Why is David Cameron in this blog’s attic, naughtily rattling my cage?

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You might remember me.  I am the editor who doesn’t write much, and I have been less engaged here than I would have liked for the past few months as I am in the process of moving to Manchester.  I did prepare an entry on the legal nonsense currently being spewed, principally by the UK, on forcible intervention in Syria, but Dapo posted first (here and here and here) and, to be honest, he did so extremely well.  I can add little to what he has said.

On the other hand, as someone said in the comments to one of Dapo’s posts, at least international law is being discussed in the UK parliament.  It is a pity that the government has been doing this so blatantly badly.  Former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, who was central in formulating the responsibility to protect doctrine, has apparently accused the UK government of “making things up as it goes along”.   On a brighter note, the House of Commons rejected the government’s motion that would have opened the door to possible UK intervention in Syria, by 285 votes to 272, with 91 members of parliament absent. 

I’ve been reading a lot of art history recently, but still reading about Socrates, delving more deeply into Plato and Xenophon.  Art history and Socrates, I hope, are intertwining nicely in something I am currently writing.  I was reading about the history of painting in the United States tonight in the train from Manchester to London, and came across a letter sent to the New York Times in 1943 which was signed by the sublime Marc Rothko (see here and here and here), who drafted it in collaboration with the far inferior painter Barnett Newman (alas here and here and here).  This letter stated:

It is our function as artists to make the spectator see the world our way—not his way…We favor the simple expression of the complex thought…(quoted in David Rosand, The invention of painting in America (Columbia University Press: New York: 2004) pp.129-130)

Newman was quite deluded about the significance of the recurrent primary motif in his paintings, the zip.  The zip, the vertical strip repeated ad nauseam in his abstract expressionist paintings, according to Newman, bore more weight than that usually accorded to a mere gestural line.  In 1962 Newman told an interviewer:

almost fifteen years ago Harold Rosenberg challenged me to explain what one of my paintings could possibly mean to the world.  My answer was that if he and others could read it properly it would mean the end of all state capitalism and totalitarianism.  That answer still goes. (quoted in Robert Hughes, American visions: the epic history of art in America (Harvill Press: London: 1997) p.494)

What nonsense!

As deluded as Newman’s sense of his own global significance is the Downing Street position paper on intervention in Syria which claims that:

If action in the Security Council is blocked, the UK would still be permitted under international law to take exceptional measures in order to alleviate the scale of the overwhelming humanitarian catastrophe in Syria by deterring and disrupting the further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Such a legal basis is available, under the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

This invocation of “humanitarian” intervention simply parrots then-Prime Minister Blair’s April 1999 speech at the Chicago Economic Club, where he unveiled his “Doctrine of the International Community”.  In discussing the Kosovo intervention, he stated:

This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We cannot let the evil of ethnic cleansing stand. We must not rest until it is reversed. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.

As his remarks continued, it became clear that Blair was not offering a legal justification for NATO’s Kosovo intervention:

The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non-interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily…

This notion of a “just war” motivated by the pursuit of “values” was more theological than legal, and manifestly an attempt to make “the spectator see the world our way—not his way”.  It did not form part of settled international law then, but was rather a suggestion for the way law should develop.  Blair outlined five considerations that should be taken into account when a State was deciding whether to intervene in another.  This suggestion has met with little favour in the international system.  The notion of intervention without Security Council authorisation is opposed by China, Russia, and the Non-Aligned Movement.  Further, despite the FCO advice on humanitarian intervention set out in 2000, this doctrine was not invoked as a legal justification for Operation Enduring Freedom against Afghanistan in 2001 or Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.  On the contrary, the UK Attorney General expressly stated that “the doctrine remains controversial” in his advice on the legality of the use of force against Iraq (see Attorney General’s Advice on the Iraq war.  Iraq: Resolution 1441, 54 ICLQ 767 (2005) at 768, para.4, or here).  What has happened since then to entrench this doctrine in law?

Mr Blair has called for intervention in Syria.  Given his record in relations with the Middle East, there is no doubt that sensible politicians should listen carefully to what he says, and then do the exact opposite of what he counsels.  Perhaps the curse of professional politics is that politicians think that they must be seen to be doing something but, perhaps more often than they think, doing something might prudently lie in keeping a cool head.  Claims that things will get “worse” if intervention does not occur rest on an unverifiable hypothesis: this is incapable of proof.  I fear that we are here, yet again.

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Joost says

September 2, 2013

Dear Iain,

A fellow Dutchman once said: "The attitude that nature is chaotic and that the artist puts order into it is a very absurd point of view, I think. All that we can hope for is to put some order into ourselves." I think he would be quite right too if he were referring to international lawyers. Sorry if all this is really boring.