II. Tony in Wonderland
There is yet another parallel between the fraud probe kibosh and the Iraq warmongering: the official reasons given for the action have been constantly changing. Indeed, in the days following Goldsmith’s hugger-mugger announcement – carefully timed to coincide with the release of the final report on Princess Diana’s death, which the government knew would consume every ounce of media oxygen that day – Blair and his high ministers of state peddled a dizzying and often contradictory array of justifications for stifling the investigation.
There was the initial “security and foreign policy interests” offered by Goldsmith to Parliament and initially echoed by Blair. The UK-Saudi relationship “is vitally important for our country, in terms of counterterrorism, in terms of the broader Middle East, in terms of helping in respect of Israel-Palestine, and that strategic interest comes first,” Blair said after the ruling, as AP reported.
However, that explanation didn’t play very well, for it seemed to confirm the reports that Britain had indeed been blackmailed and bullied by Saudi Arabia into dropping the probe. The underlying implications of Blair’s stance were riddled with glaring contradictions: Saudi Arabia is our strong, trusted friend and ally who, er, uh, has threatened to fan the flames of regional conflict and expose us to a much greater risk of terrorist attack if we don’t disregard our own laws.
Somehow, the sight of a British Prime Minister declaring “if we don’t do what they say, they’ll hurt us” did not convey the degree of wisdom and reassurance the government sought to project about the decision. As AP noted, some of those most upset by the ruling came from Blair’s own increasingly fractious Labour Party – which hit another new low in the polls this week, dropping further behind the resurgent Tories. “We appear to be giving businessmen carte blanche to do business with Saudi Arabia which may involve illegal payments or illegal inducements,” said Eric Illsley, a Labour member of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee. “We have been leaned on very heavily by the Saudis.”
And so this argument was largely supplanted by the economic considerations that BAE’s supporters had been trumpeting in the press in the weeks before Goldsmith’s ruling. If the Saudis had slaughtered “The Dove” deal because of the SFO probe, Britons were told, it would have cost the nation 100,000 jobs. This figure, first floated by BAE’s media and parliamentary frontmen last month, soon became the standard number touted by government backers after the Goldsmith ruling. The fact that it was flatly contradicted by a University of York study which showed that a cancellation of the impending al-Yamanah extension would have eliminated just 5,000 jobs cut no ice with the panicky spin doctors. (To be sure, even the lesser job loss would have been a heavy blow to the workers involved; but at that smaller level, it was a blow that could have easily been cushioned by government compensation and genuine efforts at retraining or re-employment elsewhere: the kind of action that Blair’s government has often promised yet seldom delivered to the many industries that have gone belly-up – and overseas – during his tenure.)
The new line also flatly contradicted Goldsmith’s original declaration to Parliament, in which he insisted that economic considerations had “played no part” in his decision. When the rank hypocrisy of this was pointed out, Blair and Goldsmith both came up with a new reason: the case wasn’t strong enough to go forward, there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing. Aside from the fact that Goldsmith himself had prevented the SFO from examining the most relevant evidence in the entire case – BAE’s own secret bank records – this stance was, again, at odds with his position just days earlier, when he’d declared he would not intervene in the investigation. That declaration had come after he had gone over the case and the evidence for it in a meeting with SFO director Robert Wardle.
SFO officials strongly disputed Blair and Goldsmith’s claim that the case was weak. And in any case, the whole point of the probe was not to guarantee a prosecution but to establish the truth. While the Blair government’s disinterest in establishing the truth as opposed to pushing a political line is well-established (see The Downing Street Memos), they are vitally interested in information. So much so that they apparently bugged the SFO offices during the probe, the Independent reported. “I was told by detectives that the probe was being bugged. They had reached this conclusion because highly confidential information on the inquiry had been reaching outside parties,” a senior figure involved in the investigation told the paper. SFO investigators believe the probe was actually quashed because the Blair spies had learned how very substantial it was, not because the evidence was lacking.
In the end, after the “weak case” justification turned out to be a weak case itself, Blair and the gang reverted back to a variation of the “security” line: the noble struggle to free the peoples of the Middle East from the clutches of armed Islamic extremism superseded all other considerations. Despite the ever-soaring rhetoric, however, Blair failed to make clear exactly how providing $80 billion worth of advanced arms to perhaps the most repressive Islamic extremist state on earth can be said to advance the cause of freedom and tolerance in the Middle East.
Lord knows – and lords know – that unseemly accommodations sometimes have to be made in this world, especially in geopolitics. A wink here, a little baksheesh there between unsavoury characters are often better than, say, launching a war of aggression and murdering more than half a million innocent people to achieve your political and commercial ends. But in the BAE case, as in so much else in politics, it is the hypocrisy that rankles most. Western governments obviously believe they must give guns and bribes to extremist tyrants in order to obtain the oil that keeps their own nations in such disproportionate clover – but they lack the guts to say so in plain language, dressing up this ugly business with meaningless trumpery about freedom, peace and security.
Are they trying to mask their own cynicism – or protect the tender sensibilities of their electorates, who might prefer sugared lies to acknowledgements of the dirty deals that undergird their way of life?