Truth and Competence

When then Secretary of State Colin Powell told the UN that Saddam Hussain had chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, I believed him.  When he said that US and UK intelligence had incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussain had an active programme to create nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to targets I cared about, I believed him.  When then Prime Minister Tony Blair went beyond even what Powell had asserted and told us that Saddam’s chemical weapons could be activated within 45 minutes, I believed him also.

We now know that none of this was true.  What is unclear is whether Powell and Blair were lying or relying on bad intelligence – or both. 

This morning, I read in the papers that US intelligence has, in the words of the Financial Times, "downgraded its assessment of the risks posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions with a surprise declaration that the country, led by President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad …, halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 and may not have restarted it".

If this is true, I should be relieved.  Ahmedi-Nejad is a religious fanatic with strong Millenarian tendencies, who is waiting for the return of the hidden Imam.  He is confronted by George W. Bush, a religious fanatic with strong Millenarian tendencies, who is waiting for the return of Jesus Christ.  That’s the kind of configuration  likely to expedite the end of the world.  News that Iran has taken its foot off the nuclear accelerator would would be welcome indeed.

But can we believe it?  I have reached the point that, when an official spokesman in the US or the UK makes an assertion about a fact or issue that I cannot verify directly myself, I really only consider two possibilities: (1) (s)he is lying; (2) (s)he doesn’t know what (s)he is talking about.  The possibility that the authorities could be both truthful and competent is barely worth considering.

Truth telling has become a tactical option in political life. You do it when it is convenient – when it serves your purpose, rather than because it is the right and self-evident thing to do.  Competence is no longer expected of our political leaders and hardly hoped for.  The moral, political and economic cost of this erosion of trust and social capital will be with us for a long time, unless of course either the hidden Imam or Jesus Christ make an unexpected (by me) early return.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website