Stupido! Chicken-brain!

I don’t think much of Johann Hari; I doubt that statement will surprise many people, and I’m not going to spend good blogging time on an anti-Hari rant. But I am going to say a few words about Johann’s column in today’s Independent – which you can read over at Hari’s Place – and its conclusion in particular, which is… striking, let’s say.

Johann takes the view – and he’s supported by polling by YouGov, no less – that the people of Iraq, by and large, are quite glad to be rid of Saddam Hussein, and don’t really give a damn whether he had weapons of mass destruction or not. But he’s aware that the invasion was transparently illegal (you know this one: “Any force used pursuant to the authorisation in resolution 678 (whether or not there is a second resolution) must have as its objective the enforcement of the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 … regime change cannot be the objective of military action.” – Peter Goldsmith, 7/3/03). So he tries to reconcile these two positions. Take it away, Johann:

when it comes to legality, you have to answer a basic question: who is sovereign in Iraq? If you believe the Iraqi people are sovereign, then there was no crime, because Iraqis and now their elected government say they wanted the invasion to proceed. You can’t invade the willing. The problem is that currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign. Incredible though it seems, right up until the moment he was forced from power, international law regarded Saddam Hussein’s government as sovereign.

That cannot be right, and that cannot be a law worth defending. I support the idea of international law; but protecting the sovereignty of tyrants – against the will of their people – is a perversion of the benevolent instincts that lead people to seek lawfare not warfare.

(Incidentally – “lawfare not warfare”? Do what?)

This is nonsense on stilts, and dangerous nonsense at that (“currently international law does not recognise peoples as sovereign” – somebody should take a look at that…) To quote a comment I left on Hari’s site:

Of course
Saddam Hussein’s government was recognised as sovereign – that’s the meaning of the word ‘sovereignty’. International law works on the basis of a world made up of national governments, each of which is sovereign within its own territory; that sovereignty cannot be challenged without very, very good reason. A moment’s thought will tell you why this is, on balance, a Good Idea. It’s certainly better than the alternative, which is allowing any national government to remove any other national government it takes a dislike to, subject only to having the power to do so.

International law is based on a fiction – the fiction of ‘International Society’, a kind of virtual assembly of nation states, each equal before the bar of international law and each according one another the same rights and the same respect. It’s a crude fiction: as well as the obvious imbalances of power between actually-existing nation states, the model is blind to the existence of non-national agencies exerting power within and across nation states, such as trans-national corporations. Nevertheless, it’s powerful; a huge (and ever-growing) body of conventional forms of interaction between governments has grown up on the basis of that fiction. These conventions now have a real power to influence and constrain individual nation states – or, at least, to give an orderly and acceptable form to collective attempts at constraint by other states. (See the discussion here, particularly in the comments.)

Above all, international law is generalisable: it lays down (or aspires to lay down) how any state can and can’t act towards any other. What Hari’s suggesting (or rather, gesturing vaguely towards) is some kind of New World Moral Order, where powerful democratic nation states are free to overthrow undemocratic states so as to liberate the sovereign “people” – who will then be free to invite their liberators in.

Needless to say, this model isn’t generalisable – or rather, generalising it would rip up international law by the roots. For Bush Republicans – who work on the basis that the US is Number One Nation and thus shouldn’t be bound by the same laws as everyone else – this is a feature, not a bug. What Hari’s doing endorsing this stupid and dangerous line of thinking, I really don’t know.



  1. Anonymous
    Posted 1 May 2005 at 18:04 | Permalink | Reply

    I know exatcly what he’s doing. Bereft of ideas or even a coherent moral standpoint, he still has a lucrative weekly column to fill.

    This pressure is not conducive to logical thinking in callow journos of Hari’s ilk. He’s imply not up to it.

    Republic of Palau

  2. Anonymous
    Posted 2 May 2005 at 16:01 | Permalink | Reply

    Hari sees sovereignty as something those at the top can either have or not have. It’s a neorealist model which is important to note, as you do, largely because so many in power think it explains away the world. It proved useless in explaining the collapse of Communist power in the USSR, the growth of civil society therein.

    A far better model is to think of sovereignty as a bundle of rights and obligations which varies in its content from place to place and from time to time and which transcends the state or any others who claim sovereignty.

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