The other day I wrote about a news report revealing that Richard Goldstone, as an Apartheid-era South African judge, had issued such rulings as acquitting police officers who broke into a white woman's home on suspicion that she was having sex with a black man. Goldstone directed a controversial U.N. Human Rights Council report on Israel's Gaza war. I concluded, "It's morally murky territory -- the ultimate question is whether and to what degree a white South African could take a position such as a judge for a regime that had such despicable laws. I don't think the answer is clear."
Matthew Yglesias, in response, pulls out the dread passive-aggressive sarcasm combination to imply that somehow I lack credibility as a critic of Apartheid: "I see that defenders of the rights of black South Africans as Jonathan Chait and Jeffrey Goldberg are inclined to take a darker view of things." Is he saying I don't actually think Apartheid was bad? That I only care about black South Africans to the extent that they're useful for my agenda? Who knows? I'd like to reply, but I can't, because however I try to define the accusation I'm replying to, Yglesias can plausibly say he wasn't making it.
Yglesias concludes that he's "inclined to give [Goldstone] a pass," citing some shared belief by Nelson Mandela that he does not link to or even summarize. I have no idea what Mandela thinks about Apartheid judges, except that in general he has strategically taken a position of blanket amnesty for the crimes of a heinous regime in order to allow a peaceful transition to democracy. Usually Yglesias tends to be more moralistic than I am, especially about racism. I'd expect that a revelation about, say, an American who had prosecuted blacks as part of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission would bring to the surface a little of his moral outrage. But, like I said, it's morally murky territory.
Yglesias proceeds to call my view on international law incoherent:
it would be much more plausible if people with liberal views on domestic policy and conservative ones on foreign policy would just join in the overall conservative critique. Instead, a lot of these people have tried to work out a not-so-plausible alternative view in which international humanitarian law is a good thing, but Israel just so happens to continually be victimized by sundry biased and/or unsavory figures. The simple fact of the matter is that adhering to international humanitarian law makes it very difficult to wage war, which I think is a good thing but many people disagree with that. This is an important debate, but it actually has nothing to do with anti-Israel bias or Goldstone’s alleged status as an amoral comformist.
I don't think it's incoherent at all. I believe there's a need for international humanitarian law. The first problem is that the law as defined by organizations like Human Rights Watch makes it not merely difficult to wage war, which is appropriate, but actually impossible. Thus a country like Israel, which is frequently attacked by non-uniformed militias operating among civilians, literally has no ability to defend itself without being branded a war criminal. That to me suggests the construction of the law is a problem.
Second, even within the overly-strict construction of these laws, it seems clear that these organizations attract a lot of individuals who take a deeply unfriendly view of Israel. Thus the Goldstone Report, while raising some very valid criticisms of Israel's misguided assault on Gaza, also makes a lot of misleading claims. Likewise, Human Rights Watch, while also making a lot of valid criticisms of Israeli military actions, turns out to slant its findings, both in its area of focus and within individual reports. I think the substance of the criticisms of the Goldstone Report and HRW are the primary issue, and I'd recommend the two very thorough, fair-minded critiques I just linked.
As for Goldstone, again, I don't think his Apartheid history makes him anything like a Nazi. But he's an important character in the whole drama. His champions have portrayed him as a brave truth-teller, and his critics as a weak bureaucratic figure currying favor with the powers that be. The revelations about his history do lend more plausibility to the latter interpretation.