Tuesday, 31 December 2013

From Peggy and Cato


Monday, 30 December 2013

Syria (still) needs a No-Fly Zone

In early 2011 anti-regime protests started in Libya, and also in Syria. In both cases the protests were met with deadly force, and escalated into armed uprisings. In the case of Libya, the UN Security Council authorised international military intervention to protect civilians. In Syria, it did not.

Today Libya is not stable, but it is no longer a war zone. Syria is still at war, with no end in sight.

Of the more than two million Syrian refugees who have fled their country, over fifteen thousand have sought safety in Libya.

Military intervention has risks. In NATO’s seven-month bombing war in Libya, it’s likely forty to seventy civilians were accidentally killed by NATO bombs according to The New York Times. According to Amnesty International the number may be between 55 to 115 civilians killed by NATO bombs.

Weigh that toll against the toll in Syria, where in just over a week of aerial bombing in one city, Aleppo, Assad’s military killed over 300 people. On December 24th the Telegraph reported that as many as 480 people were said to have been killed, most of them civilians, including 86 children.

By the 29th, BBC News reported 517 killed by aircraft bombing Aleppo in the two weeks since December 15th. According to The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, 151 of them were children.

The numbers crippled and maimed are more rarely reported.

In November a report on the child casualties of Syria’s war gave a toll of 11,420 children killed to the end of August 2013, out of a total of 113,735 civilians and combatants killed. The majority of children, 7,557 individuals, were reported killed by explosive weapons. Of those, 2,008 cases specified aerial bombardment: that’s 19% of all children where a cause was recorded.

In June, arguing against mounting a No-Fly Zone operation in Syria, US Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that only about 10% of casualties amongst the Syrian opposition were being inflicted by aircraft, the others being caused by artillery or direct fire.

How many lives lost by air attack does that 10% indicate? It’s likely to mean over 10,000 people directly killed by aircraft.* And beyond direct killing, the forces of Assad and his allies also use aircraft for artillery spotting, and they rely heavily on air transport for resupply.

Syria has been an unwanted experiment in non-intervention, and the results are clear. Comparing events in Libya and Syria, there is objective evidence that while enforcing a No-Fly Zone early in the conflict might have led to civilian casualties numbering over a hundred, it would likely have prevented several thousands of killings by aircraft, and would have restricted the ability of Assad’s forces to kill on the ground.

It’s a truism that Syria’s war is complicated, and increasingly so. A No-Fly Zone is not a solution to the conflict, but it is a proven means to restrict the killing. The logic that eliminating chemical weapons from the conflict is a good thing applies all the more to conventional air bombardment as it has taken many more lives.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone is not an easy option. It needs money, advanced technology, expertise, and bravery on the part of many of the volunteer combatants who have to see it through. Only a few nations have the resources needed to succeed.

Enforcing a No-Fly Zone is not politically easy. In the case of Syria, it requires willingness to defy Putin’s policy of obstruction in the UN Security Council. It requires making the case that defence of collective security requires and justifies this military action even in the absence of a Security Council resolution.

There is more than one way to impose a No-Fly Zone, from the regular air patrols seen in the 1990s over Iraq, to bombing air bases in response to attacks by Assad aircraft. A discussion in May at USIP explored some of the options and constraints.

The war is far from over. Assad’s air force may yet kill several thousands more, possibly tens of thousands more.

Syria still needs a No-Fly Zone.


*The most recent UN report on violent deaths, commissioned by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cross-referenced casualty counts by different organisations to arrive at a minimum count of 92,901 unique killings from March 15th 2011 to April 30th 2013. However this number includes combatants from both sides as well as civilians. One of the UN’s sources, the Violations Documentation Centre, or VDC, counts 10,182 violent deaths amongst regime forces up to April 30th 2013, but there is likely to be up to half as many again from the other sources used for the report. (The VDC’s identifiable records for the period covered 62,386 individual killings, just over two-thirds of the total number identified in the UN report, a significant undercount.) On that basis, 10% of non-government people killed would be approximately 7,700 killed by air attacks up to April 30th 2013.

Today the VDC has records of 83,117 non-government people killed, 61,493 of them civilians and 21,606 anti-regime fighters. Its toll of regime forces killed is 12,018. Of the non-government people killed, 7,425 are identified as having been killed by warplanes. 1,017 are listed as killed by chemical weapons without means of delivery being named. 1,750 are listed as having been killed by explosions without shelling or aircraft being named. Others are listed as having been killed by shelling, by execution, by torture, or by other means. Bearing in mind that the VDC’s figures showed an undercount of a third when cross-checked with other sources for the UN OHCHR report, it is reasonable to conclude that likely over 10,000 people have been directly killed by aircraft in the Syrian war.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

America’s anti-interventionist prophets of doom



This is not about Syria, much, but about the first year or so of that earlier and incomparably bigger war where anti-interventionists were (similarly) not just against any direct involvement of American forces, but also against supplying arms. In those days of 1939 to ’41 there wasn’t of course any fear of such arms falling into the hands of Islamists, but there was, as today, a fear on the part of some that sending arms would be just a step on the road to direct intervention.

The pro-arms side argued that enabling Britain to defend itself would serve US interests by reinforcing an obstacle between Nazi Germany and the US. The anti-arms side countered that Britain was doomed in any case, and that any arms sent would be arms wasted at a time when the US defences were desperately weak and in need of urgent build-up.

If the prophets of doom had won the argument, their prophecy would most likely have been self-fulfilling.

Lynne Olson’s recent book, Those Angry Days, is an engrossing history of the time. She gives a number of examples of its doomsayers.

General George Marshall, Army chief of staff, argued in 1940 that if Britain were defeated after America sent arms needed at home, “the Army and the Administration could never justify to the American people the risk they had taken.” On June 24 General Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark urged Roosevelt to stop all aid to Britain. Roosevelt rejected the suggestion (Chapter 9).

A majority in Congress were also against sending arms. Senator Key Pittman, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged Britain to surrender to Hitler, saying “it is no secret that Great Britain is totally unprepared for defence,” and that “nothing the United States has to give can do more than delay the result.”

Churchill commented “Up till April [US officials] were so sure that the Allies would win that they did not think help necessary. Now they are so sure we shall lose that they do not think it possible.”

By 1941 there had been some shift in military thinking. Admiral Stark now believed American security required Britain’s survival, and pressed Roosevelt  to start US Navy escorts of convoys to Britain. General Marshall also supported escorts, but more as a way of strengthening America’s hemispheric defence and of buying time, rather than to ensure Britain’s survival. Similarly he supported Lend-Lease as a spur to US industrial capacity which would serve American defence even if Britain were defeated (Chapter 19).

Lynne Olson writes that “throughout 1941, Marshall received much of his military intelligence from staffers who were both anti-British and antiwar.” She gives the example of General Stanley Embick, who had openly aligned with the National Council for Prevention of War. A few weeks before Embick was to retire, Marshall had him included in War Department strategy discussions and White House meetings where Embick spoke not just against American entry into the war, but against any military or economic aid for Britain. Subsequently Marshall made Embick his senior military adviser.

Another example was Colonel Truman Smith, friend of isolationist campaigner Charles Lindbergh, and at the same time General Marshall’s main expert on Germany. According to Olson, “like most of his colleagues in Army intelligence, Smith made no secret of his belief that Germany would soon overpower Britain and that America should abandon what Smith saw as its hopeless attempt to save the country.” Smith circulated pessimistic intelligence reports about Britain’s chances of survival that charged Churchill’s government with “disastrous interference” in British military affairs. Smith also passed on military information to prominent anti-interventionist campaigners.

Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox experienced similar attitudes, and described to Secretary of War Henry Stimson “how he had to fight against the timidity of his own admirals on any aggressive movement … how all their estimates and advice were predicated on the failure of the British.”

I recommend the book. For more see Gene’s recent Harry’s Place post, After Kristallnacht.

Also related, Conflicting ideas, a post by Peter Ryley looking at recurring standpoints in debates on war and intervention down the years.

Cartoon by Dr Seuss, first published in PM Magazine, October 1st 1941. From UC San Diego Library Special Collections and Archives.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Silencing the witnesses

Among countless horrors in Syria, the first half of December has seen the killing of a freelance Iraqi journalist, the kidnapping of four Syrian human rights defenders working at the Violations Documentation Center, and the announcement that two Spanish journalists have been imprisoned since September 16th by members of the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Peggy’s moustache


There are plenty of boys in Peggy’s class already, but for Romeo and Juliet she decided to be one more. Here she is playing Benvolio.

Below, more of the great cast of classmates. Thanks to Sandra Jacobs for the photos.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Random Walk



Christmas is saved, thanks to John Dog. Here’s his new album, and it’s available to download – for free!

In case you missed it, his lovely promo for the first track, Video Shop, is below. Find more John Dog songs, as well as full lyrics to sing along to, on Raymond Butler’s Bandcamp page.



Tuesday, 10 December 2013

For readers of the LRB

The London Review of Books has published an article by Seymour Hersh, titled Whose sarin? The article presents accusations that the Obama administration engaged in “the deliberate manipulation of intelligence” in its response to the August 21 chemical attack in Syria.

Seymour Hersh has established a notable reputation as an investigative reporter, a reputation that will weigh the balance for some when considering how reliable this article might be. In this case though, it’s also worth considering the two reputable publications that declined to publish this article, Mr Hersh’s regular customers The New Yorker and The Washington Post.

Rather than rely on reputation then, it might be better to turn to expertise and evidence.

In Sy Hersh on Syria: Some Problems, Cheryl Rofer, chemist, chemical weapons expert, and retired supervisor at Los Alamos, focuses on his use of anonymous and uncheckable sources, his claims about the technical abilities of US agencies to monitor Syrian chemical weapons sites, his characterisation of intelligence analysis as cherry-picking, his focus on one analyst’s view of the range of Assad’s rockets, and his treating reports of certain rebels having some technical knowledge of sarin as meaning they had the capacity to actually produce the large volume of sarin used in the attack. On this point she links to an article by Dan Kaszeta, No, you can’t make sarin in your kitchen.

Dan Kaszeta is a former officer in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps and a former member of the U.S. Secret Service. He has 22 years’ experience in the field of chemical defense. His own response is titled Why Seymour Hersh has it wrong this time. He also criticises the characterisation of analysis as cherry-picking, and criticises the use of anonymous sources:
From the logical standpoint, Washington is full of “highly-placed sources,” and there is (and always has been) a wide diversity of opinion within the intelligence community. You can get someone to support nearly any opinion that one might have. There are well-known former intelligence employees who clearly have strong opinions and an axe to grind. I can find them in 10 minutes on the internet, so one concludes that Mr. Hersh can find one as well. And as an editorial matter, how can one reliably build an argument on a single informant who is anonymous, particularly when there are dozens if not hundreds of sources saying the opposite. There’s a word for this: “cherry-picking.”
On Seymour Hersh’s insinuation that a rebel group might have manufactured the sarin used in the attack, Dan Kaszeta brings his expertise to bear. Based on the number of victims and the capacity of the rockets found at the attack sites, Mr Kaszeta estimates that “a rough range of sarin from 370 kg to 4400 kg of sarin” was used, his best guess being “somewhere in the middle of this range, perhaps a ton.” This amount would require “a large, sophisticated, and very expensive factory-scale facility” to manufacture. “To put it into proper perspective, in 1994-1995 the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan built a purpose-built facility, spent many millions, and had a number of chemists and engineers,” he points out, “but the best that Aum could do, despite mastering the mechanics of the process, was to produce bucket-sized quantities.”

Both Cheryl Rofer and Dan Kaszeta recommend Eliot Higgins’ work identifying and analysing weapons used in the August 21 attack by means of of the very many publicly available videos and photos of the Syrian war. Eliot Higgins has written a detailed response for Foreign Policy magazine, titled Sy Hersh's Chemical Misfire. In it he focuses on the munitions used in the attack, and the suggestion reported by Hersh that the missiles could have been manufactured in a local workshop by rebels. Eliot Higgins gives details of the missiles used and includes examples of the open source video and photo evidence linking the missiles both to chemical attacks and to Assad’s forces. The evidence included in the Foreign Policy article is only a fraction of that found on Eliot Higgins’ own blog, Brown Moses.

Brian Whitaker, journalist and former Middle East editor of the Guardian newspaper, contrasts Eliot Higgins’ open source reporting with Seymour Hersh’s secret source stories. In his post titled Investigating chemical weapons in Syria he writes of Hersh that “he seems to have spent so much time listening to his secretive sources, and perhaps became so enthralled with them, that he never got round to looking at a wealth of information about the chemical attacks which is freely available on the internet.”

A detailed analysis by Scott Lucas and Joanna Paraszczuk, Chemical Weapons Conspiracy That Wasn’t – Hersh’s “Exclusive” Dissected, is published on the EA WorldView blog. They go into detail on aspects of the attack not mentioned in Seymour Hersh’s long article, particularly the scale and complexity of the attack against several areas simultaneously, and the strength of the siege by regime forces at the time. They also make detailed criticisms of his arguments and of the way he interprets the partial information that he does include. Uniquely they attempt to identify one of Seymour Hersh’s anonymous sources, the “former senior intelligence official,” suggesting that he is F. Michael Maloof, a former staffer in the Undersecretary of State of Defense’s office in the George W. Bush Administration. They point to the close similarity between accusations attributed to the secret source and public allegations made by Mr Maloof on WorldNet Daily, a highly partisan right-wing website. Mr Maloof later repeated his allegations on Russia Today. He has also previously appeared on the Iranian channel Press TV denouncing the lifting of the European arms embargo on the insurgency. Given his association with what are widely regarded as crude propaganda outlets, if Mr Maloof is Mr Hersh’s anonymous source then his anonymity would seem designed more to protect Mr Hersh’s reputation than Mr Maloof’s.

Foreign correspondent Richard Spencer summarises much of the above for Telegraph readers: Ignore the conspiracy theories: Assad was behind the Syrian chemical weapons attack.

Finally, turning again to Seymour Hersh’s reputation, it’s worth remembering the standard caveat that past performance is no guarantee of future results, and noting at the same time that beyond the highlights of his career he has previously produced some questionable stories. Bret Stephens provided a series of examples in a June 2011 Wall Street Journal article, Iran, Syria – and Seymour Hersh. Two erroneous stories related to Syria:
In February 2008, Mr. Hersh claimed that the mysterious Syrian facility Israel bombed the previous September "apparently had little to do with . . . nuclear reactors." Last month, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Yukiya Amano wrote that "the Agency concludes that the destroyed building was very likely a nuclear reactor." In April 2009, he returned to Syria to write a hopeful piece about the prospects of a U.S.-Syria rapprochement, strongly hinting that Damascus could gradually be peeled away from Tehran. The evidence of the past two months suggests otherwise.
And so it seems this is a third strike on Seymour Hersh’s Syria record. Reader beware.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Follow up re. Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah’s Friends in London

A number of items have been published in the last week that relate to the content of the previous post. The first part of that post dealt with a perception that the people of Syria are the immediate losers in US President Obama’s engagement with Iran.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah’s friends in London



Above: cartoon by protesters in Kafranbel, Syria. They see Obama trading away Syria under the table in order to get his Iran deal. Read more on Kafranbel’s history of protest in Rising Up and Rising Down, Amal Hanano’s October article for Foreign Policy.

A suspicion similar to the one expressed in the above cartoon appears in an article by Politico editor Susan B Glasser, The Price of Smart Power: Will Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran come at the cost of Syrian lives?

At Now Lebanon, Michael Weiss gives his version of this analysis, The Invisible Rider on the Deal: Syria has been ceded to Iran in exchange for a six-month pause on Tehran’s nuclear program.

The core of the analysis is this:
  1. Obama’s aim is to keep the US out of any major war. This requires avoiding direct involvement in the war in Syria, and avoiding war with Iran.

  2. The greatest risks that might lead the US into war are WMD proliferation in Syria or Iran, or an outright Al Qaeda victory in Syria.

  3. The deal to contain and remove chemical weapons in Syria requires the survival of the Assad regime, and the deal to contain nuclear development in Iran requires the co-operation of the Iranian regime. Both of those factors weigh against a strategy of building up non-Al Qaeda rebel forces in Syria in order to counter Al Qaeda, instead they weigh in favour of allowing Iran to continue to support the Assad regime in order to contain Al Qaeda and force the rest of the Syrian opposition to negotiate a settlement.
In essence Obama’s strategy seems to seek a cold peace by allowing Iran to consolidate a Tehran Bloc from Lebanon to.. Afghanistan? The eastern limit is not yet clear. What is clear is that while Iran negotiates on its nuclear program, its proxy force Hezbollah, along with other forces armed and trained by Iran, has a relatively free hand to keep Assad in power in Syria.

Friday, 22 November 2013

A kids’ outing: Peggy plays philosophy at Parliament

Nine year old Peggy and two of her classmates had an unusual afternoon on Wednesday. Along with children from a number of other schools, they had been invited to take part in an event at the Houses of Parliament. It was held by by the Philosophy Foundation, to demonstrate how the Foundation holds lessons in philosophical enquiry in schools. Peggy’s class had previously  been lucky enough to have a series of lessons with one of the Foundation’s specialist philosophy teachers, Miriam Cohen Christofidis.

The Foundation’s lessons use games, stories, and group discussions, to explore ideas and dilemmas. The ideas to be discussed are introduced through the games and stories, and the discussions are moderated by the specialist teacher. When Peggy’s class last had a series of lessons, all of the discussion themes came out of stories from the Odyssey. On the days when Peggy had philosophy she would be full of talk after school about who thought what, and wanting to carry on the conversation with us at home.

The demonstration lesson at The Houses of Parliament was on the theme of truth and lies. First there was a spirited introduction by Angie Hobbs. Then the specialist teacher conducting the lesson, Peter Worley, sparked it off with a game of pretend involving magic stones and pendants that caused the wearers to either tell truth or lie, and from there quickly moved into a discussion of what had happened in the game.

It was great to see how quickly all the children became engaged, and how they were ready to explore ideas, and were ready to shift positions as they heard others come up with alternative ideas. This exploratory openness made the discussion very different to the kind heard in a debating competition where participants must defend a predetermined position. It also made for a discussion where it was possible for children to contribute without worrying too much about having a correct answer in advance.


And afterwards there was tea and cake, and a chance for the audience to talk with the young philosophers.

You can read a post by Peter Worley arguing for teaching philosophy in schools on the TES Opinion blog. It’s a short enough post, but I’m including an an even shorter extract below:
There was a time when the chief way through which we understood the world was myths and legends; later, it was religion. And it was through philosophical lines of inquiry that these paradigms were challenged, either by philosophers such as the Pre-Socratics, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and later Popper and Kuhn or by scientists adopting a philosophical attitude such as Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Feynman. (Interestingly, Newton was known in those days as a ‘natural philosopher’ not a ‘scientist’.)

By extension, when ‘how we understand the world’ is taught uncritically there is, of course, the ever-present danger that those undergoing the education programme may be subjected to indoctrination, either political or religious. The ‘philosophical attitude’ that I claim any education programme should include, safeguards those undergoing it from these very real dangers, that history has shown – and continues to show – to be much more than the paranoid delusions of conspiracy theories.

Another claim I will make is that philosophy – done well – is dedicated to understanding, and if understanding really is at the heart of education, then, wherever possible, philosophy should be included in any education programme.
Read more here.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Vivat Rex Benedict



Time, I think, for a Rex Benedict revival. I have just finished reading the above book with Bo, Last Stand at Goodbye Gulch, and it has much the same fine qualities as Good Luck Arizona Man, on which I blogged earlier. Two more of his cowboy stories sit ready on the side table, Goodbye to the Purple Sage and The Ballad of Cactus Jack.

There is not much to be found about Mr Benedict online, but Last Stand at Goodbye Gulch includes this glimpse of the man:

About the Author

Rex Benedict writes that his biography can best be set forth in periods:

“There was the Oklahoma Period, where I was born and raised; the Northwestern State College Period, where I was educated; the U.S. Navy Period, where I flew from aircraft carriers; the European Period, where I translated and dubbed movies; the Greek and Roman Revival Period, where I pined among the relics; the Freighter Period, where I cruised endlessly on blue seas; the Corsair Press Period, where I privately published my greatest works and gave them all away; the Translation Period, where I translated many books, including The Decameron, into many languages, hopefully the right ones; the Juvenile Novel Period, where I astounded myself and others by writing Westerns; and finally the Terrace Period, where I now sit on West 88th Street in New York City, marvelling at it all.”

An antiquarian book site gives Rex Benedict’s date of birth as circa 1920. It also describes him as a British poet, so who knows. The rather perfect cover illustration for Last Stand at Goodbye Gulch is by Quentin Blake. It was published by Hamish Hamilton, London, in 1975. The first American edition was in 1974.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Video Shop


John Dog’s latest, Video Shop, fantastic period videotography in this rewind to the horrors of the late 20th century, and with finger puppets! This is the first song from his upcoming collection The Random Walk.

More John Dog songs here.

A school comics fair


I’ve been thinking recently about children’s comics, and the number of good books now available that are not widely known by children or parents. In the UK, regular bookshops carry only a fraction of the good children’s comics currently being published.

A curious thing has happened with comics in the past few decades. Many comics enthusiasts, creators, publishers, and traders, have been eager to escape the idea that comics are merely downmarket children’s literature. They have succeeded only too well, with the result that much comics publishing is now aimed at older collectors and connoisseurs. The books are more beautifully produced than ever, but more expensive, and much of the newer content, in aiming for greater sophistication, seems to lack the direct engagement, excitement, and humour, of past works.

Meanwhile fewer children buy comics at newsagents. There are some publishers of excellent comics for children but, with the exception of the best known titles, they seem to have a hard time getting their books into non-specialist bookshops, and comic shops attract mostly older readers.

Well, if we can’t get the comics into the bookshops, and can’t get the kids into the comic shops, a third option is to bring the comic shops to the kids, and that means into schools.

Book events in schools such as author visits and book fairs are now common events. I’ve had in mind for a while to try something similar with comics - a school comics fair. And next week, with the help of Gosh! Comics of Berwick Street, we’re going to hold the first one at my daughter’s primary school. I’m really looking forward to it, and from what I hear so are the kids!

Images on the flyer above come from the following good books:

Yoko Tsuno: The Prey and the Ghost, by Roger Leloup
Cat Burglar Black, by Richard Sala
• The Laureline and Valerian series, by Mézières and Christin
Lucky Luke: Jesse James, by Morris and Goscinny
Blake and Mortimer: The Yellow “M”, by Edgar P Jacobs
The Rainbow Orchid, by Garen Ewing
Moominvalley Turns Jungle, by Tove Jannson


Sunday, 27 October 2013

Another 100 books you might enjoy - a post for Norm

Norm is gone, but Normblog is not. The ideas are vital, the words speak, intimacy with the mind endures.

Norman Geras’s last post on Normblog was titled A book list with a difference, or alternatively, 100 works of fiction you might enjoy. As a small tribute to him, I offer a complimentary list of fiction books. There is no overlap with his list as all of these come from the bookshelves of my children. They are still young and they have as yet read hardly any of Norm’s kind suggestions. Like his, this is not a ‘best of’ or a ‘must read’ list, but a list of books that we have enjoyed, some of which you may know, and some of which you might like to try.

The first one is by Ian Beck:

• Picture Book

This is an extraordinary book for the very young, its images simple yet intensely rich. As the children have grown older they have enjoyed many more of his books, for example his edition of Edward Lear’s The Owl and the Pussycat, and a version of The Nutcracker written by Berlie Doherty, and more recently his Tom Trueheart children’s novels.

More picture books by a variety of authors:

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Stonewall Jackson

Here’s a taste of a rather incredible exchange between Stewart Jackson, Conservative MP, and Jonathan Portes, Director, National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

It began with a claim by Stewart Jackson that 37% of EU migrants to the UK have never worked, which Jonathan Portes quickly showed to be wrong. This was followed by some bluster and stonewalling from Jackson, which I’ve omitted for length, until the next morning he changed his claim to saying 37% of EU migrant job seekers, a number only a fraction of his original claim.

Not that he admitted to any error in this. Rather he made a further hash of it, conflating people looking for work with people claiming benefit.

Stewart Jackson MP is a member of the Public Accounts Committee.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

That old zeitgeist made new again

18 May 1935

In an earlier post I looked at some recent opinion polls that suggested opposition amongst the British public to military intervention in Syria was grounded less in Leftist anti-imperialism and more in nationalistic isolationism tinged with xenophobia.

A Telegraph article by Tom Mludzinski of Ipsos MORI presents more details on changing public views regarding military action. He contrasts the lack of support for Syria action with levels of support for earlier interventions, from the 1991 Gulf War to Libya in 2011.

An interesting aspect is the apparent decline in influence of a UN mandate. Only 6% support action in Syria without UN backing, and even if it were to get UN backing only 34% say they would approve. Intervention in Libya, backed by a UN Security Council resolution, had 63% support.

One factor in influencing public opinion may be which way the balance of fear tips. 40% are concerned that doing nothing is worse than taking action, and 48% think that by not taking action we might be encouraging other countries to use chemical weapons, but  nearly eight in ten believe that intervening in Syria will encourage attacks on Britain and the West.

How many base their opinion on the likely impact of any intervention on Syrians? Not too many:
Perhaps most telling is the way the British public view the role of our armed forces, with very few wanting Britain to be the “world’s policeman” or the “guardian of liberty”. Ten years after the beginning of the War in Iraq, three in ten (31pc) Britons now say British armed forces should intervene abroad when other people’s rights and freedom are threatened. Most are more isolationist with 44pc saying we should only intervene when British interests are directly threatened and a further 21pc believe British armed forces should only be used to defend British territory.
Read the rest at The Telegraph.

8 May 1937

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Paintings by the jam man



This short film is of a recent exhibition by Irish artist (and friend) Philip Moss of Glenties, Co.Donegal. See more of his paintings at www.philipmossart.com.

The jam? That’s to be found at Filligans.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Kafranbel 11 September 2013


The unities of 9/11 by Norman Geras.

38 photographs of Syria’s six million refugees, In Focus at The Atlantic.

The World Trade Center in pre-9/11 New Yorker covers at Attempted Bloggery.

Photo: Protesters in Kafranbel, Syria, 11 September 2013, via Omar Ghabra.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

British public opinion on Syria

For many of us who support military intervention in Syria primarily on humanitarian, internationalist, and moral grounds, the arguments in opposition to strikes can be frustrating and even baffling, particularly those made on the Left.

No war? But there is a war already, and will continue to be one even without UK action. And as the war continues, it’s not the embassies of those fully committed to the war, Syria or their Russian allies, that Stop The War campaigners target, but that of the US, a country which has not yet dropped a single bomb in Syria.

Yet though Stop The War and their fellow marchers may be the loudest on the anti-intervention side, and though they may be the most obnoxious to left-of-centre interventionists in their claim to being of the Left, they don’t represent the majority view of those British people opposed to military action by the UK. Focusing on the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of Leftist anti-war activists probably misses the main  causes of British antipathy to intervention.

Norman Geras pointed to an interesting analysis by Peter Kellner in the Sunday Times of a YouGov poll conducted between Friday noon and Saturday morning:
It finds that by more than four to one (68% against 16%) we think parliament took the right decision - an even wider margin than the two to one opposition to military action recorded before Thursday’s debate.
The BBC and ICM Research conducted a similar poll showing 71% in favour of the MP’s vote and 20% against. But as Peter Kellner points out, it seems most of those against UK action in Syria are not against the US doing the job. From the Sunday Times poll:

We asked people whether Britain should help America if President Barack Obama ordered an attack and requested our help. By huge majorities we want Britain to share intelligence information about Syria (by 70% to 15%) and to support America at the United Nations (by 64% to 16%).

By a smaller but still clear margin (48% to 31%), we would be happy to give access to Britain’s military base in Cyprus to US forces attacking Syria.
It’s not just the British that think like this. Support for intervention just so long as someone else does it is also the dominant view in Germany. An old story no doubt.

The parties that took the firmest stand against UK intervention were small parties such as the Green Party, UKIP, the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, some Northern Irish parties, and the far right BNP. These mostly represent varieties of nationalists, with the exception of the Greens. With that in mind it’s interesting to compare the polls of opinion on Syria with polling of British public opinion on immigration.

Recent polling commissioned by Lord Ashcroft of the Conservatives shows responses hostile to immigration ranging from 60% to 81% depending on the particular question. See the complete survey or reports in the Sunday Times and Independent. If we overlay this survey and the YouGov survey on intervention in Syria, the minimum overlap between those opposed to UK action and those with a negative view of immigration ranges between 28% and 49% depending on which immigration question is asked. This means that the majority of those opposed to UK strikes against Assad also hold some negative views on immigration, and by implication quite likely hold some negative views of foreigners.

Without more detailed polling it’s impossible to be conclusive on a link between a degree of xenophobia amongst the British public and their aversion to expending British resources and endangering British lives for the sake of Syrians. But the correlation such as it appears suggests that arguments based on mercy or justice for Syrians may not be the most effective way to shift public opinion.

As unpleasant as it may seem to anyone who’s moved primarily by reports of hundreds of Syrian children gassed in their beds, or by the thousands of children slaughtered by other means, British opinion is more likely to be responsive to any perceived danger to British people in Britain. So talk about how Assad’s war breeds extremists and how his broken borders won’t hold them, talk about millions of Syrians now on the move and maybe coming this way, talk about how effective sarin gas is in a modern subway system, but don’t waste too much time talking about Syrian victims.


Friday, 30 August 2013

Blessed are the peacemakers


It’s not 1938, Ed Miliband is not Chamberlain, Cameron is not Churchill, Assad is not the danger to Britain that Hitler was, and the Munich Conference is not any kind of decent analogy for the events of this week. But considering the current popular and political resistance to military action against the mass-murdering Syrian regime, and wondering how it will be perceived in future years, I think it’s worth remembering just how popular appeasement was in 1938 - remembering just how many people thought it fine and good and worth celebrating.

The following snippets are from Lynne Olson’s book, Troublesome Young Men, an account of the anti-appeasement Tory rebels who eventually brought Churchill to power. From Chapter Eight:
Most Britons greeted the news with an almost hysterical outpouring of relief and thanksgiving. The newspaper coverage, lavish in its praise of Chamberlain, helped orchestrate the jubilant mood. In two-inch type, the single word “PEACE!” was emblazoned across the front page of the Daily Express. Of the prime minister, The Times declared: “No conqueror returning from a victory on the battlefield had come adorned with nobler laurels.” Lord Castlerosse, the portly socialite gossip columnist for the Sunday Express, exulted: “Thanks to Chamberlain, thousands of young men will live. I shall live.”

...

When Chamberlain’s plane returned from Munich on the afternoon of September 30, a delirious crowd of several thousand people stood in a driving rainstorm at Heston Airport, waving newspapers and Union Jacks, waiting to greet the man they considered the saviour of the world. The crowds went wild when the prime minister, carrying his signature umbrella, emerged from the plane. The dozens of policemen on horseback had a difficult time holding back the surging mass; everyone, it seemed, wanted to shake Chamberlain’s hand.

From Heston, Chamberlain was whisked away by car to Buckingham Palace, where King George and Queen Elizabeth waited to offer their congratulations. Through the car’s rain-streaked windows, Chamberlain looked out at thousands of cheering, flag-waving Britons lining the streets, some of whom, in their exuberance, leaped onto the running boards of the car and banged on the windows. At the palace another huge throng waited, and when Chamberlain and his wife stepped out onto the palace balcony with the smiling king and queen, there was an earsplitting ovation. It was an unprecedented event, the first time a ruling monarch had allowed a commoner to be acknowledged from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. According to Tory MP Edward Grigg, it was also “the biggest constitutional blunder that has ever been made by any sovereign this century.” By appearing on the balcony with Chamberlain, George VI was publicly associating himself with the prime minister’s policy, a violation of the political impartiality required of a sovereign in a constitutional monarchy.

But few people were thinking of such issues that day. Continuing his triumphal procession, Chamberlain returned at last to Downing Street, which was jammed by hundreds of people who had been waiting in the rain for hours. Across the street from the prime minister’s residence, Orme Sargent, an assistant foreign affairs undersecretary and a strong opponent of appeasement, watched the crowd from a first-floor balcony of the Foreign Office. Turning to a colleague, he acidly observed: “You might think that we had won a major victory instead of betraying a minor country.”

From Chapter Nine:
For weeks after Munich it was impossible to escape from Neville Chamberlain. Everywhere one went in Britain, it seemed, there were reminders of the prime minister and his historic journey. Toy shops featured booted Chamberlain dolls, holding a rod and reel in one hand and a little sign saying PEACEMAKER in the other. Candy stores sold sugar umbrellas, while florists displayed Chamberlain’s picture framed by flowers and bearing the inscription WE ARE PROUD OF YOU. Companies took out large newspaper advertisements lauding the prime minister, and the poet laureate, John Masefield, wrote a poem comparing him to the tragic Greek hero Priam and declaring that he had been “divinely led.”

Ten Downing Street meanwhile was flooded with letters, telegrams, flowers, umbrellas, toys, trinkets, and other items celebrating Chamberlain’s achievement. He put many of these articles on display in a large showcase, which he loved to show off to visitors. When Kenneth Clark and his wife came to lunch one day, Chamberlain proudly led them to the showcase, explaining that the articles “were sent to me in gratitude for the Munich agreement.”

As John Colville noted in his diary, Munich fed the prime minister’s vanity as well as his arrogance. With Chamberlain “almost canonised” because of Munich, it was “small wonder,” Violet Bonham Carter dryly remarked, “that he began to see himself as a Messiah sent down from heaven...”

The events of 1938 are seen in a very different light now. I wonder how will 29 August 2013 be remembered?
_

Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill To Power And Helped Save England is copyright © 2007 by Lynne Olson.

The still of Conrad Veidt surrounded by plaster statues of Chamberlain is from the Powell and Pressburger film Contraband, via the blog in so many words...

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Recent video tweets

Here a video miscellany from recent twitterings:

A twelve year old Egyptian comments on recent events, via Hussein Ibish and Sarah Brown. Interview by Egyptian newspaper El Wady, in Cairo on Oct 19, 2012, and posted on YouTube by the Free Arabs blog.

Al Bowlly sings Melancholy Baby, a British Pathé short from the 1930s, via George Szirtes. More here and here.

Betty Boop at the circus with Bimbo and Koko, Boop-Oop-A-Doop.

An interview with eteran session musician Carol Kaye, found via britishmaid. Here’s more, and more.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

For democracy, but against majoritarianism



The following comment by Hussein Ibish, on the current political crisis in Egypt, links with the theme of my previous post on representative democracy and the filibuster. From PBS NewsHour yesterday:
HUSSEIN IBISH: I think we need to be very clear, much clearer than we have been, with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and around the Middle East about what our values are and our interests are, and to not be fascinated by trying to understand them. They are not that difficult to understand. They are the religious right of the Arab world and they want power.

So, for example, one of the things we really need to stress is that the only way out of this situation for Egypt -- and this is a message for the Muslim Brothers and the president, and it's a message to the military -- is an election. Clearly, there was one, but clearly the Egyptian public is not satisfied. We don't have a stable situation.

We don't really have a workable constitution. We don't have a functioning parliament. All of those things require the will of the people to be respected.

And also we need to make the point again and again that not only do we have our interests, but also our values are not democracy as majoritarianism.

There are individual rights, human rights, women's rights, minority rights that have to be respected even by 50 percent plus one.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Representative democracy and the filibuster


This post is in response to a couple of tweets by Martin Robb. He was commenting on this week’s political drama in the Texas Senate where Wendy Davis blocked passage of a bill to introduce new regulations for abortion clinics. She achieved this by delivering a filibuster speech over ten hours long, resulting in the subsequent vote missing a midnight deadline.

Martin Robb’s tweets deal with wider principles of democratic government, and it’s these that I’m addressing here rather than the issue of abortion.

Martin tweeted ‘Not sure why liberals/democrats hailing filibuster of bill passed by both houses of legislature in Texas as victory for popular will...’

My initial reply was ‘Liberals/democrats balance popular will with individual rights - hence need for safeguards against a tyranny of the majority.’

To which he responded ‘But surely ballot box plus campaigning to change majority opinion way to do that, not undemocratic filibustering, etc?’

In a representative democracy, matters are a little more complicated than Martin’s tweets suggest. A majority opinion in the legislature or parliament is not the same as a majority opinion in the population at large, or the popular will as Martin terms it.

The function of a representative democracy is not to precisely replicate the balance of popular opinion within the legislature, nor are elected individuals required to follow the will of the majority of their constituents, or even of their supporters. The task of elected individuals is to use their own best judgement, and as long as they act within the law then the only sanction their constituents have if dissatisfied is to elect someone else the next time around.

It’s easy to see how the majority in a democratically elected body can come to power while openly holding views contrary to the views of the majority of the population, or even of the majority of the smaller number of voting public. A voter will not always find a candidate they agree with on all issues. Most likely they will have some points of disagreement with each candidate, and will therefore prioritise the issues on which they will decide their vote and find a candidate that they regard as the best compromise.

Further, a particular issue may be more important to that portion of the electorate who hold a minority view on it than to those voters with the majority view. The majority may prefer to allocate their vote based on other matters. In such a case a candidate may gain support from the minority on the particular issue while losing little support from the majority if the candidate has their trust on whichever other matters they regard as more important.

It follows that it’s perfectly possible for the majority in the legislature to pass legislation that imposes a minority popular view on the dissenting majority of the public. This is one reason why it should not be too easy to pass legislation. Procedures must be in place to allow a minority of elected representatives in the legislature to challenge and obstruct the majority. Where this occurs within established law, it is not obviously undemocratic as this minority of elected representatives are still subject to the democratic sanction of being replaced at the next election if their actions don’t have enough popular support.

To go further, it shouldn’t be thought that the only justification for a minority of elected representatives acting to frustrate the will of the majority in a legislature is if that minority of representatives are supported by a majority of the populace. Again we come back to the principle that representatives are elected to act according to their own judgement. There may be sound principles for opposing the majority will in a particular case, most obviously where the majority will infringes the rights of individuals.

Just democracies require instruments for minorities of all kinds, down to the minority of one, to have available legal means of resisting a tyranny of the majority. It’s in the interest of all in the majority to have such instruments in place as insurance against the day when even the mightiest amongst them might find themselves in a threatened minority. These necessary instruments include some often regarded as liberal, such as basic human rights; they also include parliamentary procedures that limit the power of majorities to pass legislation, procedures that might in effect be regarded as conservative. They can even include powers for un-elected courts to overturn the effects of direct democracy as seen in a separate American political drama this week.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Kayak and Canoe


My son Bo is off on a canoeing and camping adventure this weekend. He knows a little of canoeing but is more experienced with kayaking. Here’s something he wrote about it last year for school:

Entering the flow, my boat suddenly tipped over; what had I forgotten? I was tipped over many more times and was only able to save myself with a few support strokes, the spray from the rooster tails was getting through my spray deck, and then I realised, I wasn’t edging! It was the most basic rule of white water kayaking and I had forgotten it! Just before I hit the Rooster tails I managed to put on an edge. It was the closest shave I’d had for a long time.

When you finish reading the last paragraph you may be wondering, who is this person, where are they and what on earth do rooster tails have to do with white water kayaking? Well, my name is Bo Jacobs Strøm, and I am spending part of the summer, before starting secondary school, white water kayaking at Shepperton Weir in Surrey. The most confusing thing in this piece will probably be all the kayaking words I’ll be using so here is what they mean: an edge is when you tilt your boat one way while keeping your balance (this can save you from capsizing by making the water go under your boat instead of hitting the top and capsizing you), a support stroke is a stroke from the paddle which stops you capsizing, a spray deck is a flexible cover which is fitted to the top of a kayak keeping the users bottom half dry (and stopping water getting into your boat), an eddy which is a pocket of flat water caused by a rock in the white water, and finally a rooster tail is white water which hits a rock and goes spurting up in the air.

For the past three days I had been experiencing coldness, wetness, and a lot of fun at Shepperton Weir where I had gone with the Pirate Club, a kayaking and canoeing club based in Camden. I went so I could do white water kayaking and have fun, and that was exactly what I did do.

White water kayaking was something I hadn’t done for a long time so I was a little bit worried about capsizing and so on but, although I sometimes I had a close shave, I got on well in fact the only thing I was still worried about on the second day was the swimming in white water practice...

I was standing on a rock in the middle of the white water about to jump into the flow, I was terrified, but everyone else had managed to get into the eddy so I knew it could be done. I jumped. It was just as fun as kayaking in the white water and I actually managed to get into the eddy pretty quickly. As I hit the water shut my eyes and the next thing I knew was that I was being swept down stream. I quickly made sure my feet would not snag on a rock, aimed my head at the eddy, turned over onto my front and swam for all I was worth into the eddy, now thoroughly convinced that white water kayaking would be my sport from now on.

So that’s my experience of Shepperton Weir, a great place to go if you're beginning to learn white water kayaking and for any kayaking the Pirate Club (where I spent a lot of the rest of my holiday) is a great place, especially as one of the instructors might compete at the Rio 2016 Olympic games.

Image source: Library and Archives Canada.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Exercising the Colonel


Above, one of David Low’s Colonel Blimp cartoons from the lead up to the Second World War. You can see and read more of the Colonel in this blog’s most popular post by far, from a few years back.

I would love to look back at Low’s satires of muddled thinking and be able to say how out of date they seem, but that’s far from being the case. David Low’s Blimp character was primarily a satire on right-wing little Englander pro-appeasement attitudes, but Low also took aim at similar views on the Left via his Pmilb character: Blimp backwards. Today’s Pmilbs and Blimps continue to muddle ideas of radical left and reactionary right, of liberalism and of bigotry.

A couple of prime examples from the past pages of this blog are Simon Jenkins, a modern-day little Englander who has found a comfortable berth at the supposedly liberal Guardian, and Judith Butler, a leading academic in feminist and gender theory who contrived to describe Hamas and Hezbollah, two violent, sectarian, antisemitic and misogyninist organisations, as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left.”

Several more examples have been on parade in recent days, with a series of supposedly Left commentators eager not to distance their own beliefs from those of religiously bigoted anti-democratic fanatical murderers, but rather to point to how close in agreement they are, and to claim justification of motive (though not of course of action) for bloody public murder on a London street.

Take Rachel Shabi’s comments on the Woolwich murder, beginning with this tweet:
There is nothing that controversial here in my eyes. Radicalisation is a problem for the whole of society to deal with. To charge one group with responsibility for solving it in isolation would seem likely to be counterproductive. And UK foreign policy? What about it? That aspect could be taken in a number of directions.

But then she clarified that her preferred response to the murder was “eliminating bad foreign policy as a recruitment device”.
So here Rachel Shabi sees UK foreign policy as bad and believes that as murderers of today and potential murderers of tomorrow agree with her, that policy should change. However when pressed by Rob Marchant on the question “Should foreign policy change as a result of these attacks,” she tries to split hairs:
Rachel Shabi insists that “understanding is not justifying,” but though she doesn’t justify the act she does justify the motive, making clear that she sees anger over UK foreign policy, the only motive to which she gives any consideration, as “justifiable anger,” and again “justified anger”.

Incredibly, having concluded that this anger over actions like the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan leads to radicalisation and acts of terror, she then does her little bit to encourage such anger with a wholly one-sided representation of today’s news story on prisoners held by the British Army in Afghanistan:
It’s an interesting story, though not so simple as Rachel Shabi would have you believe.

If I found that any of my views were shared by such cutthroats I think I might want to consider whether I was somehow in error, but Rachel Shabi is not alone in finding affirmation in such an alignment. There are more happy to declare their, at least partial, agreement with the murderers...

Ian Leslie points to the stupidity of ex-mayor Ken Livingstone blaming the attack on the invasion of Iraq.

Our friend in Canada, Terry Glavin, adds Michael Moore and Glenn Greenwald (in the Guardian) to his list of moral illiterates weighing in on Woolwich. He writes:
Do note that it isn’t some imam in some dingy mosque carrying on like that, although now and then there will be one of those, too. Note as well that the overwhelming majority of Afghans, and the overwhelming majority of Afghan-Canadians, supported NATO’s intervention, and most of these people are, as it happens, Muslims.

Note well that these idiocies about blowback and retaliation do not generally come from the mosques at all. It’s the sort of rubbish that comes from out of the mouths of moral illiterates.

It should stop.

Norman Geras finds Greenwald’s failure of logic replicated in a Guardian article by Terry Eagleton, and lays out the mechanism to display its faults.

Jonathan Freedland doesn’t forget the Stop The War Coalition, who naturally take their own alignment with the declared motives of murderers as absolute vindication.

Nick Cohen, like Terry Glavin above, takes the time to point out some people most likely not in agreement with the murderers, namely victims of Islamist violence, mostly Muslim, not just in Afghanistan but also Pakistan, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia. The list is far from exhaustive.

Bizarrely Rachel Shabi refers to Nick Cohen’s article as “a cluster bomb of muscular liberal lunacy.” Whatever about lunacy, I think her metaphor of an indiscriminate weapon of mass slaughter to describe the article is perhaps an example of what they refer to in the mental health business as projection. (A more complex analysis here by blogger Unrepentant Jacobin.)

Funnier still is that after Livingstone, Moore, Greenwald, Eagleton and the Stop The War Coalition have all had their say, Rachel Shabi writes 950 words on how debate is being stifled, closed, sealed shut even. And all of her words are published by the Guardian.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Kissinger Obama, Nixon Obama, Pax Obama.

In the Ottowa Citizen, under the title Shrugging at Syria and its refugees, Terry Glavin writes:
When the United States and Britain turned away 70,000 starving Jewish refugees from the fascist Romanian regime of Ion Antonescu in February, 1943, it fell to U.S. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles to explain why. There are reasons, Welles said. It’s a trick of some kind. Taking those Jews would just play into the Nazi propaganda machine. There are reasons.

Thirty years later, in 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir came to Washington to plead on behalf of the Soviet Union’s persecuted Jews. In a secretly recorded conversation released only in 2010, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger are heard to congratulate one another after having just shown Meir the door. They had their reasons.

“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger is heard to mumble, “and if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Nixon responds: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.”

Push the clock ahead 40 years to last month, when events in Syria were unfolding in such a way as to call President Barack Obama’s bluff about the “red lines” he’d blustered about having drawn around Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas. To extricate Obama from his predicament, an anonymous White House official is summoned to perform a pitch-perfect ventriloquism of Kissinger’s casual aside to Nixon. “If he (Assad) drops sarin on his own people, what’s that got to do with us?”

Read the rest here.  He has a related post on his blog, Syria: Paint it Black.

Terry Glavin is not alone in his analysis. From Der Spiegel, Gregor Peter Schmitz writes on an Unlikely Heir: Obama Returns to Kissinger's Realpolitik.

An early version of the Obama-as-Nixon theme came from Nick Cohen in the Observer back in 2010, Obama is the most reactionary president since Nixon.

Others are making the Obama-Nixon comparison not on foreign policy but on press freedom. In the opinion pages of the New York Times, James C Goodale writes that Only Nixon Harmed a Free Press More. I confess that’s a story I haven’t been following closely, but John Cassidy of The New Yorker provides a catch-up post with links, The Leaks Scandals: Questions for Obama.
_

Turning back to Syria, Jeff Weintraub has this month blogged a lot on the war, linking to writers he’s found informative. Here is a list of his posts:

Escalating atrocities and counter-atrocities in an increasingly ugly Syrian civil war
From the Spanish civil war in the 1930s to Syria's civil war today – Michael Petrou explains the fallacies of “non-intervention”
Military stalemate and social meltdown in Syria
Henri Barkey suggests that, on Syria, Turkey should put its money where its mouth is
_

Finally, Norman Geras has a good post up today which touches on how a war can be worth fighting even when it means allying with undemocratic states, even when one’s own side commits war crimes, and even when the end results are far from perfect, if the alternative to fighting is allowing a dreadful reign of barbarity to prevail. He’s not writing about Syria, but about the Second World War: Just a second more on that second war.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013


Tuesday, 21 May 2013

In Blogland

It’s curtains for Drawn, the group blog on arts graphic. After a mere eight years founder John Martz has posted notice of the blog’s retirement after a mere eight year run. Charley Parker marks its passing on his Lines and Colors blog. I count myself fortunate to have once received mention in its pages, and will miss visiting.

Normblog, the blog of Norman Geras, is approaching its tenth birthday. Following a few quiet days, Norm today wrote a post about his illness, which has come as a shock to many of his online friends and admirers. David Hirsh at Engage has posted a list of favourite Normblog links. I wish him all the best, and note that even under such circumstances he still keeps up a better pace of posting than most of us.

Eliot Higgins of the Brown Moses Blog today announced the success of his fundraising campaign to allow him to continue blogging full time on the war in Syria. He has received a lot of press attention for his detailed analysis of the flood of online videos oan photos of the war. Scroll down this page to read more about his work. In his most recent post he asks three chemical weapons experts to take a critical look at some of the recent CW attack stories.

Added: a post from Bob, For Norm, from Jim D at Shiraz Socialist blog, The inspirational Prof Norm, and at Harry’s Place, Gene sends Best wishes to Norm Geras.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Wild Night Web


Here’s a logo I drew recently for The Wild Night Company, a film production company set up by director Terence Gross in London and producer John Smallcombe in LA.

I’ve also been putting together a new website for them. Both logo and website were led by Terry’s visual ideas. Web development is not my normal beat, and it was a very interesting challenge, achieved by taking a Blogger template and stretching it into unfamiliar shape.

You can also find some of my earlier storyboard work for the company on the site.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Horror and hand-wringing

(Updated at the end of the post.)

Arguments over intervention, whether in Afghanistan, Libya, or Syria, often seem over-familiar over time, with the same points being made irrespective of which conflict is being discussed.

One example is the type of argument that paints the foreign country as culturally inhospitable to democracy. Invoking Sweden as a contrast to the country in question is one way to highlight the abyss that separates us and them, as in “Why can’t Afghanistan be more like Sweden?” Like Sweden? Ridiculous, obviously. Using Jeffersonian as an adjective is another way of depicting democracy as intrinsically Western. It’s not their culture! They’ve not been raised on Rousseau, Burke, and John Stuart Mill like us Western citizens.

As if Western voters all brush up on Jefferson or Mill before heading to the ballot box.

In recent years one fortifying tonic against such xenophobic justifications for despotism has been Normblog, the pioneering political blog of Norman Geras. For example this post from 2006 which offers a snippet of Amartya Sen citing the aforementioned Mill:
Democracy, to use the old Millian phrase, is "government by discussion," and voting is only one part of a broader picture (an understanding that has, alas, received little recognition in post-intervention Iraq in the attempt to get straight to polling without the development of broad public reasoning and an independent civil society). There can be no doubt at all that the modern concepts of democracy and of public reasoning have been very deeply influenced by European and American analyses and experiences over the last few centuries (including the contributions of such theorists of democracy as Marquis de Condorcet, Jefferson, Madison and Tocqueville). But to extrapolate backward from these comparatively recent experiences to construct a quintessential and long-run dichotomy between the West and non-West would be deeply misleading.
.....
Since traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries, modern democracy can build on the dialogic part of the common human inheritance.

Here’s another Normblog post, this one from 2004. It excerpts portions of an interview with former Polish dissident Adam Michnik concerning Michnik’s support for the invasion of Iraq:
We [Michnick and other east European former dissidents] take this position because we know what dictatorship is. And in the conflict between totalitarian regimes and democracy you must not hesitate to declare which side you are on. Even if a dictatorship is not an ideal typical one, and even if the democratic countries are ruled by people whom you do not like. I think you can be an enemy of Saddam Hussein even if Donald Rumsfield is also an enemy of Saddam Hussein.
.....
It's simply that life has taught me that if someone is being whipped and someone is whipping this person, I am always on the side of those who are being whipped. I've always criticized U.S. foreign policy for forgetting that the United States should defend those who need to be defended. I would object to U.S. policy if it supported Saddam Hussein, and I have always criticized the United States for supporting military regimes in Latin America.
.....
I don't think it is utopian to want to install democratic rule in Iraq. If it won't be an ideal democracy, let it be a crippled democracy, but let it not be a totalitarian dictatorship.
That interview was published in Dissent magazine.

And this week we have Normblog recommending a post by former Dissent editor Michael Walzer. But instead of the old reliable tonic, we’re slipped a Mickey Finn. Geras quotes Walzer thus:
Many people have been criticizing President Obama for dithering over what to do in Syria. Not me; dithering seems an entirely rational response to what's going on there. The difficulty is that we don't really know what we want to happen - I mean we don't know which among the likely possibilities would be the least awful. Of course, readers of Dissent would be happy to see the victory of Syrians who have been studying John Stuart Mill or who take their cue from Swedish social democracy. But nothing like that lies anywhere on (or near) the horizon.

I despair.

Norman Geras couples this with a quote from Monday’s Human Rights Watch statement on Syria., focusing on the widely reported video of a Syrian Rebel commander apparently mutilating a corpse:
Human Rights Watch has reviewed graphic evidence that appears to show a commander of the Syrian opposition “Independent Omar al-Farouq” brigade mutilating the corpse of a pro-government fighter. The figure in the video cuts the heart and liver out of the body and uses sectarian language to insult Alawites. The same brigade was implicated in April 2013 in the cross-border indiscriminate shelling of the Lebanese Shi’a villages of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyed.

There’s no question that such corpse mutilation is a war crime. There’s no question that indiscriminate shelling of villages is a war crime. But if the question is, in Walzer’s words, “which among the likely possibilities would be the least awful,” then in trying to answer it we should look at the relative scale of atrocities by the various parties, and their relative susceptibility to pressure to stop.

This is not a nice task. It means for example comparing the mutilation of the dead soldier with a gruesome New York Times report of massacres by regime forces in Tartus province:
After dragging 46 bodies from the streets near his hometown on the Syrian coast, Omar lost count. For four days, he said, he could not eat, remembering the burned body of a baby just a few months old; a fetus ripped from a woman’s belly; a friend lying dead, his dog still standing guard.

It means for example comparing last month’s shelling of the Lebanese villages of al-Qasr and Hawsh al-Sayyed by the rebel Omar al-Farouq Brigade, killing two civilians and wounding three, with last month’s HRW report on Syrian government air and missile attacks on civilian areas of Aleppo:
During a recent seven-day mission to Aleppo, Human Rights Watch researchers documented five attacks that took place between March 18 and April 7, 2013:

• On April 7, an airstrike in the Ansari neighborhood of Aleppo killed at least 22 civilians, including 6 children.

• On April 3, a cluster bomb attack in the Sheik Sa’eed neighborhood of Aleppo killed 11 civilians, including 7 children.

• On March 29, a cluster bomb and ballistic missile attack in the town of Hreitan in northern Aleppo killed at least 8 civilians, including 2 children, and injured dozens more.

• On March 24, an airstrike in the town of Akhtarin in northern Aleppo killed 10 civilians, including at least 4 children.

• On March 18, an airstrike on Marjeh neighborhood in the city of Aleppo killed at least 33 civilians, including at least 17 children.

It means for example comparing rebel executions of prisoners, such as the three publicly executed in Raqqa this week apparently by Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists, with Aleppo’s river of corpses, described in detail in this Guardian report by Martin Chulov.

It means asking which scenario holds the better chance of some measure of accountability, of a future Syria ruled by law: a victory by rebels, or by the regime?

Regarding the rebels, Time reports Brigadier General Salim Idris, head of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), which oversees, according to its leadership, about 90% of the rebel forces as saying “it is very clear that these kinds of behaviors, this cutting of bodies, is not allowed. If there is evidence that fighters from the FSA are doing something against human rights or international law, they will be brought before the court.”

As for the Assad regime, its chief backer in the UN Security Council, Russia, is blocking the possibility of referring both regime and rebel crimes to the International Criminal Court.

On one side is a fragile hope, more endangered with every day of war, on the other is no hope at all. Every day of dithering over Syria weakens that fragile hope further.

UPDATE: Norm has written a response, In defence of uncertainty (over Syria), and I thank him for it, especially given what a difficult time this is for him.

He clarifies that “there is not a balance of atrocity in this matter so far as I'm aware.” For Norm, the key point is “the crucial justifying condition that external intervention must have a reasonable chance of making a difference for the better.”

I explained my own views on what kind of intervention I believed was needed on just such a basis of likely consequences in March of last year. My view has not substantially changed since then, and I believe events since that time confirm the accuracy of much of my analysis.

Monday, 6 May 2013

How Syria Ruined Marc Lynch’s Spring

Last week’s Marc Lynch column for Foreign Policy carried the curious headline How Syria Ruined the Arab Spring. In it, he seemed to argue that the idealism of the Arab uprisings had been cut short by the escalation of the Syrian conflict into a massive slaughter, and that by turning to armed violence Syrian revolutionaries and their supporters had cut short the spread of protest to other Arab countries.

The perceived implication of blame was naturally met with some hostility, no doubt enhanced by Marc Lynch’s long-standing opposition to any military intervention in Syria.

In Marc Lynch’s view, “the Syrian nightmare has destroyed the spirit of fun, hope, and positive change of the early Arab uprisings. The promise of the Arab Spring has given way to Syria’s highly visible and protracted violence, divisive identity politics, focus on international intervention, crushing of expectations, fragmentation of the media landscape, state failure, and strategic proxy warfare.”

He writes that “the most obvious way in which Syria has eaten the Arab Spring is the ongoing violence,” and that “Jordanians who might otherwise have joined in a growing protest movement may have held back when contemplating the horrors in Syria. Such a lesson is probably not unwelcome in the palaces of the Gulf, or other Arab countries that have thus far avoided uprisings.”

Dan Drezner has written a response, also on the Foreign Policy site. He takes issue on three points:

1 - “Syria was hardly the only Middle Eastern country to experience a violent blowback to the uprisings.”

2 - “Lynch argues that ‘the Syrian war has also created an opening for al Qaeda and jihadist trends, which earlier Arab uprisings did not.’ This is likely true with respect to Tunisia and Egypt ... but it is less true with respect to Libya. And if the counterfactual is a world in which Syria doesn’t descend into civil war, one could envision a scenario where al Qaeda elements simply decided to target the next-weakest state in the region instead. That likely would have simply meant a larger AQ presence in Libya.”

3 - “Absent Syria, the leading narrative in the region would likely be the myriad ways in which Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has morphed into the very Arab dictator that he replaced. And I’m not sure that narrative would be any more upbeat.”

There’s a bit more to what he said, so read the complete post here. The first and third seem to me to be strong points, though I’m not so convinced by the second. I think however that the flaws in Marc Lynch’s argument are more fundamental.

At one point he reminisces that “during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, the international media rushed to cover half a dozen rapidly moving storylines - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen - while anxiously checking in on almost every other Arab country to see if it might be joining the wave.” Tunisia’s protests started with Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 17 December 2010 and Ben Ali fled on 14 January 2011. Egypt’s protests began on the 25th of January 2011. Yemen 29th January. Bahrain 14th of February. Libya’s began on the 17th of February 2011. In Syria, the Deraa schoolboys were arrested on the 6th of March 2011, and on the 15th and 18th of March Syria saw widespread protests. Thus the wave reached its high water mark in terms of regional spread in the space of three months.

Where through early 2011 new countries were joining within days or at most weeks of each other, after March 2011 no new countries were added to the list in the following three months, or six months, or even two years. If the populace of other countries were dissuaded from joining the rush at a similar rate to the list above, then they were dissuaded in early 2011, when the chief negatives being reported were not so much the early beginnings of Assad’s murderous response in Syria, but more prominently the overwhelming crackdown in Bahrain and the bloody war in Libya.

But one shouldn’t necessarily presume that the reason some countries didn’t see similar levels of protest was because they were dissuaded by events abroad. The populace in all of the Arab Spring countries had the recent example of Iran’s crushing of protest in 2009-10 to look to and it didn’t dissuade them, just as in 1989 China’s killing of protesters didn’t dissuade protesters in East Germany in the same year. People are more likely to be dissuaded by how they perceive the balance of likely risk and reward based on their experience in their own country, their experience of their own country’s leaders and security forces, the degree to which they sense a common purpose with their friends and neighbours, the degree to which they are dissatisfied or desperate. Therefore the most likely place to find an explanation for a lack of protest in a country is within that country’s borders.

In thinking of what is likely, we shouldn’t forget how unlikely, or at least unusual, the events of 2011 were. It would be wrong to think of cascading revolutions as a new normal that was interrupted by an abnormal war in Syria. It’s easier to point to regional precedents for Syria’s war than precedents for 2011’s multiplicity of revolutions.

The revolutions were the exception, and while the post-revolutionary normal will hopefully be better than the pre-revolutionary normal, it is to be expected that it will in a fundamental respect resemble it more than it will resemble the revolutionary period, namely that after the revolutions daily politics will mostly be the business of an elite of practised politicians and not the populace. Most people don’t want to spend their lives on political struggle. They will only take part in exceptional circumstances, and if they do take part, most hope to finish their part as soon as possible, as this Tahrir Square protester made clear in January 2011:


The common failure of foresight pre-2011 was in not appreciating the vulnerability of long-established regimes to disruption by loosely organised popular movements. Nonetheless, common to all the 2011 Arab revolutions has been the further lesson that established well-organised and disciplined political groups are still more effective over the long term than less experienced loosely organised political groups. None of this is new, but we get to learn the old lessons again.

In none of the revolutions were all the old practitioners of politics and centres of power wholly overwhelmed by the populace. As Marc Lynch recognises, the army played a decisive role in deciding the outcome in both Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, an intervention led by three permanent members of the UN Security Council was decisive. In Bahrain, the ruling elite prevailed with the aid of the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s power-transfer deal has kept power in the hands of established elites. In Syria the ruling elite remains in place with the aid of two permanent UNSC members. In post-revolution elections, experience in political organisation has unsurprisingly been shown to be an advantage.

Syria is not an exception in this; instead it’s just the most dreadful example of the strength and resilience of established national and international political organisations, seen both in the regime and its state and non-state allies, and in the revolutionaries’ need to rely on established foreign powers for aid as well as their vulnerability to the intrusion of Al Qaeda.

So far where 2011 revolutions have to some degree succeeded it’s been either with the acquiescence of established centres of political power, particularly the army, or it’s been with some degree of foreign military intervention. All cases in the former category have been in countries aligned to some degree with the US. Syria joins Libya in the latter category. Again, Syria is not an exception, just the more dreadful example: limited military intervention matched by limited success, but with greater slaughter than Libya.

The wonder is that a smart person like Marc Lynch once thought that Syria could be an exception, and that even after people already had been killed in hundreds and in thousands he continued to argue that a brutal dictator in Damascus backed by thuggish leaders in Moscow and Tehran could be overcome purely through peaceful protest and diplomatic pressure.

Syria’s war is the Arab Spring in its full reality, its bravery, its horror, its sorrow and loss. Every country of the 2011 revolutions suffered bereavements and injuries. Syria is not an exception in this, it just suffers more.