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Thursday, Aug. 5, 2004

Sincerity is not good enough

LONDON -- A London weekly headed a recent issue with photos of U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair and with the caption "Sincere Deceivers?" Perhaps they were sincere in their belief that Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq was a threat to U.S. and British national interests, but the facts are that no weapons of mass destruction have been found and, although no right-minded person regrets the toppling of Hussein, the war caused many thousands of Iraqi casualties, to say nothing of allied dead.

The occupation was so mishandled that life for the ordinary Iraqi remains insecure. There is no reason to think that the world is any safer from the threat of terrorism as a result of regime change in Iraq. Indeed, because of the chaos in Iraq and the ineptitude and insensitivity of the occupation, it may well have become more dangerous. Terrorism cannot be eradicated by firepower and technology. The fight must be won not only by demonstrating that terrorism will not be allowed to win but also by moving toward a world where human values are upheld and where ends, however worthy, are not allowed to justify means that are contrary to basic human rights.

Holding prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and maltreating others at Abu Ghraib undermine the basis of the fight against terrorism and should be unacceptable in a civilized society.

The U.S. report on the failures of U.S. intelligence before and after Sept. 11, 2001, and the recent report by a committee in Britain led by Lord Butler, a former chief Cabinet secretary, have highlighted the incompetence and unreliability of the intelligence services. Neither report has explicitly blamed politicians, who were ultimately responsible for the intelligence services. Nor have they been named and shamed for faulty decisions based on faulty intelligence.

Unlike some of their more honorable predecessors in earlier times, none of them has accepted responsibility and resigned. Rather they have blamed their subordinates for the mistakes that they compounded.

Although there was no evidence linking the Iraqi regime with al-Qaeda and 9/11, the Bush administration was apparently determined from the beginning to move against Hussein's regime. The reasons were complex. One aspect was payback for the U.S. failure to dislodge the regime in 1991. Another was concern about oil supplies and fears about weapons of mass destruction. Some also saw a humanitarian rationale for intervention against a tyrant. Others argued that the regime had been allowed to defy the United Nations for too long.

With the troops in place, all these factors conspired against the strong arguments for giving the U.N. inspectors further time. All peaceful means of solving the dispute were not exhausted; nor could an attack on Iraq be justified under international law. French President Jacques Chirac's declaration that he would not vote for another U.N. resolution gave the U.S. an excuse for overriding those who called for delay.

Politicians might not have "sexed up" the evidence, but civil servants were left in no doubt about what their masters wanted and produced evidence without adding any qualifiers that caution and adherence to truth demanded. Politicians have a sad tendency to fall for the tall tales of spooks. They read too many spy stories in their youth. Given a piece of paper marked "top secret" and burn after reading, and a chance to meet a real spook, they fall like starving fish for the bait.

The American electorate has an opportunity this year to hold Bush to account for the errors committed by his administration and to elect a new president who may adopt more rational courses for an improvement in the international situation.

If the British have a general election next year, they could in theory hold Blair responsible for taking Britain into a war that so far has done little good. The Labour Party may decide that Blair should give way to Gordon Brown, the finance minister. While the latter may have greater depth, he lacks charisma and an early change of leadership looks unlikely.

The alternative -- the Conservative Party under Michael Howard -- has little appeal. He voted for the war and his other policies have limited resonance with middle-of-the-road voters. The only party that has consistently opposed the war is the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy, but they have yet to show that they can offer a convincing alternative government.

Leaders in the main European countries are no better. In France, President Jacques Chirac is not under any immediate threat, but in aiming his venom against his able and ambitious finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, he has demonstrated his own weakness. Heads of state rarely see any merit in their potential successors, but the attack on Sarkozy is demeaning and damaging to French prestige.

In Italy, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's main concern seems to be to keep control of the media and ensure that charges of corruption against him are not allowed a fair trial. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder clings to power, but his ability to lead is questionable and he has not demonstrated statesmanship.

In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been accused of being another of Bush's poodles. He has hardly impressed the Japanese electorate by the depth of his thinking or the execution of his promised reforms. His pandering to the rightwing by repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine in his official capacity is not suggestive of liberal principles. His offer of aid to North Korea in return for the repatriation of Japanese abductees and their families seemed opportunist and a search for popularity. Japan unfortunately suffers from much the same problem as Britain. The alternatives to Koizumi are not attractive.

The picture in the parliamentary democracies is not pretty, but as Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried before." It is up to us as electors to do our best to make democracy work better by holding our politicians to account.

Bush and Blair may have been sincere in believing that they were justified in attacking Iraq, but sincerity is not enough. Our leaders need to make sure that their actions are justified under international law and executed in a responsible and sensible manner that minimizes casualties and human suffering.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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