The case of the dodgy dossier

Posted: Jun 27, 2003 12:00 AM

LONDON -- In a mystery novel, there's the scene when the master detective assembles all the suspects in one room. In Westerns, there is the showdown on Main Street at high noon. In British politics, there is a half-hour called Oral Questions to the Prime Minister.

On Wednesday, pestered Prime Minister Tony Blair faced down his critics in the House of Commons at high noon. Well, he kind of faced them down.

Blair's critics -- antiwar tax-and-spend leftists and pro-war conservatives, who oppose Labor's "stealth taxes," such as the rise in national health-care rates -- had been eager to draw blood and had every reason to expect to see some bloodletting. The British public largely has opposed the deployment of British troops in the war in Iraq. War opponents have tried to make hay of the failure of U.S. troops to find a monster cache of weapons of mass destruction. It doesn't help that -- isn't this familiar? -- Blair's staff made minor screw-ups in documentation used to establish the major selling point for waging war on Saddam Hussein, the existence of WMD. The charge is that aide Alistair Campbell tried to "sex up" the evidence. Now, he's "Campbell in the soup."

The British press has dubbed the story the "dodgy dossier."

Question time probably would have started out with a rush -- except that the awful deaths of six British soldiers in Majar al-Kabir, Iraq, cast a pall over the proceeding. On top of the unexpected casualties, the deaths punctured the conceit, quite popular here, that American troops were being killed in postwar skirmishes because Americans are more heavy-handed and less skilled at dealing with Iraqis than their British brethren.

Blair started properly by offering his condolences to the dead soldiers' families. The families, he noted, "can be immensely proud of (the dead), even as they mourn them."

Even those who wanted to pin the six scalps on Blair had to bow their heads in agreement.

The leader of the opposition Conservatives, Iain Duncan Smith, announced that the deaths should strengthen the United Kingdom's "resolve." Then, within minutes, Smith asked Blair how much longer British troops were likely to remain in Iraq.

So much for resolve.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy pressed Blair on what he was doing to bring other countries into the coalition -- this week. Apparently Kennedy opposes the war, but that doesn't stop him from pressing Blair to get other countries mixed up in it.

(While U.K. lefties abhor any sense of old British "triumphalism," the ghost of triumphalism reigns when it comes to scoring a cheap political point.)

A voice boomed from the bench, "Is it time to say 'night-night' to Alistair Campbell (in-the-soup)?" Blair defended the dossier.

But Blair didn't give the battle of wits his all. The PM noted that the documents were essentially accurate. But he should have added that there's bloody, and then there's sloppy. Yes, sloppy is bad when it comes to making arguments for war, but the overall evidence of Hussein's bloody agenda is not in dispute. War opponents ought to pay more attention to the bloody details -- concerning mass-produced murder -- than the sloppy part of argumentation.

If they'd lived in a different era, the carpers' beef with Jack the Ripper would have been his penmanship.

How it must weigh on Blair to have helped liberate an afflicted people, to have brought down a regime that had been responsible for as many as a million Iraqi deaths, and to have worked to allay the threat that WMD would be used outside Iraq, and here he is stuck answering question after question from petty pols carping about the paperwork.