The ‘International Community’ – Politicalese For ‘My Gang’s Better Than Your Gang’

September 16, 2013

by Martin Odoni.

As I write this (about 3:20pm BST on 15th September), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US State Secretary John Kerry have just delivered a press conference so generic and stubborn in its content that I could feel the sides of my mouth pulling themselves backwards into a snarl as I listened. Oh it had everything! If by ‘everything’, you mean, ‘all the clichés’, that is. Speaking on the subject of the Syrian Civil War, they pontificated in all the usual ways about, ‘The will of the International Community’, ‘the evils of using chemical weapons’, the ‘need for the world to give a message about what it will not tolerate from rogue states’, the ‘duty to protect civilians from Government oppression’ and on and on. A much-used, identikit public statement merely dusted down and re-issued (probably with the same spelling mistakes).

What should we be most unimpressed by though? The macho triteness, the deluded self-righteousness, or the unashamed hypocrisy? Such a selection to choose from.

The self-description of the USA and its closest-ally-of-the-moment, be it the UK or Israel, as ‘The International Community’ is always galling. The references to ‘rogue states’ as the supposed enemy of ‘The International Community’ are arbitrary, given that the populations of states routinely called ‘rogue’ tend, in combination, to outnumber the populations of those that are not. ‘Rogue’ thus means deviation from the Americans, not deviation from the norm. It certainly does not mean deviation from International Law either, for no countries on Earth violate International Law so frequently or brazenly as the USA and its allies, which is another unmentioned detail that made the press conference more nauseating than inspiring. ‘Rogue state’ is shorthand for, “You’re not in my gang, you’re in someone else’s.”

Now we can argue that, on the narrow subject of the chemical weapons used in Syria, Netanyahu and Kerry were not being hypocrites. Technically-speaking, the white phosphorus shells the USA used in the Battles of Fallujah during the Iraq War, for instance, are not classed as chemical weapons, but incendiaries. Similar with the white phosphorus warheads launched by Israel into the Gaza Strip in 2009. But this is a wafer-thin defence, as all it really means is that the specific protocol being violated is different – it is still a crime under the Geneva Conventions. The Convention On Certain Conventional Weapons expressly forbids its airborne delivery against civilians, while the Geneva Conventions outlaw their use against civilians in its entirety.

(American use of Depleted Uranium weapons in the Iraq War was not explicitly outlawed by any treaty, and indeed it still wouldn’t be a definitive flout of International Law were it to happen today. But there has been much discussion in International circles as to whether use of the weapons contravenes general Human Rights Laws, and assessed on a purely ethical level, it is almost impossible to identify any distinction from chemical weapon use. Regardless of its exact legal position, it surely would have been more honest to err on the side of moral caution over their use.)

None of this, it is hardly necessary to announce, got even a word of acknowledgement from either Netanyahu or Kerry. Moral relativism of course is not much of an argument against intervention, but that isn’t my problem with this. My problem is that it is very difficult not to snort in disgust at the moral outrage in which pro-intervention rhetoric is usually couched. If the USA and Israel truly are so appalled at the use of such weapons, that outrage can only be respected when it goes hand-in-hand with genuine contrition and self-condemnation for their own past crimes; in particular, those military and political figures who authorised the use of white phosphorus in Iraq and Gaza should be made to stand trial. And the USA can stop playing the Veto in the United Nations every time there is a motion to condemn it or one of its allies for International crimes. (If nothing else, figures in the Syrian Government might have one propaganda card fewer to play.)

There was an equally-contemptible stubbornness in the Netanyahu/Kerry stance over Bashar al-Assad’s guilt in the chemical weapon use in Damascus on the 21st of August. Even with a new agreement hammered out between the USA and Russia for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile in order to curtail military intervention, there is still not the slightest note of acknowledgement from either the Americans or the Israelis (or indeed the British) that the evidence against Assad is ambiguous at best. Expert analysis of the photographic evidence of victims from the attack seems to indicate that the chemical used was not military sarin, of the type to be found in the weapons at Syria’s disposal, but ‘kitchen sarin’ i.e. the less efficient ‘home-made’ form of sarin gas. This raises serious doubts about who had possession of the weapons in the first place, and indeed who manufactured them. (See and for examples of more doubts that have not yet been settled.)

Machismo demands, it would seem, that there be no climb-down by those who threw the accusations without any firm evidence, no acknowledgement of grey areas, no room for reasonable doubt. But that is all that such statements ever seem to boil down to – machismo. The stubbornness of not wanting to admit weakness.

Politics, especially international politics, is too often dominated by this rather teenage-boy mentality. John Kerry will be 70 before the year is out, and he is US Secretary of State. Benjamin Netanyahu turns 64 in five weeks, and he is no less a figure than a Prime Minister. It says very worrying things about global affairs that the people running them are at such advanced ages, and yet are still incapable of a more mature outlook.

The main argument against not letting young adults govern is that they will be incapable of mature reflection. Yesterday’s press conference, and thousands of others besides, make a very poor case for the de facto arrangement.

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