BEIRUT—When one of the world’s most respected moral leaders speaks about one of modern history’s greatest crimes, we are summoned to pay attention and think about the issues raised. I refer to South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who explained in London’s The Observer last Sunday why, at the last minute, he cancelled his participation in a “leadership summit” that also included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He said that Blair’s joining U.S. President George W. Bush to attack Iraq in 2003 was an immoral act and an immense failure of leadership, based on a lie that has had huge and continuing negative consequences for the entire world.
Tutu’s stature will spur the debate about whether Bush, Blair and other senior officials should be held accountable for the destruction that they unleashed in invading Iraq. He framed his comments in the context of the moral responsibility of leaders, and not only the specific case of the Iraq invasion, which is an excellent case study in the terrible things that happen when poor leadership prevails.
This dearth is also being highlighted across the Middle East these days in the widespread emphasis on putting on trial those Arab officials who were responsible for so much mismanagement, corruption, human rights abuses and official violence before they were overthrown by popular demonstrations or armed rebellion. Angry and abused Arab citizens not only want to overthrow their leaders; they want to hold them accountable for their actions, so that future leaders do not misbehave as easily. The global community has tried to come to grips with this by creating the International Criminal Court and other special tribunals to try officials who acted criminally, aiming both to punish past criminals and deter future ones.
Tutu reminds us that looking to a better future is difficult to do unless the grievances of the past are acknowledged and redressed in a legitimate manner. He rightly criticizes Blair and Bush for three things: They premised their attack on Iraq on the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; the invasion and war “destabilized and polarized the world to a greater extent than any other conflict in history”; and they failed the moral test of leaders to tell the truth, for, as he wrote, “if leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?”
Tutu also raised the compelling issue of double standards, whereby some Third World leaders are sent to the International Criminal Court, others are assassinated and others such as Blair join the international speakers’ circuit.
The staggering cost of the Iraq war cannot only be calculated in the ravages of the recent past (over 110,000 Iraqis dead, millions made refugees or internally displaced, some 4,500 Americans killed and more than 32,000 wounded), but also in the brutal forces that the war unleashed. The Shiite-Sunni tensions that now dominate much of the Middle East, the latest generation of Al-Qaeda-like Salafist terrorists operating across many borders, and the fragmentation of centralized states in favor of sectarian rivalries are three significant negative phenomena exacerbated and widely disseminated by the Iraq war.
Tutu criticizes Blair for such material and political consequences of the Iraq war, but returns to his point that “leadership and morality are indivisible. Good leaders are the custodians of morality. The question is not whether Saddam Hussein was good or bad or how many of his people he massacred. The point is that Mr Bush and Mr Blair should not have allowed themselves to stoop to his immoral level. If it is acceptable for leaders to take drastic action on the basis of a lie, without an acknowledgement or an apology when they are found out, what should we teach our children?”
It is easy for some leaders and officials in the Western world with low ethics, like Bush, Blair, Condoleezza Rice or Dick Cheney, to carry out their murderous deeds and then turn their backs and claim that they acted for freedom. The truth is, they acted on the basis of lies and their low-class leadership skills. They can fool many of their own ignorant countrymen and women with their combination of swagger and deception, but the world will not be so easily duped.
Tutu reminds us and them that morality, leadership and accountability are deeply linked in the minds of ordinary men and women across the world. Tutu himself practiced what he preaches, when he extended his “humblest and sincerest apologies” to the summit organizers, speakers and delegates for his last-minute decision not to attend. He was prepared to apologize for that slight misdeed that merely inconvenienced or disappointed some people at the event, in that way setting an example that still escapes the worldviews of self-engrossed politicians who unleash their criminal deeds on a global scale with total impunity.