quite ‘get you’.

      Is Blair supposed to be the ‘dog’?

      Admittedly, in terms of his intellectual capabilities, he would suit the role …

      But if so, who would be the professor?

      After all, surely, the point about the professor is that he is intelligent, but simply cannot anticipate the consequences of his intelligence …

      A point about the Chilcot report is that it becomes very difficult to find many members of the British élites displaying any signs of intelligence whatsoever.

      (There are honourable exceptions: Manningham-Butler, Cook, Kennedy, and indeed Corbyn, drivelling idiot though he is in most respects. But most of those involved do indeed look like the dog in Bulgakov’s novella … )


      1. No, Blair is professor Preobrazhensky. What I can’t get is why the people think that this is some kind of “good guy” of the short novella. He is not “intelligent” – he is an intilligent, a member of intelligentsia.

        Think for a moment – who really is professor? Besides the fact he is a world-famous professor of biology, lives in 8-room suite in elite Moscow house, has servants, goes to opera once a week, smokes cigars and eats all kinds of delicacies. He also performs “clandestine” (one might say – “underground”) gynecological operations, for which he takes lots of money (up to 500 rubles per operation – that’s a lot of money for mid 1920s USSR). And he also performed an illegal abortion on a 14-year girl and naturally, didn’t report the pedophile (a married influential man, who can travel abroad) to the authorities.

        He took, healed and fattened the stray dog Sharik not because he was such a good and kind person, that can’t look at starving animal, that could not survive an upcoming winter – no, he needed a test subject for his brand new experiment. He actually thought that the chances of this to succeed were very slim:

        “Ivan Arnoldovich, the most important moment will be when I enter the sella turcica. The instant that happens, I implore you, hand me the processus and immediately after that put in the stitches. If we get bleeding at that point we’ll lose time and we’ll lose the dog. Not that there’s any chance for him, anyway.”

        But, to his own surprise, Preobrazhensky succeed. And Sharik began his transformation into a human being – and the fact this was a human being was later admitted by professor himself.

        Only he had no plan what to do with Sharik that became P.P. Sharikov. He didn’t educate him, he didn’t treat him as a new, inexperienced human being. He treated his like he treats about 80% of lower-class people who don’t know their proper place – with indignation, hatred, rudeness (this is more apparent in the novel than in the film). Sharikov was interesting as a text subject of an attempt to turn a dog into a man by grafting human organs into it. But there was no plan on what to do next. Is it a wonder that Sharikov, who immediately falls under Schvonder’s influence and “resurrects” the most criminal behavior of his donor-body, of some Klim Chugunkin?

        And what are these 2 paragons of noble spirit, two intilligents professor Preobrazhensky and doctor Bormental are discussing over a bottle of cognac and cigars after Sharikov’s latest escapade? Borhemntal suggests to poison Sharikov, whom he clearly dislikes and don’t treat as a human being. Professor refuses, but not on the grounds that this is immoral or unethical. No, because he, professor with a world-fame and high connections could be spared, while he, Bormental, would certainly be jailed and brought to court for a murder. Say, what a charming people?

        In the end, they indeed “kill” Sharikov – in a fashion. They perform once again this risky (and highly fatal by their admission) operation to cut the human hypophysis and plant back (saved for this particular event beforehand) Sharik’s old dog one. In due time, a Man diverts back into a dog.

        Now – look at post-Saddam Iraq. Stellar job, right?


  5. Lyttenburgh,

    Thanks for that. I need to reread the novella. Would it be entirely wrong to suggest that the relationship between the professor and Sharikov is, in a way, reworked in that between Berlioz and Ivan Homeless in the ‘Master and Margarita’?

    However, there was something in my mind when I was contemplating Blair as Sharikov.

    On the Inquiry website, one can find two documents which relate to the involvement of Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the members of Chilcot’s panel, in a notable speech which Blair gave in Chicago on 24 April 1999 under the title ‘The Doctrine of the International Community.’

    (See .)

    As Freedman made clear in his note to Chilcot, this speech – a classic statement of the doctrine of ‘humanitarian interventionism’ – was largely based on a memorandum which he had been asked to provide by Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.

    An extract:

    ‘Many of our problems have been caused by two dangerous and ruthless men – Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosovic. Both have been prepared to wage vicious campaigns against sections of their own community and Saddam even occupied a neighbouring country. As a result of these destructive policies both have brought calamity to their own people. Instead of enjoying its oil wealth Iraq has been reduced to poverty, with political life stultified through fear. Milosovic took over a substantial, ethnically diverse state, well placed to take advantage of new economic opportunities. His drive for ethnic concentration has left him with something much smaller, a ruined economy and soon a ruined military machine.’

    Encapsulated here is one of the most pernicious features of post-Cold War Western policy thinking – the reduction of complex and embittered ethnic and religious struggles in fractured societies to simple morality plays, in which wicked ‘tyrants’ repress the aspirations of ‘freedom’ of their peoples.

    Granted the premise, the obvious solution is to get rid of the ‘tyrants’. And this, of course, has really worked so well – in the former Yugoslavia, in Iraq, in Syria, in Ukraine, etc.

    It is quite interesting to look further at who Jonathan Powell and Freedman are.

    The former – who famously instructed a new British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer – to ‘get up the arse of the White House and stay there’ – is the younger brother of Charles Powell, who was a key foreign policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher.

    As to Freedman – now KCMG, CBE, PC, FBA (PC stands for ‘Privy Councillor’) – he was Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, and has been described as the ‘dean of British strategic studies’. His repudiation was largely made by a study of ‘The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy’ of which the first edition was published in 1981.

    Being at the time a rather conventional Cold War liberal, when I and a colleague got a contract to produce a special programme on European security back in 1986, we used him as one of our presenters.

    In the course of researching the programme, however, I came across a paper, published the previous year, entitled ‘Deterrence: The Problem – Not the Solution.’. Its author, Michael MccGwire, who died earlier this year, had ended a twenty-five year career in the Royal Navy which began as a midshipman in May1942 as head of the Soviet naval section of our Defence Intelligence Staff.

    (An account of his career is given in an obituary in the ‘Telegraph’ – see–obituary/ .)

    When I mentioned MccGwire to Freedman, if I recall right, he said something along the lines of ‘retired spooks going the other way’: as though excessive alarmism was replaced by excessive complacency among these intellectually inferior people.

    And in his memorandum for Powell, Freedman argued that, during the Cold War:

    ‘There were arguments about the right strategy to adopt to contain the Soviet threat but the threat itself was well understood.’

    In fact, both his slur against MccGwire, and his account of the Cold War, were complete nonsense.

    In his 1985 paper, MccGwire was taking aim at the whole body of academic ‘deterrence’ theory to which much of Freedman’s study was devoted. Among his central points was that, explicitly or implicitly, this was generally premised upon the assumption that it was legitimate to infer a Soviet ‘intentions threat’ from the very evident ‘capabilities threat’ posed by offensively postured Warsaw Pact forces in the heart of Europe.

    This, MccGwire argued, revealed an inability to come to grips with ‘strategic’ realities as seen from the view of professional military planners.

    As the ‘Telegraph’ obituary noted, in the 1987 study of ‘Military Objectives in Soviet Foreign Policy’ which set out the analysis underpinning his critique of ‘deterrence’ theory, ‘instead of analysing Russian policy from the point of view of Western interests and vulnerabilities, the book assumed a Soviet viewpoint.’

    But here one comes across an irony. Without implying any disrespect to our host, in the distant days when he used to think, Britain was in large measure a naval culture – in the way Germany or Russia have been army cultures. And naval intelligence, in both world wars, was really rather good: and very heavily focused quite precisely on seeing things through the ‘viewpoint’ of the adversary. (That is how you plan effectively to defeat him.)

    Looking at matters through the eyes of a Soviet military planner, a central objective in a world war has to be to foreclose the possibility that the vastly superior military-industrial potential of the United States can be deployed against you in Eurasia. Hence the contingency planning for a ‘blitzkrieg’ westwards, to liquidate the ‘bridgeheads’ on which this potential could be deployed.

    The rethinking on MccGwire’s part which led to his polemics against ‘deterrence’ theory actually went back to the ‘Fifties. At the outset he, like others, had simply taken for granted that the vast submarine-building programme on which the Soviets embarked at the start of that decade was oriented towards attacking NATO’s transatlantic lines of communication.

    However, it turned out the preponderant part of the forces were the wrong submarines in the wrong places. If a vessel has no air defences and an 100-mm gun, and is stationed in the Black Sea, it is not very likely that it is intended to fight its way out into the Atlantic and attack convoys.

    Rather, it is intended to operate, in conjunction with shore-based air, against possible Anglo-American ‘D-Day’ type operations in the Black Sea or Baltic – coming out at night, firing off its torpedoes, and then surfacing to use its gun in the chaos.

    So, starting from this evidence, one could grasp how the whole Cold War looks quite different, seen from the ‘viewpoint’ of a Soviet planner. The war for which he is planning does not start with Warsaw Pact forces invading Western Europe – but with all-out atomic attacks by the United States.

    A result of the intellectual evolution which began then was that, by July 1987, MccGwire – along with his Brookings Institution colleague the American scholar-diplomat Raymond Garthoff – was saying that Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ was likely to be for real. It was indeed eminently possible that was a serious intention to liquidate the ‘capabilities threat’, and there would be a radical shift away from the offensively-oriented posture in Central Europe.

    However, MccGwire also argued that, to understand the ‘viewpoint’ which underpinned what Gorbachev was doing, it was necessary to see how it arose out of successive intellectual transformations, and grasp how the events of the ‘Forties had looked, seen from Moscow.

    Not long ago, I came across a paper which MccGwire sent me at the time, and which became part of the basis for some radio documentaries I eventually produced for the BBC, which was entitled ‘The Genesis of Soviet Threat Perceptions’, on the net.

    (See .)

    This paper was a continuation of its author’s polemic against the assumptions that underpinned ‘neoconservatism’, which arise out of the key NSC 68 paper of April 1950, which was masterminded by Paul Nitze. The transition to figures like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle runs through Albert Wohlstetter and Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson.

    The central organisation of British ‘neoconservatives’ is entitled ‘The Henry Jackson Society’ – and among the signatories of its ‘Statement of Principles’ is Charles Powell.

    At the time, as recall quite vividly, figures like Freedman were completely clueless about Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’. In the event, for various reasons, they then moved much closer to the ‘neoconservative’ view of things.

    So if one might see Blair as the professor from Bulgakov’s fable, one might also see him as the dog, with figures like Freedman and the Powell brothers as a kind of collective ‘professor’.

    In this sense, while the Chilcot inquiry has its uses, one could also see it as a masterstroke by the ‘professor’. By sitting in judgement on the ‘dog’, he can disguise the fact that he himself taught the hapless animal to ‘bark out’ the messages which led to such a complete shambles.


    1. Apologies for bad proof reading. I wrote: ‘Without implying any disrespect to our host, in the distant days when he used to think, Britain was in large measure a naval culture – in the way Germany or Russia have been army cultures.’

      I of course meant ‘the distant days when we used to think.’


    2. Thank you for your comment, David. It’s really fascinating to read something by a person who was present at, well, “history” back then.

      As for Blair – he is still a Man, not a dog :). Still naive and snobbish. Iraq though… the process of extraction of the “donor material” (read: occupational force) was not without some grave consequences, totally unlike the book.


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