On 5 March, Tony Blair gave a speech in his Sedgefield constituency in which he sought to justify his actions in Iraq by emphasising the unprecedented threat that global terrorism poses to the civilised world. He called this threat 'real and existential', and argued that politicians had no choice but to confront it 'whatever the political cost'. This is because the alternative - the possibility that terrorists might get their hands on weapons of mass destruction - was too awful to contemplate. In the days that followed, this speech, like everything else the prime minister says and does with reference to Iraq, was picked over by wave after wave of journalists and commentators. Those who had supported the war concluded that it was a passionate and heartfelt defence of what had been a brave and justified decision. Those who opposed the war found it strong on rhetoric but short on substance, and wondered whether all the passion might not, as so often with Blair, be concealing baser political motives. But what almost no one bothered to ask was whether the central claim in the speech was true. Is it true that the threat of global terrorism has altered 'the balance of risk', as Blair called it, so that actions like the one against Iraq can be justified by considering the worst-case scenario if action is not taken? Should worst-case scenarios, if they are sufficiently terrible, trump all other considerations when politicians have to decide what to do?
LRB 1 April 2004 | PDF Download