Friday, 30 March 2012

The News of Adelaide

Above, a video for Normal Service Will Soon Be Resumed, one of four tracks from John Dog’s Freedom of the Press EP, each giving a different character’s view on the News of the World, phone hacking, Murdoch Inc, Leveson Inquiry meltdown: the first song comes from someone who reads too many newspapers, the second from a solitary paparazzo on stakeout, the third and fourth, well, you figure out who they might be.

You can listen to them all on the player below, and if you like ’em, they cost mere pennies to download and keep. And if you still can’t get enough, have a listen to John Dog’s earlier collection, Battery Powered Mystery Action, which includes an even tougher song on the evils of the popular press, Leave My Bones Alone.

Dann schon lieber Lebertran

Gert Klein in I’d Rather Have Cod Liver Oil, Max Ophüls’s first film, a short comedy written by Erich Kästner and Emmerich (later Emeric) Pressburger. The film is lost, I believe.

Photo from Film Exil 2, May 1993, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Edition Hentrich. The magazine includes a script for the film in German, as well as articles on Max Ophüls in English and German, and an article on Gert Klein in German.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Afghanistan rambling

I’ve been reading a 2009 New York Review of Books article by Rory Stewart, a comment on Obama’s 2009 speech announcing his surge of troops to Afghanistan. It makes a curious comparison with his much shorter comment piece in The Evening Standard earlier this month.

The NYRB article, titled Afghanistan: What Could Work, was quite long, but the core of its argument was as follows:
The lighter, more political, and less but still robust militarized presence that [Obama’s] argument implies could facilitate a deal with the Taliban, if it appeared semi-permanent.

.. Obama should not have requested more troops because doing so intensifies opposition to the war in the US and Europe and accelerates the pace of withdrawal demanded by political pressures at home. To keep domestic consent for a long engagement we need to limit troop numbers and in particular limit our casualties.

.. [Obama] needs to regain leverage over the Taliban by showing them that he is not about to abandon Afghanistan and that their best option is to negotiate. In short, he needs to follow his argument for a call strategy to its conclusion. The date of withdrawal should be recast as a time for reduction to a lighter, more sustainable, and more permanent presence.

In making this argument, Rory Stewart wrote of “the trap of withdrawal”:
.. Obama opposes precipitate withdrawal. He acknowledges that although “our responsibility, our means, or our interests” are limited, they exist in Afghanistan. We have a certain responsibility to the Afghan people who would suffer a civil war if we withdrew. This would initially be between the Taliban and the Karzai government, but it could expand (as it did in the 1990s) into more fragmented local conflicts, fueled by neighboring countries, in which no faction is strong enough to win or weak enough to give up the fight, and in which Afghans are plunged back into anarchy, cruel conflict, and poverty. We have the means, however, to make a positive contribution and we have an interest in preventing a defeat that would wreck our hopes, humiliate the United States and NATO, embolden our enemies, and weaken our allies (and not only in Pakistan).

The very strange thing about all this is that now, two and a quarter years later, under the headline The West must get out of Afghanistan this year, Rory Stewart is calling for withdrawal:
The time has come for the US and its allies such as the UK to begin the process of withdrawal — clearly, orderly, with dignity, minimising the number of casualties as we do so, and leaving only a light footprint behind.

There’s an abrupt rejection of analysis in this short article, turning his back on the sort of lengthy discussion represented in his NYRB article, and going instead for tabloid simplicity:
Did our mission go wrong because Nato had too few troops; or because it sent too many? Could a different strategy have fixed the situation; or was it always impossible? The reason no longer matters. Whatever the explanation, things will not improve: Nato will not “solve the relationship with Pakistan”; it will never create “an effective, credible, legitimate Afghan government”; and in most parts of the country it has already lost “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

It does make me wonder whether Rory Stewart would have preferred to argue for withdrawal in 2009 but thought the ‘light long presence’ argument more politically acceptable. Or maybe he really has completely changed his mind about everything in this short time, which should make one question how deep his comprehension was in the first place.

The reason I came to search out the NYRB article was a comment piece in The Hindu, Afghanistan as “Lost Cause”, found via Terry Glavin, in which Praveen Swami criticised an argument in Rory Stewart’s 2009 article as racist. Praveen Swami seemed to think the NYRB article was written more recently:
Last week [...] the influential British diplomat, scholar and Conservative politician Rory Stewart, made the most comprehensive “lost cause” case so far. He claimed that the pursuit of modern democratic values post-9/11 Afghanistan was founded on was “an Enlightenment faith that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about Afghan culture and society and that all men can be perfected [to a western ideal] through the application of reason.” Mr. Stewart doesn’t explain which Enlightenment faith he is referring to, since there was no one single Enlightenment dogma, nor what “intrinsically intractable” might mean - but his propositions underpin much recent writing.
“Lost cause” polemic draws, perhaps unconsciously, from Joseph Conrad’s brilliant but profoundly racist masterpiece, The Heart of Darkness. Afghanistan, in this narrative, is a place where the West’s efforts to promote its values will fail - and where those values themselves will become corroded from within.

The problem with this line of argument is this: there is nothing in recent Afghan political behaviour that suggests it is any different from that of peoples elsewhere. There are few places on the planet where the killings of innocents, such as those in Kandahar, do not have the potential to incite large-scale violence. Indeed, irrational scale violence has been a feature of the West’s political heritage, too.

No one in his right mind, however, would link race riots in the U.S. to the culture of black Americans. Nor could a reasonably literate commentator attribute the lynching of black people in the U.S.’ southern States in the 1960s to a traditional honour code - even if it was invoked by the killers. Political scientists and media know that tradition was invoked by political actors to sharpen group boundaries, and to scare white women from asserting their rights. In writing on Afghanistan, however, it remains perfectly acceptable to attribute political behaviour to a supposedly self-evident term called “Islam” or “tradition.”

There’s more.

Praveen Swami makes clear that this characterisation of ‘Western’ values as alien to the politics of countries like Afghanistan is not only to be found in Rory Stewart’s writing, but is widespread amongst commentators on Afghanistan. It wasn’t central to Rory Stewart’s argument in the NYRB article, but nonetheless it served to colour that argument, as it colours so much argument on international politics.

The question to ask is which of these beliefs is the more self-centered and pretentious one: belief in the promotion of so-called Western values, or belief in the idea that these values are intrinsically and solely Western?

As Terry Glavin says, Praveen Swami’s argument is much the same as the one made powerfully in his own book, Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Struggle for Peace in Afghanistan. It’s a book that I recommend highly. And in it he even has good things to say about Rory Stewart!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Kraken off the coast of Vinland

It’s all gone a bit wrong.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Moral questions for the very young

When you and your friends are guests in someone’s home, and something terrible happens for which you and your friends bear a great deal of responsibility, what should you do?

All run away because you’re scared of how your hosts might react?

Or take responsibility and stay to try and make things better?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Syria consequences

BBC interview with photojournalist Paul Conroy about his experiences in Homs, Syria.

In short, he describes the Syrian regime’s actions in Homs as a slaughter, and says that Homs is just the beginning of an escalating killing campaign by the regime, most of which will now continue away from cameras.

Up to now, governments wanting to stop the Assad regime’s slaughter have used non-military means: political, economic and legal pressure, and humanitarian aid. All of these have to continue, but despite some impact, events show they are not adequate.

I believe it is now time for governments opposing the regime’s slaughter to use force, specifically air strikes against the regime’s military.

Why intervene?
Some commentators argue against any form of intervention, not just military, and declare that internal repression in one country is no concern of other governments. I believe this is both morally and practically wrong. Morally a Syrian life has the same value as a European life, as an American life, as any other human life.

Practically, for any nation engaged in international trade, national security and economic prosperity depend on a minimum of international consistency in the rule of law. Mass murder anywhere puts that at risk, even more so when it happens in regions of particular importance for trade and security, and when those behind the crimes are seen as untouchable. Thus a cause of internal justice becomes an issue of international security.

One strong caveat is that local knowledge is a benefit in intervening, and so local nations may be better suited to intervene than distant ones; though against that, local nations often have conflicts of interest that make them less suited.

Why force, and why now?
Political, economic, and legal pressure on the Assad regime is limited by Russia and China’s stance. Without the agreement of all permanent members of the UN Security Council, it’s impossible to impose a blockade of Syria as some have called for, and it’s impossible to give the International Criminal Court jurisdiction over atrocities in Syria as others have suggested.

While there have been conciliatory moves by Russia and China in signing up to a UNSC statement on humanitarian access, this hasn’t stopped the Assad regime from obstructing the Red Cross/Red Crescent. If it were possible for humanitarian NGOs and human rights observers to get wide access within Syria, this could help the population survive and resist regime violence. It's for this very reason that the regime will continue to obstruct access.

Both the regime and its sympathisers in the Russian and Chinese governments are likely to seek to put an acceptable face on this obstruction while allowing it to continue, so expect to see some occasional minimal access, but not enough to seriously interfere with the regime’s killing campaign.

With journalists driven out from Homs, or killed, with NGOs blocked and embassies closing, with no international observers on the ground, access is reducing as killing is escalating. The continuing partial political and economic isolation of the regime will weaken it, perhaps terminally, but not in time to stop its killing campaign. Instead, now that the regime is committed to a path of mass slaughter, external political and economic pressures have become further incentives to accelerate the killing campaign in order to achieve ‘victory’ while it still has the means.

Therefore the only means left to cut short the killing are those military means that can most quickly deny the regime some of the resources it relies on to supress and kill. By this I mean extensive air strikes against the Syrian military.

Why air strikes?
Widespread air strikes against the Syrian regime would be difficult, dangerous and expensive, and would cause deaths of innocents. They would initially require the destruction of Syria’s air defences which would in itself be a major undertaking likely to cost lives of people, military and civilian, not engaged in repression. Air strikes would not by themselves stop repression and killing by the regime. The regime’s killing campaign would most likely continue to accelerate in the initial stages of an air campaign, and some would seek to blame this continued acceleration of killing on the air campaign. The air campaign would most likely have to continue for several months. While the air campaign could prevent certain outcomes, it could not by itself determine which of various alternative outcomes came to pass, but would nonetheless be held responsible.

Nevertheless, an air campaign is the only means fast and powerful enough to significantly reduce the regime’s capacity to carry out its current acceleration of killing. Its uncertain risks must be set against the certain disaster already underway.

Other suggested military measures are no alternative.

Supplying arms to the Syrian opposition won’t make them strong enough, fast enough, to withstand slaughter by the much more powerful Syrian Army with its artillery and tanks.

Limited punitive air strikes will not deter a regime that now sees its accelerated killing campaign as a race for its own survival.

Establishing and protecting humanitarian corridoors, or supplying aid by air without the regime’s consent, can only be done under cover of a full scale air campaign.

Establishing safe zones would also require a full scale air campaign to ensure their safety, would encourage population movement and increase insecurity outside the zones, and would very likely accelerate ethnic cleansing.

A major ground invasion would be politically unsustainable, would undermine the Syrian opposition, and could not happen fast enough to stop the accelerating slaughter.

For the sake of Syrians, and for the sake of the wider world, we need an air campaign, now.

Below are some links, many to opposing arguments.

Pressure Not War: A Pragmatic and Principled Policy Towards Syria, by Marc Lynch.

The Order of Battle Problem by Andrew Exum at his Abu Muqawama blog.

Some Degree of Airpower by Robert Farley.

The logistics of limited intervention at Slouching Towards Columbia blog.

How many divisions does moral rectitude have? A long sceptical post at Slouching Towards Columbia blog.

The Ambiguous Morality of Foreign Intervention in Syria by Jay Ulfelder.

Syria: The Agonies of Intervention, by Steven A. Cook.

'Adolescent' revulsion and moral shame (over Syria) by Norman Geras.

Humpback grin