Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Joe Klein Edition)
The Cheney Supremacy

Odious Governments...

Odious governments. Tim Burke muses on how the world should treat thieves who hold nations hostage--and on what duties we owe to their hostages:

Tim Burke: Rentiers of Sovereignty: I've had to deal with a situation this week that involves some complicated transactions over the title to a used car, on behalf of someone else. The mechanisms of title transfer are a hassle, but I'm also largely glad that we have them. This seems to me a function of a modern state that even a libertarian has to love: mechanisms ensuring that people who claim and transfer expensive property are entitled to those claims and rights....

[Y]ou may have seen a story about Angola... conforming to the conventional wisdom that Africa defines the worst of the human condition in the 21st Century. I wouldn't challenge that conventional wisdom in this case, or many others. Angola's tiny governmental elite is raking in huge sums from smaller multinationals involved in pumping out offshore petroleum, and virtually none of that money is going to any public function of any kind....

Angola is the kind of situation that made me think very differently about sovereignty, and about the kinds of politics, both conservative and leftist, that mark the achievement of sovereignty as the initial and necessary condition of achieving prosperity and freedom. Sovereignty is the material resource that the Angolan elite controls and sells, not oil. They are rentiers who extract wealth from selling permission for extraction... no different than a car thief who hotwires a car parked outside a suburban home, drives it fifty miles, and then sells the car on eBay.... The car thief is going to run into trouble establishing a title that can be transferred legitimately. The Angolan elite has no such difficulty.

All the international institutions which exist recognize them as possessing title to sovereignty.... That's not a conservative or liberal thing... [but] an indictment of the entire interstate system built up over the course of the 20th Century, in all its parts and particulars. That system gives titles and ownership to thieves, and allows thieves to sell their goods to supposedly legitimate businesses....

I can't buy a hot car and expect the government to sanction my ownership. If I pass cash under the table to get the car, the car stays hot, and I can expect it to be taken from me at any time to be returned to its rightful owner. All the petroleum that comes out of Angola today is equally stolen. The people who peddle Angola's sovereignty have no right to sell it, and those who buy it know that perfectly well. We need some kind of global system that refuses that transfer of title.

I still feel, for all the water that has flowed under this particular bridge, that this is one case where dissatisfactions with sovereignty on both the right and the left ought to be able to meet productively. The problem of Angola and the problem of Iraq before the war have some real resemblances, and in both cases, passive defenses of sovereignty are unacceptable answers. The war in Iraq wasn't the right alternative; neither would be an extensive ambition to govern Angola through international institutions in productive ways that its own elite will not. The gut-wrenching truth of the human condition in the 21st Century is that some suffering cannot be easily abated or forcibly relieved. But we should imagine what we can do, not merely accept what we cannot. I think that the beginning of a new era of action involves a steady contempt for sovereignty and the claims made in its name, and the construction of a new international system that reflects that contempt. Let's call Angola's elite what they are: thieves. Let's call the companies pumping oil out of Angola what they are: the purchasers of stolen property. Let's make it as difficult as we can for thieves to fence stolen sovereignties, and for purchasers to buy the same.

The question is: How far do you go? What do you do with somebody like Ibrahim Babangida of Nigeria--ex-dictator, called by some (according to Wikipedia) the most corrupt man in Africa, who stole more than $10 billion from Nigeria for himself and his cronies? What do you do with those who worked for him? With their families? With those who advocate "culturally sensitive account[s]" of Babangida's rule "as a corrective to standardized journalistic and political science cliches"?

I might be in favor of a system in which by unanimous vote the UN Security Council could declare governments to be "odious" and to put those who lend to or trade with them on notice that recompense will someday be demanded. But would this do much to help the people who are victims of such governments? I might also be in favor of a system in which by unanimous vote the UN Security Council could call for theoverthrow of governments--and assemble coalitions to do the job. But trade embargoes are dangerous things, and often counterproductive. Who has gained, really, from the U.S. decision that Castro's regime in Cuba was odious?

And wars are terrible things.