Slouching Towards Decency

I must say, I regard the “Euston Manifesto” as an entirely positive development for the Decent Left for at least two reasons:

1. They are at least now more or less admitting that the Iraq War was a bloody disaster. Thanks guys, only took you three years. A baby step in the direction of reality.

2. As far as I can see, their document has about as many signatories as it did when it was called “Unite Against Terror”, but importantly, far fewer of them have decided to accompany their signature with a pissy little 200-word rant about their enemies on “The Left”. This has to be counted a baby step in the direction of civility; soon, perhaps, they will be able to hear the phrase “anti-imperialist” without accusing anyone of being an apologist for mass murder.

However, it is always a matter of “two steps forward, one step back”, and the attempt by the Decents to reach out to the other 99% of liberal opinion (I calculate this on the basis that they have c650 signatures, the charitable assumption that each signature represents 10 people who agree with them but haven’t signed for some reason or other, and the combined readership of the Guardian and Independent is about 650,000. Sorry guys, if you have more than 1% of the column inches of those newspapers you’re over-represented, not under[2]) has had as an unfavourable consequence the rather ludicrous assertion that they are not “the pro war left”.

Apparently, there were lots of them who were opposed to the Iraq War at the time, but who have been sooooo disgusted with the rest of us and our cheerleading for the bombers and beheaders that they have lost all hope in the Left. Yeah, right, whatever you say.

The fact is that this is a “pro war” document. It says

“If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a “responsibility to protect”.”

For native speakers of English, it is not difficult to work out that “intervention”, “rescue”, “protect” and such terms, mean war. It is perhaps surprising that a document drafted by so many people who claim to be admirers of George Orwell, uses so many weaselly circumlocutions to avoid writing down the simple declarative English sentence: “We are in favour of fighting wars to remove tyrannic regimes”.

So it is a pro war document. I mean this in the sense that it is substantially more in favour of war than the founding documents of the United Nations. The Nuremberg Principles and the Convention on Genocide are what I am thinking about here; the first puts a blanket prohibition on “aggression”, while the second allows an exception to this blanket prohibition when the UN as a body acts in cases of “genocide”. Genocide is defined for the purposes of the Convention in a really quite precise manner:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Norman Geras (for it is he; I have been having this argument with him in slow motion for the last two years) wants to substantially lower the bar for fighting wars of aggression; in favour of the precise and restrictive test of the genocide convention, he wants to substitute a rather more subjective “threshold of inhumanity”. It is not made clear in the Euston Manifesto, but you should also be aware that there is a very odd approach to the statute of limitations on “inhumanity” in this case; Norman does actually believe that Saddam Hussein’s atrocities in 1992 formed part of the case for the war in 2003. There is a certain logic to this; after all, it is unsatisfactory to allow a regime to nickel-and-dime its population to the brink of extinction, never quite reaching the threshold which would justify a genuine “humanitarian intervention” (itself a marked weakening of the original UN charters on wars of aggression, an entirely controversial and ambiguous field of international law, but one that the EM crowd clearly want to further weaken, because nobody considered Iraq to have been a humanitarian intervention). But I bring it up to establish the point that this new doctrine of “internationalism” is not very clear at all on the subject of cost benefit analyses.

In a post defending his doctrine, Norm makes a small baby step in the direction of feasibility; he admits that the “duty to protect” should not be translated into action if the consequences would be a nuclear catastrophe. For which, I suppose, much thanks. On the other hand, it’s still a long way from the threshold of “can it reasonably be expected that this war will make things better rather than worse?” which appears to be the principle underlying the UN conventions. I personally would say that this is the only sensible threshold to have when you are setting out general rules; it is all very well to hypothesise general “duties”, but the point of politics (and the reason that there is a difference between political theory and moral philosophy) is that you actually do have to think about the effects in the real world.

To take the example from Norm’s post, if it happened to be the case that someone had a really bad relationship with their mother, that every time they visited their parents there was a massive and vicious fight, putting strain on their mother’s weak heart and leaving the crockery all smashed, then we wouldn’t talk about “setting aside the prima facie duty of filial piety, in cases where doing so would involve some massive disbenefit”; we’d say that the sensible thing to do was to always not visit home, except when it was clearly obviously the right thing to do. Which is, roughly, what the UN conventions actually say about wars. Since one important difference between visiting your mum and starting a war is that one of them necessarily involves killing people, I think that this is actually quite important.

And this is why neither I nor anyone else on the anti war (as in, roughly believing that the UN in the 1940s got it right about wars of aggression, as the Decents apparently believe they got it right about human rights[1]) are likely to stop “picking over the rubble” of the Iraq war any time soon. Or for that matter, the Vietnam War or any of the other wars of aggression that have ended in disaster. Wars of aggression have a really really bad track record; that’s why they were banned in Nuremberg.

This counts as me “engaging” with the Euston Manifesto, by the way. I don’t believe there was any obligation on me to do this; I have been arguing with these people for two years on all of these subjects, and the fact that they have written their views down after meeting in a pub is an event that cannot be expected to loom larger in my life than in theirs. But there you go. I have put this on my own blog, and written something with a joke in it for the Guardian website by way of trying to redress the cosmic balance.

[1] By the way, the statement in the EM that human rights are “precisely” defined by the UN Convention is bad news for our mates the gays, is it not? I don’t think that abortion rights are in there either.
[2] 690 signatures today, but lots and lots of them appear to be Americans, which means that using the column inches of the Guardian and Independent as the benchmark for Decent coverage becomes a less and less valid basis. Decentism gets huge amount of coverage in the States, and to claim that this doesn’t count is, of course, anti-American.


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