Friday, March 30, 2007

Unhelpful in Tehran

After four hours of debate, the UN Security Council has fearlessly issued a press release;

“Members of the Security Council expressed grave concern at the capture by the Revolutionary Guard, and the continuing detention by the Government of Iran, of 15 United Kingdom naval personnel, and appealed to the Government of Iran to allow consular access, in terms of the relevant international laws. Members of the Security Council support calls, including by the Secretary-General in his 29 March meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister, for an early resolution of this problem, including the release of the 15 United Kingdom personnel.”

An Iranian diplomat described this as “unhelpful”. Well, he’s not wrong.

But nor is it particularly helpful to claim that they were captured not at location X in Iraqi waters but at location Y in Iranian waters, and then when it’s pointed out that location Y is also in Iraqi waters, to say ‘sorry, we meant point Z’.

And it’s really unhelpful to pretend that a UK servicewoman would write this without being coerced into transcribing it verbatim:

“Representative of the House of Commons, I am writing to inform you of my situation. I am a British serviceperson currently being held in Iran. …
“Unfortunately during the course of our mission we entered into Iranian waters. Even through our wrongdoing, they have still treated us well and humanely, which I am and always will be eternally grateful.
“I ask the representatives of the House of Commons, after the Government have promised that this type of incident would not happen again, why have they let this occur, and why has the Government not been questioned over this?
“Isn't it time for us to start withdrawing our forces from Iraq and let them determine their own future?”

Well, I’m convinced.

Surely the Stop the War Coalition has some pre-printed ‘UK troops out of Iran’ placards that would come in handy right now?

Actually, speaking of the SWC, they’ve issued their own unhelpful rant:

“Their detention is a consequence of the illegal occupation of Iraq. Whether they were in Iraqi or Iranian waters is immaterial. They should not be there at all and we demand the withdrawal of all UK forces from Iraqi territory. … The answer is de-escalation of tension and commitment to peaceful resolution of disputes and respect for Iranian sovereignty.”

To reiterate: (1) The capture was a “consequence” of Western policy and not a freely chosen action by Iran. (2) While the US and the UK are to be damned for their “illegal” actions, the location of the capture and therefore its illegality is “immaterial”. (3) The solution to Iran’s holding of UK personnel against their will, following a capture that violated Iraqi sovereignty, is “respect for Iranian sovereignty”.

It’s people like this that give appeasement a bad name.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The IFS on child poverty

I love the Institute for Fiscal Studies. They can produce a 51-page document [PDF] with a mass of tables and charts, and then call it, with a straight face, a ‘briefing note’.

It looks at, among many other things, the detail of the rise in relative child poverty from 2004-05 to 2005-06 (see table 8 on p. 33 and the discussion on p. 34). This breaks down into a rise in child poverty rates in two-parent families (most significantly in ones where income comes from self-employment), which is partly offset by a fall in child poverty rates among lone-parent families:

“The pattern of incidence effects across family types shows us that the rise in child poverty in 2005–06 is chiefly due to a rise in the risk of poverty for children in couple families: the risk of relative poverty fell for children in the three types of lone-parent families but rose for children in all two-parent family types except those with two full-time earners.
“… On average, children in lone-parent families have a higher risk of poverty than children in couple families, but the continuing rise in the proportion of lone parents who work – a factor that acts to lower the risk of poverty – more than outweighs the former factor.
“…the fraction of children in poverty who live in couple families rose from 57.4% in 2004–05 to 60.3% in 2005–06, and the fraction in families with someone in work rose from 48.4% to 49.9%. Both changes may well increase the desire to introduce income tax or tax credit reforms that direct more support to couples with children or to working (rather than non-working) parents.”

Elsewhere, they use simulation methods to judge whether the small rise in overall income inequality (measured by the Gini coefficient) in the last year was due to tax and benefit policies. They find that policy changes were redistributive, but only just:

“Tax and benefit reforms affecting incomes in 2005–06 appear to have had very little impact on overall levels of inequality, but what effect they had was to reduce inequality slightly: our simulations suggest that had the 2004–05 tax and benefit system remained in place in 2005–06, the Gini coefficient for net income would have been very slightly higher than actually observed”

And on last week’s Budget, they say:

“We agree with the assessment made by HM Treasury that the measures in Budget 2007 mean that child poverty will be 200,000 lower than if they had not been introduced.”

Make of that, and the rest of the ‘briefing note’, what you will.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Hellishly difficult

Norm Geras picks a theological bone with the Pope.

His Holiness (that’s the Pope, not Norm) has warned us that Hell really exists, “and is eternal for those who shut their hearts to [Jesus’] love”.

The previous Pope had said that Hell was “the state of those who freely and definitively separate themselves from God” – and while the two of them appear to disagree (in their infallibility) on whether it’s literally a place, they do seem to concur that rejecting god’s love is a freely chosen sin.

As such, it might seem to make sense to punish atheists for being such cold-hearted wanton rejectionists. Consider an analogy: suppose that my brother and I had fallen out many years ago over something that seemed very important at the time, but recently he’s been contacting me to tell me he still loves me and wants to make up. I spitefully turn him away in my defiant pride.

I’d say that doesn’t reflect too well on me. So maybe my failure to accept and return god’s love is equally reprehensible?

Maybe. But to the very best of my knowledge, I don’t have a brother. So if he wants us to have a good relationship, he’s going to have to make the effort to convince me that he exists first. Ditto god.

And another thing: if Hell really is an actual eternal inferno, then surely it must get through a lot of fuel to keep the fires going. How big a carbon footprint – sorry, hoofprint – would the whole operation have? And if we’re concerned about climate change, should we all convert to keep down the number of lost souls that they need to burn, or would it be more practical to bring Hell into an emissions trading scheme?

I know George Bush is in the pocket of the oil companies, but surely Satan wouldn’t be so evil as to ignore the Kyoto Protocol? Now, how many Ryanair flights does it take to offset the amount of brimstone used up in torturing a sinner…?

Bad news on poverty

The government’s anti-poverty drive has faltered:

“Relative poverty has risen across the whole population for the first time since Labour came to power, with child poverty also rising for the first time in six years…
“Poverty has probably risen in part because benefit and tax credit payments for some of the groups most vulnerable to poverty were increased less quickly than average incomes in 2005/06, in marked contrast to the relative generosity of the previous five years.

“However, child poverty remains much lower than the level Labour inherited in 1996/97.”

If you feel so inclined, you could sign this:

“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to fulfil his promise to halve child poverty by 2010 and end child poverty in the UK within a generation.”

Monday, March 26, 2007

Brown’s gamble, Cameron’s dilemma

Has Gordon Brown accidentally scuppered his electoral strategy?

His budget, in policy terms, was mostly unremarkable. Not one of his better efforts but still passable, I’d say. His speech, and the reaction to it, are quite something else.

At first, David Cameron was wrong-footed. The final tax-cutting flourish made perhaps the hardest job in parliament – the instant budget response – that much harder. And Cameron’s immediate line of attack involved an unnecessary misconception. Brown had clearly said that it was “not the time for a fiscal loosening” and that the budget would be “broadly neutral for the public finances”, which should have alerted the Tories that any cuts would be more or less offset with rises.

But taking a more considered look at the politics of it, there seems to be quite a pundits’ consensus – from Polly Toynbee to Bruce Anderson to Mary Ann Sieghart to Michael Portillo – that Brown has inadvertently legitimated the case for lower taxes.

At the last couple of elections, it’s argued, Labour have very effectively thwarted the Tories by presenting even the faintest whiff of a tax-cut promise as a threat to public services. But now that Brown has endorsed lower taxes, he’ll no longer be able to trap the Tories in the same deadly way.

The other common criticism of Brown’s politics is that by making such a show of one tax cut and downplaying (although not concealing) some equivalent tax rises – which were very quickly identified by observers such as the BBC’s Evan Davis and Ming Campbell for the Lib Dems – he has made himself look like a spinner. You could write the Tory script in your sleep: he talks the talk but keeps taxing us by stealth.

Indeed, a couple of polls over the weekend found more people thinking they’d be worse off than better off as a result of the budget.

So, he’s stuffed himself on two counts, right?

I’m not so sure. The final flourish was a miscalculation, I’d say (although the Sun loved it). But these two criticisms of it are interesting in that they’re both very tempting for his opponents, and yet they won’t both work.

If Brown has become a tax-cutter, then he can no longer paint Tory suggestions of tax cuts as a threat to schools’n’hospitals. If he’s just a con man, though, then he hasn’t become a tax-cutter.

The second line of attack would be entirely in keeping with the sustained character assassination that the Tories been pursuing over the last year. But it does make them look like the nasty party once again. The first line of attack, though, would help in the longer term to calm people’s fears about their “sharing the proceeds of growth” economic strategy.

Cameron tried to have it both ways in his immediate response, and he can be forgiven for not having settled on a clear position. But even now, the Tory document [PDF] on their website responding to the budget still vacillates. It leads with the “tax con” line, but goes on to argue that Brown has now swallowed their overall approach to tax and spending.

Brown has exposed two potential weaknesses, and it’s not clear which one the Tories should most profitably attack. But they have to choose whether they want to do him down personally or to build political space for their own policy agenda.

One final thought: it may well be that Brown has judged that the ‘beware Tory cuts’ line has more or less run its course electorally, with people feeling more over-taxed than in the past, and with Cameron clamping down on tax-cut promises. In which case, Brown presumably plans to campaign against the Tories on other grounds entirely.

Things are getting interesting.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Ups and downs with Brown

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has released its budget analysis. See slide 14 here [PPT] for the overall impact across the income distribution of all the tax and benefit changes since 1997.

Iraq: another war, another day, in someone else’s name

Alternative ways of dealing with Saddam were proposed. Some of these amounted to ‘let’s not worry about it’, or ‘carry on with the sanctions that I’d been opposing until you started talking war’, or ‘do nothing without Chirac and Putin’s permission’, or even ‘if we’re nice to him he’ll see that he can benefit from being nice back’.

Other anti-war views were more serious, and made no attempt to evade the fact of Saddam’s awfulness. They simply judged that a war led by Bush and Blair would turn out badly. For instance, Peter Tatchell argued in February 2003 that:

“there is a credible alternative to a western-engineered invasion. It is an uprising by the Iraqi people…
“Compared with invasion, this home-grown insurrection would be far more popular with the people of Iraq. Fiercely nationalistic, they rightly dislike the idea of a US-imposed regime. Saddam's troops are also more likely to defect to an internal revolt than to western forces.
“…we should help train and arm a Free Iraq army inside the safe havens of the northern and southern no-fly zones…
“This civilian and military rebellion may take longer than a US-led war to effect regime change, but it would avoid the accusation of neo-imperialism and is likely to ensure a more stable and enduring democracy. It would, moreover, lessen the likelihood of Arab states feeling obliged to rush to Saddam's defence, as well as minimise the provocation of a global Islamic jihad against western ‘infidels’.”

I’m unconvinced. Tatchell seems woefully wrong in his belief that Saddam’s army would have defected to an armed uprising dominated by vengeful Shias (perhaps with Muqtada al-Sadr at the head, carrying US-supplied guns). His fear that Arab states would rush to defend Saddam was unfounded, and his prime concern seems to be not to oppose war – his proposal is for war – but to avoid the West getting the blame for it.

The civil war that he proposes would have been far more evenly matched than the US-led rout that actually happened. It would have been much longer and bloodier. Far from being “likely to ensure a more stable and enduring democracy”, such a war would have turned Sunni, Shia and Kurd against one another, poisoning inter-community relations more quickly and deeply than US bungling and al-Qaeda attacks have. And the absence of the US military throughout the country would have made it far more likely that neighbouring states would have sent troops in – as well as that the balance of power within Iraq’s communities would have favoured theocratic extremists over more peaceful moderates.

That would have been a catastrophe to dwarf anything we’ve seen in reality. If, in the absence of an invasion, the eventual end of Saddam’s regime (following perhaps years more tyranny) was likely to be violent – and I strongly suspect it would have been – then for the West to stand back from that would have saved Western consciences rather than Iraqi lives.

Mary Kaldor made (in 2005) a less militaristic proposal – but one that I suspect would have ended up having much the same effect. She believes that “there was a real possibility of ‘opening up’ the regime rather in the way that happened in east-central Europe in the 1980s”. She suggests that religious opponents of Saddam had been “leveraging Saddam’s new emphasis on religion to create more open space within the mosques” and to develop a strategy of “slow strangulation”.

This could have been aided from the outside, Kaldor argues, by diplomatic pressure on human rights and by replacing the broad sanctions with a more targeted set. This would have been a gentler means of supporting the opposition than Tatchell’s plan – aiming to weaken the regime rather than to strengthen dissidents directly by arming them – but the effect on the relative balance of power would have been the same.

Both proposals would have moved that balance towards a more even match – breaking the state monopoly of power – thus making a direct confrontation likelier. And Kaldor’s suggestion would also have favoured as opposition leaders those religious figures best able to radicalise their followers to the use of force. I think my criticisms above – that this would have led to an unrestrained civil war, perhaps drawing in neighbouring states and itinerant fanatics – apply here.

But I also suspect that Kaldor’s plan would have been less likely to get off the ground.

The trouble with a “slow strangulation” is that the intended victim has plenty of time to notice what’s going on and fight back. The Baathist secret police were ever eager to spot, torture and kill potential troublemakers. Amnesty International’s reports covering 2001 and 2002, for instance, both recount scores of executions: “The victims included army officers suspected of plotting to overthrow the government or of having contacts with opposition groups abroad, and suspected political opponents, particularly Shi'a Muslims suspected of anti-government activities.” There were doubtless others that AI wasn’t able to uncover.

So there’s a good chance that any such underground movement would have been crushed before it became a serious threat.

Winding up
It’d be nice if I could end this series of posts with a conclusion and a clear recommendation on what should be done next. But I don’t have either of those things. I’ve never really liked any of the options over Iraq, and I glumly, sceptically, nervously, hopefully tolerated the war in 2003 as the surest and quickest way of getting rid of Saddam.

And now, four years on, here we are. The options for Iraq today seem an even less palatable menu than back then, and there’s no ‘conclusion’ in sight.

(This is the last in a series of posts. See also the first, second, third, fourth and fifth.)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Iraq: Operation Wasted Hope

A couple of days ago I said that there’s only one meaningful way to assess the overall balance of pros and cons following the war. And yesterday I said I’d post a perspective on why the (many) cons weren’t foreseeable all along. These come from the same source.

‘The Iraqi people’ have been invoked in support of one view or another for the whole four years and more; it’s worth looking at what they actually think. Why should we in the West argue about whether the rising sectarian violence outweighs the new political freedoms or vice versa when we can ask Iraqis how they see it? And if we don’t agree about the predictability of the problems, why not get the people most familiar with the situation and the background to offer their predictions?

In February 2004, the Oxford Research Institute (using Iraqi interviewers) conducted a poll of Iraqis [PDF]. People were asked how “things overall in your life” compared with a year ago, before the war. 57% said things were better and 19% said things were worse.

A similar poll [PDF] in November 2005 found some setbacks. The same question elicited 51% who felt things were better and 29% who felt things were worse than before the war. This poll also added a question about how people judged “things in Iraq overall” – here, there was a less encouraging lead of 46% to 39% for ‘better’.

Polls always have to be taken with pinches of salt, but this does suggest that the people whose interests were supposed to be paramount tended to think that the trade-off was a good one.

Their judgement has changed. A new poll [PDF], this time by D3 Systems, asked the same questions in February–March 2007. It found that just 33% now think their lives are better overall – and 36% think they’re worse – than before the war. As for views of Iraq as a whole, 38% now say things are better and 40% say worse.

The polls also give us an interesting take on whether the violence and disorder following the war were predictable. If, as it is said, looming problems were clear at the time of the war, then they should have been even clearer a year later.

The February 2004 poll – which recorded an assessment of improvement thus far – asked about the future: “What is your expectation for how things overall in your life will be in a year from now?” 71% expected things to be better; 7% expected worse.

By November 2005, optimism had dipped but not collapsed. 54% expected their lives to get better in the following year against 13% who expected things would get worse. This second poll asked about expectations of “how things will be for Iraq as a country overall a year from now”: 69% thought better, 11% thought worse.

So, even given considerable evidence – that of their own eyes, every day – of what was going wrong, Iraqis continued for some time to assess that what was going right meant their lives were better overall. And, unlike the Western anti-war protestors who were eager to shriek doom and disaster at every setback for security, the people who were meant to be insecure took a different of how things were likely to work out.

Again, things have changed more recently. The 2007 poll found 35% expecting their lives to get better over the next year and 32% expecting worsening; for the country as a whole, 38% think things will improve and 40% think things will get worse. This doesn’t seem too dire, but we must remember that the rest expect things to stay about the same as now – and that big majorities think their lives and Iraq overall are bad now. It’s not a pretty picture.

As I say, polls have to be viewed with care. But there is another measure we can look at. It’s perhaps more reliable than polling data, as it represents Iraqis betting their lives.

The UN High Commission for Refugees reported in January 2007: “Between 2003 and 2005, more than 253,000 Iraqis did return home… from other countries. Now, however, the returns have stopped and many more people are fleeing”. The UNHCR estimated in November 2006 that “425,000 Iraqis have fled their homes for other areas inside Iraq this year alone… And internal displacement is continuing at a rate of some 50,000 a month.” Figures on those fleeing the country were imprecise, but they judged that “now some 2,000 a day are arriving in Syria, and an estimated 1,000 a day in Jordan.” That’s about 60,000 a month to those two countries.

This is a tragedy: not just because things have got worse, but because they’d got better first. The early improvement – and expectation of continued improvement, as voted for with their feet by Iraqis – goes to show that chaos wasn’t the inevitable result of war. It resulted from a dysfunctional occupation that gave spoiler groups the opening they needed to plant the seeds of disorder.

I’ll wind up tomorrow with a look at a couple of other views on how Saddam should have been dealt with.

(This is the fifth in a series of posts. See also the first, second, third, fourth and sixth.)

Listen harder!

George Osborne: “No-one listening to the Budget yesterday would have worked out the whole thing is a con-trick.”

Gordon Brown: “Let me be absolutely clear: with the economy growing strongly, faster than any other major economy, this is not the time for a fiscal loosening and the changes I make today will be broadly neutral for the public finances and overall”.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Iraq: failure, farce, hatred and hell

A string of mostly senseless occupation misjudgements soured the prospects for postwar Iraq.

Why did they get it so wrong? Fareed Zakaria, Kenneth Pollack and others blame a triumph of ideology over common sense and informed analysis. Donald Rumsfeld wanted to conduct a ‘transformationist’ experiment – applying the Republican small-government philosophy to the military by using a slimmed-down, light-footed force when far more troops were needed.

This dogmatism won the day in Washington because of poor relations between departments, exacerbated by negligent leadership from George Bush. A deeply dysfunctional foreign policy apparatus allowed an ideologue with the ear of the president to ignore the State Department’s careful research and detailed proposals, and to pretty much run the show with little accountability.

A striking illustration of this dynamic comes from an April 2003 conversation relayed to Bob Woodward by Colin Powell. Mark Danner, in a long and magisterial discussion of books by Woodward and two others on this subject, reproduces this:

“There are two chains of command, Powell told the president. Garner reports to Rumsfeld and Franks reports to Rumsfeld.
The president looked surprised.
‘That's not right,’ Rice said. ‘That's not right.’
Powell thought Rice could at times be pretty sure of herself, but he was pretty sure he was right. ‘Yes, it is,’ Powell insisted.
‘Wait a minute,’ Bush interrupted, taking Rice's side. ‘That doesn't sound right.’
Rice got up and went to her office to check. When she came back, Powell thought she looked a little sheepish. ‘That's right,’ she said. …
[Powell explained:] ‘You have to understand that when you have two chains of command and you don't have a common superior in the theater, it means that every little half-assed fight they have out there, if they can't work it out, comes out to one place to be resolved. And that's in the Pentagon. Not in the NSC or the State Department, but in the Pentagon.’

In Woodward's account, Rice… somehow manag[ed] to miss the fact that she and the National Security Council she headed had been cut out of decision-making on the Iraq war…”

The dysfunction was mirrored in Baghdad, as Paul Bremer moved in to take over the postwar administration from Jay Garner in May 2003, suddenly bringing new plans for the Iraqi army (again from Woodward via Danner):

“An American colonel and a number of CIA officers had been meeting regularly with Iraqi officers in order to reconstitute the army. They had lists of soldiers, had promised emergency payments. ‘The former Iraqi military,’ according to Garner, ‘was making more and more overtures, just waiting to come back in some form.’ Again, Garner rushed off to see Bremer:
‘We have always made plans to bring the army back,’ he insisted. This new plan was just coming out of the blue, subverting months of work.
‘Well, the plans have changed,’ Bremer replied. ‘The thought is that we don't want the residuals of the old army. We want a new and fresh army.’
‘Jerry [Bremer’s nickname], you can get rid of an army in a day, but it takes years to build one.’
Again Bremer tells Garner that he has his orders. The discussion attains a certain unintended comedy when the proconsuls go on to discuss the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, which Bremer has also announced he will abolish:
‘You can't get rid of the Ministry of the Interior,’ Garner said.
‘Why not?’
‘You just made a speech yesterday and told everybody how important the police force is.’
‘It is important.’
‘All the police are in the Ministry of the Interior,’ Garner said. ‘If you put this out, they'll all go home today.’
On hearing this bit of information, we are told, Bremer looked ‘surprised’…”

Was it unavoidable that these politicians, diplomats and administrators were going to follow the war by ripping up each other’s strategies and then undermining their own new plans by disregarding the facts on the ground? Hardly. (Tomorrow I’ll give another argument relating to why the current horror wasn’t always clearly bound to follow the war.)

Their failures were unnecessary – which makes them all the more culpable.

Nick Cohen has argued that the disgrace of the anti-war left wasn’t so much because of its opposition to the war as down to its subsequent refusal to support the efforts of Iraqis to rebuild their country in the face of violence from theocrats and Saddamites. (Whenever I hear the phrase ‘the Iraqi resistance’ I want to ask whether that means the Iraqis resisting democracy or the ones resisting terrorism.) Conversely, I’d suggest that the true disgrace of the Bush Administration – and Blair’s government, by peripheral extension – was not so much in their launching the war as in the negligent blundering that followed.

But – and I know this may be controversial – the Western leaders weren’t the only ones to blame.

Was the ‘insurgency’ (not a single movement but a variety of wildly differing groups) inevitable? I’ve already said that the unnecessary security vacuum helped the various militias breed, but was it a natural consequence of that? Let’s ask the expert.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s savage al-Qaeda in Iraq operation had little support even among Sunnis, but exerted a disproportionate influence on how things worked out. He explained his plan in a 2004 letter, describing Iraq’s Shia majority as “the insurmountable obstacle, the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion”, who follow “their Crusader masters” and “their tutors the Jews”. He observes:

“He who looks at the current situation [will] see the enemy’s haste to constitute the army and the police… This enemy, made up of the Shia filled out with Sunni agents, is the real danger that we face, for it is [made up of] our fellow countrymen, who know us inside and out. …
“I mean that targeting and hitting them in [their] religious, political, and military depth will provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies… and bare the teeth of the hidden rancor working in their breasts. If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent danger and annihilating death…
“The solution that we see, and God the Exalted knows better, is for us to drag the Shia into the battle because this is the only way to prolong the fighting between us and the infidels. …
“Someone may say that, in this matter, we are being hasty and rash and leading the [Islamic] nation into a battle for which it is not ready, [a battle] that will be revolting and in which blood will be spilled. This is exactly what we want, since right and wrong no longer have any place in our current situation. The Shia have destroyed all those balances.”

Nice guy, no? Unfortunately, his plan was grimly effective. In a de facto tactical partnership with ex-Baathists who wanted to disrupt the reconstruction, these extremists advanced in fits and starts during 2004, and escalated their killing of Shia civilians through 2005. Reprisals happened, but were limited in scope; most Shia movements were involved to various degrees with the political process (and to the extent that they were violent, it was often one Shia faction against another – or against US/UK troops).

In February 2006, after the election results, the hugely symbolic al-Askari Shia shrine in Samarra was bombed. Other such attacks followed, and Shia uprisings grew in scale. Zarqawi was killed that June, but by then the rival strategists in the “arena of sectarian war” had more momentum than the death of one figurehead could stop.

Marie Colvin reported last October that ethnic cleansing on both sides means that “Baghdad is on its way to becoming two cities, the west Sunni, the east and north Shi’ite.” She describes the system the Sunni death squads use:

“First they terrorise the area, shooting children selling ice or black-market petrol on the street. Then they go for the shops and businesses. …
“In the third stage, the Sunni militants go after the police, attacking checkpoints until they pull out. Then they target Shi’ite residents. ‘You wake up to a bullet in your garden. Or a note saying leave this area in 36 hours. After all the killings, you pack up and go,’ said another former resident, who knew of eight people killed near his home.”

She does not exempt Shia militias from blame, and nor does Peter Beaumont’s recent dispatch: “Both communities have retrenched in areas where they feel they are safe and which they can defend, sometimes with barricades and armed men. It is a process repeated across Iraq in an endless cycle of displacement…”

This wasn’t the inevitable, natural consequence of an ethnically and religiously disparate artificial country losing the strongman who held it all in check. It was the deliberate plan of fanatics that succeeded due to pointless negligence on the part of the occupation and to ‘community leaders’ who were happy to surf the wave of identity-based violence.

Tomorrow I’ll discuss the reaction of the people who have had to live with this violence.

(This is the fourth in a series of posts. See also the first, second, third, fifth and sixth.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Iraq: calamity from the jaws of liberation

As is hideously clear, things in Iraq since the war have not gone in a way that those of us seeking humanitarian benefits had hoped. Yes, the dictatorship is gone, and there are political freedoms, but in much of the country the security situation is poor and there are far too many sectarian killings.

Saddam’s Baathist state had a classic monopoly of power – in practice, a monopoly of terror. It dominated society and had no credible internal challenger, maintaining its position regular sadistic violence and perpetual fear.

The war and its immediate aftermath gutted the state as well as toppling the regime. Now, the new Iraqi government has limited control over the country, and the numerous armed groups that have sprung up are grimly proving a tenet of right-wing thought: that when a state monopoly is smashed, competitive private enterprise can move into the gap with remarkable dynamism.

The new regime is far better than the old, which affords ordinary Iraqis greater breathing space in some ways, but not in others. The government’s weakness means that, in effect, terror in Iraq has been privatised. Sectarian hardliners are manoeuvring for advantage – the kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux – and because the lack of a dominant force in the land means that they have more to plausibly compete for, they fight and kill and threaten with an open ferocity unthinkable under Saddam.

Iraq is no longer a ‘republic of fear’ but has veered towards becoming a free market of terror.

The brutality may be more energetic now, but it is less total than under Saddam. We shouldn’t assume that none of the change has been for the better, awful as the overall situation now looks. (And there’s only one meaningful way to assess the overall balance of pros and cons, which I’ll go over in a couple of days.)

So, what went wrong?

A popular, glib answer is: ‘We invaded’. But this position has two drawbacks: first, if you think the current calamity was the inevitable consequence of toppling Saddam, then you’re disqualified from suggesting that the postwar administration has been mishandled. If this civil violence was a certainty, then nothing the occupation did or didn’t do made a bit of difference.

Secondly, if you think this was inevitable post-Saddam, then there is a question about what would have happened had there been no war and, eventually, Saddam’s reign was ended by other means. (I’ll come back to this point later in the week as well.)

But one argument, from Sam Rosenfeld and Matthew Ygelsias and others, accepts that things could perhaps have been done better – but holds that it was clear in advance that the Bush Administration was going to mess things up. As such, failure was inevitable, and many who supported this war because they supported, in principle, a war should have opposed it instead. As Jacob Weisberg, who had bee pro-war, puts it: “This was elective surgery, and we had a pretty good idea what the surgeon's limitations were.”

Michael Ignatieff’s recantation also goes along these lines:

“So I supported an administration whose intentions I didn't trust, believing that the consequences would repay the gamble. Now I realize that intentions do shape consequences. An administration that cared more genuinely about human rights would have understood that you can't have human rights without order and that you can't have order once victory is won if planning for an invasion is divorced from planning for an occupation.”

Let’s be cynical for a moment about the motives. Let’s accept for argument’s sake that they never cared about human rights and democracy, and that they knew all along that there were no WMD. What were their aims? (1) To get cheap access to Iraqi oil. (2) To create a friendly client state for stationing the US troops that had been in Saudi Arabia, so their presence wouldn’t feed Arab anger and boost terrorist recruitment. (3) To demonstrate the shocking and awesome might of the US military, so that other tinpot regimes would fall into line for fear of invasion. (4) To secure Bush’s reelection.

The first three of these have failed abysmally, and the success of the fourth owes more to the religious right’s willingness to turn out on ‘moral issues’ and to John Kerry’s campaigning prowess.

My point is that even if we’re cynical about motives, then it’s clear that fulfilling these aims would have required successful occupation and reconstruction policies. You can’t have human rights without security, but nor can you pump oil, avoid popular opposition and terrorist attacks, showcase your effortless power and win approval at home by creating a situation of borderline civil war.

They made a bloody great mess. That much is unarguable. But, unlike Ignatieff, I think that they, themselves, for whatever their own purposes were, had every reason to get it right. So on the simple grounds that they would not have wanted their own plans to fail, it was reasonable to expect that they’d make good efforts on security.

Indeed, Fareed Zakaria argues that an encouraging precedent had been set:

“Consider what the administration itself did in Afghanistan. It allied with local forces on the ground so that order would be maintained. It upheld the traditional structure of power and governance in the country – that is, it accepted the reality of the warlords – while working very slowly and quietly to weaken them. To deflect anti-Americanism, the military turned over the political process to the United Nations right after Kabul fell. … The United States gave NATO and the European Union starring roles in the country – and real power—which led them to accept real burden-sharing.”

But Iraq was a very different story. Let me briefly list some of the commonest criticisms: too few troops were sent, with inadequate rules of engagement; too little priority was given to protecting public buildings and infrastructure; the Iraqi army was summarily dismissed, which created not only (in tandem with the low troop numbers) a security vacuum, but also large numbers of disaffected trained fighters ripe for attraction to the extremists trying to fill that vacuum; the borders were inadequately guarded to keep out foreign jihadis; the advisory Iraqi Governing Council appointed in summer 2003 was both lacking in power and unrepresentative, which bred resentment and opportunistic sectarian grandstanding; de-Baathification was more like a de-Sunnification vendetta; election delays frustrated moderate Shias such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani; Muqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia movement was neither coopted nor seriously taken on at an early stage; goodwill was turned to outrage by prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib…

(An excellent dissection of the blunders comes from Larry Diamond, who worked as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2004.)

Most of the mistakes were made early on, and their effect was to breed discontent and weaken security, two factors that grew into an increasingly vicious circle from which escape has become harder and harder.

Tomorrow I’ll go into why this happened, and who is to blame.

(This is the third in a series of posts. See also the first, second, fourth, fifth and sixth.)

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cameron talks rubbish, part 267

One day, maybe I will grow weary of pouring scorn on David Cameron. Then again, maybe one day he’ll stop being such a twonk. That day has yet to come.

He told his party conference at the weekend: “If last year was all about change, this year is about grit. The gritty determination to say where we stand on the big issues. To stick to our guns, to take tough decisions…”

So, following a year of screeching U-turns in which he junked the policies from the manifesto he wrote for Michael Howard, he can now guarantee consistency. Having apparently decommissioned his guns, he will now courageously stick to them.

On the NHS, he promised to end “Labour's mania for controlling and directing things from the centre” and yet condemned some Labour MPs for opposing hospital closures, which he also opposes, which were being carried out by individual NHS Trusts, to whom Labour had given the power to decide these things locally. Got that?

And Cameron criticised the Chancellor: “Gordon, you are not the answer to spin. You are spin, and we won't let people forget it,” he spun.

But his strongest contempt was reserved for an unnamed politician who was all PR and no substance: “Anyone can say they're green. It's easy to do the softer things like ride your bike, visit glaciers and rebuild your house to make it green.”

(As Tom Hamilton says, it certainly is easy to visit glaciers when you can afford to use a private jet. I presume the carbon emissions from the flight there were offset by those from the flight back – that is how it works, isn’t it?)

Wanting to assure us that he’d never dream of such media gimmicks, he said that he was ready to be tough and take unpopular decisions. He set up a fine contrast between his vague proposals for taxing aviation and Gordon Brown’s… er… increases in aviation tax in December (which Cameron ridiculed at the time) and Brown’s apparently imminent doubling of road tax for gas-guzzlers.

Another example of Cameron’s tough policy grit was tax breaks to support marriage – because if there’s one thing that’s always soooo politically bold for a Tory leader, it’s bribing the middle classes at the expense of lone parents.

In other news: A Sunday tabloid sent someone to rummage though Cameron’s dustbins, and found… rubbish. They could have just listened to his speech! Boom boom!

Iraq: humanitarian intervention?

As I said yesterday, I viewed the Iraq war not as a genuine humanitarian intervention but as something that could have, on balance, humanitarian benefits for the Iraqis once they were liberated from tyranny. I didn’t endorse Bush’s and Blair’s intentions as right, but I did think the outcome could be good.

The outcome has been a terrible waste of human life. I’ll discuss that, and how it happened, over the next couple of days, but in this post I want to look at one of the more general matters of principle.

Before the war, and since, there have been arguments about whether Iraq under Saddam in early 2003 was so awful as to make a military response justifiable on human rights grounds. It is said that he hadn’t started any wars in over a decade, and that he hadn’t slaughtered Kurds or Shias on a mass scale since similarly long ago.

True, he remained a brutal dictator, treating the people as a resource to be exploited, repressed, terrorised, tortured or killed. But, it’s suggested, this was only run-of-the-mill brutality: hardly bad enough to merit a war.

This was the view of Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch, in 2004: “Brutal as Saddam Hussein’s reign had been, the scope of the Iraqi government’s killing in March 2003 was not of the exceptional and dire magnitude that would justify humanitarian intervention.” He bases this on the principle that:

“humanitarian intervention that occurs without the consent of the relevant government can be justified only in the face of ongoing or imminent genocide, or comparable mass slaughter or loss of life. To state the obvious, war is dangerous. … Only large-scale murder… can justify the death, destruction, and disorder that so often are inherent in war and its aftermath. Other forms of tyranny are deplorable and worth working intensively to end, but they do not… justify the extraordinary response of military force.”

Roth thinks that there were times in the past when humanitarian intervention would have been justified, but ‘better late than never’ isn’t reason enough to go to war. Prosecuting past crimes is important, but not worth risking lots of innocent lives for.

There is to my mind something grotesque about the notion that ‘only moderately murderous and not recently genocidal’ is an adequate character reference to legitimate a dictator’s survival in power. It offends decency to leave such a man as Saddam in power, it insults the memories of past victims, and it effectively abandons his imminent victims on the grounds that there probably won’t be too many of them.

And yet… there is some truth in what Roth says. My hatred of Saddam was down to the terrible harm he caused his people. Had he been just as personally evil but willing to restrain his cruelty for the sake of international approval (yes, it’s a stretch), then I’d have had much less against his rule. I cared that he was committing brutalities, not that he had a brutal personality.

Given this, any means of stopping his tyranny should have been judged in terms of how much harm it would cause to the people that it is intended to rescue. The idea, after all, is one of a humanitarian intervention, not a moralistic intervention.

Norm Geras, whose opinions on ‘post-9/11 matters’ I value and often share, thinks that arguments like Roth’s – demanding massive carnage before arms are taken up – are “lamentable”:

“Of course, bringing the perpetrators of terrible crimes to justice is a necessary and vital pursuit. It does not, however, stand in for the question of whether or not the regime whose thugs the perpetrators were is fit, morally and politically, to survive within the community of nations, fit to have its sovereignty respected…”

I certainly agree Saddam’s atrocities meant that he had long forfeited any right to be in power, that the moral legitimacy of his sovereignty over Iraq was zero – but that’s not necessarily the same as saying that violently removing him was better than leaving him.

Norm suggests broader criteria for justifying humanitarian intervention than Roth allows: first, in cases of current, recent or imminent genocide-scale massacres; or second, in cases where “even short of this, a state commits, supports or overlooks murders, tortures and other extreme brutalities such as to result in a regular flow of thousands upon thousands of victims”.

Someone such as Roth would reply that a war to deal with a case of the second type may well lead to even more than “thousand and thousands” of victims, and I’d take that as a potentially overriding concern. I appear to lean more towards consequentialism on this than Norm does. But, curiously (for me at least), I lean more that way than Roth does as well. He remarks that:

“the balance of considerations just before the war probably supported the assessment that Iraq would be better off if Saddam Hussein’s ruthless reign were ended. But that one factor, in light of the failure to meet the other criteria, does not make the intervention humanitarian.”

Roth has weighed the options; he has judged that war would probably leave Iraq better off; and then he has rejected the better option on grounds of principle. Here I have to disagree. For me, that balance of considerations made war a tolerable option. Now, as Roth rightly says, war is dangerous. But if it was expected that Iraq would be better off with regime change, then the regime’s existence was even worse than the likely horrors of war.

As a rough proposal for when humanitarian military intervention is justifiable, I’d suggest that if a regime is so brutal that leaving it in place can be reasonably expected to be even worse for the people than its overthrow (or a lesser armed intervention, as over Kosovo), then that is acceptable as an option. Of course, there may be other, more peaceful options that could work, and if so, they may be preferable. Also, there may be other reasons in support of a war that wouldn’t itself be of overall humanitarian benefit.

It’s worth noting that this proposal doesn’t constitute an absolute threshold, as the amount of harm likely to result from intervention will vary from case to case. As such, it gets round the criticism made by Thomas Cushman to the effect that if a threshold level of human rights abuse were set as a trigger to intervene, that would positively encourage tyrants to torture and kill, with effective impunity, at a level just below the threshold. My suggestion also touches on Norm’s concern, expressed last week in relation to Sudan, that legalistic arguments about the definition of genocide may be “in danger of serving as a barrier to action”.

Well. As regards the Iraq war, this is all pretty academic now. Things have become a terrible and bloody mess, which I’ll look at tomorrow.

(This is the second in a series of posts. See also the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Iraq: where I was coming from

I wasn’t exactly happy about the Iraq war four years ago.

I’ve never liked George Bush’s character or his politics; I’d been quite a Tony Blair fan once, but by 2003 I was suspicious of his honesty and his motives; I loathed George Galloway’s demagoguery; I had contempt for Jacques Chirac’s moral posturing; I saw Vladimir Putin’s pleas for peace as a hypocritical disgrace; I shuddered whenever neocons such as the cheerfully belligerent Ken Adelman or the dead-eyed Richard Perle popped up on television; I despaired at the UN’s weakness and at the many decent people who seemed to treat the Security Council as a impartial moral authority; I shook my head at the worthy yet embarrassing sideshow of the weapons inspections; I feared for the carnage of war.

And I didn’t much like Saddam Hussein, either.

In the absence of any remotely appealing option, I approached the war with feelings of gloom, distrust, apprehension – and hope. It seemed that there was a good chance that a war could leave Iraq, in the not-too-long term, a better place for the people who lived there.

Toppling a brutal dictator on the grounds that he wasn’t thoroughly complying with the inspections seemed in itself an overreaction. But it also struck me as being a bit like locking up Al Capone for fiddling his accounts: it misses the point, but it gets the result.

I thought there was a defensible case for giving the weapons inspectors more time, but I also thought that that would prove fruitless in terms of averting an eventual war. And I judged, somewhat grimly, that it would be better to have a war than to have another year or so of tyranny followed by a war.

I didn’t trust Bush and Blair – I’ve never cared to defend their motives or integrity on this matter – so I couldn’t endorse their policy as the right thing to do. But becoming a de facto Saddam supporter was something I couldn’t stomach. Unlike many people I know on the left, I didn’t turn my back and wash my hands of it, dogmatic that the cowboy and the poodle were leading the world into disaster. I wanted it to work out well, and I thought it could.

I’ve tolerated plenty of policies that seemed suboptimal, risky and dubiously motivated but on balance likely to improve things. This was one such.

And now, four years on, here we are.

More tomorrow.

(This is the first in a series of posts. See also the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth.)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

True love waits…

Norm is bemused by some Japanese research suggesting that “if you don't have sex for a month, you probably won't for a year”. He wonders: “why doesn't it work the other way, that after a month you're that much more keen?”

Well, maybe you are. But how attractive is desperation?

Self-confidence and team spirit

Roy Hattersley has advice for Gordon Brown:

“If Mr Brown tries to be somebody he is not, the result will be catastrophe for him and the Government. …
“The public is weary of artifice or, as it is now called, ‘spin’. The gap in the political market is for a leader who neither prevaricates nor dissembles. The real Gordon Brown can meet the crying need for probity as well as prudence. …
“Yet there are idiots about who are advising him to smile with a mechanical regularity, tell jokes and pose for humanising ‘photo opportunities’. …
“Why, when he is a first-rate Gordon Brown, should the Chancellor aspire to being a second-rate Tony Blair?”

This is true: Brown is cringingly bad at the touchy-feely stuff. If he works too hard to look fluffy, he’ll not only fail, but lose the credibility to do the more serious, substantial stuff that he’s good at. (And anyway, David Cameron is far more convincing as a second-rate Blair.)

I’m put in mind of a scene from The West Wing – it’s just before Bartlet (incumbent, economics background, intellectual heavyweight) has his TV debate with the Republican candidate (policy-light, casual manner, glib with the soundbites). The President’s advisers have been worried about how their man will come across.

“We were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning at ten past three, my phone rings, and it’s Toby Ziegler. He says, ‘Don't you get it? It's a gift that they're irreversibly convinced that he's arrogant 'cause now he can be.’ If your guy's seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.”

If Brown’s over-serious image is now set in stone, he may as well use it against the man who wants to “let sunshine win the day”, to govern by press release and to avoid giving offence. If Brown is stuck with that ‘big clunking fist’ (to go with the ‘brain the size of a planet’), then he might as well get the benefit of landing some smart, hard punches.

Gang culture
And another thing: Brown needs to make politics more of a team game. Lots of us have been exasperated by Blair’s ‘presidential’ style, and there are fears that Brown will be as bad if not worse. He needs to prove these people wrong by bringing Cabinet government back with a vengeance. Not just because it’ll disarm the ‘control freak’ charge, not just because it’ll be good for parliamentary party morale, and not just because it’s a good thing in itself.

For over a year the Tories have been defined almost entirely in terms of their leader. If Brown brings some of Labour’s bright young things to the fore, then Cameron will be obliged to wheel out the less reconstructed members of his front bench or else look like a one-man band.

And if people really are worried about aspects of Brown’s personal image, then he can use his colleagues to broaden Labour’s image rather than engaging in clumsy stunts himself. Blair’s never needed to look strong on the economy because he’s had Brown to do that for him. In turn, Brown doesn’t need to be photographed riding huskies when he has David Miliband at his side, being tough on climate change (as well as smoothly spoken).

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

[Insert good blog post here]

I don’t know what possessed the powers that be in my office to choose the week in which I’m decontaminating the carnage of other people’s calamities while trying not to lose a grip on my own actual proper work to order an ‘up’grade of my computer system from one designed by a semi-competent goblin with borderline personality disorder to one put together by an infinite number of monkeys who were desperately seeking sub-minimum wage employment after their Shakespeare-play-typing outfit was shut down by health and safety, but that’s the predicament I find myself handling with a variable blend of wryness and fury.

And it also means I’m not really blogging this week. So in the meantime, please imagine that I have many insightful, thought-provoking, well-informed and witty opinions on the matters of the day.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Blair is creating super-intelligent military robots that will rise up and destroy us all

It seems that someone in the Ministry of Defence may have a sense of humour:

“The British military is set to take one of its most significant steps into the digital age with the launch of the first Skynet 5 satellite.
“The spacecraft will deliver secure, high-bandwidth communications for UK and ‘friendly’ forces across the globe. It is part of a multi-billion-pound project that will allow the Army, Royal Navy and RAF to pass much more data, faster between command centres.”

Skynet, as I’m sure you all remember from the Terminator films,

“is a machine network that has gone on a mission to terminate all humans in a global war. ... Skynet was first built as a Global Digital Defense Network, made to generate machine models that would replace U.S. military personnel and vehicles. Skynet became self-aware and decided to terminate all humans to protect its existence. Every nuclear missile in the USA under Skynet's control was launched and in the counterattack of other nations 3 billion humans were killed in two minutes.”

Fortunately, the Government’s record on getting new computer systems to work efficiently suggests that we don’t have much to worry about.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Dishonourable discharge

Tory frontbencher (and former army officer) Patrick Mercer has lost his job for Saying Bad Things, such as:

“If someone is slow on the assault course, you'd get people shouting: 'Come on you fat bastard, come on you ginger bastard, come on you black bastard.' … I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.”

So he’s been forced to resign. Not for being a racist, not for condoning racism, and not apparently even for downplaying the seriousness of racism – but for appearing to downplay the seriousness of racism. More PR than PC, methinks.

But what is it with the Conservatives and race?

Desmond Swayne MP, who as David Cameron’s hand-picked Parliamentary Private Secretary should surely be the pinnacle of new Tory right-on-ness, was challenged on Newsnight yesterday to name a single black Tory frontbencher. He breezily shot back: “Shailesh Vara.”

Shailesh Vara is Asian, not black. Now I’m not suggesting that Swayne has succumbed to a ‘they all look the same’ attitude to people of darker skin, but such a basic distinction between ethnic groups is surely not hard to get the hang of if you’re serious about anti-racism, is it?

More importantly, if the Tory shadow cabinet is no place for people with dodgy prejudices, what is Liam ‘three dogs and a black bird’ Fox still doing there?

They’ve still a way to go. Come on, you Tory bastards!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Multilateral multilateralism

Norm Geras remarks on a speech by Hillary Benn.

Benn says:

“What do we do when states or those within states commit crimes against humanity?
“As we look to the future, I think we have to answer that question by making a renewed commitment to multilateralism in our foreign policy. A multilateralism that commits to work with the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, NATO and the widest range of partners, whenever we can.
“A multilateralism that pushes for reform in these international institutions to make them work more effectively… and make the responsibility to protect work in practice, with all the authority and legitimacy that only the UN can command.
“Because the more we can demonstrate that multilateralism can answer that uncomfortable question, the stronger we can make the argument with those who would act unilaterally that there is another way.”

Norm responds:

“But now suppose that, in a particular, terrible case - of Rwanda-type proportions - this answer is not effective; no multilateral action to halt an ongoing slaughter or genocide occurs, no other way is shown in fact.”

I agree with Benn that multilateral action is almost always preferable to unilateral action: more supporters means more likelihood of success. And the smoothness of functioning of the UN is a good thing for international relations in the long term, other things being equal. But Norm’s concern is spot on.

You see, the thing about making a commitment to multilateral solutions is that that very commitment has to be made multilaterally in order to be effective. If a large number of governments agree to pursue some worthy cause through the UN, but one of the permanent five demurs, the plan is scuppered.

For all but the ideologues on both sides, it’s an open, case-by-case question whether any given proposal for action would be better dropped for the sake of international harmony or pursued anyway for the sake of averting an emergency.

(The 1999 military action over Kosovo was, to my mind, a bigger breach of international law than the 2003 Iraq war: both lacked Security Council authorisation, but the former involved far more lawbreakers than the latter. The fact that Kosovo is widely regarded as having had far better humanitarian justification, and the fact that Iraq has caused far more difficulty for the UN, show that SC resolutions are more about alignments of power interests than about moral authority. International law in this context largely boils down to intergovernmental popularity.)

What’s better for stopping a Rwanda-type genocide: a unanimous UN denunciation or a few powerful states ‘roguishly’ sending in the troops?

So what’s the more important issue: how to make the effective action that’s necessary as multilateral as possible, or how to make the multilateral action that’s necessary as effective as possible? The two have very different starting-points, and – to the extent that we live in an imperfect world – different ending-points as well.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

From the Iron Lady to the Irony Lad

Have I mentioned that my opinion of David Cameron isn’t entirely positive? Well, perhaps I’ve been too harsh on the boy. He proved at the weekend that he truly understands the core of the British national character: irony. Because there’s really no other way to explain his recipe for political success:

“You must have an analysis - a deep and serious analysis - of what the country needs.”

Deep? Serious? From a former Bullingdon Boy turned media PR man turned new Tory? But hold on – don’t mock him until you’ve read it:

“We are clear about what we want to do: we want to improve the quality of life for everyone in our country. And we are equally clear about how we will do it. Not through Labour's idea of state control. But through our idea: social responsibility.”

Are you clear about that? Life will be better for everyone, and the “deep and serious analysis” of how to achieve this is by means of social responsibility.

What? You want more? A two-word slogan (neither of whose words is a verb) isn’t an adequate explanation of how to transform society? Shame on you. Well, alright, but I should warn you that only the most intelligent of you will be able to follow the subtle intricacies of his thinking:

“if we are to bring about the social revival that is our aim, if we are to deliver those lasting improvements to people's quality of life, everyone will have to play their part. Government, of course. But also individuals, families, businesses, communities, charities and social enterprises. Everyone has their part to play.”

I hope your breath is sufficiently taken away and that your brain isn’t overwhelmed to the point of embolism. This kind of insight is gold dust. But lest you form the impression that Mr Cameron is the fount of all wisdom, he cautions:

“But at the same time, let's not pretend that politicians have all the answers.”

It’s kind of him to say that, because for a minute there, I really did think that he had all the answers! Silly me!

Let me treat you to some more policy detail, getting to the heart of it – some of the “grit” that he promised to reveal this year. You might want to take notes:

“We need to change our culture too, so we value families more. … In particular we need to create the right social pressures… It is not something that can be delivered by government. It is a personal responsibility, and a social responsibility.”

You see, the very core of his programme for government is something that government can’t do. And that’s the postmodern beauty of Cameron’s vision for Britain: it can be fulfilled without him actually being in government! He can stay in opposition and do his whole persuade/cajole/exhort routine to spread a culture of familial niceness without having his precious time wasted with distractions such as governing.

But after I read this, I started to think that I’d got it wrong. It crossed my mind that his vision might actually be superficial drivel. But how could that be, coming from an intellectual colossus such as him? So it struck me that I’d missed the masterful irony of his speech. Shallow sloganising as a “deep and serious analysis”? Hand-waving blather about everyone “playing their part” as “clear”?

Oh, this boy’s sharp. (You’d not get that kind of dry, understated wit from certain dour statist politicians!) Because he couldn’t possibly literally have meant this:

“Just as once we transformed Britain's economy by applying Conservative ideas and Conservative values, so today we can transform our society in just the same way.”

Clearly he learned a lot about Tory economic success while working for Norman Lamont. So what’s the social equivalent of two recessions, mass unemployment, an unsustainable boom, tax cuts for the rich, ballooning poverty, a forced devaluation, broken tax promises and a massive budget deficit?

What a joker. He should definitely give up the day job.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Beyond belief

Mark Vernon writes about atheist mistakes (see also responses from Ophelia Benson, Matt Murrell and Stephen Law, plus replies from Mark).

He says that atheists arguing against god’s existence (such as with the problem of evil) typically “present 'proofs' that require empirical evidence”. Mark, an agnostic, thinks there’s a problem with this:

“But empirical evidence is only good for certain kinds of proof and a rather limited range of proofs at that. For example, the whole of mathematics would fail if you required empirical evidence for its veracity. As would morality and, indeed, philosophy.
“Even in the realm of experimental science, the empirical approach is not enough. … One can, of course, provide evidence that supports or undermines theories. … But still you need to understand how to read the evidence: it is rarely self-evident.”

I think the second part rather undermines the first: it’s definitely true that science isn’t simply a matter of evidence. No scientist would submit to a journal a list of observations rounded off by ‘This shows that the lesser-spotted flapper is a species of the Frecklyfeather genus’. Of course you need to explain the significance of any given piece of evidence and then use it as part of a logical argument.

And while philosophy isn’t science, it can certainly make productive use of empirical observations (for instance, much of contemporary philosophy of mind is – or tries to be – informed by experimental psychology and neuroscience).

So a typology of arguments that only use empirical evidence and ones that only use cogitative logic wouldn’t hold (I think Mark would agree).

In the case of god, we’re talking about a supposedly real being who, while not being observable in the physical universe himself, does have causal effects in that he has created the universe to correspond with his wishes. So, while it’s hard to know what empirical evidence might be brought to bear in moral philosophy, for instance, here there is room for observation to play a part.

Another point Marks makes (in fact, “the over-riding issue”) is that:

“if they [atheists] really want to be conclusive then they must address the best ideas of God available, the criterion for that being those of the great theologians. Aquinas, because I know something about him, is always my test case. Unfortunately, or irritatingly, though, they will find that the best theologians say that God is not ultimately amenable to the kind of analysis they want to apply. For the very simple reason that God is beyond human comprehension, else not God.”

I agree that battering straw men is a waste of everyone’s time (he mentions the undergraduate argument that omnipotence isn’t strictly possible, therefore nor is god, and rightly rubbishes it: that a given conception of omnipotence is incoherent only means that the theist has to add certain reasonable caveats, and then we proceed from there).

But there are two serious problems with Mark’s line of argument here. First of all, there’s a definitional issue: if certain atheist arguments do indeed disprove the existence of a being defined in a given way, then that’s a result. If an atheist disbelieves in god (conceived of in some way) but a Christian believes in god (conceived of in some other way) then that’s not a defeat for either. If the Christian agrees that the first type of god doesn’t exist, then that’s all clear; if the atheist wants to present an argument against the second type of god, then that’s another matter.

We could argue about whether a certain conception couldn’t legitimately deserve the name ‘god’ – what if he were morally flawed, or had only very substantial power, or had initially been created by some other being? – but that’s just semantics. For any given definition that’s hypothesised, we can ignore the name and debate its plausibility. But if we just hold the name out as the focus of the argument, almost regardless of the nature of its supposed object of reference, then we lose a grip on what exactly we’re discussing.

So, secondly, there’s an indeterminacy issue. If the ‘best idea of god’ is of a god that is ‘beyond human comprehension’, then that’s not much of an idea, really. Mark praises Aquinas but here he sounds more like an agnostic version of Anselm: “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order that I may understand. For this, too, I believe, that unless I first believe, I shall not understand.”

Anselm’s attitude to faith is vapid because unless you know what it is that you believe, then you don’t have a belief at all: you have an empty mantra.

It’s like me saying that I have a new theory of monetarism that would guarantee universal prosperity. You ask me to explain, and I reply that it’s beyond human comprehension, and that I believe in this theory firmly in the hope that I may one day come to understand at least some of it. I add that it lacks the limitations of the well-known approaches that go by the name of ‘monetarism’ – and then I challenge you to prove that it won’t work.

To insist that a hypothesis that cannot be formulated (and therefore cannot be supported or opposed by reason or evidence) is the one whose falsification atheists must aim at is to beg the question against those of us who like to be told what ‘god’ is supposed to be before wondering whether or not he exists.

Mark concludes:

“In short, I try to look for the best in the religious traditions, which I think it is incumbent upon us - atheists and agnostics - to do, and wise in the modern world. Reject religious belief, sure. But reject it well.”

Agreed. But if ‘the best’ can’t tell us what they think, then we can’t even start to evaluate it.

Wall of shame

According to this site, my blog is not censored in China (hat tip to Paul and Cally’s Kitchen).

This won’t do. Are the communist bureaucrats not doing their jobs properly or am I being insufficiently subversive?

So, citizens of China, while I still have your attention:

Rise up! Rise up now and overthrow them! Don’t believe their “people’s republic” propaganda – they’re really not very nice at all!

That should do it.

Fortune and education

Can somebody please explain to me why allocating limited places at oversubscribed state schools randomly denies parental choice but allocating them on the basis of who can afford a house in the right area doesn’t?

Or maybe it was decided that the purpose of state education is to make sure that Nice People Like Us can choose to avoid the vulgar rabble (who of course are perfectly happy to be dumped with other rabble – it’s all they know, bless them). Maybe I was off ill the day that was announced.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Getting high

You know how conversations about religion tend to get a bit tense and bad-tempered? And you know how online debates tend to get a bit personal and sneering? Well, both of these pitfalls are being delightfully avoided (mostly) on this thread over at Alex’s blog, ‘In Search of High Places’.

A few of us are kicking around different ways to understand the meaning of life if there is or isn’t a god (following an earlier discussion here). So if that’s your cup of tea, you might fancy dropping by. At time of writing Alex has managed to get me onto philosophy of mind, which I did a lot on as a student and could potentially ramble on about for ages, doubtless costing me my job. He and I disagree on an awful lot but we manage to keep things good-natured, as we’re both secure in the knowledge that the other guy is wrong…


More economic illiteracy from shadow chancellor George Osborne:

“Ahead of a speech to business bosses' organisation the CBI, he said all policy ideas due to be put forward in the next few months would have to pass ‘sound money tests’, to make such they were affordable and would not damage public finances.

“He will say any specific tax proposals - such as recognising marriage, will be paid for by tax increases on things like pollution.”

As I’ve said, the point of taxing pollution is to reduce the amount of pollution by making it more expensive. So if his green tax policies (not that he has any yet) work, then they’ll produce diminishing tax receipts as people and firms change their behaviour.

But tax breaks for married couples (and apparently this is a “value” rather than a “policy”), if successful, will increase marriage rates, causing the cost to rise.

‘Sound money’? Yep, sounds like a lot of money.