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An Unfounded Rush to Cynicism

A Rebuttal of Perry Anderson

by MICHAEL NEUMANN

Perry Anderson has written a clever piece which journeys far, but not to much of a destination. His conclusion is

“Simply this. Mewling about Blair’s folly or Bush’s crudity, is merely saving the furniture. Arguments about the impending war would do better to focus on the entire prior structure of the special treatment accorded to Iraq by the United Nations, rather than wrangle over the secondary issue of whether to continue strangling the country slowly or to put it out of its misery quickly.”

But one suspects here the intellectual’s love of investigating ‘structures’ has caused Anderson to play fast and loose with lowlier particulars of fact and morals.

This is apparent from some of the debunking claims made in the (admittedly transitory) defense of Bush and Blair. Anderson maintains, for example, that “the United States has always reserved the right to act alone where necessary”. On its own, this amounts to no more than claiming rights of self-defense recognized in the UN Charter, and it is quite apparent, pace Anderson, that those rights do not apply. But Anderson continues: “In recent years it acted alone in Grenada, in Panama, in Nicaragua, and which of its allies now complains about current arrangements in any of these countries?” Since Anderson is far from obtuse, this can only be disingenuous refusal to acknowledge that, on the international stage, justification involves questions of degree. Unilateralism in an area claimed as a special sphere of influence for over 180 years, a claim that has every mark of de facto international recognition, is hardly comparable to an assault on a vastly more powerful state, with vastly greater implications for the whole world, far outside that sphere. Anderson may be right that the moral principle involved is the same, but it would be hypocritical not to allow the world a bit of hypocrisy in distinguishing between major and minor violations of that principle. Besides, whether or not America’s allies complain about its unlilateralism in the Americas, plenty of those who oppose the war quite consistently do complain, and vehemently.

Similarly, Anderson’s claim that the US response to Iraq might cow Al Qaida cannot be sincere; it is so silly that even the Americans haven’t made it. You might as well say that the ticks will keep their distance from the lioness after seeing what she does to the zebra.

Anderson makes the same herculean effort to be obtuse when he discusses the world’s previous acceptance of pre-emptive strikes. Israel, in 1967, at least faced a real or imagined threat comparable to the US confronting massive armies mobilized in Canada and Mexico, not the threat of non-massive armies not mobilized and thousands of miles from its borders. And again, even the Americans are not dumb enough to claim that “in attacking Iraq, we will be doing no more than completing the vital preventive strike against the Osirak reactor of 1981.” The strike was already complete. It destroyed the reactor, which was not rebuilt. Had the Iraqis actually restarted a nuclear program, and had the US and Britain hit nuclear-related installations with another air strike, indeed no one would have complained too much. How on earth is that comparable, in scale or seriousness, to what is now contemplated? Anderson’s feigned inability to distinguish between a relatively small bombing raid and all-out war is disturbing.

Again, Anderson seems to think that, where matters of principle are involved, there can be no differences of degree. A small raid, a full-scale war, what’s the difference? But it may even be a matter of principle to distinguish between serious and not-so-serious violations: action is required only when a certain threshold of harm is crossed. Indeed this is one of the main reasons for opposing an invasion of Iraq: sure Iraq is violating the accords or resolutions, but not that seriously.

As for overreach, Anderson again steers clear of what is essential. There was a reason the allies left the government of Iraq in place after the Gulf War: they did not want to destabilize the region. Anderson claims to think that replacing the government will be no huge deal; he cites Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt as examples of “stable regimes created or guided by foreign powers …in the Middle East.” But Jordan is an insignificant mini-state, and certainly no model of peace or stability. Kuwait and Egypt were not created or guided by foreign powers in anything remotely like the relevant sense. Moreover, they are far more homogeneous than Iraq, and they are not encircled by countries whose vital interests involve the fates of diverse and hostile ethnic groups. Yet these are the sorts of comparisons that pave the way for Anderson’s assertion that “the Administration’s case against its critics is iron-clad.”

As for the United Nations and other international bodies, Anderson’s desire to discredit them incites him to the very sort of myopia he condemns. He says: “Annexations of territory–conquests, in more traditional language–whose punishment provides the nominal justification of the UN blockade of Iraq, have never resulted in UN retribution when the conquerors were allies of the United States, only when they were its adversaries.” Well of course such actions have never resulted in retribution when the perpetrator held a veto, but this circumstance did not favor only US or its allies. It was also one reason why the Soviet Union never suffered retribution. The other reason is perfectly simple and valid: the UN doesn’t visit retribution on any countries too powerful to discipline, e.g., Russia and the US. To expect more from an international organization is to expect the impossible. Anderson also forgets that several non-aligned countries have also got off scott-free in their annexations. China (in Tibet), India (in ‘French India’, Goa, and Sikkim), Morocco (mentioned by Anderson but hardly a vital US ally) in the Western Sahara, are some examples. When the UN acted against the annexation of Kuwait, it may have been acting as an American puppet. But it was also resisting an annexation that, unlike any of those mentioned, was likely to result in a destabilizing change in the balance of power, far moreso than any of Anderson’s examples. So, mixed in with bad reasons, there was a good reason why this annexation should have been more vigorously opposed than the others.

Why this posturing? Anderson is upset that critics of Bush and Blair are too respectful of the United Nations and tribunals claiming to adjudicate international law. Maybe he’s right. But most of the critics’ objections don’t depend on this respect. However illegitimate these institutions may be, unilateralism and patently bogus claims of pre-emptive self-defense are both unjustified and very dangerous to any prospects for a stable international order. And while it may indeed be right for states to intervene in other states to prevent massive human rights abuses, this doctrine fits what was the real situation in Rwanda and the imagined situation in Kosovo. It does not fit even the imagined current situation in Iraq. Besides, the US does not claim that, as in the earlier cases, concern for human rights is the primary or sufficient casus belli.

Anderson’s piece, in short, is an unfounded rush to cynicism. He may be right that many within the anti-war movement are myopic hypocrites. The same has been true in the anti-slavery movement, the trade union movements, the civil rights movement, and virtually all political movements that have ever improved anything. And if principles or institutions have been dishonestly or badly invoked in the past, that is no reason why they shouldn’t be well invoked in the present. Rather than focusing on “on the entire prior structure of the special treatment accorded to Iraq by the United Nations”, it seems not inappropriate to focus on what must happen, or not happen, right now. This focus makes it easy to imagine alternatives other than “whether to continue strangling the country slowly or to put it out of its misery quickly.”

MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He can be reached at: mneumann@trentu.ca.