The Politics of Good Intentions

David Runciman

On 1 April, the Guardian admonished the Prime Minister to remember the importance of living up to his good intentions:

Putting Iraq to rights, in Mr Blair’s view, should be the whole world’s business. The more that all nations make common cause to do this, the better. The less this happens, the more vital it is to balance any absence of common cause with a sense of equitable and humanitarian initiatives – on the Middle East and on reconstruction in particular – which can help establish what Disraeli, seeking to justify the British invasion of Abyssinia in 1867, called ‘the purity of our purpose’.

Disraeli is perhaps not the most obvious of Tony Blair’s predecessors for the Guardian to summon in aid of its own, consistently high-minded opposition to creeping American imperialism. It is true, nevertheless, that the British invasion of Abyssinia, which began in 1867 but concluded only in the spring of 1868, offers some striking parallels with this spring’s conflict in Iraq. Disraeli’s Abyssinian adventure was, as its architect conceded in the House of Commons on 2 July 1868, ‘a most costly and perilous expedition’, the announcement of which was ‘received in more than one quarter with something like mocking incredulity’. Indeed, ‘when the invasion of Abyssinia was first mooted, it was denounced as a rash enterprise, pregnant with certain peril and probable disaster.’ The risks were diminished, however, by the massive technological imbalance between the combatants, and in the end it was no surprise that, as Disraeli put it, ‘the manly qualities of the Abyssinians sank before the resources of our warlike science.’ The decisive battle of the war – the Battle of Arogi – lasted for an hour and a half, at the end of which the British forces had suffered 29 casualties. Of the Abyssinian force of three thousand at least five hundred were killed; many more were wounded. So the nay-sayers and doom-mongers at home were also routed, and Disraeli was able to tell the Commons that ‘we have asserted the purity of our purpose.’ ‘In an age accused, and perhaps not unjustly, of selfishness, and too great a regard for material interests,’ he continued, ‘it is something, in so striking and significant a manner, for a great nation to have vindicated the higher principles of humanity.’ The Leader of the Opposition, William Gladstone, seconding Disraeli’s vote of thanks to the troops who had pulled off this masterly campaign, could only acquiesce.

Unfortunately, however, Disraeli meant by the purity of his purpose precisely the opposite of the course the Guardian was urging on Blair. The Abyssinian war was fought to free a group of nine hostages – the British Consul among them – who had been taken by the King of Abyssinia, Theodore II, to his fortress at Magdala in a fit of pique after Queen Victoria had refused his pleas for help, as a Christian, in his wars with his Muslim neighbours. The hostages were rescued, albeit at vast expense (the final bill for the expedition, at £9 million, was nearly double the original estimates), and Theodore committed suicide in his ruined fortress, shooting himself in the mouth with a pistol he had been given as a present by Victoria. The fortress was cleared, its armaments destroyed, and the town of Magdala burned. Then the British troops went home. The proof of Disraeli’s pure intentions came precisely from the fact that they didn’t hang around, didn’t try to rebuild, or oversee, or maintain anything in the place they had sacked, but simply got out. Because Disraeli was a bona fide imperialist – a believer, like many of those around George Bush, in the principle of Imperium et Libertas – he could demonstrate that he had no goal other than that of freeing the hostages and punishing their captors only by sacking the place where they had been held. The ‘higher principles of humanity’ he sought to uphold were not what we would now call the higher principles of humanitarianism. Rather, they were the principles of biblical justice, the idea that wrongdoers would be pursued, no matter how far away, and no matter how relatively trivial the offence. Saddam Hussein could have been treated in the same way. His technical offence – the breach of United Nations resolutions – was also relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things (trivial in the sense that it happens all the time). The Abyssinian solution would have been to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, destroy them and those responsible for them, and then leave, in order to prove it really was about the weapons, and not about something else. It is a sign of the very different moral and political universe Blair inhabits that he can prove the purity of his purpose only by persuading the biblically-minded Bush to do the reverse – to stick around (though not for too long), spend more money and try to repair some of the damage. And it is a sign of the complexities of Blair’s moral and political universe that this risks the charge that Disraeli the bona fide imperialist was able to avoid: the charge of imperialism.

Still, you can see why the Guardian was so desperately rummaging for some historical precedent in order to pin the Government down. The New World Order is awash with good intentions, many of them Tony Blair’s. Yet the suspicion remains that good intentions in politics don’t count for much. One of the things that unites all critics of Blair’s war in Iraq, whether from the Left or the Right, is that they are sick of the sound of Blair trumpeting the purity of his purpose, when what matters is the consequences of his actions. Yet there he stands, somewhere between Left and Right, trumpeting away. And he remains very hard to pin down, because Blair doesn’t just believe in good intentions; he, too, believes that what matters is outcomes, and is prepared, as he puts it, ‘to let history be my judge’. He is still, despite his new-found disdain for focus groups, a Third Way politician, and he believes in having things both ways. What, then, is the worth of his good intentions? Does history provide any sort of guide?

The most celebrated, as well as the most sceptical, historical account of the role of intention in justifying political action is the one given by Max Weber in his lecture ‘Politik als Beruf’ (usually translated as ‘Politics as a Vocation’). It was delivered on 28 January 1919 to a group of students in Munich, and Weber used it to warn them, among other things, against politicians who come flaunting their good intentions, but leave behind them a trail of blood. Munich was not short of examples of this type in early 1919. The most prominent was the journalist turned politician Kurt Eisner, who had stumbled into power at the beginning of November the previous year when he declared Bavaria a republic, two days before a similar proclamation was made in Berlin, and four days before the official end of the war. Eisner remained at the head of the state he had brought into being, despite the fact that the elections he called to the new Bavarian Parliament in January had seen his group of Independent Socialists receive just 2.5 per cent of the vote, and three of the 180 seats available. Brushing aside this result, and the unsurprising clamour for his resignation, Eisner clung to office, on the grounds that practical politics had to give way before the purity of his purpose. His mission as he saw it was to cleanse the political life of Germany, starting in Bavaria, by embracing the idea of German war-guilt. In Eisner’s world, everything that preceded November 1918 was immoral, sinful and corrupt; everything after could be beautiful, healthy and pure, if only German politicians would own up to the wickedness of what had gone before.

Eisner was not in Munich to hear Weber’s lecture. He had better things to do. In fact, at the end of January he had a choice of three different conferences to attend as the representative of the new moral order in Bavaria – one in France, one in Germany and one in Switzerland. He could have gone to Paris, to witness the start of the peace negotiations that were to culminate in August in the Treaty of Versailles. Alternatively, he could have gone to Weimar, where he was expected to attend the opening of the Constituent Assembly that also produced in August a document of world-historical significance: the Constitution of the new German Republic. Instead, Eisner chose to go to Berne to attend a convention of European socialists, whose delegates included Ramsay MacDonald and Arthur Henderson, and which produced nothing. The convention was designed as a continuation of the regular prewar gatherings of the Socialist International, at which various factions had squabbled and bickered before declaring their unshakeable class solidarity and confidence in the future. The elephant in the room this time, politely ignored by some of those in attendance, was the fact that the working classes of Europe had spent the last four years trying to blow each other to bits. Eisner was not a man to ignore an elephant in the room; rather, he dressed it up in ribbons and bows and tried to pass it off as a peace offering. Germany was to blame for the horrors of the war, he readily acknowledged. But because Germany was to blame, Germany was the best source of hope for the future. This was designed to be the beginning of a virtuous circle: expressions of guilt would mean a fresh start; a fresh start was the surest sign that the past was truly regretted. ‘We want to expiate our guilt,’ Eisner told his fellow delegates, ‘by going ahead on the path of socialism.’ What did elections, or peace treaties, or constitutions, matter in the face of moral renewal? Nevertheless, Eisner decided to return from Berne to Munich, where his absence had been much resented, in time to attend the inauguration of the new Bavarian Parliament on 21 February. Going to the opening ceremony on foot, and heedless of the repeated threats to his life he had received since coming to power, he was confronted by an embittered, anti-semitic Bavarian aristocrat called Count Anton von Arco-Valley, who shot him dead. The moral renewal of Bavarian politics was over.

The mismatch between Eisner’s intentions and the unintended outcome of his brief period of prominence would be comic, if it weren’t so tragic. When news of the assassination reached the chamber to which he had been heading, one of his few remaining supporters produced a pistol of his own and shot the leader of the majority Independent Socialist Party, wounding but not killing him. After that, things went quickly downhill. Within weeks a workers’ soviet republic was declared, though it continued to be governed by those Weber called ‘littérateurs’ – ‘poets, semi-poets, mezzo-philosophers and schoolteachers’. They sent an armed Red Guard onto the streets of Munich, but insisted that they mark their uncompromising opposition to bourgeois ways by pointing the muzzles of their rifles to the ground. The majority socialists fled the city, and soon more systematic killing began. This was enough for the Government in Berlin, and for its nominal head, Friedrich Ebert, soon to be the first President of the Weimar Republic. He acquiesced in the suppression of the Bavarian revolution by the Freikorps, troops with mixed loyalties but united in their anti-Bolshevism and taste for vengeance. (He had earlier acquiesced in the murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the leaders of the short-lived Bolshevik uprising in Berlin, deaths which elicited from Weber the memorably heartless response: ‘They called up the street, and the street has dispatched them.’) In Munich, Red Terror was followed by White Terror, which was worse. By May, it was all over. Many thousands of people were dead, and political life in Munich became what it was to remain for the remainder of the Weimar years, a running sore for the new Republic. Eisner had hoped to create in Bavaria a beacon for a new kind of politics, founded on goodwill and high moral purpose. After his death, Bavaria did quite quickly become the seedbed of a new political movement; it was, however, entirely malevolent. Munich was the birthplace of National Socialism.

Weber does not mention Eisner by name in the published version of his lecture, which appeared in October 1919. He probably felt he didn’t need to. Nor does he refer to Friedrich Ebert, though it is possible to read parts of the text as an address to the new President, encouraging him to hold firm. Instead, Weber chooses to discuss the thoughts of Professor Friedrich Förster, a celebrated moralist and pacifist, who was his colleague at Munich University, as well as a colleague of Eisner’s in the new Bavarian Government. Förster also happened to be in Switzerland at the beginning of 1919: he had been sent there by Eisner as his Ambassador, charged with spreading the news of Germany’s rediscovered sense of its moral responsibilities, and the sincerity of its good intentions. It was Förster’s belief that, in politics, only good can flow from good, and only evil from evil. For Weber, this was the political philosophy of a child. ‘Not just the entire course of world history,’ he wrote, ‘but any unbiased examination of daily experience, proclaims the opposite.’ Förster’s mistake was to believe that a Christian ethic, and the benign categories of religious moral thought, could possibly apply to the world of politics. Politics is the devil’s business. ‘Anyone who gets involved with politics,’ Weber declared in one of the best-known passages in the lecture, ‘is making a pact with diabolical powers.’ It doesn’t follow from this that we are all damned; only that no one should get involved with politics if damnation is what primarily concerns them. Förster, Weber said, was a man he could respect ‘because of the undoubted integrity of his convictions’; but for just that reason, he went on, ‘I reject him unreservedly as a politician.’ It was of only small comfort that if such a man was to get involved in politics, Ambassador to Switzerland (a nation Weber sometimes held up as a model of what can happen if you decide to opt out of power politics altogether) was probably the best position for him.

Eisner and Förster were united by their sense that war-guilt was an essential vehicle of political renewal, and was to be enthusiastically embraced. Weber thought their fixation not only childish but perverse. In his lecture, he drew an analogy with the way some men behave when a love affair turns sour. Most men, he argues, will attempt self-justification, telling themselves that ‘“she did not deserve my love,” or “she disappointed me,” or offering some other such “reasons”’. This is a ‘profoundly unchivalrous attitude’, since it burdens the abandoned woman ‘not only with misfortune but also with being in the wrong’. It also has a counterpart in the attitude of the unsuccessful lover, the man who takes his rejection as a sign of inadequacy, that he is of ‘lesser worth’. The same kinds of thing, Weber suggests, happen after a war:

The victor will of course assert, with ignoble self-righteousness: ‘I won because I was in the right’ . . . When the horrors of war cause a man to suffer a psychological breakdown, instead of simply saying, ‘It was all just too much for me,’ he now feels the need to justify his war-weariness by substituting the feeling: ‘I couldn’t bear the experience because I was forced to fight for a morally bad cause.’ The same applies to those defeated in war. Instead of searching, like an old woman, for the ‘guilty party’ after the war (when it was in fact the structure of society that produced the war), anyone with a manly, unsentimental bearing would say to the enemy: ‘We lost the war – you won it. The matter is now settled. Now let us discuss what conclusions are to be drawn in the light of the substantive interests involved and – this is the main thing – in the light of the responsibility for the future which the victor in particular must bear.’ Anything else lacks dignity and will have dire consequences.

A preoccupation with guilt is a mark of irresponsibility, both in sexual relations and in political relations. In his lecture, Weber cautiously extends the sexual analogy, calling questions of past guilt ‘politically sterile (because unresolvable)’. But he was more explicit in his private correspondence. In a letter he wrote on 13 November 1918, he complained that ‘this wallowing in guilt feelings . . . is a sickness – just as flagellation is one in the religious area and masochism is in the sexual sphere.’ Weber was not alone in holding this view. M.J. Bonn, another professor at Munich University during 1919, recalled long afterwards his feeling that Bavarian politics were dominated during this period by ‘neurotic temperaments to whom self-inflicted tortures are a source of joy’. For some, peace without honour was too good an opportunity to pass by. ‘These Germans,’ Bonn wrote, ‘went at it, as flagellantes.’

‘Sterile excitement’ is how Weber characterises the temptations of conviction politics. He contrasts them with what he calls an ‘ethic of responsibility’. Responsibility does not exclude conviction, but it does presuppose a particular attitude towards it. The responsible politician knows that good does not always follow from good. Even actions undertaken with the best intentions will generate unintended consequences, and the mark of a responsible politician is how these are dealt with. The way to deal with them is to take responsibility for them, which means neither denying them nor wallowing in them, but accepting them for what they are: the unintended but foreseeable consequences of any involvement in politics. All politicians with real power have dirty hands, because real politics is a bloody business. The trick for Weber is not to try to hide them, nor to parade them through the streets, but just to get on with the task in hand, in the knowledge that dirty hands, and a soiled conscience, are the price that all politicians have to pay. Responsible politicians will suffer, but they should suffer in silence, because the test of politics is whether you can cope with the knowledge that you are not as good as you would like to be.

How easy, though, is it to distinguish this ready acceptance of suffering from some of the vices that Weber detects in the irresponsible politician? The American philosopher Michael Walzer, writing in 1973, in the immediate aftermath of another misjudged imperial war, detected in Weber’s ‘mature, superbly trained, relentless, objective, responsible and disciplined political leader’ a recognisable type: the type of the ‘suffering servant’. ‘Here is a man who lies, intrigues, sends others to their death – and suffers. None of us can know, he tells us, how much it costs him to do his duty.’ The almost teary, always steely look on Vladimir Putin’s waxen face, most notably as he apologised on Russian television for the deaths of innocents after the Moscow theatre siege last year, is the perfect embodiment of this. The responsible politician can apologise, but he can’t do more than apologise, because that would mean passing the burden onto someone else. As a result, responsible politics in the wrong hands can look a lot like its opposite. ‘We suspect the suffering servant of either masochism or hypocrisy or both,’ Walzer writes, ‘and while we are often wrong, we are not always wrong.’

How can we tell? Weber does not give many examples in ‘Politik als Beruf’ of politicians who fit his mould of responsibility, but the one who appears most often also happens to be the most notorious self-flagellant in modern political history. Weber does not discuss, and presumably knew nothing about, William Gladstone’s predilection for scourging himself with a whip after his periodic encounters with prostitutes whom he was endeavouring to ‘save’. Instead, Gladstone appears as an example of two interrelated phenomena which Weber takes to be characteristic of modern, professional politics. First, Gladstone was a quintessential product of the age of machine politics, and a symbol both of its increasing prevalence and of its paradoxes. He was not a machine politician himself: he stood outside the Party machine and simply required it to do his bidding. It did his bidding because he gave the machine what it required: electoral success. And he did this precisely by being more than just a machine politician in the eyes of the public. It was what Weber calls the ‘ethical character’ of Gladstone’s personality, the sense that he was not just a vote-winner, that gave him his hold over the new breed of political professionals who were interested in nothing more than getting out the vote. His electoral success, particularly after the Midlothian Campaign of 1879-80, also exemplified another aspect of modern politics in Weber’s eyes, the heightened sense of legitimacy that mass democratic politics can bestow on successful politicians, particularly in Britain and the United States. Gladstone was, for Weber, ‘the dictator of the electoral battlefield’, and Weber admired the British Parliamentary system precisely for its capacity to produce leaders of this type. Gladstone may have been an ethical politician, but nothing about his political ethics was straightforward. As a successful conviction politician in an age of mass politics, he was, almost by definition, not simply a conviction politician.

Tony Blair is the political leader of the last hundred years who most obviously fits the Gladstonian mould. He is, like one or two before him, the dictator of the electoral battlefield, but he is also more than anyone since Gladstone a politician of a particular ethical type: moralising, ruthless, self-serving, pious, visionary, partisan and thoroughly self-aware. He may or may not be a hypocrite – it is one of the marks of this kind of politician and this kind of politics that the charge of hypocrisy is almost impossible to prove and impossible to refute – but he is showing increasing signs of masochism. In the run-up to the war on Iraq, Blair’s public performances were marked by a relish for confrontations in which he could not hope to come out on top. All he could do was show us that he was willing to suffer the barbs of his opponents, and do so uncomplainingly, because it was his lot to suffer for his beliefs. This reached its apogee in the bizarre encounter on 10 March with a group of women in an ITV studio, at the end of which he was slow-handclapped for the first time since his encounter with the Women’s Institute in 2000, something he hadn’t seemed to enjoy at all. This time he appeared, if not exactly to enjoy the abuse, almost to welcome it. His facial expressions – long-suffering, concerned, sincere, distressed, resolute – gave the whole thing the feeling of what Gladstone would have called ‘rescue work’, although in this case no one wanted to be rescued. The audience included three women who had been bereaved by terrorism, two on 11 September, and one in the attack on Bali. Unsurprisingly, Blair had nothing to say in the face of their rage and pain except to let it wash over him. No politician in their right mind would choose the recently bereaved as their interlocutors for an argument about the rights and wrongs of a proposed course of action that involved killing. But this was not an argument – it was an exchange of feelings, conducted in an atmosphere of mutual incomprehension, and barely suppressed emotion. The point, so far as one could tell, was for Blair to be able to say, as he did say, repeatedly, that just as he understood the strength of feeling of his opponents, he needed them to understand that he felt just as strongly.

The difference between Blair’s rescue work and Gladstone’s is that Gladstone’s really was rescue work – it was private, and personal and more or less secret. Like the self-scourging that followed it, it lay deep in the background to his politics, and though some hint of its tone may occasionally have leaked into his political rhetoric, it was not a political strategy (public exposure would have been catastrophic). Blair’s masochism is a political strategy, and has, one presumes, no echoes in his private life. In this respect, Blair has more in common with Eisner than with Gladstone: he makes a parade of his guilt. Of course, he’s really nothing like Eisner or Förster or any of the other moralisers who briefly and disastrously flitted across the scene of German politics in the Weimar period. He is not nearly wishful enough, and much too successful. He is also much too keen on war (five in six years, at the last count). Eisner and Förster were expressing guilt for a war they had done what they could to oppose, and whole-heartedly repudiated. Blair may have tried to prevent war in Iraq, but not even his most fervent admirers could claim he did so whole-heartedly. He is a different kind of politician, who doesn’t really fit into Weber’s typologies of political responsibility and irresponsibility. He seems to be both types at once.

Take Weber’s injunction that responsible politicians should always weigh their intentions against the consequences, both intended and unintended, of what they do, and not simply contrast their own motives with the ill-will of their opponents. ‘What distinguishes the polemics directed by most exponents of the supposedly new ethics at the opponents they criticise from the polemics of other demagogues?’ Weber asked in his lecture. ‘Their noble intentions, some will say. Very well. But the claim under discussion here is the means, and their enemies lay just as much claim to noble intentions, and do so with complete sincerity.’ It was a distinction of this kind that even the moralising Gladstone sought to uphold. Though he made clear his personal revulsion at the antics of his Tory opponents, he was careful not to impugn their motives, for it was not motives that mattered. Gladstone made much of his principles – at Midlothian it was ‘the sound and sacred principle that Christendom is formed by a band of nations who are united to one another in the bonds of right; that they are without distinction of great and small’. But he went on:

I hold that he who by act or word brings that principle into peril or disparagement, however honest his intentions may be, places himself in the position of one inflicting – I won’t say intending to inflict – I ascribe nothing of the sort – but inflicting injury on his own country, and endangering the peace of all the most fundamental interests of Christian society.

Tony Blair is not so cautious. He does not shirk from questioning the motives of his opponents, from the wicked Saddam, to the malicious French, to the self-serving Liberal Democrats, to the cynical media. Moreover, it is central to the political philosophy of Blairism that actions that may conceivably endanger the most fundamental interests of the international community can be justified by the good intentions that lie behind them. Yet, as Weber says, what matters here are the means.

Disraeli was able to show that there was no mismatch between the means and the end of his adventure in Abyssinia, because he set out to liberate only nine hostages, not a whole captive people. Blair does not have this luxury. There is an unavoidable mismatch between what he intends and the methods he employs, because he intends peace and has chosen war. Nor does he have the luxury of the 19th-century politician in the face of this paradox, which is to invoke God. Abraham Lincoln, who also fought a war for peace, and is in some ways the embodiment of what Weber meant by a responsible politician, did not have to take full responsibility for the war he fought. In a letter of 4 September 1864, he wrote to a friend: ‘We hoped for a happy termination of this terrible war long before this; but God knows best, and has ruled otherwise . . . Surely He intends some great good to follow this mighty convulsion, which no mortal could make, and no mortal could stay.’ Blair may think like this, but he couldn’t say it, even among friends, for fear of ridicule. Lincoln also spoke of the purity of his own purpose (‘Having chosen our course,’ he told Congress on 4 July 1861, ‘without guile, and with pure purpose, let us renew our trust in God, and go forward without fear, and with manly hearts’), but he had the further advantage of being able to prove it, in adversity. The warlike science available to Lincoln’s armies, newly terrible as it was, was also available in large extent to the other side, so that neither could hope to win without being prepared for a long, hard, bloody conflict, which is what they got. Purity of purpose here meant, among other things, a willingness to fight to the end. Blair can’t really talk in these terms, because the fights he picks are too one-sided. It is true that he likes to point out that in each of his major wars (Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq) he stayed the course when the doubters were writing his political obituary. But it was in each case just his obituary they were writing, and just a political one; the killing remained almost entirely the killing of unknowns on the other side. Moreover, staying the course meant holding his nerve for a few weeks in the face of attacks mounted in TV studios and in the pages of publications like this one. Blair has shown courage, but he has not had to show all that much courage; certainly he has not been given the opportunity to demonstrate his integrity solely by dint of what Lincoln and Weber might have called his ‘manliness’.

Instead, in each conflict Blair has fought, he has been forced to offer a different kind of justification for the mismatch between means and ends. He has explicitly conflated the two types of politics Weber sought to distinguish – responsible and irresponsible politics, or the politics of unintended consequences and the politics of good intentions. He has sought to show that he is well intentioned by showing that he takes the unintended consequences of his actions seriously. In some ways, this is such a familiar argument that it is barely noticed any more. But it is only familiar because Blair has made it so. For example, speaking in the House of Commons on 28 April 1999, during one of the ‘difficult’ phases of the Kosovo conflict, when innocent civilians were being killed by stray bombs but little progress was being made, Blair defended himself in these terms: ‘The difference’ – between us and them – ‘quite simply is this. Whenever there are civilian casualties as a result of allied bombs, they are by error. We regret them, and we take precautions to avoid them. The people whom the Serb paramilitaries are killing are killed deliberately. That is the difference between us and them.’ This statement contains the three classic elements of Blairite self-justification in wartime. ‘We’ are to be distinguished from ‘them’, first by our ‘regret’, second by our ‘precaution’, and third by the fact that in our case the killing is not ‘deliberate’ – it is unintended. Of these three, the second carries least weight, both morally and politically. The best way to take precaution against the killing of innocents is not to drop bombs on them in the first place. It is perfectly possible to believe that one should do everything one can to avoid causing unintended harm or injury, but that means being willing to abjure politics, as the only certain way to avoid these things. The Kosovo war was hardly an abjuration of politics, but rather something like an attempt to adhere to what Weber calls the politician’s maxim: ‘You shall resist evil with force, for if you do not, you are responsible for the spread of evil.’ Hence, inevitably, a limited role for precaution.

There is also something problematic about the ‘we’ here, since ‘we’ doesn’t really mean us, but the Americans. The American conduct in recent wars, whether in Kosovo, or Afghanistan, or Iraq, has occasionally been cautious – the high altitude from which the bombs were dropped on Kosovo, for fear of Serb artillery; the ‘operational pause’ before Baghdad while the Republican Guard was pounded into dust – but this is not the same as taking precautions against the unnecessary loss of life among non-combatants. In fact, it’s the opposite. Taking precautions in Kosovo would have meant flying bombing missions at a low enough height to make accurate identification of targets possible. In Iraq, it would have meant more special forces operations, and fewer large explosions. Bunker-busters, cluster-bombs and daisy-cutters are not precautionary weapons.

So, that leaves regret and good intentions. What does Blair mean by regret? Presumably he means that ‘we’ take the deaths of the civilians seriously, that we do not discount them or consider them nugatory in the light of the justness of the cause, that we do not simply accept that some people’s lives are means while others’ are ends. It is true, in war, that some people’s lives will be means in the cause of saving others, but this is not a fact without moral significance; on the contrary, it is precisely because it is morally significant that these deaths are regretted notwithstanding the justness of the cause. This is the language of political responsibility, expressing a willingness to take seriously what Weber calls ‘morally suspect or morally dangerous means’ without being incapacitated by them. However, regret is, on Weber’s account, a ‘personal’ matter, something that a politician will have to deal with and something from which no politician should suppose themselves immune. What it is not is a justification for political action, as it is used by Blair. This incongruity is emphasised by the fact that in the same breath as expressing his sense of responsibility, Blair also employs the argument from good intentions, by stating that these are deaths by error. In other words, if we discount the line about precaution, he is saying that the difference between him and Milosevic, or Osama bin Laden, or Saddam, is that, on the one hand, he (Blair) regrets what has happened, and, on the other, he has less to regret, because he did not mean to do the things he regrets. Which somewhat diminishes the quality of the regret.

Precaution, regret and the absence of malice have become something of a mantra for what Noam Chomsky calls ‘the new military humanism’, of which Blair is perhaps the leading exponent. In this philosophy the old methods of power politics are allied to a new ethic of good intentions to produce ostensibly beneficent results. This ethic is not really new, since it draws heavily on the just war tradition, with its emphasis on fighting wars for the right reasons, and with restraint. What is new, in Blair’s versions of these arguments at least, is the collapse of the separate principles into each other – the collapse of the distinction between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Too often, Blair takes restraint as evidence of good intentions, and good intentions as evidence of restraint. This is circular: you can tell we mean well from the fact that we didn’t mean to kill those people; you can tell we didn’t mean to kill those people from the fact that we mean well. Moreover, just war theory is not designed to help distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’; it is intended to enable us to distinguish good wars from bad ones. The reason that we fight a particular war cannot be to distinguish ourselves from the enemy in the way we fight it. If that were the motive, we would best distinguish ourselves from the enemy by choosing not to fight at all.

The other striking thing about these Blairite formulations of just war theory is their pervasiveness in the philosophy of New Labour. They do not just apply in the case of war. Indeed, politics in New Labour circles often looks like the continuation of war by other means. For example, Blair’s defence of his Kosovo strategy found an echo in the aftermath of that war’s successful conclusion in the words of Ian McCartney, then a minister at the DTI, now Labour Party Chairman, when seeking to defend the Government’s domestic record. Speaking in an interview published on 12 July 1999, and wishing to answer the accusation that Labour had abandoned its principles in office, particularly with regard to welfare provision, McCartney said:

The difference between a good minister and one who just performs is that you have to make difficult choices. Sometimes you have to make decisions which disappoint people, but I don’t think this Government has made a single decision which was malevolent. Every one has been taken for the right reasons and we are really making a difference to people’s lives.

There is at least no talk here about precaution, or trying to cause as little damage as possible. It is a straightforward conflation of the argument from responsibility (or in Blair’s version ‘regret’) and the argument from good intentions. First, McCartney sets out the credentials of the responsible politician, who knows that there will be difficult choices – what Gordon Brown likes to call ‘tough decisions’ – and that the attainment of political ends always involves treating some people as means and not as ends (or, in McCartney’s sanitised version, ‘disappointing’ them). In other words, New Labour understands the idea of unintended consequences. But in the second half of what he says the tone changes from one of self-knowledge to one of justification: the difference, he suggests, between us and them (i.e. the Tories, who would also treat some people as means, but would do so with ‘malevolence’, or, as Blair might put it, would disappoint people ‘deliberately’) is precisely that we do not intend these things. As a result, what were difficult choices a sentence earlier have now become easier, because each one is taken for the right reasons. Just as regret justified in terms of intention sounds less like regret, so tough decisions justified in terms of intention sound more like foregone conclusions. Because we regret, we have less to regret. Because we know the choices are difficult, they are not difficult for us. Weber warned against politicians whose saintly intentions were taken to sanctify the unforeseen results of their naivety. McCartney’s is the cynic’s version of saintliness – a sanctification by other means. Because we know we are not saints, he seems to be saying, you are not to judge us as though we were, and as though we were not fully aware of what we are doing. Knowing we are not saints serves to sanctify the consequences of what we do.

This line of argument can be used to defend anything, even the indefensible. The journalist turned politician Siôn Simon, once the most skilled and fearless of all Blair’s polemicists, now languishing on the back benches, offered the absurdist version when seeking to justify another of Blair’s pet projects, the grotesque and idiotic Millennium Dome. Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 13 November 2000, by which time it was quite clear that the Dome was a monstrous white elephant that no amount of bows or ribbons could disguise, Simon defended it by reminding his readers of the intentions that lay behind its creation:

Blair’s decision to go with the Dome was everything it should have been. It showed the confidence that befits a British Prime Minister. The complaint of arrogance is irrelevant – all confident acts are called arrogant when they go wrong; the word usually employed when they go right is ‘brilliant’. That the entire Cabinet was against it matters even less. Since assuming the Labour leadership in 1994, Blair has been opposed by the entire Shadow Cabinet and 95 per cent of the Party in virtually every important decision he has made. If Labour had been a democracy rather than an elective dictatorship, the Party would now be on a philosophical par with the German Social Democrats. Probably in power and probably headed for another term, largely thanks to the Opposition, but with no sense of purpose or direction.

Most important, the Dome was a visionary project . . . It was bold, confident, proud, unembarrassed, modern, European, grand. We were none of these things under John Major, and only partly one or two of them under Mrs Thatcher when we went to war. Furthermore, it was a very open, self-imperilling and therefore very trusting thing for a leader to do. Blair didn’t just take the national mood as fixed, he set about changing it. The paradox is that although the means failed, the ends were achieved.

This is a longer and bolder version of the ‘non-apology’ apology that Blair himself offered at the Labour Party Conference that year, when, in a carefully choreographed moment of contrition, he said that although he took full responsibility for the fact that the Dome had not achieved what it set out to achieve, he wouldn’t apologise for ‘trying’. Simon’s version is also explicitly Weberian. He invokes the confidence that is both a responsibility and a resource of the office of prime minister, which derives from the particular relation between party and leader within the British Parliamentary system, and which is documented by Weber in the first part of ‘Politik als Beruf’, culminating in his description of Gladstone’s mastery of the party machine. Simon recognises, and celebrates, the fact that Blair, too, is dictator of the electoral battlefield. His dig at the German Social Democrats picks up on a further preoccupation of Weber’s political writings, which was how to reconcile the Caesarist demands of modern mass democracy with the limitations placed on it by a system of proportional representation, and with the interests and principles that the so-called ‘ethical’ parties of the Left seek to represent within such a system. But alongside these Weberian and mock-Weberian themes Simon runs another set of claims, which are quintessentially Blairite. This is the argument that Blair’s courage, the ‘self-imperilling’ nature of the whole enterprise, can justify it after the event, when it has gone wrong. Certainly the Dome was a very risky thing for a British Prime Minister to get involved with, in that it was hideously expensive, horribly managed and full of rubbish. But this can hardly serve to justify the decision to proceed. Simon suggests that the fact that this was such a risky project should excuse its unintended outcome; but if it does excuse it, then the project turns out not to have been so risky after all. The Dome cannot both have endangered the Prime Minister and be cited as the reason we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

Simon takes the us/them distinction that Blair maintains in the international arena, and McCartney in the domestic arena, and runs it through the party machine. The ‘them’ here are the rest of the Cabinet and 95 per cent of the Party; above all, the ‘them’ is Gordon Brown, who is known to have opposed the Dome in Cabinet, and would not therefore, had he been Prime Minister, even have ‘tried’. Simon also makes explicit the connection between such self-serving visionary politics and war (as Blair’s outriders periodically like to remind the press, Brown doesn’t really ‘do war’). But the conflict in Iraq shows the limits of this kind of self-justification. Not even Blair would have been able to save himself, if the military campaign had gone wrong, by claiming to take responsibility for the failure, but refusing to apologise for ‘trying’. He would have had to resign (as, in a perfect world, he should have had to resign over the Dome, which was the biggest public accounting scandal of the last fifty years). What’s more, Blair has now hitched his wagon to an American President who, unlike his predecessor, doesn’t really do philosophical contortion (‘although the means failed, the ends were achieved’). George Bush is more like a cowboy version of Friedrich Förster, who believes that good will follow from good, and evil-doers will pay the price of evil. In a sense, this has allowed Blair to be more straightforwardly moralistic about this war than he was about Kosovo, where he was hedged in by the caution of his allies. It is also true that in this war the moral equation was simpler, in utilitarian terms at least: it may be true that it would have done more harm to leave Saddam’s regime in place than to remove it by force (this was also true of the Serbian regime in 1999, but complicated by the fact that regime change was not the aim of that war, and much of the visible harm inflicted by Milosevic in Kosovo took place after the allies started dropping their bombs). But if Blair is more straightforward about his claim that this war is a good war, he is also more straightforwardly hypocritical. His insistence, for example, that he could ignore a veto by one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council if that veto was ‘capricious’ makes a mockery of the international legal system he also wishes to uphold. If French vetoes are ‘capricious’, and American and British vetoes are not, then we are back in a world where intentions count more than outcomes. If this is true, then no vote on the Security Council or anywhere else carries any weight, because what matters is not the show of hands but the presence or absence of malice among those who raise them. This is the same reasoning that led Eisner to refuse to accept the outcome of elections to the Bavarian Parliament in 1919, and the reason it was hypocritical (and foolhardy) of him to attend its opening ceremony.

Some commentators have taken the new-found brazenness of Blair’s hypocrisy as evidence that he is not simply foolhardy, but has gone mad. Matthew Parris, writing in the Times, has cited Blair’s serene attitude to his rebuff in the Security Council, along with his increasing self-righteousness, his Iraq fixation and the strange look in his eye, as symptoms of mental unbalance, and possibly the beginnings of mental collapse. Weber warned in ‘Politik als Beruf’ that mental breakdown is the risk that all conviction politicians run, because the dirty reality of politics always chafes against the clean, straight lines of conduct they try to follow. As these become blurred, the temptation is to go into denial, and to declare: ‘The world is stupid and base, not I. Responsibility for the consequences does not fall on me but on the others, in whose service I work and whose stupidity and baseness I shall eradicate.’ Anyone who believes this is indeed mad. But Blair is not mad, at least not in this way. He knows that because the world is stupid and base, it doesn’t pay to think in these terms. He also knows that madness is not an attractive quality in a responsible politician. Indeed, just as it is part of the intellectual architecture of Blairism to equate political responsibility with an absence of the malice that marks one’s opponents, so it is traditional to question their sanity as well. The Blairite response to the charge of mental unbalance is to say: ‘Look, we know politics is a devilish business, which is what distinguishes us from our enemies – the “mad” and the “crazy”, like Milosevic and Saddam; the simply “weird”, like most of the Tory front bench; or just poor, troubled Gordon with his “psychological flaws”. Seeing what it does to other people is what keeps us sane.’

What is distinctive about Tony Blair’s version of political responsibility is that he takes what is ‘internal’ in Weber’s account – that is, what belongs to the interior life of the politician, or the party machine – and plays it out on the surface of politics, so that the inner workings of his political conscience are laid bare. Gordon Brown’s problem, and before him Gladstone’s – another Iron Chancellor who was thought by many even in his own Party to be mentally unbalanced, and therefore unfit to become Prime Minister – is that they keep it all buttoned up inside. Blair is able to talk about his good intentions by making a parade of his awareness of their limitations. This is not a tactic that would work for everyone – George Bush, for example, prefers to make a spectacle of his own personal limitations, his very ‘ordinariness’, in order to highlight the strength of his convictions – but it works for Blair. What it does not do is justify any particular course of action. Knowing that good intentions aren’t enough isn’t enough.