Howard Jacobson: Blair may have shown spectacularly bad judgement, but it doesn't make him a liar

It is possible to have a superficial mind and to employ it with sincerity

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Dr Johnson, in one of his Idler essays, delineates the intellectual workings of a certain imaginary Miss Gentle, known generally to the world as a good sort of woman.

At first he would seem to be describing your average vocabulary-less participant in a television reality programme. "For discriminations of character she has no names; all whom she mentions are honest men and agreeable women." But soon it becomes clear that Johnson is investigating that still more serious human failing, a reluctance to countenance judgement of any sort. I will quote more of the essay for the joy of it.

"She is an enemy to nothing but ill-nature and pride; but she has frequent reason to lament that they are so frequent in the world. All who are not equally pleased with the good and the bad, with the elegant and gross, with the witty and the dull, she considers as ill-natured..."

In the light of the most common responses to Blair's appearance at the Chilcot inquiry last week, I wish to invoke the polar opposite of Miss Gentle – call her Miss Abrasive – in whom we discern the same indiscrimination as to character but this time all whom she mentions are mendacious. And if she has reason to lament the frequency of lying in the world, it is because she holds all those to be dishonest who do not see what she sees.

It's the sign of a healthy society that satire flourishes in it. There is not the slightest reason to be concerned, in my view, that our default position, when it comes to those who govern us, is derision and mistrust. This saves us from fanaticism. In the case of Tony Blair our automatic suspicion was vindicated very early on, from the moment it became apparent that he was overexcited by the company of the rich and famous, and appeared to have no other yardsticks by which to measure value. This determined the matter for me: he is not an admirable man. But that doesn't mean he is a liar. It is possible to have a superficial mind and to employ it with sincerity.

So why can't we say the same about his decision to accompany George Bush into Iraq? This is not a question about the rights and wrongs of that invasion. It is not even a question as to whether he was star-struck yet again, this time not by Posh and Becks but by an American president. I simply invite you to consider the proposition that however calamitous, in our view, the event, Blair honestly considered and considers it the right thing to have done. I don't say that's the case: I say it might be.

A man can be disastrously wrong in his judgement and still not be a liar. You could fairly argue that some misjudgements are more heinous and costly than improbity, but let's get the charge right. It's important, once we open an inquiry into the question of whether a great wrong has been done, that we are clear as to what that wrong was. We don't serve justice by pinning a false charge on a man we hate so much that we don't care what he is found guilty of, so long as he is found guilty of something.

There's another reason for not assuming that dishonesty must be the underlying motive of an action we don't approve of: it lays a flattering unction to our souls. If Blair who invaded Iraq is a liar then we who would have had him not invade Iraq are honest. And that way self-delusion and sanctimony lie.

We have orgied on sanctimony this week. You would never know, from most of what's been written, that there have always been divergent views on the invasion of Iraq. That it wasn't only fools, liars and the bloodthirsty who were persuaded of its necessity. Nor would you know that there was such a thing as war before Blair, that in a just cause or an unjust one, for as far back as history reaches, soldiers and civilians have been killed. This is not to condone any of it. Read Homer on the Trojan war and it's impossible not to feel the anguish that accompanies each loss of life, no matter how heroic. A humane man wants every war to be the end of war. But only an aspirant to the title of Miss World thinks that wanting it might make it so.

So when Robert Fisk writes with passionate immediacy of the screams of those he saw dying in Baghdad, I share his outrage but am not persuaded by the politics of it. In any war, each side will suffer – the wronged and the wrong-doing. The screams of the dying in German cities 70 years ago also attested to the horrors of war, but are inconclusive in our deciding the virtue of the conflict that victimised them. Blair, of course, was not among the casualties. Robert Fisk rages against his "oh-so-clean business suit" and "oh-so-clean red tie", but what else was he to wear? A hair-shirt? Well only if he feels about the war as Robert Fisk feels and he doesn't. I don't say Fisk's rhetoric is without humanitarian foundation. A curse on all who ask us to spill blood and never themselves so much as cut a finger. A curse on every man who sends others where he will not go himself. But it's rhetoric.

Similarly those cries of "Shame" and "Liar" that came from relatives of soldiers who'd been killed. Sorrow clears an inviolable space around the sorrowing. There is nothing we who have not lost sons and husbands can say to those who have. But to accept that grief is sacred is not to accept that it speaks a truth beyond itself. Open the annals and let the families of the war dead complain and we would perish in the cacophony. It's no consolation to those whom the Iraq war has bereaved to know that millions have been similarly bereaved before them; and it's fair to argue that given all mankind has experienced of war's consequences, we should now be past the point of killing. But the fact that we aren't cannot be blamed on Blair.

There is reason, furthermore, why Blair can say what he says in justification of his actions, and believe it. For all our sanctimony, we have no better solutions to the problems which the Iraq war tried to settle, and which might still lead us into more fighting in the area – unless we think that following the example of the indiscriminate Miss Abrasive and considering all those with whom we don't see eye-to-eye to be dishonest and disagreeable, is a solution. Which it isn't.

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