Category Archives: anti-imperialist

Where are they hiding?

[Some edits and additions in response to Robert’s comments, 26/6 and 27/6]

In 1997 Francesco Cossiga was interviewed for a book called Una sparatoria tranquilla (mentioned back here). Cossiga was one of the leading figures of Italy’s old establishment – a former President of the Republic, a former Minister of the Interior, an unapologetic defender of the covert anti-Communist Gladio network. The interesting thing about this interview was the identity of the interviewer: Francesco Piccioni, a former member of the Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades).

The BR were a left-wing ‘armed struggle’ group – one of 40 or 50 groups which flourished in Italy in the 1970s. The BR were the largest and longest-lived of all the groups. Between 1970 and the mid-eighties, over 900 people were arrested and charged with BR membership; more conservative estimates suggest that around 400 people were members of the group at some point, half of them joining in the group’s peak years of 1978 and 1979. The armed struggle ‘scene’ as a whole was much bigger than the BR – groups other than the BR carried out around 3,000 actions in total, as compared with the BR’s total of 500. But the BR were much bigger than any other single group: few of the others lasted as long as five years, or had as many as a hundred members. Discounting a penumbra of sympathisers and supporters, the people directly responsible for the Italian left-wing ‘terrorism’ of the 1970s numbered, in all probability, no more than 2,000. And that was a huge scene by contemporary standards: far beyond anything dreamed of by the RAF in West Germany, the Weather Underground in the USA or our very own Angries.

Bearing in mind the actions carried out by the BR over the years – notably 58 murders, including the ‘execution’ of the kidnapped Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro and the slaughter of his bodyguards – it’s interesting to read what Francesco (Cossiga) said to Francesco (Piccioni).

“The great semantic trick which we all carried out was calling you ‘terrorists’ – I thought about this later – because calling you ‘terrorists’ kept us from realising what you were. I understood this later, because I was trying to understand Moro’s attitude. What led me to think of you, historically and ideologically, as a subversive phenomenon rather than as terrorist, was the interest and curiosity which Moro demonstrated in his letters [from captivity] – a curiosity which he wouldn’t have shown for a gang of people who planted bombs and that was that. And, in fact, you didn’t plant bombs.”
[Piccioni: “Never.”]
“Terrorists plant bombs in cinemas. This was something else. Your operating methods were precisely those of partisan warfare. If I’d said something like this at the time… Who taught you those things?”
[Piccioni: “Books, and a few veterans.”]

Cossiga’s argument suggests that ‘terrorism’ has – or at least can have – a specific meaning. We can start by defining ‘terror’ tactics as the use of personal violence against non-specific targets, with the immediate goal of causing panic and alarm. If one person mounts a ‘terror’ attack, they’re going on a rampage, going berserk or wendigo. If a mob uses terror, it’s a pogrom. If armed forces use terror, it’s either warfare or a war crime, depending on who the targets are. Finally, if an organised group of non-state actors uses terror, it’s terrorism. Whether a group, rather than its individual actions, can be described as ‘terrorist’ depends on how consistently it uses terror. Neo-fascist groups in Italy and Spain can reasonably be described as ‘terrorist’; the record of the IRA, for example, is more mixed.

On the other hand, if an armed struggle group targets buildings rather than people, or if personal violence targets selected individual enemies, linguistic precision alone suggests that something other than ‘terrorism’ is going on. This is where I part company with Robert’s proposed definition of terrorism as “the extension of the rules of battle beyond what is normally thought to be a battlefield … expanding the spaces of violence, so that we are combatants in places we had never thought we would be, something which would obviously be terrifying”. Irregular and guerrilla warfare has precisely these characteristics; indeed, Robert’s formulation recalls the words of Senza Tregua (“No Quarter”), a hagiographic history of an early Partisan group which was very popular in certain circles in the early 1970s:

[these were] groups of patriots who never gave quarter to the enemy: they struck him at all times, in all circumstances, day and night, in the streets of the city and in the heart of his fortresses

But I’d argue that these attacks (unlike the German reprisals which often followed) were too precisely focused to qualify as terror.

Having said all of which, the invocation of ‘terrorism’ is also a value judgment and hence a rhetorical move: ‘guerrillas’ may be people engaged in politics by other means, but ‘terrorists’ are evil people dedicated to causing destruction. An ‘armed struggle’ militant can, in theory, be negotiated with; a ‘terrorist’ must be defeated. Treating the BR as terrorists made it easier for the Italian state to crush them, but – Cossiga suggests – at the cost of failing to understand them. What was obscured by the ‘terrorist’ labelling is suggested by Cossiga’s reference to partisan warfare – a live reference point in Italy in the 1970s, as we have seen. Cossiga’s contrast between the BR and a mere ‘gang of people who planted bombs’ also suggests a question of scale: a nihilist gang of terrorist bombers could not have had the roots the BR drew on, or drawn in so many people, or lasted so long. This isn’t to say that the BR was engaged in Partisan warfare in any real sense – although a large part of the appeal which enabled the group to enlist so many people and survive so long did derive from its orchestration of Partisan themes and memories. But Cossiga, in 1997, was right: the term ‘terrorist’ alone wasn’t adequate. Something was going on there, and he didn’t know what it was.

In the ghastly American Enterprise (via Alex), I’ve just read this:

Contrary to the impression given by most newspaper headlines, the United States has won the day in Iraq. In 2004, our military fought fierce battles in Najaf, Fallujah, and Sadr City. Many thousands of terrorists were killed, with comparatively little collateral damage. As examples of the very hardest sorts of urban combat, these will go down in history as smashing U.S. victories.

Yes, that is what he said:

Many thousands of terrorists were killed

I don’t know what it does to the enemy, but by God the American Enterprise frightens me. My first thought, on reading that passage, was that something had gone very, very wrong for those words to be put together at all: I’m not sure there have ever been “many thousands” of non-state political actors devoted to creating panic through indiscriminate killing. Then I wondered if ‘terrorist’ was becoming a working public synonym for Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer (discussed recently by Slavoj Zizek in the LRB). On this reading the definition of ‘terrorist’ would be functional: the point is not that a ‘terrorist’ is someone who carries out certain acts, but that anyone who is a ‘terrorist’ is excluded from society and can be killed with impunity. But many thousands of them…

Something is going on there, and they don’t know what it is. But they’re prepared to go on killing people until it stops.

Just us

The idea of a ‘just war’ has been around for a long time – since the fifth century, in fact, when it was formulated by St Augustine. One of the key criteria in judging whether a particular conflict can be considered ‘just’ is that war is not waged lightly: it has to be a ‘last resort’. It can be tricky to tell when you’ve reached the ‘last resort’, or the last of anything; you could easily jump too soon, or else wait too long and miss it altogether. Think of Father Ted, urging himself to confront the odious Father Fintan Stack and simultaneously rationalising his failure to do so before: “No, this is definitely the last straw. I thought that was the last straw, but obviously I was mistaken. This now, this is positively the last… bit of straw… left… in the thing, what I’m saying is there is no more straw!”

Of course, problems like this are what we have philosophers for. Michael Walzer is an international authority on ‘just war’ theory; a collection of his writings was recently reviewed by Corey Robin in the LRB. Here’s a slice:

Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim that governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is equally dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his scepticism about the ‘last resort’ suggests a double standard. … Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s ‘last resort’ while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.

Here’s Walzer, at greater length, on terrorists and the last resort; the essay, reprinted in the collection Robin reviewed, can also be found in a 2001 issue of the American Prospect.

In parts of the European and American left, there has long existed a political culture of excuses focused defensively on one or another of the older terrorist organizations: the IRA, FLN, PLO, and so on.
The first excuse is that terror is a last resort. The image is of oppressed and embittered people who have run out of options. They have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, until no alternative remains but the evil of terrorism. They must be terrorists or do nothing at all. The easy response is that, given this description, they should do nothing at all. But that doesn’t engage the excuse.It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) – and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder. Politics is an art of repetition. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options.
“Last resort” has only a notional finality. The resort to terror is not last in an actual series of actions; it is last only for the sake of the excuse. Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort; they are for it from the beginning.

And here’s Walzer on ‘just war’, adopting a very different position – although, oddly, the rhetoric doesn’t change that much. He wrote in 2003:

We say of war that it is the “last resort” because of the unpredictable, unexpected, unintended, and unavoidable horrors that it regularly brings. In fact, war isn’t the last resort, for “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last. The notion of lastness is cautionary – but this is a necessary caution: look hard for alternatives before you “let loose the dogs of war.”

The distortions and elisions in Walzer’s arguments are striking, and sometimes strikingly obvious. Take that (unchallenged) ‘easy response’ in the first paragraph quoted: even if we have tried every legitimate form of political action, exhausted every possibility, failed everywhere, it is better to do nothing at all than to take up arms. This is an extraordinary failure of imaginative engagement on Walzer’s part, which must put us on our guard relative to the arguments that follows.

Walzer also plays fast and loose with the key word ‘last’. When he’s dealing with terrorists, his argument is rigid and mechanistic: by implication, each individual group must try everything … and not just once before non-violent forms of action can be discarded. This seems counter-intuitive, to put it mildly. Let’s say that we’re in El Salvador in the early 1980s, and a local trade union organiser has just been murdered by a right-wing death squad. What’s our advice to other trade unionists – learn by doing the same thing over and over again?

When Walzer is dealing with regular armies, ‘last’ means something quite different. In fact [sic], war isn’t the last resort … The notion of lastness is cautionary. ‘Last’, in other words, means… what? ‘Worst’? But if starting a war is not merely an undesirable course of action but the worst option (which seems like a reasonable position), the distinction Walzer is trying to make dissolves. To say that something is the worst option is precisely to say – if you’ll excuse the pedantry – that it’s the last course of action one should resort to. Presumably ‘last’ here means no more than ‘quite bad’.

These two opposed redefinitions of ‘last’ meet oddly in a formulation from that 1992 essay:

we can never reach lastness, or we can never know when we have reached it. There is always something else to do: another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting.

One must indeed try everything … and not just once. One must go to the UN Security Council, and not just once; one must sit through yet another meeting. Or rather, one mustn’t: just because it’s called the last resort, that doesn’t mean you’ve actually got to try it last.

Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, Walzer slips all too easily from discussing an argument from principle to challenging the good faith of those who invoke it: Actually, most terrorists recommend terror as a first resort. Well, one activist’s lifetime of experience is another’s starting point (unless every one of us needs to try everything … and not just once); it’s not hard to imagine situations in which a ‘last resort’ is the only resort. Besides – ‘most terrorists’? Has Walzer run a survey among veterans of armed struggle groups or analysed the copious literature these groups tend to produce? I suspect that this is a starting point rather than a conclusion: what purports to be a critique of ‘most terrorists’ is actually a statement about how Walzer imagines these groups to be, based on his antipathy to them. (Tellingly, Walzer describes the positions he’s attacking not as arguments but as excuses.)

Walzer detects bad faith in peaceniks as well as terrorists – always with another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution… He made the point more bluntly in 2004, in his contribution to a Radio 4 discussion programme:

Last resort is a metaphysical term. You never reach lastness, there’s always something you could do. If there is a massacre going on in Rwanda, the crucial thing is to stop it. As we saw, there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do — in the face of the Rwandan massacre, but the use of force was, I think, the just response; and just because if we were interested in stopping the murders, there was no alternative.

there were lots of things to do — or to pretend to do. Terrorists lie – they talk about principle, but they just want to be violent. Peaceniks lie – they talk about principle, but they just want governments to be non-violent. The fact of it is, Walzer says – the philosophical fact of it is – that governments can cut ethical corners and may use violence, whereas citizens must act ethically and must not use violence. Because… because that’s how it is.

Comments made on the same Radio 4 programme by Vaughan Lowe, a professor of international law, show just how dangerous this idea is.

I think the general population is quite rightly concerned not simply with the question whether it’s lawful or not, but whether it’s right. And it’s certainly not the case that every lawful action is morally defensible. And I think that’s what they’re trying to get at when they talk about just war. They’re saying more than that it’s technically lawful. They’re saying it’s a good idea. And I think that people think that answering the legal question excuses them from answering the moral question and that they think it’s enough to concentrate on that. And I absolutely agree—the ultimately critical issue is the moral one: is it justified to use force or not?

Both Walzer’s readings of ‘just war’ theory are concerned with this three-way connection between legality, justice and violence, but they articulate it in very different ways. For Walzer I – Walzer on terrorism – a course of action can only be just if it is also legal, which necessarily precludes violence. Activists learn by doing the same thing over and over again. It is by no means clear when they run out of options. If armed struggle is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, armed struggle can never realistically be just. (Even if activists do run out of options for legal activity, they should react to this setback by doing nothing at all.)

For Walzer II – Walzer on war – “lastness” is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life. If war is unjust unless it is the ‘last resort’, war can never realistically be just; in a 1992 essay Walzer wrote that the upshot of the ‘last resort’ argument was to make war “morally impossible”. But Walzer is convinced that ‘just war’ is possible, which means that war cannot literally be the ‘last resort’. The circle is squared by divorcing justice from legality (which, in the case of international law, can only finally be determined by doing the same thing over and over again up at the UN). For Walzer II, the justice of a just war is an intrinsic property – and if there is a conflict between justice and the procedural minutiae of legality, justice takes precedence, in principle just as it does in practice.

As Lowe hints, Goldsmith’s legal advice on the Iraq war was, in effect, “It may not be a just war but it’s technically legal.” Under criticism, Blair has opted decisively for the opposite position – “It may not be technically legal, but it’s a just war.” Walzer I wouldn’t tolerate this type of argument for a second; Walzer II endorses it wholeheartedly. The result is that his arguments cease to be intolerable to the advocates of actually existing ‘just war’, at the cost of becoming dispensable. As David Gordon comments: “Walzer mocked overly rigid just-war thinkers: if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen. … But the upshot of Walzer’s slippery standards is that policymakers will pay him no heed either.”

The yawning inconsistency between Walzer I and Walzer II – and, I would argue, the equal and opposite dodginess of both positions – highlights the limitations of the terms involved (what does last mean, after all?) A more nuanced – and hopefully more consistent – position might start from one of Roy Bhaskar’s more lucid observations. We live in a complex, enduringly structured and meaningful social world, Bhaskar argues; wherever we go and whatever we do, there will always be a lot of other people out there, whose actions and words will influence us. Consequently, we can never hope to achieve absolute liberation, a leap “into a realm free of determination”; what we can hope to do is move “from unneeded, unwanted and oppressive to needed, wanted and empowering sources of determination”.

Which brings us, indirectly, back to the ‘last resort’. Suppose that people and nations determine one another’s actions; suppose that some of these ‘determinations’ are acceptable and others not. The ‘last resort’ is then the point at which ‘unneeded, unwanted and oppressive’ determinations cannot be removed or alleviated, other than by force or the threat of force.

Where individuals are concerned, the question is whether there are groups whose ‘determinations’ I regard as malign; whose freedom to infringe on my freedom of action I would therefore like to see restricted; and to whom I don’t have any reasonable means of communicating this preference, short of the use or threat of force. I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, a street-fighting man, but I can think of several candidates without pausing for breath. A bridge in Manchester which I used to pass regularly bore the graffiti “KILL NAZI SCUM”. As I say, I’m not a violent type, and death to me is quite a big deal, but I found it very hard to see that message as anything other than a public service. The message I would like to get across doesn’t involve death – it’s more along the lines of “SEVERELY DEMORALISE NAZI SCUM” or “NAZI SCUM ARE UNWELCOME VISITORS TO THIS AREA” – but I can’t help feeling that these messages were conveyed more effectively by the graffiti as it stood.

In the semi-imaginary land of international relations, on the other hand, it is not clear to me that the last resort is ever reached, unless the offending nation is either initiating a war or attempting to provoke the other into doing so. This suggests that the ‘last resort’ is always a defence against aggression – for otherwise it would always [be] possible to do something else, or to do it again – and hence that there is no such thing as a just war of aggression.

But in that case the Iraq war would not have been a just war. And we know in advance that that conclusion is intolerable (if one makes the standards for resort to war too demanding, those in power will not listen). And if Iraq was right, the model must be wrong. Simple.

Concerned with decisiveness

I’d hate to disappoint Ros Taylor, so here are some thoughts about Peter Goldsmith and Iraq.

Following Brian Barder, I think we should drop the idea that Goldsmith changed his mind between the 7th and the 17th of March 2003. What Blair wanted from Goldsmith was never his own opinion about the legality of the invasion, but an authoritative judgment of the soundness of the case that could be made for its legality. The 7th March judgment was, essentially, “there is a legal argument in favour of an invasion without a second UN resolution, albeit with strictly defined and limited objectives; this argument is strong enough for the government to act on if it chooses, but may not be strong enough to protect it from every foreseeable legal challenge”. Take the first fifteen words of that summary and delete the other 35, and you’ve essentially got the 17th March opinion. I wouldn’t be surprised if Goldsmith was leant on in the mean time (the dialogue writes itself – “So you’re saying it is legal? Yes or no?”) but what resulted wasn’t a U-turn or a cave-in; you could even call it a clarification.

Thus far I’m with Paul Anderson, slightly to my surprise –

“Government lawyer points out possible problems with war then backs it when push comes to shove” is a lousy headline – except insofar as it’s a completely accurate summary of the story.

But there’s a bit more to it than that. For one thing, obviously, the government’s refusal to publicise Goldsmith’s caveats is a story in itself, and a highly discreditable story at that. More importantly, Goldsmith’s 7th March opinion doesn’t just “point out possible problems”. The opinion repeatedly stresses the differences in interpretation between the US and other governments, particularly on the question of whether UN member states could take action against Iraq without waiting for a Security Council resolution (or even a Security Council discussion). It also notes:

Force may be used in self-defence if there is an actual or imminent threat of an armed attack; the use of force must be necessary, ie the only means of averting an attack; and the force used must be a proportionate response. […] in my opinion there must be some degree of imminence. I am aware that the USA has been arguing for recognition of a broad doctrine of a right to use force to pre-empt danger in the future. If this means more than a right to respond proportionately to an imminent attack (and I understand that the doctrine is intended to carry that connotation) this is not a doctrine which, in my opinion, exists or is recognised in international law.

If it were recognised as legal, the doctrine of ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ – essentially a dolled-up version of the Clausewitzian dictum “the best form of defence is attack” – would enable states to take action in their own right, bypassing the whole rigmarole of collective security. It would also bypass the UN and render most of the international law of war moot. Goldsmith duly notes that the doctrine has no standing in international law – but he also notes that the US has been pushing for it.

The significance of this is, of course, that the British government didn’t launch the Iraq invasion, even if it sometimes appears that Blair thinks it did (“I took the decision to remove him”, indeed). Thanks to another well-timed leak, we now know that, as early as July 2002, the British government – Blair, Straw, Goldsmith and all – recognised that Bush intended to depose Saddam Hussein by military means, and intended to “work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action”. In this light, Goldsmith’s March 2003 legal opinion takes on the character of a face-saving (or hand-washing) operation, designed to enable the British government to commit itself to the invasion while dissociating itself from some of the underlying lunacy.

Firstly, the weird and implausible compromise position which the Security Council eventually endorsed is explored at length, in some of the most impenetrable passages of the document. (The US government held, predictably enough, that the Security Council didn’t need to rule on whether Iraq had breached its ceasefire obligations; Goldsmith points out that UN resolutions required the Security Council to consider the issue, but argues that this doesn’t necessarily involve actually reaching an agreed position, let alone passing a second resolution.) The effect is to present the British government as at least a half-hearted friend of the UN, dissociating it from the increasingly unapologetic unilateralism of the Bush government.

Secondly – and, I think, crucially – Goldsmith emphatically rules out military action against Iraq except to enforce UN resolutions: “regime change cannot be the objective of military action”. However, in doing so he tosses Blair a legal figleaf. The relevant paragraph – the last one in the advice – reads, in full:

Finally, I must stress that the lawfulness of military action depends not only on the existence of a legal basis, but also on the question of proportionality. 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 the terms of the cease-fire contained in resolution 687 (1990) and subsequent relevant resolutions;

— [must] be limited to what is necessary to achieve that objective; and

— must be a proportionate response to that objective, ie securing compliance with Iraq’s disarmament obligations.

That is not to say that action may not be taken to remove Saddam Hussein from power if it can be demonstrated that such action is a necessary and proportionate measure to secure the disarmament of Iraq. But regime change cannot be the objective of military action. This should be borne in mind in considering the list of military targets and in making public statements about any campaign.

The really important sentence here is the last but two. Goldsmith is advising Blair that a military campaign to depose Saddam Hussein – which both Blair and Goldsmith already know to be the objective under consideration – could, given certain tightly-defined circumstances and some ingenious legal arguments, be construed as legal. But this advantage would be forfeited if the true objective of the war – and its genesis in the ‘pre-emptive self-defence’ of the War on Terror – was openly acknowledged.

What’s really interesting about this word to the wise is the use that Blair made of it: none. In the July 2002 minutes, Goldsmith sets out the arguments he would develop at greater length eight months later. War could only be waged under three conditions: in self-defence; to stave off a humanitarian disaster; or in compliance with UN resolutions. The last of these was the only condition which could be taken to apply, and even that was highly debatable. Blair’s response was:

The Prime Minister said that it would make a big difference politically and legally if Saddam refused to allow in the UN inspectors. Regime change and WMD were linked in the sense that it was the regime that was producing the WMD. […] If the political context were right, people would support regime change.

Blair slides immediately from using WMD as a pretext for regime change to using WMD to justify regime change – even though Goldsmith has just ruled this out. You almost feel sorry for the guy. (If I can feel sorry for a Dalek…) Goldsmithian weaselling is genuinely repugnant to Blair: he never wanted to present the fall of Saddam Hussein as an unexpected by-product of an operation to enforce international law, knowing as he did that it was the object of the exercise (international law or no international law). But the neo-conservative unilateralism which appeals to him isn’t quite available either, if only because it’s a supremely unrewarding doctrine for anyone but the US (there can be only one Top Nation). So we’re left with a government constitutionally committed to saying one thing and doing another, and with a Prime Minister whose response to criticism is to repeat endlessly that we can disagree with him if we like, but that in his job he has to make decisions (with the implication that he had to make those specific decisions).

And we’re left with an illegal war.

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.

They’re only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains

To whom it may concern:

  1. What the Attorney General said (see also the full documents linked here and Brian Barder’s two prescient commentaries)
  2. “…at the stinking heart of what remains of the British body politic”
  3. A catechism for the unconvinced
  4. Adrian Mitchell told you so
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