Sunday, November 09, 2008

Thin Blue Line Debate

This is Andrew Adams' comment on the previous thread. I've elevated it to a post because it's worth it in its own right, and I don't want readers to think we've all died from ecstasy at Obama's victory. BTW, at AaroWatch, we actually approve of "civilised and respectful discussion(s)." I don't usually buy the 'bloggers-vs-teh-evil-MSM' thing, but we've nothing to sell here so we're not looking for phony controversy. 'Get your edification at AaroWatch' could be our watchword. Of course, Conor versus Nick would have been entertaining too. Probably not civilised or edifying, though. Over to Andrew.

On Thursday evening I went along to the launch of Conor Foley's book Thin Blue Line, which took the form of a debate on humanitarian intervention and Western foreign policy between Foley, Oliver Kamm and Dennis McShane (who had to leave early so I won’t dwell on his contribution).

Although I previously trailed it as a "bunfight" it was actually a very civilised and respectful discussion. Foley started off by giving a brief history of humanitarianism since the action to protect the Kurds in Northern Iraq in 1991 and a bit of his own history. He said that the debate about intervention is often polarised between the more muscular liberal interventionists on the one hand and the "anti-imperialists" on the other, whereas in truth that intervention can sometimes be necessary and successful and sometimes misguided. He mentioned Kosovo as an example of the latter, which I guess may be a controversial view for some, although my own knowledge of this particular topic is (shamefully) inadequate. He said that humanitarianism is always a difficult business and humanitarian workers are forever facing difficult dilemmas. He spoke about the need for humanitarian organisations to remain neutral in order to guarantee access to the areas where they are needed.

He was unsurprisingly critical of politicians, citing the frequent gulf between the experience of those people on the ground and the pronouncements made by those in power, which can often be dangerous, for example with the posturing about parachuting aid into Burma which could have made it very difficult for those on the ground. He made a plea for politicians to listen more to those on the front line before speaking out and taking action.

He then laid into David Miliband in particular for saying that the British would intervene in future with the authority of multilateral institutions "where possible", the implication being that the governments was prepared to act even if it was outside international law.

Kamm actually came across quite well - his good humour and reasonableness probably would have been a disappointment to some of his head banging supporters at HP. He praised Foley's book and said that although he disagreed with parts of it it was necessary and useful, and he made a couple of interesting points about neo-conservatism. He admitted that intervention has its problems but pointed out the problems in the past caused by Western non-intervention (Rwanda) and complicity with tyrants (Mobutu). He (surprise) praised Blair's Chicago speech in 1999 and defended the action in Kosovo, saying that the West had no option but to react to what was a "naked land grab" by Serbia.

He made the point that the problem with international law is the lack of a body capable of enforcing it, pointing out the failings of the UN and the fact that it does not exercise sovereignty. His solution though was for the world to rely on the power of the US to ensure the stability of the world order, by use of both diplomatic and military means. This is obviously a contentious view to say the least but there is to me a genuine problem about how to maintain the primacy of international law and at the same time ensure that when action is genuinely required it can be taken, when it is subject to veto at the UN which is not always made in good faith. Foley pointed out that the “responsibility to protect” doctrine could be used as possible basis for legal intervention in the absence of specific UN authority but that it is a complicated area.

Ultimately a lot of questions were left open and the debate could have gone on much longer but it was an interesting evening.

37 Comments:

Anonymous andrew adams said...

CC, thanks for that. I know you (we) are certainly a civilised bunch at AW.
Debates on this subject can become rather intemperate and personal at certain other sites I could mention though.

11/09/2008 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

What a sensible and, dare I say it, decent comment.

11/10/2008 11:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, does OK have a bad case of 'flamewar disease'? He's a right rude bastard in print, so I suppose we ought to be grateful that he accords his opponents some respect (not the same thing as agreeing with them, or even as being polite to them) in person. It opens up the question of why he feels the need to be a cunt about it when he's sat at a keyboard. Is internet rudeness a necessary contributor to the decent style?

11/10/2008 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

I think that in general even the most strident and/or bonkers columnists tend to be relatively civilised when they debate in person and people can actually answer back. Relatively being the operative word, so Mel Phillips is relatively sane on Question Time compared to her Spectator blog.
I exempt Douglas Murray from this as he is spectacularly obnoxious in any forum.

11/10/2008 12:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, Nick, Aaro etc usually work themselves up into a lather about imaginery people who they've heard at dinner parties, or about quotes taken out of context. It's less easy to do that when there's a whole book to be discussed and its author is sitting next to you. I wonder what an OK v Chomsky discussion would be like?

Moussaka Man

11/10/2008 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Yeah, that would be interesting. Or even Kamm v Michael Moore.

I can't imagine Aaro ever getting worked up during a debate, his default mode is always the "voice of reason". I always used to enjoy his debates with Janet Daley on Head 2 Head - he had this great look of bemusement when she used come out with her more absurd pronouncements.

11/10/2008 12:54:00 PM  
Anonymous WhitDawg said...

Definately worty of elevating to a post, and Ive probably have missed it if you hadnt !

11/10/2008 01:21:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

I can't imagine Aaro ever getting worked up during a debate, his default mode is always the "voice of reason".

And this is why you have to keep such a close eye on what he says. He often lulls you with his mature reasonabless and then you go back and check what he just said and you think 'what a sly dissembling bastard, he nearly led me right up the garden path'

Sometimes of course you get the other Aaro when he just launches quite crude and polemical attacks on groups like teachers and union leaders.

However it must be said, power has always needed courtiers like Aaro, who can be faithfully relied upon to soft-soap their more unpalatable policies.

11/10/2008 06:00:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

BTW thanks for the report Andrew. It sounded very much like the one I saw a few weeks ago. Did you get a signed copy of his book? I am going to have a quick dip into it later this week. Although the Kammster may have been civil was he at all contrite about having being a cheerleader for neoconservatism's patent absurdities?

And don't be too hard on Dougie Murray. He may be obnoxious and intellectually flimsy in the extreme- the talk I heard him give consisted of a long and tedious series of scare quotes, like HP on amphetamines- but it can't be easy being a gay neoconservative.

11/10/2008 09:13:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Bubby,

Yes, I take your point about Aaro. Sometimes he is so damned reasonable it takes a while for you realise he is defending the absolutely indefensible.
Also, although I don't go in for "all politicians are crooks and liars" stuff his absolute determination to give them the benefit of the doubt can be infuriating. No, he's not quite one for "speaking truth to power".

I did get a signed copy of Conor's book and managed to have a brief chat with him. He seems like a very nice guy. I haven't had a chance to start reading it yet though.
Kamm certainly wasn't apologetic. I'm not sure humility is quite his thing and being a "Decent" does after all mean never having to say you're sorry. His main argument re neo-conservatism was that its stated aims, ie installing democracy and freedom, are not "conservative" aims at all but rather progressive left ones - hence the title of his book.

My main memory of Douglas Murray is on the "schools" edition of Question Time berating a load of seventeen year olds for their immaturity.

11/10/2008 10:44:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

OT - Aaro today in the times, making some fairly interesting points about mixed race being the fastest growing 'ethnic group'. However this sticks in the throat:

To say that Mr Obama is black is to say, in effect, that his mother had no race or that her race was somehow obliterated by her choice of husband.

And to say that Mr Aaronovitch is Jewish...? but he himself does it all the time and uses the word 'we' in the... Jewish Chronicle.

11/11/2008 11:10:00 AM  
Blogger Andrew Bartlett said...

"To say that Mr Obama is black is to say, in effect, that his mother had no race or that her race was somehow obliterated by her choice of husband."

To say that Obama is black is to classify him according to the conventional racial classifications of the culture that he lives in. If we are talking about what Obama's election means for American racial politics, these classifications, unpalatable as the ideas might be (such as the concept of 'taint' that makes Obama black, and not white) are the only ones worth discussing.

11/11/2008 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous gastro george said...

I can't wait for the eagerly anticipated Decent Racist post.

I can just see Anthony taking Aaro one step forward and discussing "taint" as a threat to the white working class - but not in those words, of course.

11/11/2008 11:41:00 AM  
Blogger Captain Cabernet said...

Rod Liddle, who generally writes the stuff that the decents can't quite bring themselves to, anticipated Aaro's latest in the Spectator.

11/11/2008 04:50:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

You nailed him good and proper cheeseboard.

Aaro doesn't half talk some nonsense sometimes. The issue is not whether his mother was white and whether that makes him 'really black' but rather what proportion of Americans who actually voted for him, regard him as 'black'. My guess is that the percentage is rather high and that is what makes his election so significant.

11/11/2008 05:19:00 PM  
Anonymous organic cheeseboard said...

Back on the original topic:

His main argument re neo-conservatism was that its stated aims, ie installing democracy and freedom, are not "conservative" aims at all but rather progressive left ones - hence the title of his book.

There's more than a little of the tedious nitpicker about Kamm. In many ways he's a perfect leader writer as his own beliefs are pretty slippery. The summary of this is that 'neoconservative is not an accurate term to describe Paul Wolfowitz', despite the neocon movement initially being very happy to be pigeonholed as such. It's the same tired of Decent point, in which they rely on the terminology of a left-right divide at the same time as trying to claim that such terminology is defunct. In the main this is to escape the charge of being neoconservatives, since that brand is poisoned; and it's never very convincing. Witness Marko's egg of truth; either you think that politics truly has changed and is egg-shaped / a dodecahedron - or you don't.

And witness this (self-penned) summary of his book:

I believe the Left should acknowledge that its ideals are represented in the doctrines – if not necessarily the practice – of US foreign policy since 9/11.

well, maybe - and it's a big maybe. But separating doctrine from practice is a sleight of hand, because the authors of the doctrine are the same ones who oversaw the practice. and weirdly for someone so keen to separate doctrine and practice, Kamm has also endorsed almost all the practices, too...

11/11/2008 06:40:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Meanwhile in Godwin's Law news...

11/11/2008 06:57:00 PM  
Blogger StuartA said...

Kamm's relationship to the term "neo-conservative" is perhaps the best illustration of his general strategy of irrelevant and/or flat-out false nitpicking for victory. He says he isn't a neo-conservative because he is "very much out of sympathy with the neoconservative case" on domestic issues such as "homosexual equality".

But of course nobody is debating homosexual equality with him, and attachment to it isn't enough to support grandiose claims of foreign policy expertise, so he then has to babble about the "variegated phenomenon" of neo-conservatism. All his critics don't understand, you see, the vast gulf between Iran contra star Elliott Abrams and Galtieri advocate Jeane Kirkpatrick.

Actually, of course, the main point is to quote a series of scholarly-sounding foreign affairs texts — the exact content doesn't matter. He cites Abrams's alleged promotion of a democratic Chile, forgetting Abrams's role in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and forgetting his own assertion that "any democrat" would be "glad" that Allende had been overthrown. He has displayed no consistent attachment to democracy even in theory.

As it happens, he also ignores the practices of purported democracy promoters. From 2004 we have this statement:

There is no development that would cause me to conclude I was wrong to support war. It’s not that type of issue.

It simply doesn't matter how many people die. He was right by definition. (And I challenge anyone to divine anything as vulgar as an actual justification for this among the accompanying philosophical verbiage. That he thinks the consequences were "overwhelmingly good" won't do.)

The fact that Kamm continues to be taken seriously, even here, is staggering to me. The entire anti-decentist effort might as well give up.

11/11/2008 07:40:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Meanwhile in Godwin's Law news...

Ah yes, for the Decents it is always 1938

11/11/2008 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

Although I hate this phrase it's just too apt not to use on this occasion.

What stuarta said!!

Kamm is nick-picking, disingenuous, self-important and absurd. You cannot seriously hold up someone like Elliot Abrams as being progressive considering their record in South and Central America. Ditto pretty much all the other neoconservatives. And what's with that weird and frankly obsessive habit of tracking down all of Chomsky and Stiglitz's work on Amazon and giving it one star reviews. That's just creepy.

11/11/2008 10:48:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

Wow I looked at that link that stuart provided on Kamm's views on Allende. I was actually being much too kind. Kamm is approaching Mad Mel levels of denial in that thread.

11/11/2008 11:01:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Jesus, I can believe him doing that with Chomsky, knowing how the Decents hate him, but Stiglitz?? I mean, if even he's too radical...

stuarta's certainly right though - Kamm did go on about Kirkpatrick and Galtieri. The thing is though that a lot of people do take him seriously, so I don't think we can just ignore him.

11/11/2008 11:04:00 PM  
Anonymous bubby said...

Here they are in all their glory. Chomsky- he seems to have read just huge quantities of the man's output- Edward Said, Stiglitz, even Christopher Hitchens they all get the one star treatment.

Apparently Kissinger's reputation as an imperfect but sagacious and principled democratic statesman easily survives this attack.

The longest intellectual suicide note in history.

11/12/2008 12:01:00 AM  
Anonymous pär said...

Did they hate Stiglitz before he (and Linda J Bilmes) wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict? If not, thats probably a good reason for them to hate him.

11/12/2008 12:18:00 AM  
Blogger StuartA said...

You're right — people do take him seriously, and I suppose that is a reason to bother criticising his output. But it is hard to persuade oneself of that when apparently no cumulative level of pretentiously-expressed hypocrisy is enough to discredit him in the eyes of mainstream commentators.

He's parlayed late-night newsgroup trolling into a leader writing position without ever, as far as I've seen, demonstrating any significant talent beyond grovelling toward America power. His career is a standing example of the correctness of Chomsky's media analysis.

Even his appointment to The Times displayed his hypocrisy. The "near-absolutist" on free speech, perennially concerned with the rights of internet commenters, joined the paper at exactly the same time as its lawyers were threatening Media Lens with a harassment lawsuit for encouraging their readers to send emails to its journalists. Unlike Mumsnet, or homeopathy, or Craig Murray, or of course Kamm's own Non-trial of the Century, this case warranted no comment at all from our Index on Censorship contributor. Because they are outside the realm of respectable discourse, Media Lens are not worthy of free speech, just like LM Magazine. (But don't miss his Voltairean defence of David Irving's right to lie.)

I maintain that whichever debate Kamm inserts himself into, he brings no guiding principles apart a preening desire for self-promotion and — not unrelated — a career aspiration as a courtier. I can believe he can put some sort of case for interventionism, but I find it hard to believe it would stem from anything but the usual selective evidence and bad faith.

(On the subject of the Amazon reviews, I found many of them at amazon.com and amazon.co.uk mysteriously disappeared around the time Kamm was vaulting from Chomsky obsessive to Atlanticist foreign policy thinker. It hardly needs saying that his reviews displayed little correlation with the content of the books. As Tim Holmes pointed out, Kamm's "review" of Manufacturing Consent complained of a "typical melange of complaints against the policies of the US and Israel", when the book contains no mention of Israel.)

11/12/2008 12:25:00 AM  
Blogger StuartA said...

I would imagine they hated Stiglitz since, at least, the publication of Globalization and its Discontents. Nobel Prize be damned: this book convicts Stiglitz of a lamentable misunderstanding of development economics because it doesn't wholeheartedly support US policy.

11/12/2008 12:31:00 AM  
Blogger BenSix said...

"Kissinger's reputation as an imperfect but sagacious and principled democratic statesman easily survives this attack..."

Dear God...

I'll never get the tea off my monitor.

11/12/2008 12:51:00 AM  
Anonymous bubby said...

Ahhh thanks for that stuart. I was perplexed at why these reviews had disappeared from Amazon's American and UK sites. Luckily for us they are still available at the Canadian site.

This remember is the man who Norman Geras would nominate to be our Prime Minister.

11/12/2008 01:24:00 AM  
Blogger StuartA said...

It's a while since I've checked in on the retired professor of government — he seems to have drifted off almost entirely into a world of cricket and Jane Austen — but I did see that sagacious and principled recommendation.

I hope you're also aware that, according to the chief leader writer of The Times, Kamm is an "intellectual sledgehammer":

He can spend 2,000 words explaining why he is turning on comment moderation and leave you riveted.

11/12/2008 01:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They had him on radio 4 front row reviewing the Baader Meinhof Complex.

apparently they were vicious antisemites.

11/12/2008 03:35:00 AM  
Blogger ejh said...

he seems to have drifted off almost entirely into a world of cricket and Jane Austen

Add cats, and I'd take that world any day.

Kamm has an enormous appetite and memory for detail, which is what puts him ahead of the usual ranters. He also has an enormously broad back and he's able to write in measured tones even when writing something that is an absolutely outrageous distortion of reality. (Which is most of what he does.)

But of course the main point is that he says things that many well-off people want to hear, and that's been the guiding principle of Times commentary throughout its existence.

11/12/2008 08:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the report on the meeting for those of us who couldn't go.

It would seem that, as is often the case, the discussion jumped from humanitarian interventions to whether or not the neo-cons are in favour of democracy. It is this elision from protectng threatened people to regime change that is the most serious problem in the discussion of humanitarian intervention.

Moussaka Man

11/12/2008 12:01:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

MM, yes exactly - humanitarian intervention is not the same as liberal intervention, even if you accept the supposed motives of the liberal interventionists.

11/12/2008 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger StuartA said...

But of course the main point is that he says things that many well-off people want to hear, and that's been the guiding principle of Times commentary throughout its existence.

I agree, although I think the general principle can be extended to most of the media.

Actually, I suppose I should be grateful to Kamm for demonstrating more transparently than anyone how far a penchant for shameless hackery can get one in political punditry, as long as it serves the right interests. It's an anecdotal confirmation of the theory he "reviewed" in Manufacturing Consent.

Previously I never knew the source of the anonymous verbiage on that page. Now I know at least some of it stems from a deluded Fowlers abuser recruited by William Hague's notably unsuccessful former policy adviser.

11/12/2008 06:12:00 PM  
Blogger cian said...

Kamm has an enormous appetite and memory for detail, which is what puts him ahead of the usual ranters.

I'm not so sure. I think he skim reads a lot of work, and relies quite heavily upon other people's precis'/skim reads. Judging by how many books he has badly misunderstood (and this of course goes double for his amazon reviews), he's neither a close or careful reader.

He's able to write in measured tones even when writing something that is an absolutely outrageous distortion of reality.

There's also the purple pomposity of his prose, mistaken by his fans for erudition.

He's always struck me as a s

11/13/2008 03:50:00 PM  
Blogger ejh said...

Christ, somebody's got Cian!

11/13/2008 04:32:00 PM  
Anonymous andrew adams said...

Judging by how many books he has badly misunderstood (and this of course goes double for his amazon reviews), he's neither a close or careful reader.

The sheer number of reviews he posted on Amazon in such a short period of time would tend to bear this out.

11/13/2008 10:00:00 PM  

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