International Papers

Nice Speech, Shame About the Evidence

The British press’s response to Tony Blair’s parliamentary speech and the release of his anti-Saddam dossier Tuesday was virtually unanimous: Nice oratory, shame about the lack of new evidence. The Daily Mirror praised the prime minister’s presentation, developed, perhaps, in his career as a legal advocate—”Tony Blair really knows how to make the best of a bad case. He must have been a brilliant barrister”—but found the content severely lacking: “It was 50 pages of old facts and new guesses.” The Guardian’sPolly Toynbee declared: “It was a bravura performance. … With eloquence, reason and deftness of foot, the prime minister silenced the war wobblers—at least for now. … [W]hatever their doubts, both cabinet and loyalist MPs were forced by their leader’s inexorable logic to nod in assent at each stepping stone towards (probable) war.” Even the Daily Telegraph, which in its long history has seldom published kind words about Labor politicians, called Blair’s speech “a typically skilful performance.”

The Financial Timesassessment of the 50-page dossier was that it “offers no compelling evidence that immediate military action is needed. Nor does it present a strong argument against a policy of enhanced containment.” The editorial concluded, “[I]t is unlikely, on its own, to prove decisive in changing perceptions of the Iraq threat.” The Daily Telegraph’s diplomatic editor praised the “generous amount of new intelligence to spice up the familiar diet of information about Iraq’s weapons programmes,” but fretted that it failed to answer “the nagging question in the debate over the looming war with Iraq: ‘Why now?’ ” The Times’ Simon Jenkins, who has been demanding more evidence for months, dismissed Blair’s dossier as “an act of desperation”:

Mr Blair told us yet again yesterday what a nasty person Saddam is. We know that. The task of leadership is not to write tabloid front pages but to judge how far a threat to the nation’s interest is real and, if so, how the nation should respond proportionately. Neither Mr Blair nor George Bush has yet explained what has suddenly led them to abandon containment of Iraq and to demand Saddam’s head on a plate.

For the Independent, the matter is settled: “Saddam does represent a risk to peace, but he is not such a substantial danger as to justify unilateral military intervention.” Predictably, Independent columnist Robert Fisk was appalled by Blair’s dossier, which he called a “shocking document.” Declaring it full of “weasel words of doubt,” he harumphed, “Let’s all say it out loud, 20 times: Saddam is a brutal, wicked tyrant. But are ‘almost certainly,’ ‘appears,’ ‘probably’ and ‘if’ really the rallying call to send our grenadiers off to the deserts of Kut-al-Amara?”

The tabloid Sun, which led Wednesday’s front page with the splash, “He’s got ‘em? Let’s get him,” was one of the few papers to give the prime minister its full support. It declared, “The evidence against Saddam Hussein is overwhelming and—except to the most blinkered minds—irrefutable.”