Thursday, April 10, 2003

Ok, I was wrong again: earlier this evening I was talking with my father about post-Saddam Iraq -- and what should be done with Ba'ath officials guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. I, of course, said that they should be tried before an international tribunal. My father suggested that the US would be reluctant to allow this, and would want to try them itself. Even the Bush administration couldn't be that stupid, I said.
Well, according to the Garton Ash column mentioned below, at least, the administration actually IS that stupid -- the US is apparently saying that it wants to try Iraqi war criminals under US law.
This is both wrong, and foolish, both legally, and politically.
Politically it's foolish because it will reinforce the hostility and distrust towards the US on the part of the international community that going to war without the UN's approval, refusing UN assistance in the war in Afghanistan, refusing to sign on to the ICC and Kyoto and the ABM treaty ... etc. etc. -- has fostered. Now, I didn't accept the argument that the US should have not gone to war just to avoid offending the international community; and while I agree with Jefferson that the US needs to be guided by a decent respect for the sentiments of mankind, I don't think we should let policy be completely dictated by PR concerns. BUT, in this case I think that showing some respect for international opinion, international institutions, and international law wouldn't harm us at all, but would help us; wouldn't make our policy worse, but make it better.
In addition to being a step towards rebuilding -- or at least not further damaging -- or relationship with other nations, trying Iraqi war criminals (and human rights violators) under international law would make the trials look less like 'victors justice'. To try them under US law would send the wrong message to the Iraqi people, and other peoples in the Middle East: that this really was an imperialist war to bring Iraqi under US domination, and that the US will decide what to do to the Iraqi people. At a time when instilling a respect for the legitimacy of human rights and a sound, fair legal order is of paramount importance -- and when we need to be doing as much as we can to both steer Iraq towards stable self-government, and bring it into the larger international order -- this would be very counter-productive indeed.
Now, what about the legal side? First of all, I don't see how one can argue that the US has jurisdiction over Iraq -- or, more specifically, over crimes committed in Iraq by the Iraqi government under Saddam. The only way that we could have such jurisdiction is if we declared Iraq to fall under US law and US legal authority -- which we'd essentially have to do. But this would be, in effect, to confirm that we were occupying -- indeed, legally annexing -- Iraq. The other argument would be that the US has the right to unilaterally enforce international law. Now, this might have some merit as a pragmatic argument -- if, for example, an international body is unable (or unwilling) to enforce its own decrees (as was, arguably, the case with the UN and Resolution 1441); but where it's a matter of a clear body of law, and a framework capable of enforcing that law, and a willingness to enforce that law, it's difficult to justify the US usurping for itself legal authority which it has not been granted, which it does not rightly hold itself, and which it is ill-equiped to wield.
The prosecution of crimes such as those committed by Saddam Hussein's regime -- both war crimes (from the current and past wars) and crimes against humanity, such as genocide, torture, political murder, etc. -- is one of the main purposes of international organizations. These are crimes under UN law; and the UN -- and international courts such as the ICC (International Criminal Court, which couldn't try cases involving crimes committed before 2002) or the various ICJs (Internationl Courts of Justice, such as the current ICJ in the Hague responsible for prosecuting those charged with crimes against humanity from the former Yugoslavia) -- are the bodies that are authorized to try and sentence people for these crimes. The UN's Conventions on Genocide and Human Rights, as well as the Geneva Conventions on War Crimes, are among the great achievments of the 20th century -- on paper; but they have all too often not been enforced (in fact, it wasn't until the past few years -- with the ICJs for the former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda [the former so far largely succesful, the latter so far largely not], that the international community prosecuted anyone for genocide). To bring Ba'athist criminals to justice before such bodies would be a major triumph, and a major advance, for international law. And, at a time when the international order seems to be falling apart, recognizing its value and authority for punishing crimes against humanity would be a major, important act of salvage work. (I say this as someone who is not an uncritical supporter of any international institution, or any increase in the power of the international community).
So, the choice of the US is clear: it can follow a course which costs it nothing, and could win it increased respect, politically, which is legally sound, and which could make a real, tangible contribution to the course of human history; or, jealous of power and blind in its controlling arrogance, it can abrogate to itself authority to which it has no claim, and the exercize of which will most likely prove damaging to those goals it is trying to achieve, and to America's relations with its allies and with those for whom it is claiming to act.

Timothy Garton Ash -- who's written some terrific things about the transitions to democracy in the former Soviet bloc -- has an excellent article on how to deal with the 'Saddamed' past in Iraq. I agree with pretty much all of what he advocates (though I do worry that he doesn't say enough about how much of what he suggests should be determined and implemented by the occupying forces, and how much by Iraqis themselves); but I'd like to highlight two particularly good points here -- one, that those officials implicated in crimes against humanity under Saddam must under no circumstances be retained in a new government; and two, that education about the past, on all levels and by various means -- in schools, through personal testimony, through the pursuit of detailed and accurate scholarship on what happened under Saddam -- must be vigilantly pursued. For Garton Ash's reasoning behind these arguments, and others, do see the article.

What's the most interesting thing about the remarks of Iraq's ambassador to the UN, Mohammed al-Douri? To me at least, NOT his much-quoted declaration that 'the game [ie war] is over.' Rather, it's his response to questions about Saddam Hussein -- that he had no 'relationship with Saddam.'
Now, first of all, obviously its both predictable, and significant, that al-Douri is distancing himself from Saddam -- the predictable desertion of a sinking ship by a rat. But note, for added deliciousness, the way he refers to the man who was until recently his master -- Saddam. This is a level of familiarity that, so far as I've been able to observe, most Iraqi officials haven't been willing to show with their master. Yet another little bit of evidence that Saddam's hold on Iraq is gone.

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Free at last: Liberation comes to Baghdad!!!
Of course, there's still much danger, uncertainty, confusion, and I fear suffering ahead; but for now, reports in the NY Times and elsewhere show that the streets of Baghdad are filled with the intoxication of freedom.
One of my favorite tidbits, among many:
One middle-aged man held up a huge portrait of Mr. Hussein, and in the middle of the street used his shoe to beat the face of the Iraqi leader, a particular insult. ``This man has killed two million of us,'' he yelled as bystanders milled around approvingly.
Yeah. I also enjoyed this:

In Firdos Square in central Baghdad, a group of Iraqi men climbed up the pedestal of a 20-foot statue of Mr. Hussein and smacked it with a sledgehammer. Then they put a chain around the neck of the statue and tied it to an armored American military vehicle.

The crowd then cheered and clapped as the vehicle pulled away, toppling the statue. Several Iraqis danced and jumped on the fallen statue.

And this:

Foreign reporters in Baghdad said that for the first time the government officials assigned to follow them did not turn up for work. ``The Information Minister decided to take the day off,'' a British general said.

One of the great things about being a pessimist: one's actually happy when one proves to have been wrong. In this case, I admit it -- I thought Baghdad would take weeks to fully secure (as indeed it may -- but the bottom's fallen out of the regime much sooner than I thought it would).
Of course, not all is rosy. Far from it. Not only is it unclear how much resistance remains to be overcome in and around the city; but the situation is too unstable for international aid workers to go in yet, and it seems that much of the city has gone beyond freedom, into anarchy. There is a desperate need for the coalition forces to bring order and aid -- and there remain obstacles to be overcome in order to do so.
Let's hope -- without assuming -- that these dangers and challenges ahead turn out to be as quickly surmountable. But, for the time being, I think that, for all the work yet to be done, and despite the spectre of anarchy, there's room, and time, and cause, for jubilation.

Is the liberation of Iraq a leap of faith? Yes, according to Carlin Romano in the Philly Inquirer -- and he means that in the best possible way. Romano makes this claim -- or, rather, the claim that this war is an 'existentialist' rather than 'imperialist' one -- in a review of an interesting-sounding new book on existentialism in America by the intellectual historian George Cotkin (who's the author of an excellent book on William James, which I highly recommend.)
Romano doesn't actually wind up explaining why this should be -- other than that American-brand existentialism tends to involve more affirmation, a greater embrace of radical existential freedom and the possibilities for action that it entails, than some of the more world-weary and nihilistic European brands. Now, first, this seems to undermine the claim that Romano reports and endorses Cotkin as making earlier in the article, that Americans are quite as aware of darkness and tragedy as a bunch of snotty French cafe intellectuals, thank you very much.
Now, one could claim that we are, but just think that we have a shot at triumphing over these forces, and a responsibility to try (which is similar to the point I made some time ago in a letter to the New Statesman -- no permalink available, I'm afraid. Damn New Statesman). But that's the point: Americans tend to have a greater faith in their own ability to identify, and overcome, evil, tend to be more hopeful and active -- in short, more optimistic (this is of course a gross caricature, but there's something to it). This isn't necessarily incompatible with a kind of existentialism, but it is fully consistent with Sartre's and co's charges.
Also, just because this war is existentialist doesn't mean that it can't also be imperialist; the two are by no means mutually exclusive. Or if they are, Romano doesn't explain why.

Liberty vs. Conformity redux: the ever valuable Political Theory blog has both links to, and a summary version of, a critique of G.A. Cohen's If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich? by Andrew Sabl.
Now, personal declaration: I've met both Gerry Cohen (several times) and Andy Sabl (once), and liked them both tremendously as human beings. But, while there's much in Cohen's work (from what very little I know of it) that I find deeply impressive and appealing, my philosophical sympathies here are with Sable, whose critique, from what I've seen of it in the summary he provided to Political Theory, seems to me to be precisely right as a representation of the liberal position, and an explanation of why that position is incompatible with Cohen's neo-Marxism (it also does a nice job of making the liberal position sound a lot more attractive -- or maybe I just think that because to me it already is).
(For more on discussions of Cohen in the blogosphere, see this. I don't know if there's more on Sabl in the blogosphere, but I hope that at some point, there will be -- he's a major new talent in the field of political theory, and I think that, from what I've seen of his work so far, we can expect more great things from him.)

Anyone concerned with the Ba'athist tyranny in Iraq -- and similarly dangerous, if ideologically distinct, regimes and movements in the Middle East -- really should check out this fascinating, masterful essay by Bernard Lewis. Lewis does have a habit of asserting without going on to explain in as much detail as one might like; but this just leaves the work of unpacking his incisive and provocative statements to the reader. And there is much to be said for this style -- the idea-to-word ratio is extremely high.
Whether one shares Prof. Lewis' cautious optimism is another matter; but whether one does or not, he is one of the handful of indispensible sources for understanding the current crisis in the Arab world -- and thinking about how to respond to it (pace the outrageous and rhetorically violent charges of Edward Said -- on whose tendentious writings on Islam and the Middle East see this.)
Addendum: for a blast from the recent past, see this terrific interview with Lewis.

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

Quote of the day: As a new feature, I intend (which with me is of course very different from saying 'I will' -- this is one reason why I find myself strangely drawn to a deontological position, despite being unable to accept it fully) to post a quote every day (or so). Today's quote comes (as I suspect many subsequent ones shall) from Eric Hoffer, the great anti-authoritarian social philosopher and San Francisco longshoreman, whose work I've just discovered (if you don't know it, go out and read him, he's a wonderful writer [I'm tempted to call him an Ayn Rand for grown-ups]; check out, in particular, his classic book The True Believer, a classic which is all too relevant). Here it is:
"There are many who find a good alibi far more attractive than an achievement. For an achievement does not settle anything permanently. We still have to prove our worth anew each day: we have to prove that we are as good today as we were yesterday. But when we have a valid alibi for not achieving anything we are fixed, so to speak, for life. Moreover, when we have an alibi for not writing a book, painting a picture, and so on, we have an alibi for not writing the greatest book and not painting the greatest picture. Small wonder that the effort expended and the punishment endured in obtaining a good alibi often exceed the effort and grief requisite for the attainment of a most marked achievement."

Yale's shame: Josh Chafetz has the details about, and the right words for, an utterly abhorrent outbreak of xenophobic thuggery at our dear alma mater. This is shameful and sickening; I hope that every member of the Yale community joins in condemning this outbreak of violent rhetoric and attempted violence -- and in helping to apprehend the perpetrators.

Gosh I love the New Yorker! This week's issue is especially excellent in its war coverage, beginning with Hendrick Hertzberg's opening comment (ok, so referring to neo-con pundits as fedayeen was really, really bad taste and poor judgment; but, hey, we all have our lapses), followed by the reporting of Jon Lee Anderson and Jeffrey Golberg. And then there's editor David Remnick's article on the Gulags (which begins with a reminiscence of meeting the great literary scholar and custodian of the best in Russian civilization, Dmitri Likhachev; some people have all the luck!).
All in all, it makes for pretty sombre reading. But, while all of the tales of past horrors, present suffering and future dangers may make for depressing reflections, the quality of thought and writing makes for a certain amount of saving intellectual exhileration. Just what we need in these confusing, conflicted times.

Gurkhas: Apparently I'm not the only fan of the Gurkhas out there -- Victorino Matus,at the Weekly Standard, keeps writing about them. His latest piece on the Gurkhas explains that fighting in Iraq is 'business as usual' for the elite regiment of Nepalese fighters, one of the most distinguished, honoured and fearsome in British history. (To find out how the British army came to have a crack regiment of Nepalese warriors, see Matus' first article on the Gurkhas.). One problem, though: the earlier experience of the Gurkahs in Iraq, while it certainly displays the regiment's valour, is a record of disastrous, costly defeat. Of course, it looks like that aspect of history won't repeat itself; but it still is sort of odd to emphasize the parallels to the Gurkha's earlier exploits in what is now Iraq, without adding even a comment to the effect of 'Of course, this time they WON'T be routed and die by the droves in POW camps.' Ah well. I guess these things go without saying.

Update on this blog!: Anyone who's visited this blog previously, and does so again, will (or would ...) notice a few changes (mainly little things like the blog's name, links, etc.) This reflects the fact that what started out as a three-way joint venture has now become a solo project (and has been so for a couple of months or so. Well, hey, I'm a temperamental conservative -- I move slowly to change).
The title is a reference to my tendency -- which I've now raised to the status of a mission -- to sit on the fence on many issues, not only out of ambivalence or uncertainty (though often they do play a role), but out of the conviction that neither side in most debates adequately recognizes, reflects or addresses the complexity and difficulty of most problems. The mood of this blog will, on balance, be one of engagement, its tone one of both reflection, and criticism -- and sometimes even advocacy. For sitting on a fence does not entail adopting a position of uncritical neutrality or defeatist indecision; and it allows for -- and indeed perhaps encourages, perhaps even demands -- that one use one's position to take pot-shots at the various bits of fanaticism, blindness, muddle-headedness and well-meaning misapprehension that one observes on either side of the fence (and into which one is all too apt to fall oneself -- as no doubt I will from time to time. But I'll try to retain my balance; and I encourage my readers to help me in this by writing in when they think I've fallen off -- either the fence, or my rocker, or both).
Finally, a note on the quote above. David Lloyd George was a famously shifty British politician (who was also an important reformer); Sir John Simon would become a prominent proponent of appeasment of Nazi Germany in the '30s. So the quote, by invoking and identifying with Simon, is on one level a reminder of the fallibility of fence-sitters -- a reminder that what appears to be independence and moderation of judgment by no means ensures either rectitude or rightness. But I also like the quote because it suggests a major proposition behind the adoption of this (self-mocking) title: that 'sitting on the fence' need not be a sign of weakness, and can, in time and with determination, indeed become a source of strength.

It now seems that General 'Chemical Ali' Hassan al-Majid has succumbed to a coalition air-strike on his house (interesting how the Washington Post reports as confirmed what the BBC reports as still unconfirmed. The confirmation comes, according to the WaPost, from the British military. Now, does this mean that the WaPost has better sources or relations with the British army than the BBC? Or just that they trust British officers more?)
This means several things. First, it means that the coalition forces in the south around Basra (read, the Brits) are in a position to know where 'Chemical Ali' lived and to take it out with him there (or so it would appear ...) This is very good; it suggests they are in control of things, and are being effective in the all-important task of taking out the Ba'ath leadership. Second, it means that that leadership is crumbling. This won't necessarily put an end to continued attacks from remnant of the Fedayin, or other irregular forces (including suicide attackers from outside Iraq); but it is an all-important step in liberating the (mainly Shi'ite) people of southern Iraq from Ba'athist terror.
Finally, it means a genocidal thug has met a fitting end. I won't go quite as far as Josh Chafetz (I can't, after all -- I don't believe in Hell); but I am happy for the Shi'ites of southern Iraq, who must now feel a little freer from fear, and for the Kurds in the north, who must now feel a sense of catharsis at this avengeance of their suffering. Yet my satisfaction at Chemical Ali's end is muted by the reflection that his death has come far, far too late, and that his victims can never be adequately avenged. But it may yet be possible to liberate their brethren; and we're one step closer to doing so now.

Sunday, April 06, 2003

A nasty little tidbit for those who are pondering whether this war was worth it, from the Guardian:

Troops find mass grave

The remains of as many as 200 people have been discovered in a "makeshift morgue" by British soldiers in southern Iraq.

The skulls and bundles of bone, in strips of military uniform, were dumped in plastic bags and unsealed hardboard coffins in an abandoned Iraqi military base on the outskirts of Zubayr.

A forensics team has been called in to investigate a possible atrocity perpetrated by Saddam Hussein's regime.

One British officer said that the bodies had been there some time, and were unlikely to be related to this conflict.

Oy. There's a minor onslaught on Isaiah Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty' going on in the political/legal theory oriented corner of the blogosphere. Both UnlearnedHand and Micah at Political Theory blog (both of them students at UVA Law -- which, from the evidence furnished in the blogosphere, seems to be an excellent place!) approvingly mention Adam Swift's autopsy of Berlin's 'Two Concepts of Liberty' (note: Micah was a grad student at Balliol - where his legend lives on -- and Swift is tutor in Politics there.) The consensus: Berlin's positive/negative distinction is a muddle
Whew boy. As a fan of Berlin, and someone who's currently supposedly writing a thesis on 'Two Concepts', I feel I ought to respond. On the other hand, after a day of fairly heavy blogging (and reading Hobbes -- good stuff), I feel that i should actually go back to work on said thesis. Also, the charge of muddle is, alas, somewhat justified -- though I think that, by treating it as a largely or purely conceptual distinction, Swift's account (which I've read very very quickly, and only once, and am therefore probably doing injustice to in turn) does an injustice to the historical dimension of Berlin's argument.
To my mind, there are three main weaknesses of Berlin's account. One is that he does conflate a conceptual distinction with a historical account -- and he does so unevenly: thus, negative liberty is used to describe what Berlin portrays as a pretty much static position, whereas positive liberty is used to characterize a whole succession of positions held by different thinkers over the course of time, which Berlin claims are linked together, but which are also separated by some important differences. Berlin makes these differences pretty clear -- but not clear enough for some commentators, who treat his account of positive liberty as a blanket condemnation. In fact, it isn't -- but Berlin seems to have been uncertain himself how far he wanted his critique of positive liberty to go, and so does fudge things a bit between depicting both sorts of liberty as valid, though distinct, ideals, and claiming that negative liberty is a more genuine and better conception of liberty -- and positive freedom, while not necessarily bad, isn't really liberty at all.
Secondly, while negative liberty has a single, fairly coherent definition -- freedom from, that is, not being interfered with -- positive liberty has two distinct definitions, freedom to -- that is, capacity or ability to do something -- and self-rule.
Finally, in the conclusion of the essay Berlin tends to conflate positive liberty with what he calls, and attacks as, 'monism', and negative liberty with what he calls, and advocates as, 'pluralism'. Again, this grows out of the nature of the historical narrative that he's presenting; but as a matter of conceptual definiton, it doesn't hold water. Berlin's 'pluralism' may indeed lead one to prefer a negative to a positive definition of liberty -- or may lead one to prioritize negative over positive freedom; and I for one am convinced on this point. However, one can reject monism and the 'metaphysical' conception of the self -- two beliefs that Berlin depicts as shaping the late-modern version of the concept of positive freedom, and turning it into a justification for tyranny -- while still regarding the original core of positive freedom -- and earlier versions of positive freedom, such as Kant's commitment to moral autonomy -- as valid and noble ideals (as, indeed, Berlin himself did elsewhere).
So, yes. It is a muddled, muddled essay. It's also an incredibly rich one, which is muddled in part because it attempts to cover and combine more than it comfortably can. But this is itself part of the essay's greatness. And it also the reason why an analytic, conceptual approach, such as Swift's, while necessary and salutary in identifying a number of confusions in Berlin's argument, is not sufficient for understanding the intentions, or appreciating the insights, of Berlin's deeply flawed masterpiece.

In many of my posts I've argued that we should make the fostering of liberal democracy a priority, both in post-war Iraq, and in our foreign policy generally. But, what if fostering liberal institutions and practices (human rights etc.), and instituting democracy (majority rule), should conflict? This is the question posed by everyone's favorite Democratic Presidential candidate-political theorist-blogger, Gary Hart. Hart doesn't provide much in the way of an answer; but recognizing, and posing, the problem is important in itself -- and the thoughtfulness behind such recognition is all too rare among contemporary politicians.

A good deal of ink has, and no doubt will, be spilt over John Kerry's call for 'regime change' in the US. On the anti side -- well, I haven't the heart to read most of the predictable GOP backlash (er, sorry, expressions of frustration with Kerry's support of dictatorship in the Middle East). On the pro- side, Josh Marshall has a lengthy post lambasting the lambasting of Kerry.
Now, I agree with much of Marshall's criticism of Kerry's critics. But I also think Kerry's remark was really dumb. First of all, he phrased his criticism in a particularly, predictably offensive way -- and one which left him open to attacks of making a moral equivalence between Bush and Saddam (which, no matter what you think of our Cowboy-in-Chief, is just idiotic). Secondly -- and this is a point only a particularly pedantic political theorist would entertain (and, even then, not all particularly pedantic politicial theorists), Kerry mis-used the term regime. A regime, as any good (?) Straussian (?) knows (?), refers to a type of government. Thus, in classical discussions of the best regime, the regimes in question were generally identified as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Now, surely Kerry isn't suggesting a change of the American political order. More recently, regime has been used more loosely -- but it still tends to describe a whole system of governance, rather than the power of one individual. Thus, when we talk about 'regime change' in Iraq, we're talking not just about kicking Saddam Hussein out, but about ending the Ba'athist reign of state terror (or we should be anyway, and I believe, I hope correctly, that we are). Now, if we're talking about kicking out a whole group that holds executive and legislative power, we would call for a change of government -- as those in Britain who want to oust Blair should be (though they also use the 'regime change' phrase). And, if we're talking about a change just in terms of a person or set of people who wield executive power, as in this case, we should speak of a change of administration. So, not only was Kerry's remark poorly-judged; it was also wrongly-phrased. A minor quibble; but I expect better of a Yale man.
Of course, the real problem here is that talking like Tariq Ali reflects a lack of political judgment that is worry-causing in a 'frontrunner' for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Or at least worry-causing to Democrats; I'm sure Republicans are delighted. And that alone makes me annoyed with Kerry.

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