The Common Good
January 2004

Lies Leaders Tell

by The Editors | January 2004

An interview with British member of Parliament Clare Short on just war, Jesus, and the importance of telling the truth.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq brought many senior-level resignations in protest of Washington’s pre-emptive attack. U.N. officials quit in frustration. Members of the U.S. diplomatic corps walked out. And in May 2003 Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development Clare Short resigned her position. In her resignation letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair, Short wrote, "The Security Council resolution that you and Jack [Straw, the foreign secretary] have so secretly negotiated contradicts the assurance I have given in the House of Commons and elsewhere about the legal authority of the occupying powers, and the need for a U.N.-led process to establish a legitimate Iraqi government. This makes my position impossible." She concluded, "I am sad and sorry that it has ended like this."

Clare Short has served as a member of the British Parliament since 1983. In 1997, she was named Secretary of State for International Development, where she was known for her passionate, outspoken commitment to the poor and vulnerable. "Not since Judith Hart more than 30 years ago have we had a minister from either side of the political divide who has so passionately advocated for the issues of Third World development in British politics," said Christian Aid international director Roger Riddell. Short was interviewed in October by Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in Washington, D.C.

Sojourners: What led you to be such an outspoken member of the Cabinet on the war, and what led you to resign?

Clare Short: I wasn’t one of those who thought we could ignore Iraq. I took the view that it was right for us to say we were willing to contemplate the use of force to back up the authority of the United Nations. But the Christian teaching on just war is also the basis of international law—and it is similar to Islamic teaching on just war. The cause has to be just. Any use of force has to be proportionate. Most important, it must be the last resort.

I was desperately trying to argue that we could do it right. Doing it right meant trying not to resort to war. I had this image in my mind of us in Europe holding on to Tony Blair’s ankles, and him holding on to Bush’s ankles, along with the church groups in the United States. I think it’s very important that, for the first time in American history, all the Christian churches in the United States except the Southern Baptists united in saying conditions for just war are not fulfilled here. That was very powerful. I hope people in the Muslim world hear that. I think they feel ganged up upon and not treated with justice, so that’s a very important message.

I’m now absolutely convinced that in the United States there was a timetable for war, and that Tony Blair gave his word that Britain would support the United States. Therefore, Blair lost his leverage. He misled his own country. He told us that war was not inevitable, that we would take this up in a U.N. Security Council resolution. Yet he had given his word to different things here in Washington, D.C. We ended up with this messy rush to war—and a foolish policy, unthought through, with deception. When my prime minister ignored the commitments he’d made to me, I knew it was a disaster. I had to leave the government.

Sojourners: You’re a political leader, not a bishop. Why is truth-telling so important in public life?

Short: The truth is the truth is the truth. If you start to lie, the lies can escalate. If a lie is the intent to deceive, then that’s what happened in both countries. Blair and Bush appear to be saying, "We might have exaggerated a bit, but we couldn’t trust you to be brave enough to take this option, and Saddam Hussein was a bad man." I’m afraid that won’t do. If our governments are going to lie to us about matters of life and death, war and peace, then integrity is gone from public life.

Sojourners: You were a clear supporter and adviser with Sojourners and other religious leaders in creating the 6-point plan, an alternative to war for defeating Saddam Hussein. In that process I learned a political lesson for the future: It’s good to say no to war, but it’s better to have an alternative.

Short: I agree. The 6-point plan was very serious, and if it had been tried, chances are it would have succeeded. It would have brought down Saddam Hussein, liberated Iraq in a generous way, and made the world safer. The trouble was that in Washington they were fixated on the date for war and we didn’t know that.

I agree with you in a very profound way that we have to say no, but if you don’t have an alternative, you’ll be weak. To fully interpret the teaching on the just war, you have to look for other ways. You can’t just blink at a dictator like Saddam Hussein and have no remedy.

Sojourners: There are Christian ethicists who are saying that the old arguments between just war and pacifism are not as relevant now. We need an alternative to war that has a collective, international, multilateral capacity to adjudicate situations. Then we need a mechanism for enforcing the results of that process. Before Iraq, were we moving in that direction?

Short: We were starting to get there with the post-Cold War sets of rules and ways of acting together. We were getting more flexibility, a new law that it is right to take military action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. This all needs to be brought forward carefully.

One example is in Africa, where 20 percent of the people are affected by conflict. In Sierra Leone you’ve got gangster-type rebels chopping off people’s hands. When the United Nations eventually came with a peacekeeping force, many of them were taken hostage. Prior to that, the Sierra Leonean government asked a South African-based private military company called Executive Outcomes to help take back the territory held by the rebels. Just 200 soldiers almost cleared the whole of the diamond fields. Sometimes what we are facing is not even a war. In continental Europe they call it "the state monopoly of violence." Only the police, only the state, can legitimately arrest someone by force.

Sojourners: Then it is a policing function more than a war in the traditional sense?

Short: In many countries that are collapsing, some of these rebel movements are semi-criminal in nature. They recruit child soldiers. They drug them up. Sometimes it’s necessary to have armed helicopters extending the rule of law to stop that kind of bestial violence. We need to get more into the United Nations’ capacity. Not just turning up lots of peacekeepers, but to have the capacity to enforce the peace against an unruly collapsed state.

I don’t think we can afford a U.N. long-term standing army, but I think we could have it in our armed forces. You could call for volunteers to serve in U.N. peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations. We could take pride in volunteers that risk themselves for another poor country. They could be trained to move very quickly to the Congo, Liberia, or Sierra Leone to stop things from getting out of control. The International Court is a way of dealing with dictators when they go beyond being a bad government into real crimes against humanity and horrendous torture.

Sojourners: What is your sense of how to fix what has happened in Iraq?

Short: Anyone who was critical of the war who ends up saying "I told you so," and taking pleasure in the disaster, is wrong. The people of Iraq are suffering, young troops, mostly American and some British, are losing their lives. Masses of money are being asked of the American taxpayer. Social programs in the United States are being cut back. We’ve got a disaster for everyone concerned.

Sojourners: Is there a comparison to the war in Vietnam?

Short: The parallel I make isn’t Vietnam; it’s Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland the Catholics marched for equal treatment and were absolutely oppressed by the local police. British troops went to stop this misbehavior and were cheered by nationalists who gave them cups of tea. Within a year, however, the Irish Republican Army was reborn and was fighting British soldiers. We had 30 years of resistance and death.

That’s the danger in Iraq. There are remnants that did well under Saddam Hussein who are resisting. There are people who are angry because members of their family have been killed. You’ve got the honor resistance of tribal people, and a growing nationalist resentment. It could come together in a prolonged nationalist resistance. Britain made all sorts of mistakes in Northern Ireland. The repression increased the numbers joining the IRA. Then Britain learned the way to defeat this was through justice, and resisting the use of force.

In Iraq there’s a real danger that the resistance will grow. Al Qaeda, who were not in Iraq because they hated Saddam Hussein and he hated them, are almost certainly there now.

Sojourners: What do we do?

Short: The solution is for America and the United Nations to work together to find a way forward. We need to help create a legitimate Iraqi government. If America chooses the government, it won’t be a legitimate Iraqi government. The United Nations is the only one who disinterestedly could take over. It requires consultations with the people of Iraq, widening the government to be an interim government, giving it more sovereignty. We need to help the Iraqis train their own police, get their oil up and running, and let out their contracts properly and locally. It is enormously suspicious—all these contracts going to American companies.

Sojourners: What are your observations about the role of faith communities in public life?

Short: One of the greatest dangers to the future security and safety of the world is the level of poverty and inequality in a world of great riches. This is the biggest moral issue we face. It’s linked to a divided, unstable world, with conflict, refugee movements, asylum seekers, and disease spreading across the world. In poor countries, people are very, very religious.

Jesus Christ is obsessed with the poor, with justice for the poor. "What you do for the least of my little ones, you do unto me." How can we have this unjust world where we aren’t making any effort to make things better—or not sufficient effort—when all the leaders of our countries claim to be Christians? There’s something wrong here.

Sojourners: Is it hypocrisy?

Short: Everyone isn’t a hypocrite, but somehow, they’re not reading what Jesus said. In many places people are very, very Christian—very religious people—yet there is horrible corruption. There are government elites that don’t care about their people. But they all go to church.

This is about decency, morality, and the safety of the world, I say to church people. Let’s start moving on this question. Everyone is feeling so cynical and so worried about life. People of faith could reach to the core meanings of their teachings, and step forward and say that they’re not having this hypocrisy in politics anymore—that we’re going to have a politics based on morality, because it’s both decent and good and it will make the world safer for the next generation. Churches and all the faiths could renew themselves and bring something good to humanity.

Sojourners: So how does Britain’s former secretary of state know so much about Jesus?

Short: I was brought up as a Catholic, very thoroughly. I ceased to be a practicing Catholic because of some of the dogmatic teachings of the Catholic Church that I can’t agree with. But my constituency is very multicultural. I’ve been a member of Parliament for 20 years. All the world’s religions are in my constituency. There are progressive and traditional synagogues, mosques of all kinds, and Buddhist temples. I’m often invited, and I go to show respect to all the communities. I’m uplifted by the sentiments and the holy books of all the world religions. I have this yearning and call to spirituality.

In the rich countries of the world, we have satisfied the fundamental questions that have troubled humanity since we evolved—that of meeting basic material need. And yet we’re all a bit bereft about what the meaning of life is. If just getting a bit more money is not the meaning of life, then what is it? People need spiritual renewal to get meaning. It’s a time for a renewal of religious movements. I’m sure of it.

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