Vol. 25 No. 5 · 6 March 2003

Search by issue:

On War and Intervention

In the second paragraph of his article on ‘Blair’s Folly’ (LRB, 20 February), Conor Gearty spells out a best-case scenario of ‘a quick and relatively painless war’ such as one hopes and prays no one (let alone ‘the military’ cited by Gearty, who presumably won’t have included your other, brass-hat contributor to the same issue, General Ramsbotham) has been pouring into the ear of our definitively misguided Prime Minister. Many of us have come in these recent weeks to wonder whether Blair has been receiving any advice from anyone at all, anyone down here on Earth at least, since who knows what he may have been picking up from his sessions on the heavenly hot line. Gearty’s suppositious outline of how a war on – and let’s acknowledge it’s on rather than against – Iraq might turn out in the mind of a benighted optimist is such that you wouldn’t have to go to the unfortunate extreme of actually being Tony Blair to want to be ‘part of it’. A war which turned out that well would still be wholly wrong so far as many of us are concerned, but it’s arguable that it would make geopolitical sense. The point about Blair, however, is that he is persisting in his shameful policy in the all but certain knowledge that the war is never going to go like that. Gearty is in effect letting him off the hook in making the allowances he does for Blair’s thinking (?) at the start of his article by presenting him in such rational terms. We haven’t alas been asked by the hyperactive pollsters as they go their rounds whether we believe that our elected leader is in his right mind; I for one would gladly answer no, he can’t be to be behaving the way he is. I only wish I could find good reasons why he should be suffering from a paranoid condition picked up in Washington.

Roger Etherington
London N5

Conor Gearty and David Ramsbotham refer to ‘pre-emptive war’ in their respective accounts of the Iraq crisis. The matter is complicated however by the reference to ‘preventive’ war in a text by Michael Quinlan quoted by Gearty. Is there some confusion here between two distinct doctrines? As I have been given to understand it, the justification of ‘pre-emptive war’ rests on the belief, beyond reasonable doubt, that your adversary possesses both the means and the intent to attack and do so imminently; pre-emptive war in this sense is permissible in international law under the general rubric of self-defence. The justification of ‘preventive’ war on the other hand rests on the belief that your adversary might, one day, attack, and this is expressly forbidden in international law. President Bush is evidently aligned with the latter doctrine. In his notorious West Point address (quoted by Ramsbotham), he spoke of the need to ‘confront the worst threats before they emerge’. It is of course not uncharacteristic of Bush’s speeches that it is often unclear what they mean; in this case, it is hard to see what a ‘threat’ could look like before it ‘emerges’, since its ‘emergence’ is a condition of its existence. But it presumably means acting on a hypothesis (what might happen) and thus falls squarely into the doctrine of preventive, not pre-emptive, war. Blair too has taken to speaking recently of ‘preventing’ things, notably in the weird counterfactual form of speculating on what might have been done to prevent 9/11 as part of the case for invading Iraq.

Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge

In David Ramsbotham’s lucid case against the use of force in Iraq, one note jars. However much Saddam ‘may be deplored’, he says, ‘it is up to the Iraqis to get rid of any ruler who abuses them.’ There are many reasons to speak out against the coming war, but this is not one of them. While Ramsbotham is more or less in line with international law, particularly on the matter of sovereignty, his remark points up a legal weakness rather than a strength, supposing with a chilly accuracy that until the UN approves an intervention, the onus is squarely on the victims of persecution to sink or swim – Chileans, say, after the coup in 1973; Eritreans, say, from 1961 to 1991; or those feckless Tutsis, who failed to overthrow the regime in Rwanda in 1994, despite a UN presence in the country. Meanwhile, sovereignty – allegedly the guarantor of national democracy everywhere – is anything but watertight: Washington and the CIA were all over Allende’s inviolable Chile; Washington, then Moscow, tried to starve Eritrea into the dust with support for inviolable Ethiopia; the French armed the regime in inviolable Rwanda. Iraq, too, has had its share of friendly intruders and arms providers, humming the Iraqi national anthem as they banked the cheque. One man’s inviolability … As the best international lawyers know, sovereignty can be a blunt instrument at the service of the state, with all its globe-trotting privileges, for use against its own people. When it is, one must look to international law for countervailing principles, and to politics, above all, for a way through. The impending war will turn out to be a mistake, long after it’s ‘won’. On this Ramsbotham is right. But why shrug at the tomb of the Unknown Citizen and mutter: ‘It was up to him’?

Conrad Sinclair

The people who do the counting say that we had 150,000-plus here in Montreal marching for peace. The temperature was -20°C. In front of me an elderly woman was walking with two canes. There were young families walking their toddlers in strollers, six and eight-year-olds taking shelter in their parents’ coats, twelve and fourteen-year-olds pretending it was a warm summer day, university students making up their own songs, veteran marchers singing the old favourites, old folks showing everyone they still had it. Lots of signs. It was overwhelming.

By the time I got back home all I could think was: wow. I turned on the radio to get the news: huge crowds everywhere. Then I heard Tony Blair say even if there had been a million people in Hyde Park that would not have been as many people as Saddam Hussein has killed. What is your Prime Minister saying: that peace or war is to be determined by the number of anti-war protesters in Hyde Park versus the number of people Saddam Hussein has killed?

William Wells

How shall we speak of the monarchy?

Martin Blyth and Anthony Buckley’s drab, pompous harrumphs (Letters, 6 February) over Glen Newey’s splendid invective against the Royals compel me to write. For one thing, I do think the Windsors’ German ancestry is perfectly valid ground for attacking their credentials. For another, Newey’s piece was the freshest, funniest, most vigorous I have read in a long time in the LRB. It almost made me forget the eighteen months of tiresome leftist handwringing and repellent claptrap that you’ve given us since 11 September 2001. Almost. But not quite.

Stuart Maconie

I can set Anne Summers's mind at rest on one point (Letters, 20 February): Glen Newey served his time as a first-year undergraduate several years ago, in a cohort including such eminences as Anatol Lieven and myself (parsing that last clause is left as an exercise for the reader). Like Summers and others, I found the style of Newey's piece on the monarchy distracting; it suggested a sustained and ultimately rather laborious attempt to disguise his native tones as those of an intellectual Richard Littlejohn. Ars est celare artem, of course, but another time I'd rather have more of Glen's own voice and less from his ars.

Phil Edwards

The Decline of Bullshit

Stefan Collini (LRB, 23 January) quotes Christopher Hitchens’s dedication to Robert Conquest, ‘premature anti-fascist … and founder of “the united front against bullshit"’. ‘Premature anti-fascist’ was the name given to the Lincoln Brigade veterans of the Spanish Civil War by the US Army in World War Two. Rather than catapulting these tigers into leadership position, it was considered a black mark.

David Nicol
Kansas City, Missouri

It seems that Keith Douglas had the same understanding of ‘bullshit’ as Margery Rowe (Letters, 6 February). ‘I don’t know if you have come across the word Bullshit,’ he wrote in a letter from Palestine in 1943, ‘it is an army word and signifies humbug and unnecessary detail. It symbolises what I think must be got rid of – the mass of irrelevancies, of “attitudes", “approaches", propaganda, ivory towers etc, that stands between us and our problems and what we have to do about them.’ I agree that this still seems insufficient to describe Stalinism – but in left-wing circles there could be no greater insult.

Tim Sanders

In the Rocking-Chair

For many baby boomers who have loved and still love film, Jenny Diski (LRB, 6 February) has described perfectly the weary rite of passage from venturing to the cinema to resigning ourselves to ‘seeing it’ at home in our favourite rocking-chair. The next time Diski finds herself watching a rented movie in front of the telly, she should take heart. We are still big: it’s only the pictures that got small.

Jim Valentine
Woodland Hills, California

Jenny Diski not only hasn't been to a cinema in two years, she doesn't seem to have seen or even been aware of any films other than anglophone ones. To read her piece you'd think that cinema is Hollywood and that since today's Hollywood is crap it follows that today's cinema is crap.

Colin Tucker
London N1

Shelley and the Mob

Seamus Perry claims that Shelley was ‘appalled by the “Irish mob"’ on his visit to Dublin in 1812 (LRB, 6 February). Shelley came to Dublin hoping to agitate the Irish poor to fight for Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Union. His pamphlet An Address to the Irish People, as he himself said, ‘was principally designed to operate on the Irish “mob"’. But the defeat of the revolutions in 1798 and 1803 meant that the Irish poor were in no mood for instant solutions. To his credit Shelley quickly realised the limitations of that pamphlet and issued a new appeal – Proposals for an Association. He now hoped to organise intellectuals and the old activists of the United Irishmen into an association that would influence the moderate Catholic Association in a more radical direction.

Shelley failed in his Irish project, but he had learned more in his few months in Ireland than many do in a lifetime – both of the reality of working-class life and how to use language more effectively.

Paul O’Brien

I think we should be told

In his laudatory review of T.J. Binyon’s biography of Pushkin (LRB, 20 February), James Wood makes much of Binyon’s enthusiasm for his subject and his attention to detail. I have not read the book but Wood mentions ‘a naughty poem’ of Pushkin’s, ‘in which he promised, today, to kiss her like a Christian, but tomorrow, if requested, to convert to Judaism just for another kiss, and even to put into her hand “That by which one can distinguish/A genuine Hebrew from the Orthodox"’. Since the poem is entitled ‘Christ is Risen’ one must presume the member, circumcised or not, is erect. What I would like to know is how, in the erect state, you can tell. I realise this may say less about my ignorance of Pushkin than about my ignorance of life – and it is a detail, I agree – but if the book is as strong on detail as Wood makes out I think Binyon ought to tell us.

Tim Summers-Scott
London W8

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences