Courtesy Reuters

Just and Unjust Words

By Matthew Evangelista

To the Editor:

In an otherwise thoughtful and well-informed review of my book, The Chechen Wars ("Crisis in the Caucasus," March/April 2003), Charles King makes two charges to which I feel obliged to respond. First, he claims that my critique of a U.S. double standard on Russia's human rights violations is misplaced. Second, he suggests that I may have committed libel against several scholars whose views I criticize.

On the first point, King suggests that it is "sophomoric" of me to ask why Western governments have held Russia to a lower standard of compliance with international humanitarian law than they did Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic. "The answer," according to King, "is that Russia is not Serbia." King claims that "merely pointing out the inconsistency here is a lame critique," for "inconsistency, after all, is the indispensable prerogative of great powers." This remark represents just the sort of attitude I set out to criticize. Consider, by contrast, Michael Walzer's observation, from his classic Just and Unjust Wars, that "the exposure of hypocrisy is certainly the most ordinary, and it may also be the most important form of moral critique." My chapter on Western responses to Russian war crimes was intended as a critique of U.S. policy and of Western observers who use the language of the laws of war -- whose ethical foundation is just war theory -- without interpreting them accurately. I had already indicated that "motives of realpolitik influenced the Clinton administration during the first war as it sought to bolster a political regime that it considered friendly to U.S. interests." King's interpretation is thus the common wisdom and does not get us very far.

In his second charge, King claims that I have made "highly inaccurate, if not libelous" accusations against Anatol Lieven, Jack Matlock, Jr., and Robert Bruce Ware to the effect that they "have somehow given Moscow a pass on wartime atrocities." I stand by my criticisms that these analysts have misinterpreted fundamental tenets of the laws of war by conveying the view that the just ends of the Chechen wars -- the preservation of Russia's territorial integrity, defense against kidnapping and terrorism -- make otherwise unjust means more acceptable. As Ware put it, "if we accept the objectives then it appears that we must tolerate some of the methods, for it is unlikely that objectives could be achieved with methods that were substantially different." I reject King's claim that I have quoted any of the authors out of context or selectively, let alone that I could plausibly be charged with libel. Having met both Lieven and Matlock and having enjoyed reading their own sometimes polemical works, I doubt very much that they would be so thin-skinned as to pursue such a frivolous charge. Ware is another story. In any case, readers can draw their own conclusions.

Matthew Evangelista

Professor, Department of Government, Cornell University