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I would love to look back at Low’s satires of muddled thinking and be able to say how out of date they seem, but that’s far from being the case.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.