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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Caliban's Mirror over Procrustes's Bed

InstantMan links to a post on WMD flip-flopping at the BBC on the Highway 99 blog, written by M.J. Smith (do check out the rest of the blog while you're there; it's a good 'un).

To make a long post short: M.J. reads A Higher Form of Killing, a history of chemical and biological warfare by Robert Harris and Jeremy Paxman. (Paxman is a big-shot BBC journalist.) This book was originally published in 1982; a new edition was put out in August of 2002, containing an extra chapter. This new chapter stressed the continuing relevance of their topic, citing, in particular, Iraq: "Every warning about the ease with which chemical and biological warfare (CBW) weapons could proliferate has been proved true by Saddam." The go into considerable detail, quoting UN weapons inspector Richard Butler, among others, and asserting, "The unsettling truth is that much of Iraq's CBW arsenal remains intact."

There's much more. M.J.'s interest is in the contradiction between Harris's and Paxman's assertion that "Iraq's CBW arsenal remains intact" and the BBC's spin that the British government (and, of course, George Bush) deliberately lied about Saddam's weapons. How can the BBC spin it this way when Paxman, one of their biggest guns, asserts that the weapons existed as late as August, 2002?

M.J. says that Paxman holds a position at the BBC corresponding to that of Walter Cronkite (in his day) or Dan Rather at CBS. If he says so. I don't know the Beeb well enough to know that it's true (the web site he cites shows that Paxman has a long resume, but it's difficult to gauge his importance from it).

Furthermore, Harris and Paxman must've relied on Western intelligence sources for their book -- surely they didn't go into Iraq and poke around themselves. Therefore if the information from the intelligence services was wrong, so was their book. Although it is true that they quoted people who were not in an intelligence service, such as the aforementioned Butler.

In any case, the apparent disconnect between Paxman's book and the BBC's current spin isn't as interesting to me as the tone of the excerpts M.J. quotes from that last chapter. One sentence that struck me as well as him was, "For twenty years, Iraq, under Saddam's leadership, has held up Caliban's mirror[*] to the West."

Western governments invented CB weapons in the first place. Western companies (witting or un) sold Saddam peaceful items that could be used to make weapons. Western intelligence was slow in recognizing what Saddam was doing. The US resists a "proper [international] arms control regime, with provisions to allow international inspectors to call, unannounced, at any time...."

In this chapter Saddam himself is treated like a force of Nature, like some type of dumb but deadly beast that has escaped due to the incompetence or arrogance or greed of the West. There's no use blaming the beast, for he's a beast, amoral -- unreasoning, one of the lesser breeds without the Law. He is not a moral actor, like Bush or Blair.

An objective observer might wonder what all the fuss is about. We're agreed it's a dangerous beast. Can we kill it? Yes, we can. Are we afraid to do it? Not really. Then why not?

I think the real reason is that many in the chattering classes see Saddam (and those like him) as Nemesis. He is our just deserts. He is the instrument of divine retribution, the payment for our wickedness, and the fact that he is a thousand times more wicked does not change this.

[*] I searched for the precise meaning of this phrase, and came up empty. This fellow also wondered what it meant. He came up with an Oscar Wilde quote about Victorian society, realism, and romanticism:

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

In other words, they wanted to see themselves in the mirror, but only if it showed them as beautiful, which they were not. In Harris and Paxman's imagination, Saddam is the West's ugly reflection. The reflection cannot act, it can only react. It cannot be faulted for what it shows. Saddam has no significance except to return the ugly image of the West.