Sunday, November 28, 2004

Last days of autumn at Wychfield Posted by Hello

Friday, November 26, 2004

Blix blog

I leaned over to the other Australian lawyer, who was also grinning kinda goofily in the firelight.

“At this exact moment, would you trade anything for being here, now?” I asked.

“Nothing at all, mate,” she replied.

We were being groupies. Metaphorically, Elvis had entered the building.

We were standing in a small circle of graduate students chatting with Hans Blix. Or more aptly, asking polite questions and grinning in the face of the sprightly 76 year-old’s warm, genial and incisive answers.

It’s always astonishing to meet someone who’s made a big contribution to your field. Especially when you’ve previously only encountered them as a name in the papers, or as a character represented on stage (in David Hare’s “Stuff Happens”). The feeling is only enhanced when you are writing your PhD on WMD – it’s a bit like being a theology scholar and bumping into St John the Devine, or deciding to write on pacific resistance and having tea with Ghandi.

OK, it’s less astonishing as: (1) Blix has had a much smaller influence on world history; and (2) has the distinct advantage of not being dead.

That said, he has been a professor of international law, principal advisor on international law to the Swedish foreign ministry, Swedish foreign minister, served 16 years as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, headed up the UNMOVIC inspection team in Iraq for 3 months or so until the second invasion – and drafted chunks of the Stockholm Declaration which helped lead to such things as the Kyoto Protocol. (Widely reported claims that he is a rally driver are totally unfounded - he sees the pass-time as an irresponsible use of fossil fuels.) He now heads up the Stockholm-based WMD Commission of independent experts (which includes Gareth Evans).

I’d been to his lecture series during the week: they were calm, deeply historical and laced with a dry wit. But most compellingly, with optimism too – and an unexpected respect for politicians (“They have the difficult job of making decisions on less than 100 percent evidence. Sometimes 70 percent, sometimes 50. What I would criticise is a lack of critical thinking.”) Asked for his assessment of George W. Bush, he referred to the comments in his book, “Disarming Iraq”: boyish, energetic, a persuader – but a pragmatist, not as ideologically driven as many of his cabinet.

Still, I had my one, burning question: “Dr Blix, you’re aware of David Hare’s play “Stuff Happens”? How does it feel to already be a character in a history play?”


“I saw it in London. (Shrugs) I didn’t think I was that hapless.”

Then he smiled.

“But maybe I was … I often think of what Churchill said about Attlee, ‘He’s a modest man with a lot to be modest about.’ We all have a lot to be modest about.”

He clearly felt as though he had become a symbol carrying the weight of expectations of the peace movement, when his role had never been to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to war – but what I think he underestimates is the appeal of a person of integrity, getting on with their job diligently in the face of great pressure, and the present belief in independent experts as preferable to spin doctors in getting at the truth.

His parting thought for us all was interesting, coming from the man to speak about WMD inspections: WMD is important, yes. But the environment, that’s what’s really important.

The man is deeply pro-nuclear: seeing the containable risks of peaceful nuclear power as preferable to the certain high levels of fossil fuel pollution we currently live with.

An interesting and inspiring, but deeply humane, figure.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

History and international law
[Being the introductory notes for my "winter school" seminars on international law for Singaporean students. Comments most welcome.]

International law has probably existed, in some form, for as long as tribal people have had dealings with other tribes. The ancient Romans certainly recognised a difference between Roman law (the law that applied within their Empire) and “the law of peoples” (jus gentium) – that is, a law that applied between the ancient Romans and other peoples.

So, while tribes, communities or peoples could organise their own societies under their own law, for a long time in human history it has been understood that there is a law that applies between communities in their dealings with each other.

In the modern era, this has become known as “international law”, meaning (obviously) the law between nations. This points to a change in ideas: by the early nineteenth century writers, thinkers and politicians in Europe saw themselves as belonging first to a community called a “nation” or a “State”.

It is important to bear in mind that States do not have “natural” borders. Germany, Singapore, India and Pakistan, for example, are all, historically, quite recent creations.

The first idea of international law is that all States are equal; that is, all States are “sovereign” and have a right to organise their society according to their own internal laws, free from external interference (though there are limits to this freedom). However, some States are more powerful than others, and may have more influence over how international law changes over time.

International law as we know it now is essentially an invention of nineteenth-century Europe. This is simply a consequence of the power those States had at that time. The most important recent example of the role of powerful states in creating new international law can be seen in the formation of the United Nations, and other institutions, in 1945.

Before discussing the UN, it is important to consider it in historical context. Often, the major changes in international law are prompted by extraordinary and disastrous world events.

The period 1929 – 1945 was an economic and humanitarian disaster for Europe, the United States and many of the States and territories conquered by Japan. The world had seen the following crises:
(1) a severe depression in global trade and the near collapse of many developed-world economies in the 1930s (“the Great Depression”);

(2) Japanese military expansion from 1931 (the seizing of Manchuria) or 1937 (the commencement of war against China), and Germany military expansion from 1939 (the invasion of Poland); and

(3) governments acting with a shocking disregard for human life and dignity, principally in the “Holocaust”, the murder by the Nazi party government of Jews, gypsies and the physically and mentally handicapped in German-occupied territory (the number of murdered Jewish people alone is usually estimated at 6 million).

Of course, other atrocities were committed during the course of the war, notably in Japanese prisoner of war camps and the treatment of civilians in occupied Japanese territory. Arguably, the dropping of two nuclear weapons by the United States on Japanese cities (Hiroshima, Nagasaki) and the British fire-bombing of German cities such as Dresden, were also indiscriminate actions, causing unnecessary civilian deaths and casualties not justified by legitimate military objectives.

However, the sheer scale of the Holocaust, its meticulous government organisation, and its targeting of specific ethnic groups made it a unique “international crime”.

Economic matters, though, were also important to the victors of the 1939-1945 world war (principally the United States, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and China). Some believed that Germany’s economic condition had contributed to the rise of the Nazi party and the outbreak of the 1939 European war. Everyone accepted that all States had suffered in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

It was generally agreed that two major problems had contributed to the collapse of the world economy in 1929. First, “protectionism” – that is many States restricted trade with each other by placing high “tarrifs” (or taxes) on imported foreign goods. This slowed world trade, hurt all countries who relied on export income and often made locally made goods more expensive (by shutting out cheaper imported components). The second problem was “exchange rate devaluation”, which is too complex to explain here.

In this context, the victors of the 1939-1945 (or 1937-1945) war all agreed on certain things:
(1) there needed to be a better international trade system, one designed to reduce or eliminate tariffs;

(2) there needed to be a new international organisation to try and prevent the outbreak of war between States; and

(3) there needed to be a new respect for “human rights” and new categories of “international crimes” to prevent something like the Holocaust happening again.

From this consensus we can see the origins of the idea for a world trading organisation, a united nations organisation, a system of human rights and crimes against humanity, and an international criminal court. Not all of these things happened at once; indeed, it was not until the 1990s that one could see institutions and laws reflecting all these 1945 goals.

Now we have the World Trade Organisation or WTO (and World Bank and International Monetary Fund), the United Nations, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and various human rights treaties, the Genocide Convention and other international crimes (as a type of human rights protection) and an International Criminal Court or ICC.

This course will study key aspects of the UN security system to prevent war, the WTO system to promote global trade, the crime of genocide and the new ICC.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Trinity College, November 17 Posted by Hello

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Another busy week

Monday. A day of truth – the MCR (college graduate students society) elections. Cast my vote, attend some meetings at which I discover I have not been elected President, dash off to play rehearsals for “Macbeth”, and zoom back for my last meeting as MCR Secretary.

Go out for a birthday curry with the Returning Officer and a chat with the current VP.

The RO later says: “I’ve never seen you and the VP looking so relaxed.”

The possibilities of a life unburdened by office suddenly seem rather charming.

Tuesday. Wake to discover I have been offered by e-mail a Considerable Sum to teach four seminars in international law to Singaporean high-school leavers at a Cambridge “winter school”.

Have a wonderful session with my supervisor (“I have nothing to tell you but keep going!”), which of course is death for my productivity.

Attend meetings, man a graduate union polling booth and write an ambitious winter-school syllabus in a mad rush instead of doing anything remotely PhD related.

Discover the joys of glorious sunshine, roaming about doing meaningless errands and generally enjoying the rush of not being swamped with meetings and responsibility.

Evening rehearsals. Banquo’s scenes coming along quite nicely.

Wednesday. After some considerable bus-induced delay, the Dutch-Canadian I met in Budapest arrives fresh from London job interviews. We manage a whirlwind tour beneath some spectacularly striated sunset clouds of the older colleges, before changing for grad hall.

We squeak into the graduate student seminar, an historian friend talking about whether the rise in scientific curiosity and rationality was as much a matter of bourgeois snobbery and the dawn of Enlightenment. A good talk, generously sprinkled with really amusing power-point slides.

Grad hall (a group of six with four bottles of wine, ending predictably) followed by salsa dancing at Wolfson College. I recall enough from 10 lessons, four years ago, to fake a meringue – aided in effect by a decent suit and a remarkably talented partner.

Thursday. Raining. Ick. Show the Dutch-Canadian around Kings College Chapel and the Fitzwilliam Museum (must go back for the Lucien Freud etchings exhibition). Attend two committee meetings (now that I’m not on the Committee, I’m perceived as having more time for lesser committees) – and then see my guest off before cycling to the station.

Train to London with a physicist friend to see Alan Bennett’s new play “The History Boys”: wildly entertaining, amazing cast, but a little clichéd in its inspiring-teacher storyline.

Returned to Cambridge to find it had been snowing on and off since 7 pm. Take a barrage of photos in impish excitement.

Friday. A beautiful clear day, with the snow remaining in a thin blanket across the ground.

Friday is “lecture day”, I attend the law and anthropology lecture at the department of social anthropology at 11, followed by going to the 12.30 free lunch and lecture at the Lauterpacht Research Centre for International Law.

The evening contains a play rehearsal, but is dominated by a mildly inebriated dinner-party. Played “Ex-libris”, the game where you have to come up with the opening line of a novel and vote on which is the real one. Surprising how poorly the real authors did some rounds.

Saturday. Feeling a bit tired and flat at play rehearsals, which go surprisingly well for the first time we’ve been in the theatre.

Collected my 400 flyers and 30 posters to do publicity. Proceed to pigeon-hole spam (snail spam? ah, junk mail!) my college. Proceed to yet another November birthday drinks do, return early and fall asleep for 11 hours.

Today (Sunday). Realised I was feeling a little throaty. Damn cold out. Collected groceries and stood on the sidelines of our sports ground to cheer on the Trinity Hall women’s soccer – sorry, football – team.

Macbeth rehearsals – finally got the Doctor’s voice and mannerisms down. The play opens Tuesday.

Don't expect to hear from me much.

Oh, yeah, I also get to dash from the play Wednesday night to scream into college on my bicyle (possibly still in costume) for a drinks party where Hans Blix will be introduced to a handful of graduate students of his old Cambridge college.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Cold winter ahead, unseasonably early snow ... Posted by Hello

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Happy birthday to … ME!

Whoo-hah, the big two-nine.

My birthday (Sunday, thank you for asking) started at 12.01 am with the unusual experience of dashing between Kings Cross platforms in search of the Hogwarts express with a law fellow in fuzzy boots and denim skirt (her, not me, thankfully).

Saturday had been an agreeable mix of Macbeth rehearsals, losing with the college team at Ultimate Frisbee and dining in London for another Australian-Scorpio-Lawyer’s birthday.

Frisbee proved that winter is setting in in Cambridge. On a beautiful, cloudless day it was utterly icy cold and there was a “lazy wind” (it cuts straight through you rather than bothering to go round) that was playing hell with my attempts at backhand passes. I’m still useless at competition Frisbee. I can throw and catch, but have no idea of getting in position on field.

Saturday dinner was great, Rocket – a surprisingly large and affordable bar and restaurant in Leicester Court, off New Bond Street, right next to the Bond Street tube station. Good to see some familiar faces from the Masters last year. One of those occasions where four hours (and a stunning quantity of red) slips by in moments. Each of us had two courses and quite a deal of wine for only 25 pounds – amazing in London.

My own birthday proper started with a morning birthday call from the parents, which could only have been sweeter and more loving had Dad not misjudged the time difference. My reaction to being sung “happy birthday” at 6.45 am, having crawled into bed from the train station at 2 am, was cursory to say the least.

The rest of the day passed at another rehearsal, and in napping.

My birthday party was a joint bash with a good friend from College, the English Civil War Historian. We had a “bring food to share at 7 if you want to eat, and wine to share after 8 if you want to drink” type party in the common room in my building. It went really well, a fabulous cross-section of people from College, our PhD programs and a flatmate’s visiting Mom (American). We probably had thirty plus people through at the height of events and more food than you could poke an undergraduate at.

I was also rather kindly showered in gifts: A “Mr Incredible” coffee mug (am still bursting to see the film) from a flatmate, an emergency package of Tim Tams and luxury gourmet coffee from other flatmates, Turkish delight (from a delightful Turk), some Jonathon Swift from literature PhD types, and some posters and bits and pieces for my room from Mum and Dad.

Was also treated to a Monday morning birthday call from best-friend and former Canberra flatmate the Ruminator.

All up, none too bad.

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Commandos' memorial, near Glencoe, Scotland Posted by Hello
Score one for the rule of law (shame the President still leads on points ...)

It seems a US Federal Judge has had the same reaction as me (and many other lawyers around the world) to the situation at Guantanamo. On my last post on the issue (26 October) I pointed out that the US had no right under the Geneva Conventions to treat people as “non-privileged combatants” before a tribunal under Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention had determined that they were not entitled to prisoner of war status.

Seems Judge Robertson takes the same view:

The conventions oblige the United States to treat Mr. Hamdan as a prisoner of war, the judge said, unless he goes before a special tribunal described in Article 5 of the Third Geneva Convention that determines he is not. A P.O.W. is entitled to a court-martial if there are accusations of war crimes but may not be tried before a military commission.

The United States military did not conduct Article 5 tribunals at the end of the Afghanistan war, saying they were unnecessary. Government lawyers argued that the president had already used his authority to deem members of Al Qaeda unlawful combatants who would be deprived of P.O.W. status.

But Judge Robertson, who was nominated to be on the court by President Bill Clinton, said that that was not enough. "The president is not a panel," he wrote. "The law of war includes the Third Geneva Convention, which requires trial by court-martial as long as Hamdan's P.O.W. status is in doubt."

The judge also makes the often-recited (and entirely obvious) point:

… that in asserting that the Guantánamo prisoners are unlawful combatants and outside the reach of the Geneva Conventions, "the government has asserted a position starkly different from the positions and behaviour of the United States in previous conflicts, one that can only weaken the United States' own ability to demand application of the Geneva applications to Americans captured during armed conflicts abroad."

Unsurprisingly the administration has said it will seek an emergency stay of the ruling and a speedy appeal. A spokesman has said:

"By conferring protected legal status under the Geneva Conventions on members of Al Qaeda, the judge has put terrorism on the same legal footing as legitimate methods of waging war."

Which could not be more inflammatory or unfair. What the judge has said is: there is a presumption you are a POW until it is determined by military law (not presidential decree) that you are an unlawful combatant (or “terrorist”).

This is really only a relatively small procedural requirement – but it has halted the unlawfully constituted Guantanamo “release hearings” and represents a small blow for the rule of law.

I fear that appellate courts, though, will find some jurisdictional ground to throw it out without ruling on the substantial issue of procedural justice.

Sunday, November 7, 2004

Yorkminster Cathedral (August holiday) Posted by Hello
“Stuff Happens”

As a birthday treat, a friend took me to see David Hare’s “Stuff Happens” at the National Theatre – the most important piece of political art I’ve seen recently.

“Stuff Happens” is the story of the events leading to the 19 March 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous comment on the footage of museum looting in Iraq:

“Stuff happens! … freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that’s what’s going to happen here.”

“Stuff Happens” is ambitious: the story of Bush’s coterie and the politics that lead to war, the public dialogue culled from transcripts, and the behind-the-scenes diplomacy imagined on the basis of meetings know to have happened.

The cast is enormous: Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Kofi Annan and Hans Blix carry the bulk of the story – but with a cast of over 20 the bit players in a complex story are well represented.

Most of the time the cast are simply men and women in dark suits, on a black stage, the only set a large number of classy chairs and a large meeting table.

For all the author’s known politics, the narrative (while enough to scandalise the average Republican) is not a cosy sop to we pinko-lefties. The story is stitched together by “viewpoints” – provocative monologues in the voices of journalists, Palestinians, Iraqi exiles.

The first is a direct confrontation: a journalist bitterly raging against the West’s self-referential hand-wringing and mud-slinging about toppling a dictatorship:

“From what height of luxury and excess we look down to condemn the exact style in which even a little was given to those who had nothing … Imagine if you will, if you are able, a dictator in Europe, murdering his own people, attacking his neighbours, killing half a million people for no other offence than proximity. Do you really imagine, hand on heart, that the finer feelings of the international community, the exact procedures of the United Nations would need to be tested, would the finer points of sovereignty detain us, before we rose, as a single force, to overthrow the offender? … A people hitherto suffering now suffer less. This is the story. No other story obtains.”

A wake-up call to the audience, but one that also prompts the question: “Are they suffering less?” The play is not neat, it raises awkward questions, few are caricatures – except, of course, the French.

There are definite moments of humour throughout, much of it culled from real-life comments made about principals (a colleague comments of Wolfowitz: “The word ‘hawk’ doesn’t do Wolfowitz justice. What about velociraptor?”). Kofi Annan trying to phone the deadpan Hans Blix while hiking in Patagonia is simply hysterical.

The acting was superb. Nicholas Farrell is astonishing as Tony Blair: he has the voice and mannerisms down perfectly.

Even greater an achievement is Alex Jennings as George W. Bush. Jennings’ Bush is a cipher: one is never far from the power of the man, never certain whether his deadpan style and homey phrases reveal a fool – or a powerful conviction politician. The play puts over the view that while his Cabinet argues, and while his is heavily dependent on Rice, he takes the decisions: consciously, independently and ultimately, unchallengeable.

In the end, the real hero of the play isn’t Annan, or Blix, but Powell: the man whose job it is to make the hard arguments both to his own people, and the foreigners – and the one man in power with a real understanding of what it means to go to war. Joe Morton does a powerful job with a sensitively scripted part.

The villain, if there is one, is Rumsfeld: unilaterally setting the agenda by press conference much to the dismay and fury of both Blair and Powell.

(And a brief shout-out to Australian Phillip Quast in a range of roles including CIA chief George Tenet.)

If the play is contentious, it is in making the following suggestions: (1) the (abandoned) Middle East road map was essentially (though not on Powell’s part) an exercise to make Blair’s position survivable in the War debate in the Commons, as the Bush administration had already settled on a policy of overt re-alignment with Israel; and (2) that Iraq was chosen principally as a easy target, as “winnable” a second-phase to the Afghanistan campaign – both of which were a necessary show of American strength after September 11.

Criticisms? Of course. This is very much an English play – it is a play about where the “special relationship” can take you; it is about how the English can get caught between US and French diplomacy. The rest of the world gets a look in, but only just.

A play about contemporary history has a problem finding a satisfactory dramatic conclusion. Colin Powell’s passage out of the play will resonate more if and when he’s dropped from the Bush Cabinet.

However, it collates recent events and engages in a useful myth-making, a provocative recap of two years of recent history. It would be costly to stage elsewhere, but it deserves to be seen in Australia, the US, Europe.

It also makes the devastating - and obvious - point in the final “viewpoint” that the Iraqis themselves did not feature very highly in the thinking about Iraq.

Friday, November 5, 2004

Sculpture near my bike shed Posted by Hello

Do ideas really matter?
(Part 2: the power of myths and the politics of fear)

Ladeen’s speech (below) was a shining example of a central argument of the BBC2 documentary “The Power of Nightmares”: that Neo-con thinking is built around the need for national myths.

The documentary series (not without oversimplifications) sets up two philosophical grandfathers of the Islamic fundamentalist/Neo-con conflict and draws parallels between their world view and their selling of it.

It selects two 1950s philosophers – Kotb, an Eygptian teacher who spent time in the US, and Leo Strauss, a conservative academic – who both saw in Western liberalism a nihilistic, secular individualism that was destructive of society.

Their remedies were different. Strauss saw the need for an elite who would restore American unity through “necessary illusions”, the myths that hold a society together, including that of a unique national destiny.

Kotb saw the need for an Islamic elite that could integrate the benefits of western technology without the materialistic nihilism that seemed to accompany capitalism (a contagious false consciousness that alienated sufferers from their faith). Bin Laden is allegedly a student of one of his followers.

“Nightmares” depicts a small, well-placed group of Straussians who turned to politics over academia. Within the (then not terribly powerful) moralist wing of the Republican party they found a base receptive to their programme to reinvigorate national myths through the rhetoric of good and evil. (A strategy enabling them to bring a huge evangelical Christian movement into the Republicans for the first time, radicalising an often libertarian, small-government party).

Their rhetoric painted the Soviet Union as the source of all evil, the sponsor of all terrorism, and a threat out of all proportion to that it actually posed. Unusually, “Nightmares” paints the CIA as the standard-bearers for truth against the ideologues: CIA “bean-counters” were convinced that the Russian military was a relatively weak opponent.

The Neo-cons, especially Russian expert Professor Richard Pipes, didn’t want to hear it: if the CIA couldn’t find evidence of what must exist, then the logical conclusion was that the Russians had hidden it so well the CIA couldn’t find it. The absence of all evidence was taken as proving military capacities at the limit of imagination.

Thus, “Nightmares” argues that the USSR was largely an imaginary foe. Critical to this is Afghanistan. The Neo-cons decided to expel the USSR from Afghanistan no matter what: so they armed and funded local Islamic extremist movements. Gorbachev, seeking a negotiated settlement that would allow his country to leave with dignity, was rebuffed. There would be no compromise. Gorbachev prophetically warned Reagan that the people he was backing were no friends of democracy.

The USSR was driven from Afghanistan, and shortly after collapsed. Both Neo-cons and Islamists saw this and, wrongly, presumed: (1) the two events were directly related; (2) it was their efforts that had achieved this; and (3) if they could beat the USSR (a superpower) they could beat anyone.

In fact, the USSR was simply an unsustainable economic and political mess that was bound to collapse.

In the absence of the USSR, a new enemy was needed: for the Neo-cons it became the “tyrants” of the Middle East, for the Islamists it became the USA.

The series posits that both Neo-cons and Islamists were losing popular support (the Clinton era, the fratricidal madness of Egypt and Algeria) by 1997. Ironically, it was September 11 that revitalised them both: giving one a clear enemy and the other a massive symbolic victory.

Both are left fighting an enemy they have largely imagined: a nihilistic empire bent on the destruction of Islam; a unitary state-sanctioned global terrorist network (“al Qaeda” allegedly being a US coinage to cover largely unrelated groups and individuals so they could be prosecuted under anti-Mafia laws).

It’s provocative stuff, and following the Bush victory raises the prospect that the real war of ideas is not with “Islamists” but within democratic societies themselves.

Thursday, November 4, 2004

The view from my kitchen (why I don't read in the library so much) Posted by Hello
Do ideas really matter?
(Part 1: a voice for neo-conservatism speaks in Cambridge)

Last Wednesday I went to see Michael Ladeen speak, a member of the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing US think-tank. He is widely regarded as an influential neo-con, but he dismisses the label – saying there’s many points of view and considerable disagreement within the Institute over foreign policy.

Ladeen had an obvious belief in American exceptionalism and a special American destiny to support “the cause of freedom wherever it is threatened by tyranny”. As both a clear idealist and a scholar of Machiavelli he made some interesting arguments.

Fundamentally, he highlighted the tension in American thinking between isolationism and interventionism – a sense of having a mission in the world and a fear of contamination by a corrupt “outside” world the founding fathers (and all migrants since) deliberately left behind.

This, he argued, explained the historic American inability to sustain any coherent foreign policy. “We do crusades,” he said. “When we’re done, we go home.”

He argued that in nine years (the Regan era) the US was, by concerted but peaceful means, able to bring about the collapse of the Soviet empire and spread democracy in Latin America. If this could be achieved against a superpower, it should also be achievable in the Middle East: making invading Iraq a mistake.

(He thought the priority should be non-military support to Iranian democracy campaigners, as was done for Solidarity in Poland and Havel in Czechoslovakia).

He referred to the oil-for-food programme as the biggest money laundering operation in history, making the UN the most corrupt organisation in history.

He referred to terrorism as the conscious choice of well-educated people from good homes, arguing that the September 11 bombers were not in any sense people radicalised by personal experience of poverty or oppression.

He clearly saw terrorism as state-sponsored, referring to Iran, Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia as the “terror masters.”

His central thesis – which provoked outrage when the floor opened to questions – was that America is under attack because it is a free and open society, attempting to spread democracy in order to foster a more peaceful and rational international society. “Tyrants who support terror hate us because we are a successful and free society … they have to come after us … For them this is life and death.”

His argument being that so long as free societies exist as a viable alternative, tyrants must struggle to defeat them or risk being overthrown by their own people when they realise a better way of life is available.

It was interesting to listen to someone with a view of the world so morally infused as to be seemingly impervious to detail. When challenged on past American support for dictators he simply responded that these had been mistakes, and he understood how some could see the US as an enemy because it had supported tyrants in the past.

I couldn’t decide whether he was admitting to some genuine complexities, or just incoherently flip-flopping.

What I found most valuable was to realise that this is the kind of voice influencing US foreign policy (I wouldn’t say controlling it – US government is too big a power-process for anyone to really control foreign policy) – and it just doesn’t understand the pinko-lefty Eurocentric UN-as-rule-of-law consensus to which I belong.

It treats that pinko-lefty consensus as being as self-evidently mad (or rather, “tired”, “lacking self-confidence” or “nihilistically post-modern”) as we pinko-lefties consider the neo-cons.

So, in defining the war on terror as a “war of ideas”, he illustrated that the battle in policy circles over the role of international law is definitely one of ideas. In the academy and government we are fighting over which ideas will determine the way the industrialised and powerful nations view the world and respond to it.

In that context, the BBC 2 documentary “The Power of Nightmares” raises interesting arguments about the birth of the neo-cons and contemporary Islamic extremism (… to be continued).