Does it hold water?

Watching Tony Blair’s testimony at the Chilcot enquiry last Friday reminded me of a joke beloved of Sigmund Freud. A man borrows a bucket from his neighbour. Later the neighbour complains that the bucket has a hole in it. The man, indignant, gives the following defence:

1. First of all, I never borrowed your bucket.

2. Secondly, when you gave it to me it had a hole in it.

3. Thirdly, when I gave it back to you, it was in perfect condition.

The humour in the situation (OK, not side-splittingly funny I admit) lies  in the aburdity of   the man thinking  that by listing three defences he strengthens his case. Actually, because of they are mutually inconsistent, all he does is undermine his own credibility.

Now to Blair. To justify his decision to invade Iraq, Blair makes the following claims:

A. First of all, the evidence showed that Saddam had WMD and  therefore posed a threat. So, it was right to invade Iraq.

B. Secondly, although Saddam did not have WMD he could have developed them and therefore posed a threat. So it was right to invade Iraq.

C. Thirdly, Saddam was a ruthless, murderous dictator who had used gas against his own people and the world is  a better place without him.  So it really doesn’t matter whether Saddam did have or could have developed WMD, it was right to invade Iraq.

Admittedly, there is a difference. First of all A, B and C are not strictly speaking, logically inconsistent. But without contradicting each other, the addition of each reason makes the others seem less convincing as being the genuine reason for the invasion. Since C suggests that A and B are irrelevant, then maybe we should conclude that getting rid of Saddam was the real reason. But if that were the case, why is Blair so reluctant to state unequivocally that the purpose of the invasion was regime change — unless simply because this would make the invasion illegal? Can we make anything of Blair’s talk of a “the danger of making a binary distinction between regime change and WMD?” Is this a sophisticated attack on a genuinely false dilemma, or just an attempt to fudge the issue?

I don’t know where to go with this exactly and whether any amount of work in this direction would prove Blair’s argument invalid — I partly posted this because I wanted to see if someone can find the flaw in what I’m saying…or tell me how to make good.

And I am not saying Blair is lying. That would require me to show that he does not believe what he is saying.  He might though be delusional, guilty of a form of self-deception.

Being inconsistent in our beliefs is a very human trait that happens to the best of us. One way we hold inconsistent beliefs is by compartmentalisation — putting them in different boxes and not looking at them at the same time. (In this respect, pace Descartes, the mind is not transparent to itself). Being rational and honest requires that we recognise when our beliefs conflict and own up to it, even at a cost of admitting we were wrong. And when we admit we were wrong, we generally apologise.

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2 responses to “Does it hold water?

  • lichanos

    I think your analysis is correct. The same situation applied here in the USA, with GWB’s various explanations. (This is something he shared with his father, who was similarly at a loss to explain the rationale behind Persian Gulf I. At the end, he was reduced to saying it “was about jobs.” Oil, energy, economy, etc…)

    Here in the states we have a phrase for this type of argument: Throw a lot of junk against the wall and see what sticks.

  • instantkaamos

    Hi Lichanos,

    Yes its an interesting form of persuasion – as if to say, ‘you want justification? Here I’ve got loads of justifications – how many do you want?’ Trouble is that when the choice of justifiers changes to suit the occasion, you begin to doubt the sincerity.

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