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November 06, 2011

Uh Oh

This is from Noam Chomsky's acceptance speech for the 2011 Sydney Peace Prize:

There were a few criticisms of Operation Geronimo – the name, the manner of its execution, and the implications. These elicited the usual furious condemnations, most unworthy of comment, though some were instructive. The most interesting was by the respected left-liberal commentator Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that “one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers,” so it is “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the US should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. The words are not criticism, but applause; hence one can raise only tactical objections if the US invades other countries, murders and destroys with abandon, assassinates suspects at will, and otherwise fulfills its obligations in the service of mankind. If the traditional victims see matters somewhat differently, that merely reveals their moral and intellectual backwardness

This is incorrect. What Yglesias said was not that the killing of bin Laden violated international law and that it was naive to expect the U.S. would ever obey it. Instead, he wrote that the killing of bin Laden was legal under international law; that you should expect this because international law is created by powerful states like the U.S. in their own interests; and that smaller countries and "political radicals" could legitimately look at this as "bogus." In other words, several of the same points that Chomsky himself often makes.

Here are Yglesias' exact words:

UNSCR 1373 [from September, 2001] is full of international legal authorization for killing people, specifically deeming the 9/11 attacks events that, “like any act of international terrorism, constitute a threat to international peace and security... Long story short, neither Osama bin Laden nor the government of Pakistan has any standing in international law to complain...the whole point of the Security Council is that it overrides national sovereignty.

That’s not to say one can raise no objections to this...if you’re Pakistani you might look at this series of events and say that international law looks kind of bogus. They didn’t even get a vote on the Security Council! What kind of sense does it make for the US, China, and Russia to get together and tell the world which countries may and may not be subject to SEAL raids? This would also be a very valid point for a political radical like Chomsky to raise. But it is what it is. International law is made by states, powerful states have a disproportionate role in shaping of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.

You can disagree with Yglesias that America's killing of bin Laden was legal under international law. (I certainly would, since he's wrong.) But Chomsky did not characterize his perspective accurately.

AND: This is how I keep #winning, even when my victories are very painful.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at November 6, 2011 04:48 PM

Chomsky is actually quoting Yglasias's repressed truth-discerning module that has malfunctioned to such an extent it sometimes only argues from tautologies that it argues from.

Posted by: LT at November 6, 2011 08:37 PM

Chomsky and I go way back - he gave me an A in one of his courses while I was an undergrad, and we once had a private conversation (we happened to be in front of a vending machine in Building 20, he asked if I had two nickels for a dime, and I did). Naturally I'm dismayed that Chomsky has apparently misunderstood Yglesias.

It seems to me that Chomsky, in his very old-fashioned twentieth century way, must be clinging to an essentialist view of "International Law" - he views it as consisting of the Geneva Convention and other such understandings by which diplomats of a former era tried to mitigate the ferocity of organized mass murder. From this perspective past agreements bind current actions. Yggy, contrariwise, with his postmodern sensibility, thinks that "International Law" is whatever the U.N. Security Council happens to say today. There are no human rights, there is no sacred honor, there are no binding commitments - there is only power.

An advantage of the disappearance of virtue and any respect that might have been given to it, is that hypocrisy is lessened. Who knows if this is good or bad?

Posted by: mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at November 6, 2011 09:08 PM

actually he characterized it pretty well. chomsky is saying there's international law and yglesias is saying there's international law and then there's american international law.

when the latter says:

"But it is what it is. International law is made by states, powerful states have a disproportionate role in shaping it, and powerful states have obvious reasons to not be super-interested in the due process of suspected international terrorists or the sensibilities of mid-sized countries. Many people are pacifists and/or strong critics of western military power, and that’s fine. But it’s simply not the case that international law is identical with these policy preferences. On the contrary, one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers."

it's pretty obvious he couldn't care less about the views or legal abstractions of anyone outside the states. it's still up for debate (and an anemic one at that) whether the assassination was legal or not, but he's not even bothering to address that; he's just throwing out the old "it's not illegal when the president does it" line.

not sure why you felt the urge to defend one of the more repugnant and authoritarian obamapologists (second only to kos and a certain race-baiting msnbc regular) at the expense of someone on your side of the political and rhetorical fence, but whatever. just quit assuming you "win" at anything. you and charles davis seem to have some weird chomsky envy thing going on lately...not a good look..

Posted by: the pair at November 6, 2011 09:26 PM

I think you misread Chomsky. He says Yglesias finds it naive to think that "the US should obey (international law or other conditions) that we impose on the powerless." I added the parens to show how the sentence must be parsed.

Chomsky is not saying Yglesias finds it naive that the US should obey international law. Only that the US should obey international law... that we impose on the powerless." And indeed after Chomsky accuses the US of violating norms of international law (note that norms of laws does not refer to laws per se but universal principles enshrined in law), Yglesias accuses him of being naive. But Chomsky is 100% right. The US may or may not be following the particular resolution pertaining to bin Laden but it violated the norms of law that we impose on the powerless -- since obviously Pakistani leaders could never invoke the same articles that Yglesias alludes to in order to kill say an American terrorist in the US.

Again my point boils down to the qualifier "that we impose on the powerless." Even if the US followed international law by killing bin Laden, Chomsky says, that's not the kind of international law that we impose on the powerless. Which is why the US violated, perhaps not the law, but the norms of the law. I think Chomsky is being precise and consistent.

Sorry to be nitpicking. But some people might accuse you of nitpicking Chomsky's prose so it's only fair you should be held to the same standards.

Posted by: bobs at November 6, 2011 10:24 PM

what bobs and the pair wrote. Chomsky is right again and precise as usual

Posted by: rich at November 6, 2011 10:38 PM

i am too tired to follow any of this closely except what mistah charley wrote, which basically sounds right to me. i don't think chomsky or yglesias would ever try that hard to understand each other, so why should we? chomsky is more interesting, being the old fart that he is and brilliant fart that he was. but i personally think gore vidal would be more fun to have a bitchfest with than noam, whom I have never once received change from. Yglesias probably talks about banking policy at parties.

i will say that i am now pondering the internet disappearing up its own ass and what that would mean for humanity and me in particular

the idea of an yglesias prize is pretty fun, that it is awarded by andrew sullivan pretty funny too.
I wonder if yglesias awards someone an andrew sullivan prize every year.

Posted by: N E at November 6, 2011 11:00 PM

Lessons learned is---when it comes to the international scene, don't be powerless. Point #2 if the internet disappeares up its own ass then TRUELY I can live again, outside where the air is clean and free, and of course go back to work.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 7, 2011 05:58 AM

The law in question is not enforced, so what is it worth?

Little wonder that international murder is viewed as a valid remedy when the military is considered to be the most competent institution (annual Gallup Poll) in American society.

Posted by: Dredd at November 7, 2011 10:03 AM

UNSCR 1373 [from September, 2001] is full of international legal authorization for killing people

Hmm, I just read it, and didn't find any "international legal authorization for killing people". All it does is telling the member-states to get tough on terrorists within their borders.

And the whole point of the Security Council most definitely is NOT that it overrides national sovereignty.

And I never heard of the US, China, and Russia getting together and telling the world which countries (Pakistan in particular) may and may not be subject to SEAL raids.

Yglesias is full of shit as usual.

And of course no one is disputing that "it is what it is". The point, Chomsky's point, is not to complain about 'it', but to state that 'it' violates international law. Yglesias says it doesn't, but of course it does.

Posted by: abb1 at November 7, 2011 11:47 AM

I looked at the Yglesias post and the Chomsky address. Disclaimer - I've read MY's blog sporadically and I think he is an idiot.

I don't think Chomsky is particularly off in pointing out that MY's post has the tone of "this is how it is, get over it", though "applaud" is perhaps overstating Yglesias. He's not celebrating, just advocating acceptance.

However, the larger issue, which Chomsky doesn't address, is "International law is made by states, powerful states have a disproportionate role in shaping it..." (to quote MY). As far as I can tell, the latter bit is basically nonsense. International law does not legitimize what imperial powers like the US govt do, otherwise the US govt wouldn't spend so much time vetoing UN resolutions. And how are powerful states supposed to shape the law to suit themselves? "No country can attack another, except in such-and-such circumstances, except the US, which can attack anyone any time they like?" Try getting that passed.

The law is usually just fine. What happens in practice is that the US govt considers that the law does not apply to them, so mostly ignores it as necessary.

I'm actually surprised Chomsky reads MY. Perhaps someone pointed the post out to him.

Posted by: Faheem at November 7, 2011 12:56 PM

I see the killing of Bin Laden as an act of righteous civil disobedience. Illegal, but had to be done.

Posted by: giantslor at November 7, 2011 04:03 PM

giantslor, your sarcasm producing device is broken.

Posted by: grimmy at November 7, 2011 06:36 PM

giantslor: It was murder to be sure, especially if Bin Laden was trying to surrender. That said, in the interests of empire, he needed killing. Its what U&I PAY for and its what WE got,---OUR money's worth. Plus WE can be entertained for long days discussing the right or wrong of it and no one but the actual shooters will have been paid back or will be. Just another road sign on The Highway To HeLL(but it don't say "exit").

Posted by: Mike Meyer at November 7, 2011 08:10 PM

I think that both the Yglesias and the Chomsky perspectives are accurate as a general matter. That is: Western democracies tend to act with impunity under color of law -- by establishing exceptions to the rule of law. Exceptionality tends to occur on an ad hoc basis; depending on the state's needs in any given situation, an exception to the rule of law can be created, so as to restore the rule of law, which in turn becomes increasingly arbitrary and unpredictable (from the perspective of the governed, or subject to its whims and violence). As Carl Schmitt wrote, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception."

Posted by: Carl at November 8, 2011 04:47 AM

From what I've read of it, and of the two authors, it sounds as though Chomsky is arguing international law as it stood in 1949, or at least 1969, and Yglesias is arguing international law as it stood in 1989. Now that a new generation is coming along they may wish to change how things work, what with how fucked up things are now.

A good first step might be dissolution of the UN Security Council. The US Senate doesn't work here; there's no reason to export it to an international body.

Posted by: tom allen at November 9, 2011 01:04 PM

Chomsky argues 2+2 is 4.

MY argues 2+2=5. Also argues AFY, and teh awesom.

JS argues 2+2=4, therefore Chomsky is incorrect and doesn't understand how to read, or international law, or prepositions to a supposition or cheerleading or...something.

I do think it's funny that someone called out Chomsky for being 'amazingly naive'. That's exactly what I think of Chomsky when I think of all the pontificators who, over time, eventually arrive at the same conclusions Chomsky has arrived at since he was 8 years old.

Servants to power.

Posted by: Peter Smith at November 10, 2011 11:13 AM


murder most foul

Posted by: Nime Chimisky at November 10, 2011 07:27 PM