Unfair to the US
Anatol Lieven's depiction of a minatory US foreign policy and its sinister motives (LRB, 3 October) is grossly unfair. His jeremiad against nationalist messianism and a supposedly self-serving ideology of democratisation conveniently overlooks the role American might has played in supporting liberal democracies since 1945. The Marshall Plan established a platform for reconstruction in Western Europe, while American troops supervised the creation of stable democratic polities in West Germany, Japan and South Korea. Certainly, the US was never acting wholly disinterestedly – from an economic or military perspective – when it took on these responsibilities, and no rosy picture, to put it mildly, can be painted of military intervention in North Korea, Vietnam or Central America. Reprehensible, too, were the succession of Cold War alliances with repressive but anti-Soviet regimes. Nevertheless, the US contribution to the pacification and democratisation of Western Europe, and to a lesser extent the Pacific Rim, shows what can be done when local determination is succoured by superpower resources.
Bearing this in mind, liberal public opinion would be well advised to offer tentative support for a democratic regime change in Iraq rather than condemning outright the Bush Administration's policy towards that country. Much more will be achieved by making that support conditional on post-Saddam Iraq being provided with the level of engagement and aid currently seen in post-Milosevic Kosovo, than by scaremongering or alluding, as Lieven does, to malevolent ambitions of world domination. If all forms of sanction or intervention are held to be illegitimate there can be little leverage to ensure the hawks live up to the rhetoric of rights they have invoked, something Tony Blair seems to have understood.
Vielle Soubiran, France
In his cursory discussion of Iraq and weapons of mass destruction, Anatol Lieven ignores Saddam Hussein’s record of political and military miscalculation and fails to mention his invasions of Iran and Kuwait. Instead, Lieven gives free rein to his obsession with Israel, the allegedly calamitous ‘Israeli lobby’, and the supposed lack of US independence from Likud policy. As the recent Israeli pullback from Arafat’s compound under US pressure shows, Likud does not run Washington. Saddam did not invade his neighbours, and does not oppress and massacre his compatriots, because of Israel. And if many Americans are currently unsympathetic to Palestinian claims, it’s probably because we can’t easily distinguish the suicide bombings from the jihadist attack of 11 September.
Last year, the LRB’s coverage of 11 September upset some readers. I wasn't one of them, but at the moment I'm puzzled about your approach to our likely war on Iraq. I haven't noticed the LRB riding a hobby-horse like this before. Against my own inclinations, I hope you're vindicated, because I'm fond of the magazine.
Frank Kermode (LRB, 17 October) is surely right that we can’t hear enough about Christopher Hitchens’s political consciousness, and in Koba the Dread, we find out how his friend Martin Amis discovered one of his own. Whatever his merits as a memoirist, however, Amis should perhaps have left history to the historians. He claims to have read ‘several yards of books about the Soviet experiment’. We can’t check the yardage – he doesn’t include a bibliography – but much of it seems to have made little impression in comparison with one particular book by another ‘friend’, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, published in 1968. Amis calls it the ‘only book on the subject’. Well, there are rather more than that, but perhaps we shouldn’t get hung up on numbers. Amis isn’t, after all – he’s tempted by Solzhenitsyn’s fifty million and more, but in the end seems to have settled on the ‘twenty million’ of the book’s subtitle. Russians, he says, ‘refer, totemically’, to this figure, but as an estimate of the number of dead under Stalin, it most closely resembles a rounding-up of the figure that Conquest, in The Great Terror, estimated for the total of ‘excess deaths’ (deaths above the normal level, due to famine, executions and abnormal levels of disease) in the Soviet Union during the period 1930-39. In an exchange with R.W. Davies in the late 1990s, Conquest insisted that the figure he provided in The Great Terror was fourteen million, Davies that it was seventeen. (I don’t see how any reliable estimate of the actual figure might be made when historians can’t even ascertain what they themselves have already written.) Davies, building on data released from Soviet archives from 1987 onwards, thinks the actual figure nearer eleven million. This is strikingly close to Kermode’s ‘nine or ten million’, which makes it all the more surprising, late in his review, to find him asserting that ‘many or most (wrongly, of course)’ thought Conquest’s figures exaggerated. ‘We badly need to know the number of the dead,’ Amis claims at one point in Koba. it’s not clear how his ‘twenty million’, euphonious though it is, serves that end.
Frank Kermode declares that Auden’s reading of Motley’s Rise and Fall of the Dutch Republic induced a deep depression in the poet as a result of ‘the catalogue of tortures and massacres attributed to William the Silent’. Motley’s book is steeped in admiration of the great founder of the Dutch state, who remains one of Europe’s great humanitarian figures. The horrors mentioned by Kermode were the work of the Spanish Duke of Alva’s Blood Council, William’s enemies.
Edward Said is right in saying that the welfare of the Iraqi people is not a priority for President Bush (LRB, 17 October). But as far as the Iraqi people are concerned Saddam's tyranny is the only issue. They don't care about weapons of mass destruction. They don't care about what Muslim groups in Pakistan and elsewhere might do in the event of a US attack. Nor do they care about what reactions the Arab street might have. All they care about is the removal of this tyranny; whether it is Bush or someone else who does it makes no difference to them. I spent the better part of last summer in Iraq visiting family. This was the message I heard over and over.
What has he got?
Norman Dombey (LRB, 17 October) convincingly shows that Iraq’s nuclear weapons capability is far less of a threat than either Tony Blair or George Bush would have us believe. However, he does make one mistake in saying that ‘there is a continuing threat from Saddam’s biological and chemical stockpile.’ Al-Hakam, Iraq’s main biological weapons facility was destroyed in 1996, as recorded by Unscom. In March 1999 the UN security panel in turn recorded that ‘the declared facilities of Iraq’s biological weapons have been destroyed and rendered harmless.’
Unscom had also supervised the destruction of much of Iraq’s chemical weapons stocks by 1992. Rolf Ekeus, executive chairman of Unscom from 1991 to 1997, reported to the Security Council that substantial progress had been made in dismantling Iraq’s chemical weapons programmes. The former weapons inspector Scott Ritter says that both he and Ekeus were convinced that the disarmament of Iraq’s chemical weapons was almost complete by early 1995.
Socialist Review, London N16
Water on the Brain
Perhaps because my letter on Fodor’s review of David Papineau’s Thinking about Consciousness was shortened, Graham Hamilton seems to have misunderstood my argument (Letters, 3 October and Letters, 17 October). My point is that to assist our communication with each other we talk of ‘water’ and ‘H2O’ being ‘identical’, but neither will be identical with the being of water. Furthermore, reference remains a project, a game of hopeful mutual convergence upon the real that can never achieve the identity it seeks. Both our everyday use of ‘water’ and our scientific use of ‘H2O’ rely on that game of convergence in which we try to make our differing perceptions overlap perfectly. As the Norwegian psycholinguist Ragnar Rommetveit has insisted, we have to pretend that the overlap is perfect in order to get a partial overlap that works for the time being.
At No. 42
Eamon Dunphy’s Only a Game? was published in 1976, not 1979 as recorded in Short Cuts (LRB, 17 October). The season he was writing about was 1973-74, and was not, therefore, recollected with quite the tranquillity that the later date might imply. At another point in the piece, John Lanchester asserts that Edwina Currie’s Diaries are ‘certain’ to go straight to the top of the bestseller list. I have in front of me BookScan’s charts for last week, showing that it entered the list at number 42, having sold just over a thousand copies. The connection between celebrity, promotion and book sales is not quite as easy to fathom as cultural commentators would have us believe – or as publishers might wish.
Unless I am mistaken, neither Peter Conradi nor John Bayley knew Iris Murdoch until she was in her thirties (Letters, 19 September). Many undergraduates knew of her ties to Frank Thompson, but no one knew – or cared – whether they had been to bed together. There was no suggestion in 1939-40 of her later promiscuity. I recall being in her company with Hal Lidderdale, who was as near to being her boyfriend in 1940 as, to my recollection, anyone else ever got. And a less erotic ambience you could hardly imagine.
P.N. Furbank is entitled not to like Denton Welch’s ‘queer’ ‘fusty’ ‘doodlings’ (LRB, 17 October), but I am not sure that he ought to escape comment for the many contradictions in his review of James Methuen-Campbell’s new biography of Welch, published by this firm. He claims that Welch was too much of a ‘solitary’ for us to learn anything from those around him. However, as Furbank admits, Methuen-Campbell interviewed ‘a very wide range of Welch’s acquaintances’ for this biography. He points out that Welch’s own ‘autobiographical’ writing cannot be taken as literal truth, but fails to realise that it is because of Methuen-Campbell’s research that we know just how much of Welch’s writing cannot be trusted. Then, Methuen-Campbell is criticised for suggesting that Welch was besotted with Eric Oliver (which can be backed up by Welch’s journals). Furbank quotes a generalisation from Welch that suggests that he was too ill to have been able to love anybody, then goes on to say that generalisations cannot be made about Welch and that Welch fell ‘madly and unmanageably’ in love with his doctor earlier in his life.
Leyburn, North Yorkshire
Murray Sayle’s geography slips uncharacteristically when he describes Muneo Suzuki as an ‘LDP old-timer from the northern island of Kyushu’ (LRB, 17 October). Kyushu is about as far south as one can get in Japan. Suzuki is from Hokkaido, the northernmost island.
Low Tharston, Norfolk