Saturday, February 21, 2009

Philippe Sands critiques Liberal Defence

"The generality of Seymour's conclusion, the broad sweep of his argument and the passion of his attack are overstated, dissipating their force. More nuance and context could have made this potentially important book compelling. It is a shame, as buried in these pages and their footnotes is a great deal of damning material on the apologists of recent illegalities."

I find little to complain about here - not because I agree with Sands, but because I can't object to someone with his views reaching the conclusions that he does. In general, Sands would like more "nuance" and less generality. In specific, he would have liked to see some discussion of international law and its centrality to justifying war. I don't see this as being particularly damaging to my case, since the book is about the ideas, rather than the legal institutions, that have helped justify imperialism - apparently a word that is absent from Sands' lexicon. Perhaps, however, it would have been worth stating a position on international law, however briefly, if only to outline the view that law is an expression of force and will, not morality. Thus, while Sands contends in several lucid and highly readable dispatches that that the problem with the Bush administration is its subversion of international law, I maintain that the rule of law in international affairs is itself barbaric. The post hoc legalisation of the occupation of Iraq is a condign example, both of law being the product of violence and of the barbarism in its application. Still, I realise that this is a controversial position, that Sands would not be receptive to such an argument and that, in fact, he wishes I had written a different book.

Otherwise, Sands would have preferred to have some acknowledgement that some "use of force", sometimes, can be justified. This is what I take the plea for "nuance" to mean. As he puts it, "it seems all force is wrong, so that any liberal support may be treated as liberal justification for murder". I do not, for the record, say that "all force is wrong". Sands seems to have confused anti-imperialism with pacifism. I do, however, go to some lengths to detail several interventions, over several centuries, that were strenuously moralised on humanitarian terms, from the Boer War to Operation Allied Force, and I do find the humanitarian case wanting. Clearly, such a gauche lack of subtlety on my part does not merit any particular leniency. However, as the critique does not address the substance of the argument, it is at best a missed opportunity.

Sands says that Liberal Defence "glosses over vastly important issues" such as: "Was the post-second world war human rights project intended to create new conditions of colonial domination? Has it contributed to circumstances in which there will be more oppression and misery, rather than less? Have the economic rules promoting globalisation engendered war?" It is easy to concede the point, but equally difficult to see its relevance. Again, he seems to have wanted a book about something else. Similarly, when he says that "the real critique of those who supported the latest Iraq war is that they killed off any hope, for now at least, of garnering support to use force where massive violations of fundamental human rights are taking place", I have a feeling that he and I have a different outlook on life entirely. The "real critique" is that they helped facilitate the very "massive violations of fundamental human rights" that Sands opposes, with the outstanding result of perhaps over a million excess deaths. Therefore, if one side-effect of the slaughter we have seen for the last five or six years is that people are less willing to exhort the United States to deploy its awesome machinery of violence, this ought to be welcomed. I do, in the conclusion, engage with those who see US imperialism as a potential guarantor of human rights and last resort terminator of genocide, but if Sands has read this, he shows no sign of having done so.

There is one part of the review that seems entirely out of place, jarring to the point of inducing nausea. Sands says: "those who are on the receiving end of what Seymour perceives as US excess have, through the acts of their own governments, or their failure to object, contributed to their own oppression." I confess I don't understand what this means - or, perhaps, I would rather not understand what this means. Perhaps it is best to leave this one to the readers' judgement.

Update: I've had a rather interesting exchange with Philippe Sands, and - just to set the record straight on the last paragraph of this post - I am, with his permission, reproducing his comment clarifying his remarks:

"The only point I was making is that a number of the conflicts you refer to were supported by Security Council action (even unanimous in some cases). To my mind, that takes the sting out of your critique, in the sense that not all the blame can be laid at the feet of the US or those on the left who may have supported the actions. In various cases many governments and many peoples supported a conflict, whether directly or indirectly. That raises issue of their own responsibilities, although it cannot in any way justify the illegalities and excesses once the conflict is underway, or the terrible suffering of innocents caught up in broader geopolitical nightmares."