Thursday, December 29, 2005

Secrets Out

It's that time of year again. Yes, the National Archive have been releasing old state secrets again today. This year, it's secrets from 1974 and 1975.* It's a happy time for many people; the documents remind us that UK governments have a long history of behaving in the most bizarre ways. In 1975, much of this would have been dismissed as nonsense by the government of the day. How many tin foil hatted bloggers will be saying "see, I was right all along, I knew it" 30 years from today?

The BBC website people were ready and waiting and provide a fair bit of coverage. So what was happening in the corridors of power in 1974 and 1975?

Caring for the sick
British officials were "most encouraged" to learn that Saddam needed an operation on his back. They investigated whether the UK could sucessfully provide this operation for Saddam. Back then, they really wanted to please him, you see.

Protecting what's important
The governments plans for coping with nuclear war are interesting. Civilians were thought to be beyond saving but artworks from London and Edinburgh were going to be moved to slate mines in Wales. That's comforting. We're all going to die but at least the paintings are safe...

Sign of the times
Harold Wilson wanted to nationalise beer as part of a "little things mean a lot" campaign. Can you imaging Blair suggesting that today?

Not so much
Wilson also wondered whether there was too much "hippie influence" at the BBC and suggested that BBC journalists were too aggressive in their approach. He discussed these concerns with the chairman Sir Michael Swann.
Swann said "he thought that too many young producers approached every programme they did from the starting point of an attitude about the subject which could be summed up as: 'you are a shit.'"
That could just as easily have been said today. The thing is, if you're interviewing a politician, "you are a shit" is almost certainly the most starting point to set off from, then as now.

There was consternation over the future of two pandas at London Zoo. The pandas were given to the zoo as gifts by the Chinese government but the zoo was having trouble paying for their upkeep. UK ministers worried that appearing to be unsympathetic to the needs of the pandas might sour relations with the Chinese and cause political harm at home.
Goronwy-Roberts [Foreign Office minister] said Zuckerman [zoo offical attempting to raise funds for the pandas] had "tried to keep the pandas out of party politics" but some Conservative MPs might seize on the issue.
That story is worth repeating just to see the phrase "tried to keep pandas out of party politics" again. Genius. I reckon the House of Commons would be enormously envigorated if each party recruited a few pandas. Fair votes and more pandas, that's what I say.

* Since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act, there doesn't seem to be any particular reason why many of these documents are still released after 30 years. Few are likely to have been excepted from the FIA provisions. Tradition, possibly?

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Infamy, Infamy...

Engaging Moonbat Mode. Be warned.

Via the Religious Policeman (who you really should be reading if you're not) I see that Iraq The Model* has won the Weblog Award for best Middle East or Africa blog. Iraq The Model is a very interesting blog written originally by three brothers and now by just two. I've stumbled across it a number of times but I'm certainly not a regular reader. They do have a very interesting attitude towards the current situation in Iraq and it would appear that the blog is very popular with "pro-war" US readers in particular. To illustrate, you might like to have a quick look at who links to them and why. (This is one of those stories from way back when so apologies if it's old news to you. Short version here.)

I've been reading some of the current posts on the blog as well as some of the archives. It really is fasinating stuff. Here's their summary of the current situation:
Anyway, the worst possible outcome of this struggle isn’t going to be thick black, the same way that the best outcome isn’t expected to be pure while; it’s all shades of gray and we hope we can end up with the lightest one possible.

This is from 30th November 2003:
I’m asking every honest man and woman and every honest government in the world to give a hand. This is not a USA vs. Saddam battle. And not an Iraqi people vs. Ba’athists battle. This is the war of the free world against terrorism. This is a war between all the good and all the evil. If this is what they call resistance, and if this is what they call patriotism, then I am the first betrayer. People of the world: you can not stay neutral, we're all on the list.
Free world against terrorists? That seems to be a bit of an over-simplification of the problem in Iraq. And all that good versus evil, with us or against us stuff sounds almost familiar.

Discussing Al Jazeera's new english language channel, they said (28th October, 2004) :
We will all be able to watch and enjoy the indispensable and most honest news station of all times, Al Jazeera. We tried many times to describe to you how biased and hateful the channel is but some of you kept saying “No way, you must be exaggerating. No channel can be more biased than the BBC or CNN”.
That sounds very familiar. You get the idea. These bloggers really are very supportive of the efforts of the US administration and the views of neo-conservatives.

So supportive are they, in fact, that some people have raised questions as to their integrity. Suspicions of hidden agendas were fuelled when two of the three brothers visited the United States and "accidentally" met President Bush. It was this which apparently motivated the third brother, Ali, to stop participating in the blog. In his final post, he wrote:
I just can't keep doing this anymore. My stand regarding America has never changed. I still love America and feel grateful to all those who helped us get our freedom and are still helping us establishing democracy in our country. But it's the act of some Americans that made me feel I'm on the wrong side here. I will expose these people in public very soon, and I won't lack the means to do this.
The New York Times took up the story in January 2005 and actually spoke to Ali. It is an interesting article which was widely mocked, scorned and ridiculed by the heavyweight "pro war" bloggers. As far as I can tell, Ali never did explain what it was which made him feel he was on the wrong side.

The thing is, astroturfing does happen in all sorts of ways. We know that the US government has planted favourable news stories in Iraqi newspapers. Given that, do you think the US administration would have the slightest problem with supporting and encouraging, and then prompting, manipulating and exploiting these three Iraqi bloggers who were already pro-US and pro-invasion? Not likely. I doubt they'd even consider it an ethically questionable endeavour.

The fact that there are some Iraqis who are generally pro-US and pro-invasion and who can be exploited in this way isn't any great mystery. Some people (let's be honest, it's the same rabid anti-war reactionaries who appear to be intent on giving us semi-sensible lefties a bad name) seem to have difficulty believing that such could people exist at all but they clearly do. There are just not very many of them. That's not speculation, it's what the latest survey from Iraq said. 10% of Iraqis have quite a lot of confidence in the coalition and 6% have a great deal of confidence. Unfortunately, 23% have not very much confidence in them and 54% have none at all. Anyway, I very much doubt that these chaps are CIA stooges; they're part of the 6%. That fact doesn't trouble the very many pro-war bloggers who seem intent on portraying them as the silent majority in Iraq though.

Reading Iraq The Model, it's hard to shake the feeling that it has all been approved before it is posted. It appears probable that Ali found that he could not live within the constraints imposed on him at Iraq The Model. He's set up his own blog which is still generally very supportive of the coalition but which does stray "off message" in a way that Iraq The Model does not. More power to him for that.

* I'm not linking I'm afraid, and I'll tell you for why. The commenters on Iraq The Model are inclined to be slightly, ahem, impolite to those expressing opinions they don't agree with. If I link this post, there is a very small possibility that I'd get a link back and a comment loon invasion to go with it. Highly unlikely but why take the risk? Please do google away or go via the technorati link if you fancy reading it though.

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A Mighty Resurgence

The Scottish Conservatives have been in the doldrum ever since Margaret Thatcher decided to grant us Scots the privilige of being allowed to be the first to try out the wonderful new Poll Tax. That was in 1989 and the party has shown no signs of recovering in the intervening years.

Until now. Diamond Dave's midas touch has apparently been working its magic in universities north of the border.
Scottish Conservatives have claimed the party has more student members than any other political party in the country.
Impressive. And there's more.
The secretary of Glasgow University Conservative Association said students had lined up to join during a freshers' fair at the start of term.
Why it's a veritable lazarus moment for the party. Let's look at those figures:
The party said it had about 400 paid-up members across seven of the main Scottish universities.
400? Four hundred? Seriously? Four hundred university students from the top seven Scottish universities are paid-up members of the Scottish Conservative Party? One, two three, four hundred? Huzzah!

If your looking for some perspective on that, Glasgow University currently has around 16,000 undergraduate students and 4,000 postgraduates. Someone should try to work out what percentage of university students in Scotland belong to the Conservative Party. I can't be bothered so I'll make a very rough estimate. It's certainly less than 1% and it's probably less than 0.5%. It's not a lot.

This isn't a party political point though. The Conservatives claim to have more student members than the other parties and this is quite plausible. It appears that the other parties are recruiting an even smaller percentage of university students.

Scottish university students have overwhelmingly disengaged from the current party political system. This should trouble anyone with an interest in maintaining a healthy democracy.

I don't think it's likely that these students are overwhelmingly disengaged from political issues though. It's the party system and the way politics is practised which discourages their participation in "traditional" politics. If the parties cannot address this problem, democracy in the UK is going to whither away like a neglected house plant.

A fair voting system for Westminster would probably help a bit. Let's face it, it can't get much worse.

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Extremism, Elections and Inevitability

I've said many times that the invasion of Iraq would inevitably lead to the point we're now at and this was one of the reasons why I originally opposed the war. This is a lazy simplification on my part so here's a slightly more detailed explanation of what I mean. There's a sense in which this is still a sort of Hari Seldon approach to Iraq, treating people as nothing more than mindless predictible drones, but it is nevertheless true that people in large groups often do act in entirely predictable ways. This approach obviously (and unfortunately) ignores the many individuals who are courageous enough to fight against the will of the "mob". All too often, sadly, the mob tramples these brave individuals underfoot. This isn't an Iraqi problem or one which applies to any specific group; it's a human problem. Such, as they often say, is life.

It is not actually the case that it was inevitable that Iraq would turn towards fundamentalism after the removal of Saddam. The Iran friendly Shiite fundamentalists who dominate the UIA did not have widespread support in Iraq in March 2003. Some Shiite Iraqis were sympathetic to these views but certainly nowhere near the 50%+ the UIA appear to have polled in Baghdad in the recent elections.

The reason I opposed the war and have called the current situation "inevitable" is because of the ignorance, incompetance and downright stupidity of the invaders. It seeemed clear from the very start that the people who had taken it upon themselves to build a new Iraq didn't actually have the faintest idea how they were going to do it or what it would entail. Consider this example, which was related to Peter Oborne by Peter Galbraith:
[In] January 2003 the President invited three members of the Iraqi opposition to join him to watch the Super Bowl. In the course of the conversation the Iraqis realized that the President was not aware that there was a difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. He looked at them and said, "You mean...they're not, you know, there, there's this difference. What is it about?"
Whether you believe this or not is up to you. The fact that the coalition was completely taken aback by the complexities and difficulties of the occupation however, is no longer in dispute. That lack of preparedness was obvious before the invasion began and it was, for me, a recipe for disaster. That was what made the current situation inevitable.

So, I would argue, it has proved.

Under Saddam, religious Shiites were persecuted and prevented from practising many of their traditional public celebration. Removing this repression was always likely to lead to a sudden movement in the opposite direction. It's like releasing the pressure on several million springs. The coalition, rather than taking any steps to try to dampen that effect, looked on in suprise and confusion as huge numbers of the springs rebounded straight in their faces. They seemed to think that the springs would immediately and uniformly find an equilibrium in the form of a lovely secular democracy. When that didn't happen, they tried to stamp them back down. Which just made it worse. It was, frankly, idiotic. It'd be funny if people weren't dead.

That's only part of it though. The fall of Saddam brought with it a power vacuum. Before the invasion, the coalition had shown no signs that it was aware that this would happen, despite the fact that it was screamingly obvious. When it did happen, the coalition stood with mouths agape as law and order disintegrated around them. Farcical, is the kindest description I can think of.

Others were far better prepared for the security vacuum though. It was filled, at least in part, by militia groups such as the Badr Brigade and the Mehdi Army. These militias were able to provide local residents with a level of security where the coalition were not. They also became the de facto police force in many areas, often imposing their own strict Islamic laws down the barrel of a gun. The militias also fostered a spirit of community by providing social services for the worst off and generally making themselves useful in their neighbourhoods. And they provided a platform from which religious Shiite preachers were able to successfuly disseminate their beliefs to a wider audience, especially in impoverished areas such as Sadr City. The collapse of the coalition's justification for the invasion raised serious questions regarding the motivations of the "invaders" and only added to the success of these activities.

The reason they were successful was that they had made strategic preparations for the fall of Saddam. Their preparations were based on the actual realities of Iraq after the fall of Saddam and not on some pie in the sky notions of sweets and flowers and happy ever after. And, of course, the coalition did not have any strategies in place to control the power of the clerics and their militias as it expanded to fill the vacuum. Not surprising since they hadn't expected the vacuum in the first place.

These militia groups are now hugely influencial in large parts of Iraq and the coalition does not appear to be able to do anything to challenge that state of affairs. When the coalition talks of handing control to local security forces in an area they are most often actually handing control to the local militia. That the militias affected the results of the recent elections is hard to dispute. Their very existence on the ground would have exerted a significant influence. The idea that there has been a free and fair election in Iraq in these circumstances seems to me to be absurd.

Whether there was also "traditional" election fraud is probably always going to be a matter of debate. The UIA does appear to have achieved an extraordinarily high level of support compared to the secular parties in a country with a strong history of secularism. Iraq does have a large well educated middle class and its hard to see what happened to their votes. Whatever the truth of the allegations, it appears that these results are going to stand.

The United Iraq Alliance, the "Iranian list", is going to be the dominant power in the new Iraq for the next four years. What chance a free and fair election in Iraq four years from now under those circumstances? Will it be free and fair like an Iranian election? It's an extremely depressing thought.

With intelligent well informed leaders and thorough and careful planning, the coalition might have had a chance at achieving some of the goals they set out for Iraq in March 2003. But it was clear in early 2003 that there was a distinct lack of thorough and careful planning and that the coalition were going to make a frightful mess of the occupation as a result. It was clear that the coalition had no plans for peace in Iraq but only plans for war. It was clear that a section of Iraqi society would attempt to achieve a religious Shiite dominated government and it was clear that Iran would attempt to support them in that endeavour. It was clear that the coalition had not planned for this. In those circumstances, what's happening in Iraq today was inevitable. It needn't have been.

The leaders who got it so wrong need to be held to account. I believe that they have shown themselves incapable of carrying out their responsibilities competantly. Their rash actions and simplistic ideologies have made the world a more dangerous place. And today, as I write this, they are still the ones making important foreign policy decisions on behalf of their citizens. If that doesn't terrify you, I don't know what will.

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Blinkered Views

Mainstream media coverage of the situation in Iraq after the elections seems to be verging on the schizophrenic.

Demonstrations against the provisional/expected results have been given a fair bit of coverage.

MSNBC (A.P.) 24/12 :
On Friday [23/12], large demonstrations broke out across the country amid charges that the election was rigged in favor of the main religious Shiite coalition. Several hundred thousand people demonstrated after noon prayers in southern Baghdad Friday, many carrying banners decrying last week’s elections.
USA Today 26/12 :
Over the weekend, thousands of Sunni Arabs staged street demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities with large Sunni populations, claiming that the elections were tainted by fraud and calling for a new vote under international supervision. In a counterdemonstration, Shiites in the capital on Sunday demanded acceptance of the Dec. 15 results...

"We will resort to peaceful options, including protests, civil disobedience and a boycott of the national process until our demands are met," said Hassan Zaidan al-Lahaibi, member of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.
BBC 27/12 :
Thousands of Iraqis have staged a protest in Baghdad about results from the recent parliamentary elections, which they say were tainted by fraud. Demonstrators chanted slogans alleging the polls were rigged in favour of the governing Shia religious bloc.
The secular and Sunni protests against what they see as religious Shiite manipulation of the election results have not been ignored.* The renewed violence has also been getting the standard low level coverage.

ABC (A.P.) 26/12 :
Violence increased across Iraq after a lull following the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections, with at least two dozen people including a U.S. soldier killed Monday in shootings and bombings mostly targeting the Shiite-dominated security services.
CNN 26/12 :
Violence claimed the lives of 21 people in Iraq, including a U.S. soldier, a university lecturer and a member of the Diyala provincial council, officials said Monday. More than 50 people were wounded, including a provincial governor.
Reports like these are sadly all too familiar.

The western MSM does not appear to be even slightly interested in providing coverage of the significance of the provisional/expected results of the election though.** For that, you need to go elsewhere.

Asia Times 20/12 :
Iran wins big in Iraq's elections
The prognosis that Sunnis would flock to Allawi or that Shi'ite constituents were disillusioned with the "fundamentalist" UIA and would be drawn to Allawi's secular platform has also proved to be highly faulty...

Iran has, therefore, every reason to be pleased with the outcome of the election. Tehran sees that Iraq is now irreversibly on the verge of profound change, and transition is already in the air.
Inter Press Service 26/12 :
Before last January's elections, Allawi's defence minister, Hazim al-Shaalan, publicly referred to the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance slate as the "Iranian list"....

For Shiite party leaders, U.S. pressure to share state power with secular or Sunni representatives -- especially on internal security -- touches a raw nerve. They regard control over the organs of state repression as the key to maintaining a Shiite regime in power.

If Abdul Aziz al-Hakin and other SCIRI leaders feel they have to choose between relying on U.S. military protection and the security of their regime, they are likely to choose the latter. They could counter U.S. pressures by warning they will demand a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops if the United States continues to interfere in such politically sensitive matters.
These issues seem to be entirely missing from most of the media's coverage of the current situation in Iraq. Is there a rule about this? Don't mention Iran. I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it... What's the story? I thought the western media was supposed to be run by wishy washy liberals desperate for Bush's Iraq project to fail. Shouldn't they be gloating gleefully about this? Apparently not.

The sad truth is that the invasion of Iraq has empowered Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Iran. When the dust settles the "Iranian list" is going to be the largest party in Iraq with 120 - 130 seats out of a total of 275.

This post isn't about gloating. This is about the truth. News reporting is supposed to be about that too.

* It is certainly possible, likely even, that religious parties have suppressed the secular vote in various ways. Their militias have considerable power at the local level. It surprises me that so many people are happy to declare these elections "free and fair". Maybe they were but it's hard to see how anyone could be sure of that at this stage.

** The Financial Times is the only western media source I found who did cover Rafsanjani's comments but it's behind a firewall so who knows what they actually said.

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Saturday, December 24, 2005

Seasons Greetings

Without further ado I present the half baked BSSC advent calander.

Click to open:

It's Christmas

Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!


Friday, December 23, 2005

The power of the mind

Slightly bored random word searches have revealed something truly amazing.

It's a real patent issued in the United States in 2000.

A unique painting process and an associated kit including the materials required for practicing the method. The method includes the acts of preparing a protective covering on a work surface, preparing a background media by placing it on the protective covering on the work surface, placing a reservoir on the protective covering, filling the reservoir with a paint, dipping the posterior of the infant in the paint, and stamping the posterior on the background media to create stamping prints.
Yes, infant. Yes, posterior. Someone has patented the art of painting with the posterior of an infant.

I wish I'd thought of that.

There are quite a few more obscure patents too. The Beerbrella and this animal toy are must views, for different reasons.

LibDems for Boris (via). Now that's a good idea. For anyone who hasn't seen the original, here's the link to the cheap stunt.

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

What do Iraqis Say?

I strongly recommend reading this (via). These are the first reports.

Here are some some more Iraqi blogger's posts on the election results if you're interested.

Having ploughed my way through the ejaculatory valedictory proclamations of various US "pro-war" bloggers and their comment swarms in recent days, it appears that many would consider a post like this to be a gleeful celebration of the apparent failure of the Bush's Iraq project or a moonbat refusal to accept that there is "good news" coming from Iraq. The very unpleasant reality is that good news is very thin on the ground in Iraq at the moment.

Pretending that this isn't the case in order to avoid political embarrassement isn't going to make the situation any better. It might help take the heat off the political situation at home but it won't do anything to improve conditions for the people of Iraq. To do that would be to take the cowards way out. To do that would be to abandon the Iraqi people. To do that would be the betrayal of all those who have lost their lives in Iraq. That's what a post like this is about.

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A story about the very liberal Scottish Liberal Democrats (via). I know I vote for them but for crying out loud. Idiots.

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Now with Graphics

It's turning into yet another Iraq blog round here at the moment (sort of like the very lazy man's Brian Haw). Other topics will be subjected to my semi-coherent scrutiny in due course. The whole nuclear power thing is still outstanding for a start.

Alas though, it's impossible to resist mentioning that Tony and Donny have both been in Iraq today. Blair is "encouraged" by the security situation apparently. So encouraged indeed, that the visit was kept secret and he spent the entire lightning visit inside a heavily defended military compound.

If you're encouraged by the security situation Mr Blair, I recommend taking a stroll around the centre of Basra (with plenty of bodyguards of course, let's not be unreasonable). I'm sure very many people there would like to thank you personally and it seems such a shame to deny them that opportunity. Until that happens, you can, frankly, take your meaningless platitudes and piss off.

Speaking to the troops, he said:
The important thing is to try and help this country become the democracy its people want it to be.
I think he might be simple.

It seems that some people still don't understand what the problem actually is in Iraq. There seems to be an idea that everything is going to be alright because the Sunnis and the Shiites both want a united Iraq. (The Kurds mostly do want to be independent in due course.) There's no disputing that both groups want a united Iraq but that's missing the point. They do not both want the same kind of united Iraq. That's what's causing so much of the trouble. When Blair says he wants to help the "people" of Iraq, he's either ignorant of, or ignoring the fact that there is no consensus on what kind of Iraq "its people" want.

Just to emphasise the point, the secular parties led by Allawi have joined forces with the Sunni Arab parties to demand a new election. This is, if you like, a losers alliance. As things stand, neither of these groups is going to have much influence over the new government. Allawi's coalition (the Iraqi National List) is expected to win only perhaps half the number of seats it had previously held. The INL group has now joined Sunni leaders in threatening to boycott the new parliament. Washington's one time favourite is basically calling the election illegitimate. No-one'll be spinning that into a positive development anytime soon so it'll get ignored to the fullest possible extent.

One of the central underlying problems is the disagreement over the structure of Iraq. This "map" of Iraq is inspired by my admittedly very tenuous grasp of the concept of competition game theory.

Iraq: A map


This is an outrageous simplification of course but I hope it explains something about the current situation.* For clarity, I've split Iraq into 4 equal quarters which is very roughly representative but the real situation is obviously far more complicated than that. It's also important to acknowledge that oil revenues are only one part of the problem.

So, there are four people and each one lives in their own quarter of the country. Mr Sunni doesn't have any oil but the other three do. If we give each of them an equal say and ask them if they want to pool their combined resources or keep them seperate, you'll always get the same result. Mr Sunni will vote for a pooling of resources and Mr Shiite, Mr Shia and Mr Kurd will all vote for seperate control. Seperate control always wins and Mr Sunni always loses. For Mr Sunni to "win", ie get at least some oil money, he would need to persuade the other three (or at least two) to give up some of their own oil revenue. This is not in the best interest of any of the other three unless Mr Sunni has got something he can offer them in return. But he doesn't. He lives in a desert.

How do you solve this problem so that all four men are happy? With great difficulty. I'm not saying it can't be done but I am saying it's a very serious problem. Ignoring it certainly won't help.

* It goes without saying but I'll say it anyway. Its important to remember that this isn't just an intellectual exercise. This has very serious implications for real people and the country they live in.

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Britain will be first country to monitor every car journey (via).
Britain is to become the first country in the world where the movements of all vehicles on the roads are recorded. A new national surveillance system will hold the records for at least two years.

Using a network of cameras that can automatically read every passing number plate, the plan is to build a huge database of vehicle movements so that the police and security services can analyse any journey a driver has made over several years.

The network will incorporate thousands of existing CCTV cameras which are being converted to read number plates automatically night and day to provide 24/7 coverage of all motorways and main roads, as well as towns, cities, ports and petrol-station forecourts.
The government's authoritarian tendencies have been cause for concern for some considerable time. This new scheme would appear to leave us no option but to officially declare that our country is ruled by authoritarian maniacs.

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A Bed of Nails

Yesterday, brutal murderous ex-dictator Saddam Hussein claimed that he has been beaten and tortured while in US custody. He has repeated those claims today, He dismissed Whitehouse denials saying "we don't lie. It is the White House that lies". He also said "When I hear that any Iraqi has been hurt, it hurts me too". Even the most earnest peacenik would struggle to work up any sympathy for the vicious torturing bastard.

Don't get me wrong, torture is abhorant and it's never justified. But if this did happen, and that's a big if, it's not something which is going to keep many people awake at night. A US state department spokesman said Saddam was "grandstanding" and that's certainly a highly plausible scenario.

It's clear that Saddam is not grandstanding for the benefit of a western audience. Saddam is a lot of things but he is not an idiot. This performance is aimed at Iraqi Sunnis particulary as well as at other Muslims generally. (If you've seen the report you'll know that Saddam made a point of praying while in court. "See what the evil infidel yankees have done to your devout Muslim brother" is obviously the message he's going for.) Will it have any effect though?

I'm afraid it probably will for two reasons. The first is mentioned in the BBC report as they describe how Saddam justified his claim that the Whitehouse lies.
The former president said the US could not be believed, as proved by its pre-war claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and the fact that none were found.
It's hard to disagree with the brutal murderer on this because he's basically right. Whether these were lies knowingly told is debatable, certainly, but the fact that the Whitehouse used a flawed justification for the invasion cannot be disputed. And Saddam's target audience will certainly be receptive to this argument.

The second reason is Abu Ghraib. Some of the people reading this might believe that the abuses at Abu Ghraib really were the work of "a few bad apples" but that really doesn't matter. There can be little doubt that most of Saddam's target audience believe that what happened at Abu Ghraib was sanctioned at the highest level.

With that in mind, it's not hard to see how Saddam's claims are going to look highly credible to those they are aimed at influencing.

Saddam almost certainly realises that he's going to be executed. Martyr status is about the best he can hope for now and he's doing everything he can to make sure it happens. He's probably going to succeed. Like Obi-Wan said "if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine".

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Rachel has news of the carol service in Parliament Square. Tim has more. No-one was arrested. For singing carols. No-one was arrested for doing that. It's extraordinary in so many ways.

Hearty rounds of applause, pats on the back, big hugs (well maybe not big hugs, we're not European after all), and other congratulatory gestures are clearly in order. Well done to one and all.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Tony Says

When you're tring to work out how you got to where you are today it's often a good idea to take a look behind you. Most people know this and do it instinctively. Some people find it more difficult. This is really for those who struggle.

On the 25 February, 2003, Tony said:
I detest his [Saddam's] regime. But even now he can save it by complying with the UN's demand. Even now, we are prepared to go the extra step to achieve disarmament peacefully. Today the path to peace is clear. Saddam can co-operate fully with the inspectors. He can voluntarily disarm. He can even leave the country peacefully. But he cannot avoid disarmament.
Explicitly not regime change. Disarmament. WMD. Threat to the world. Must act now!

On the 18th March 2003 Tony said:
I have never put our justification for action as regime change.
Ditto. He also said:
The real problem is that, underneath, people dispute that Iraq is a threat; dispute the link between terrorism and WMD; dispute the whole basis of our assertion that the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life. [my emphasis]
The real problem is that, underneath, Tony now knows that he was wrong and "people" were right.

On 31st May 2003 Tony said:
What we have said about weapons of mass destruction is that there is no doubt at all that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction... Now, once Saddam goes, our priority at the moment in Iraq is the reconstruction of Iraq. We have got teams of people however who are being tasked with interviewing the scientists and experts who worked on the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction programme. [my emphasis]
The priority, you'll notice, was not an immediate full scale search for the fabled weapons of mass destruction. These were weapons which were so dangerous that they absolutely could not be allowed to fall into the hands of terrorists. These were weapons so dangerous that their very existence justified the war in the first place. By May of 2003, Tony was apparently not in any great rush to secure these terrifying weapons.

In that same interview he was asked whether it would matter if no WMD were found. Tony said:
Of course it would matter, and that's why it's important that we carry out this task, but we don't need to do it with the same urgency that we would when Saddam was actually in power and these weapons of mass destruction could be used. The fact is now our focus has got to be on the immediate reconstruction of Iraq but I keep saying to people, be patient about this. Those people who are sitting there saying oh it is all going to be proved to be a great big fib got out by the security services. There will be no weapons of mass destruction. Just wait and have a little patience.
Still waiting. Saddam didn't even have the decency to leave any useless junk from his old WMD programmes lying around for the coalition to liberate. If only he'd done that, Blair could have"sexed up" that worthless haul and proclaimed himself vindicated. Not a thing though. Well, I say not a thing but that's not quite fair. It appears that Saddam did possess a dangerous intention. Not on its own a hugely frightening weapon though.

You'll have noticed that Tony repeats that there is "no urgency" to track down these extremely dangerous weapons. At least he does explain the rationale behind his lack of urgency and concern this time. Removing Saddam has somehow rendered the unspeakably deadly weapons unusable in some unspecified manner. Saddam in power: doomsday weapons, extreme urgency, great danger. Saddam not in power: relax guy, those weapons are useless, I'm sure we'll find them eventually.

Can anyone explain how that works exactly? It don't make no sense to me.

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Public Carol Service
Click here for more information.

Sometimes geography is a real pain in the arse. I can't go to this shindig but maybe you can.
Update: Slight date jiggery pokery should keep this post up here till the 21st.

In search of good news

Harry's Place is, as usual, rather selective in its treatment of Iraq.
The secular parties seem to have done less well than some had hoped leaving the Kurds with the task of providing an effective counterweight to the parties of the Shia alliance.
A counterweight? This, like so much of the rhetoric used to support the invasion of Iraq, is not based in the realities of the situation. Does Marcus understand the situation in Iraq at all, I wonder? The Kurds are not interested in providing an effective counterweight to the religious Shia alliance of the UIA. They are interested, above all, in regional autonomy, and they don't have any particular interest in opposing the power of the Shiite majority as it applies to the rest of the country. Marcus obviously doesn't want to let the facts get in the way of his positive spin though.

I also noticed that Marcus has managed to avoid expressing his own disappointment at the poor performance of the secular parties. This poor performance was hardly a surprise though. Perhaps he likes Shiite fundamentalists and thinks it's a good thing that they're going to dominate the new Iraq. Somehow, that seems unlikely to me.

When Harry's Place discusses Iraq it often reminds me of the streak of naive idealism* of the neo-conservatives in the US (via).
Why did they believe that Iraqis would use the ballot in a more enlightened way than we do here at home? Voters are human. There - as here - many are influenced by their immediate personal needs and the advice of their clergy.
Indeed. It's been a while since I studied game theory but Iraq today would almost certainly provide an illuminating illustration of many of the problems humans have with co-operating for the greater good of all. In Iraq, each voter has voted according to what they believe to be their own best interests. The idea that this will inevitably lead to an outcome which will benefit the country as a whole (and, according to Bush and co, the whole region, and the rest of the world) is woolly headed nonsense.

Marcus says:
It would be foolish to attempt to predict what is likely to happen before the votes are fully counted but the potential future direction of the Arab world in addition to that of Iraq is dependent on the way elected Iraqi politicians behave in the near future.
It's true that the votes have not yet been fully counted and it's true that the future direction of Iraq and the surrounding region depends on what happens next. Some conclusions can already be drawn though. The religious parties of the UIA will get around 130 seat and be the largest alliance in the new government. Sunnis are already insisting that the election was illegitimate and warning of the consequences of ignoring their protests.
International organisations and the United Nations should support the call for another election before a revolt breaks out," al-Dulaymi [Iraqi Accord Front] declared.
Good news or bad news? Perhaps it is too early to say for sure. In the meantime, Harry's Place will, I suspect, continue to ignore anything which might look like bad news while emphasising (or in this case just inventing) anything which might be considered good news. As one of the commentors noted, it is an approach which is increasingly looking like an exercise in clutching at straws.

* I'm not sure about an immediate withdrawal though (as suggested by Eskow in the link).

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To tag or not to tag? That is the question I'm currently asking myself. I know. I should get out more. Anyway, Technorati does this tag thing so I thought I might give it a go. Strangely enough, I still don't think I fully understand what the point of it is. It's about categorising posts or something. It'll hopefully become clearer if I try it out.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The very bad architect and his very unstable pillar

I've been meaning to write a bit more about Bush's admission that the US military had been pursuing a grossly incompetant military strategy in Iraq. There's something I should make clear first. In the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, there are three pillars; the security pillar, the political pillar, and the economic pillar. The plan recognises that an insurgency cannot be defeated by military force alone and that progress on the other two pillars is essential. These three pillars are interconnected - good security provides the foundation on which economic and political strategies can be built and this leads to even better security and so on. Good security, on its own, will not defeat an insurgency if no political solutions are available. Without a political solution, providing security will be an essentially endless endeavor.

This post is about the Bush administration's efforts to lay the necessary security foundations for stability in Iraq. The quote again (this time with the link) :
Over the course of this war, we have learned that winning the battle for Iraqi cities is only the first step. We also have to win the "battle after the battle" -- by helping Iraqis consolidate their gains and keep the terrorists from returning. Used to be that after American troops cleared the terrorists out of a city and moved onto the next mission, there weren't enough forces, Iraqi forces, to hold the area. We found that after we left, the terrorists would re-enter the city, intimidate local leaders and police, and eventually retake control. This undermined the gains of our military, it thwarted our efforts to help Iraqis rebuild and led local residents to lose confidence in the process and in their leaders.
- President Bush 7th December 2005
In effect, Bush is describing a change from a "Search and Destroy" strategy to a "Clear and Hold" strategy. As I mentioned in the linked post, exactly the same thing happened in Vietnam in 1969 for pretty much exactly the same reason.* The fact that Bush appears not to know this is extraordinary, inexplicable, outrageous, scandalous, embarrassing, tragic and a whole lot more besides.

In 1997, I, took an Honours course called 'Low Intensity Conflict' (LIC) at Aberdeen University. We studied insurgencies, counter-insurgency strategies and other related matters. What follows is an attempt to explain some of what I learned in the context of Bush's statement. First a brief description of the two approaches, and then some discussion of the implications of each. Some generalisations will be unavoidable, I'm afraid

Search and Destroy
Does exactly what it says on the tin. Troops are normally garrisoned in large well defended military compounds. They are issued with orders to patrol a given area to look for insurgents (areas can be chosen randomly or be influenced by intelligence suggesting insurgent locations). If they find any insurgents they try to kill them. After they've made their way through their given area, they return to their base camp to recuperate and await orders for their next patrol. The next patrol might be in the same area, it might be in a nearby one or it might be another area altogether. The idea is that you keep doing this throughout the country until all the insurgents are dead.

Clear and Hold
In this strategy, the emphasis is on controlling areas rather than sweeping them of insurgents. Troops will be ordered to clear a given area of insurgents and then hold that area to make sure it stays insurgent free. They do not go back to their heavily defended military compound but set up new defences inside their area. The idea here is to start small and then expand the areas you control until you reach the point where you control the whole country (or at least a sizeable part of it).

What's the big deal?
I suspect some of this is already obvious but I'll try to explain some of the implications of these two approaches.

First of all, "Search and Destroy" is based on a false assumption. It assumes that there are a finite number of insurgents and you can just keep killing until they run out of people. The strategy is based on conventional warfare tactics but an insurgency with popular support cannot be defeated that way. New recruits will continue to join the insurgency to support their dying brothers and sisters. In Vietnam, this led to the infamous, but unattributed, claim that "it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it". Followed to its logical conclusion, an S&D strategy will eventually lead to a very peaceful but also very empty country.

The mindset of the soldier must also be considered. Search and destroy missions are, obviously, about killing people. Soldiers on these missions are primarily looking for targets. Insurgents are, of course, not likely to be waving a twenty foot square red flag with insurgent written on it in big yellow letters. Soldiers will see all civilians as potential targets and they are likely to err on the side of caution if they feel they might be in danger, ie shoot first. There is also, unfortunately, an added incentive to kill. In this strategy, commanding officers measure success by the number of insurgents their troops have killed. Human nature being what it is, this further primes individual soldiers to shoot anyone they believe is behaving suspiciously. Much "collateral damage" is the likely result of these missions. When the mission is over the soldiers retreat back to their base. Their area will often have suffered considerable death and destruction, much of which will have appeared totally arbitrary to the local populace. Result: an area full of dead people and a whole lot more people who hate the soldiers. Into this environment the insurgents return with words of comfort, offers of support, possibly some intimidation, and a now shared hatred for the troops.

S&D, far from defeating an insurgency, actually fuels it. This was why it was abandoned in Vietnam in 1968. It just doesn't work. At all. The fact that Bush, by his own admission, pursued a very similar military strategy is, I say again, inexcusably incompetant.

"Clear and Hold", the strategy General Abrams adopted in 1969, is much more likely to provide a stable foundation for further improvements. In fact, one of the great debates in LIC theory centres on whether the C&H strategy could have worked in Vietnam if it had been given more time to develop. US public support for that war collapsed, in part due to the fact that the S&D strategy had been so disasterous, and the troops were withdrawn so no-one really knows.

But it is basically a good strategy. In practical terms, it is more dangerous for the troops on the ground, expecially in the initial stages, because most of them will not be garrisoned in large well defended bases. Unfortunately, this danger cannot be avoided. The practical benefits are obvious; embedded troops will be better able to protect the inhabitants of a given area against insurgent activity and deny the insurgents safe havens for planning and launching new attacks. The difficulty of identifying insurgents remains but the mindset of the soldier is different.

In a C&H mission, it should be stressed that the goal is protection of the population of the given area. The soldiers job is first and foremost to protect. This will have a significant impact on their attitude towards opening fire on a suspected target. The need to provide an insurgent body count is no longer present and this will also have some effect. Perhaps most importantly, the fact that the soldier knows he's going to be staying in the area for a reasonable period of time is going to have an impact. The soldier is less likely to break things unnecessarily for a start. A good C&H strategy then, is less likely to lead to (possibly unintentional) indiscriminate violence and less likely to antagonise the locals.

This leads to the next, and possibly the most powerful effect of a good C&H strategy. After the soldiers have cleared the area, the local population is now confronted with a whole lot of people with guns. Close proximity to people with guns can have a very strange affect on a person. Just ask Patty Hearst. This needs close contact of course so it doesn't work if soldiers spend most of their time in large heavily fortified compounds. If the soldiers in close contact with the locals behave in a considerate, decent and civilised manner, this can have a create a sort of collective Stockholm Syndrome. When the population truly start to believe the soldiers claim that "we're here to help you", you're halfway there. That's when you can really start to make significant progress on the political and economic pillars.

And that is a good strategy to begin to defeat an insurgency. Political progress is then the essential next step. No guarantees though, insurgencies are incredibly durable.

This strategy is the one President Bush has now outlined for victory in Iraq. By his own admission, it was not the strategy initially employed by his troops.
Over the course of this war, we have learned that winning the battle for Iraqi cities is only the first step. We also have to win the "battle after the battle" -- by helping Iraqis consolidate their gains and keep the terrorists from returning. Used to be that after American troops cleared the terrorists out of a city and moved onto the next mission, there weren't enough forces, Iraqi forces, to hold the area.
The question must be asked: why was it necessary to learn this again? Something first learned in 1968? (And by the US miltary for fuc..) These standard counter-insurgency theories, based in large part on the experiences of the US military in Vietnam, are not a secret. Anyone who wants to know how not to fight an insurgency can find out really quite easily. "Search and Destroy? No, I wouldn't do that. Try this C&H instead." I, or any one of the hundreds of thousands of other people who take interest in these things, could have told him that in March 2003.

It appears that he just didn't bother to ask anyone who actually knew what they were talking about. Or perhaps he asked but didn't believe the answers because they were not emmanating from his infamous inner circle. There is, however, absolutely nothing which could possibly excuse the ignorance of President George W. Bush in this. I'm not joking when I say it terrifies me. It frightens me silly.

* I really don't like making Iraq-Vietnam comparisons. There are many differences. Pursuing futile counter-insurgency strategies, unfortunately, is not one of them.

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Do you know the truth about the origins of Santa Claus? (Via this rather good festive post.) Urban myths work in mysterious ways. If I'm honest, I'd thought that one was true. I think you'll find that's conclusive proof that blogging is educational and officially "a good thing" and stuff.

The Expectation Gap

Wee Douglas Alexander was on PM today defending Blair's EU budget deal. It's quite an amusing effort (starts about 9 minutes into the broadcast). To paraphrase, Eddy Marr suggests that Blair's defence of his performance as EU President amounted to him saying "well, look on the bright side, at least we're not at war with the Germans". It's a good point, particularly as it's made using a direct quote of Blair's words.

Wee Douglas tries his best to rally to the defence of his boss but it's a thankless task. In fact, it provokes a slight fluster:
He [Blair] was making a perfectly common-sensical point in conclusion...
Common sensical? Are you sure you don't mean nonsensical, wee man?* That'd certainly make a lot more sense, and make you sound less of an idiot.

At this stage, loyalty to the Blair isn't going to do much to advance wee Doug's career and you've got to credit him with the intellectual capacity to have worked that out for himself. My guess is that this is why he always sounds so unconvincing. Why he puts himself through these interviews remains something of a mystery to me.

On the actual issue, it's all rather complicated and controversial. The EU budget is obviously in dire need of major reform, as Blair rightly said at the start of his Presidency. He was going to bang some heads together and start sorting it all out. Even the most loyal Blairite would have to concede that he hasn't got very far with that. As Blairites know only too well, reviews can often a very good way to make issues disappear into the long grass. The fact that the French will be holding the Presidency when the review is to be launched just makes any useful reform that little bit less likely.

Blair stated catagorically that he would not compromise on the rebate unless similar compromises were secured on reform of the CAP. Wee Douglas would have us believe that he hasn't broken that commitment. There is no spoon in Mr Alexander's universe, apparently. I'm not that bothered about the fact that Blair's had to give up part of the rebate. I fully understand that others will have very strong objections but it was pretty much inevitable in my opinion. Blair's problem is that he said he wouldn't and then he did.

The real problem for Blair is that he over-promised on this and then he under-delivered. As anyone who's worked in a service industry will know, that's a big no no. It is far better to adopt a sensible (not overly-cautious) under-promise and over-deliver strategy. That way, you give yourself every opportunity to exceed expectations. Blair's way, you give yourself every opportunity to disappoint.**

This is a significant character flaw on the part of our slowly departing prime minister. He's done it more times than I'd care to remember. Iraq was going to be a liberal democracy in no time at all, the Gleneagles G8 summit was going to feed the world, Blunkett was going to be a good pension secretary... You could make a long list if you were so inclined.

Blair promises the moon on a stick but he almost never delivers. The thing is, we don't want the moon on a stick (well, we do, but we realise we can't have it). What we really want is honestly. And, perhaps, a politician who exceeds our expectations just once in a while.

* I know it's a bit rich for me to criticise others for mangling the English language. Sometimes, I can't resist.

** After writing this, I read the full text of the BBC article linked above and noticed Charles Kennedy has made a very similar point.
"If only Tony Blair could close the gap between his rhetoric and his actions in Europe, he'd be in a much stronger position both in the EU and at home. He has mismanaged expectations."
Great minds and fools seldom etc...

Another Uncomfortable Dose of Reality

The first preliminary election results have been announced in Iraq. Unsurprisingly, the vote appears to be split almost totally along religious/sectarian lines. The religious Shiite dominated United Iraqi Alliance will again be the largest party. In Salahuddin, the only Sunni province to have released significant preliminary results, it looks like the main Sunni groups have received over 80% of the votes cast. Kurds have again voted overwhelmingly for the Kurdish list. Ex-interim prime minister, and one time Washington favourite, Iyad Allwai's secular coalition has come nowhere, it appears.

The leaders of the main Sunni coalition, the Iraqi Accord Front, have not reacted well to these preliminary results. (The IAF is one of the two coalitions I mentioned last week. Any hope of stability in Iraq rests to a large extent on the IAF's reaction to these elections and the subsequent government.) In fact, it's probably fair to say they have reacted extremely badly:
"We reject these results announced by the commission," said Adnan al-Dulaimi, one of the leaders of the front. If the commission does not take steps to restore justice to other lists, we will demand a new election be held."

Tarik al-Hashimi, secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, warned the commission "not to play with fire".

"We will not remain with our arms crossed and we will not abandon those who voted for us," said Khalaf al-Ulayyan, leader of the third party in the bloc, the Iraqi National Dialogue Council.
Reuters has more:
Sunni Arab politician Hussein al-Falluji, a leader of the Iraqi Accordance Front which came a distant second in Baghdad with 19 percent, gave a veiled warning that disappointment could prompt Sunni Arab rebels to return to violence.

Arguing that the Front should have been credited with twice as many seats in the city, he told Reuters: "We will not accept this. We will go to the streets and call for demonstrations. "We might also boycott the new parliament."

Falluji added: "The insurgents have had an informal truce for five days to give us a chance to vote ... but I think what is going on now will impact on security ... very quickly."
This, I hardly need tell anyone, is not good.

There's obviously a temptation to question the validity of these allegations and to dismiss them as the sour grapes of sore losers. At this stage, it's hard to see how anyone could actually know whether there's any truth to them or not but that's really beside the point. There's a very real sense in which the truth or otherwise of these allegations is entirely irrelevant. What matters in Iraq, as I've said many times before, is what people believe.

If the majority of Sunnis believe that the vote was rigged against them, and if Sunni politicians do boycott the new government because of those beliefs, it will seriously undermine any chance there might be of stability in Iraq. These elections are the final step in the political process. If it doesn't work, there is no next stage.

In fact, you might say that these elections were the last throw of the coalition dice. We needed a six. At this early stage, it looks highly unlikely that we're going to get it.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Juan Cole has written a very good overview of the situation in post-election Iraq (via). Warning: not suitable for those who prefer their narratives glossy and fictional.

What's Your Problem?

Some of my friends and I were in Aberdeen town centre the other night. We were walking down a back lane, on our way to the cinema as it happens, when we spotted a suspicious looking fellow walking towards us. All of us seemed to sense that he'd be trouble.

As he got closer, I began to get the feeling that he had a knife. Some quick, whispered questions confirmed that my friends all had similar fears. He got a bit closer. Further whispering centered on the possibility to avoiding him altogether but that would have been exceedingly difficult by this stage. He was only ten paces away and we'd have had to basically turn and run. We walked on silently.

He'd got to within five paces when he started reaching for an inside pocket. I was absolutely convinced that he had a knife. So I shot him. In the head, as it happens. He became an ex-knife murderer in a very short space of time. Surprisingly fragile thing, a human head.

We searched him, of course, and it turns out he didn't have a knife after all (not much in his wallet either which just added to the sense of anti-climax). But, he did have in his possession a fishing magazine and in this fishing magazine were several advertisements for knives. It is clear to me that this man had been saving up for a knife. It was only my timely intervention which prevented him from aquiring enough money to buy a knife, ordering that knife, waiting twenty eight days for delivery of the knife, getting a little card through the door from the postman saying "I called today to deliver your knife but you weren't in", getting up early on a Sarturday morning to collect the knifel from the Post Office, unwrapping the knife, taking the knife out with him, walking down a back lane with the knife in an inside pocket, and using that same knife to stab an innocent bystander. Viciously.

As you can see, it's just as well I intervened the way I did. I take full responsibility and am absolutely confident that I made the right decision. I really was sure he had a knife. And he definitely was a nasty piece of work.

Some of my friends have fallen out with me over this. They say I should not have shot the suspected knife wielding maniac as I couldn't "be sure" he had a knife. Ludicrous. Some of them have even suggested that I manipulated their fear of a knife-wielding maniac in order to gain access to the chap's wallet. Outrageous. You had been notably short of money in the weeks before the incident, they say. Barking moonbats. Some have even suggested that I may have committed a crime. Absolutely ridiculous (and a moot point. As I'm Grand Master of Aberdeen Lodge, I very much doubt I'll be facing a police investigation any time soon*). It's people like these, these defeatist, these apologists for knife wielding maniacs, who've made knife wileding maniacism the threat it is today. These people would sit by and watch their own family being brutally slaughtered by knife wielding maniacs and then try to "open a dialogue" with the killers. Cowards, every one of them.

Would you believe that quite a few of the guys friends are trying to kill me now? Unbelievable, the way some people behave. Bring it on, that's what I say, bring it on. Now, are you, yes you, with me, or are you against me? Think hard before you answer.

Do I need to point out the obvious? Legal notice: this is a made up story.

*Apologies to any masons reading this. I'm sure freemasonry has moved on a great deal since monty python.
A student in the US has had a visit from two federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security (via). He'd requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's "The Little Red Book" from a library for use in his studies.
"I tell my students to go to the direct source, and so he asked for the official Peking version of the book," Professor Pontbriand said. "Apparently, the Department of Homeland Security is monitoring inter-library loans, because that's what triggered the visit, as I understand it."
Nothing to worry about though. No harm done.
Dr. Williams said he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.

There is more testing and sacrifice before us

President Bush has been speaking about Iraq again (here's the full transcript). As usual, much of what he had to say was misleading and disingenuous. For example, this enormous oversimplification of the position of critics of the "war" on terror is a beauty, even by his high standards:
If you think the terrorists would become peaceful if only America would stop provoking them, then it might make sense to leave them alone.
Yes, Mr President, that is quite true. It's also completely irrelevant.* I bet he's really good at building scarecrows.

Apart from the straw men, there's also quite a lot of the new "we are learning" attitude in the speech.
In all three aspects of our strategy -- security, democracy, and reconstruction -- we have learned from our experiences, and fixed what has not worked. We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission.
There is, I think, actually some truth to this. The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, which sets out the three pillar approach he mentions, isn't too far away from what I'd like to see implemented in Iraq. The US administration has undoubtedly learned from its mistakes to some extent. The problem, as I've mentioned before, is that the knowledge needed to avoid making those mistakes was available before the invasion even started. (I am going to write a post on the security element and the difference between current military strategy and the previous one shortly.) The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq isn't a bad plan, although it's by no means perfect. The question as to why it's taken 30 months for the administration to work out a halfway decent plan has yet to be answered.

Bush also can't resist overstating the gains made in Iraq.
And this vote -- 6,000 miles away, in a vital region of the world -- means that America has an ally of growing strength in the fight against terror.
That ally will be the new Iraqi government with the strict Islamic theocratic attitudes and the rather troubling pro-Iranian element, will it? The claim that the vote means that the US has an ally "of growing strength in the fight against terror" is, at best, premature.

And what is the US fighting against exactly?
I see a global terrorist movement that exploits Islam in the service of radical political aims -- a vision in which books are burned, and women are oppressed, and all dissent is crushed.
I wonder what Ali Mohaqeq Nasab thinks about that? I suspect he'd quite like to see the US put a stop to book burning, women oppressing, dissent crushing Islamic theocracies. Hasn't happened in Afghanistan though. And in Iraq, pro-Iranian and other radical Islamic clerics have far more influence now than they ever had under Saddam Hussein. The United Iraq Alliance, dominated by religious Shiites, will almost certainly win the largest share of the vote when the results of the elections are announced. One of the most influencial parties in that coalition is the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

If Bush is fighting against radical political Islam, it's really not going very well. To his credit though, this speech is the closest I think I've ever heard him get to a truthful despription of the situation in Iraq. But there's still a long way to go yet.

* I suppose some critics do take this simplistic view. Not sensible ones though.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Big Bad John

Tony Blair's proposed education reforms have been causing him some considerable trouble. Well, it's his own backbenchers who have actually been causing the trouble but you see what I mean. To be honest, I've not really been following this too closely. The reforms don't really have much relevance up here in Scotland, you see; we've got our very own wee politicians for our very own wee education system. Blair's new reforms will make approximately no difference at all to Scottish schools. As such, I struggle to pay as much attention to the situation as I might.

Today, for the first time, it really started to interest me. Big John (that's loyal, reliable, honest broker, deputy prime minister, John) has publicly, yes publicly, put the boot into Blair's plans.
Since I was an 11-plus failure, since I do believe that produced a 'first-class/second-class' education system, I fear this is a framework that may do the same. I'm somewhat critical.
Somewhat critical? He's a bit more than "somewhat critical". What he's saying is that he's opposed to the whole two tier shooting match. He thinks the reforms will mostly benefit middle class children and leave working class children to make do with a "second class" education system.

For the record, I think he's right. Even if the reforms do cause an increase in standards across the board (and that's by no means certain), I believe that middle class children would benefit disproportionately compared to those from the poorest working class families. These reforms would, I think, decrease social mobility. That's not really the point of this post though.

The point is that Big John making these concerns public is a serious breach of cabinet collective responsibility. (As I remember, there was a time when such a thing would have been a resigning matter. No chance of that here though, nor would I want there to be.) This is yet another significant indicator of Blair's slipping authority. It's increasingly looking like the education reforms could be that last straw we've all been waiting for. Blair showns no real willingness to compromise to any useful degree. If he was just facing opposition from Labour backbenchers that would be a problem. Now, he's also facing public opposition from his own deputy, and that's a problem on an entirely different scale. You could almost say it's a Big John mini-mutiny. Nice one.

The next Commons vote on these proposals is expected in February next year. Could it be that this will be Blair's last hurrah. Wishful thinking? I hope not. Go on Big John!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Clarfiications and Correctiors

It seems that my shock at reading that al-Zarqawi had been caught and then accidentally released resulted in me getting just about every detail wrong in the post I wrote about it. Oops. If at first you don't suceed, try again and all that.

The information was actually released in Iraq on Thursday, election day, and not Friday. (It looks like it just took a day for the western media to catch up. Most reports I've read do say Friday.) It was released by the deputy minister of the interior, Hussain Kamal so I did at least get that right. It appears that there's a good chance that this was basically an attempt to damage the credibility of Iwad Allawi on election day. (Allawi was the interim prime minister at the time this is alleged to have occured.) The fact that this has actually been announced before (just before the January elections, surprisingly enough*) and that there's actually nothing new here just makes the political motive even more plausible. It seems that the art of the political hatchet job is alive and well in Iraq.

It does seem as if there is an explanation as to how this was discovered as well; the information was supplied by a captured Saudi terrorist. By all accounts, iIt does appear to be true. My shock was justified. It was also nearly a year late. Apologies all round.

* I wasn't blogging then. That's my feeble excuse for having no recollection of this from back then anyway.

Troublesome Youths

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with crazy ideas. What is to become of them?
I'm sure I first read this quotation on another blog but I can't for the life of me remember who's it was, I'm afraid. The point is that these aren't the words of an old Tory grandee or your dad but those of Plato speaking the the 4th Century BC (probably). It seems that those pesky youths have been causing trouble for really quite a while.

Nevertheless, it can be awfully difficult to resist adopting the "it wasn't like that in my day" attitude.* Yesterday, I happened to find myself at a shopping centre just after the nearby school (for 12 - 18 year old, I think) had disgorged it's pupils for the day. What really got me was the way some of them were dressed. Before I describe what I mean, it should be borne in mind that it was snowing at the time and already getting dark.

So, I'll chose just one example. One girl (around 16 probably) was wearing black 3/4 length trousers with strappy high heel shoes in the style of Sarah Jessica Parker. As I walked past, I noticed particularly that her exposed lower extremities were just starting to suggest they were about to turn blue. It really was very cold. She also wore a black puffy jacket with a furry collar. Under that, she had on one of those strappy tops which are so popular these days. (I know this because we ended up in the same shop and she had her jacket off). The pièce de résistance were the dark glasses though. She was, quite undeniably, wearing reallt quite dark sunglasses. Utter madness, I thought. It wasn't like that in my day.

Today, I read this.
Jennifer Lopez and Pete Doherty walked into a north-east school yesterday to raise money for charity. They were joined by about 200 other famous names, including US President George Bush, Darth Vader and Snow White, as pupils and staff at Westhill Academy dressed up as their favourite celebrities in aid of Sue Ryder Care.
There's also a photo in the paper. I saw Jennifer Lopez. Obviously.

There's probably a lesson here somewhere.

* Of course, the fact that people have been saying it for hundreds of years doesn't necessarily preclude the possibility that it is true today. I actually believe there are serious new problems with the "youth of today", including, probably over-generously, people my own age (me included). That's not for this post though.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Those ever changing rules

Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts - New York Times
The eavesdropping program grew out of concerns after the Sept. 11 attacks that the nation's intelligence agencies were not poised to deal effectively with the new threat of Al Qaeda and that they were handcuffed by legal and bureaucratic restrictions better suited to peacetime than war, according to officials. In response, President Bush significantly eased limits on American intelligence and law enforcement agencies and the military.
You see how the rules of the games are changing. Quite right too; those "legal and bureaucratic restrictions" were obviously just a superfluous indulgence on the part of democratic countries like the US and the UK. There is absolutely no reason why these limits shouldn't be discarded.
Widespread abuses - including eavesdropping on Vietnam War protesters and civil rights activists - by American intelligence agencies became public in the 1970's and led to passage of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which imposed strict limits on intelligence gathering on American soil. Among other things, the law required search warrants, approved by the secret F.I.S.A. court, for wiretaps in national security cases.
See? Nothing to worry about. No sir.

On a similar theme, here in the UK it appears that our great leader would quite like to tap the phones of our elected representatives (via). Good idea. That small but stubborn band of aggravatingly independent MPs will soon think twice about criticising the great one's policies once we've got this up and running (goodness knows what might be "accidentally" leaked to the press if they persist in causing trouble after all). Yay for democracy.

World Exclusive

After a significant silence Sir Menzies Campbell has said he will not stand against Charles Kennedy for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. A Lib Dem insider has emailed me with details of the deal agreed between the two men which led to that announcement.

Sir Menzies had insisted that it was time for Mr Kennedy to stand down. Mr Kennedy initially resisted but came to realise that his position was untenable. He maintained, however, that the timing of his departure should be carefully planned. Mr Kennedy argued that the current media interest surrounding David Cameron would overshadow any Lib Dem leadership contest. Kennedy argued that postponing his departure until the current euphoria for Cameron dies down would be to the benefit of the party. Sir Menzies agreed that this was a sensible solution and offered his backing on the understanding that Mr Kenndy would resign as soon as the initial hype surrounding Cameron dies down. Both men expect this to happen in a matter of weeks rather than months. You heard it hear first folks.

Na, just joking. Sounds pretty plausible though, don't you think? (Apart from me getting emails from party insiders obviously.) I'm afraid I don't think Charles is going to last much longer one way or another.
This is beyond explanation:
Iraqi police captured and mistakenly released militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last year, the Iraqi deputy interior minister says. Hussein Kamal told reporters that Zarqawi was arrested in the central Iraqi town of Falluja, but was released when nobody recognised him.
What? Seriously? That is almost unbelievable. If nobody recognised al-Zarqawi how does Mr Kamal know this happened? Utterly bizarre.

I'll tell you one thing though. One day after the election? It's clear the someone has explained to the deputy interior minister the importance of timing the release of bad news in order to limit it's political impact. Anyone seen Jo Moore recently?

General Incompetance

Tony Blair is endangering the lives of the citizens of this country. I firmly believe that. He does not understand terrorism and he does not understand how to combat terrorism. The "war" on terror is not really a war in any meaningful sense but I'll adopt the war analogy to try to explain what I mean.

Consider the terrorists to be attacking enemy soldiers and the British public to be our infantry. Blair can be considered to be the commanding officer in charge of our efforts to defend the country. When the enemy kills our soldiers they are the moral agents for their own actions and are directly responsible for them. There is no doubt about that. This is true even when our soldiers are under the command of an incompetant general who doesn't understand the strategies of the enemy and has no workable plan to defeat them. It is true even if the C.O. repeatedly sends his troops into traps and ambushes and sees them slaughtered in huge numbers as a result.* The enemy are still the ones doing the killing. Does this in any way excuse the general for his incompetance? Of course not. Only a fool would argue that it does. Does the direct moral agency of the enemy in any way lessen the urgent need for a change of leadership? Again, only a fool could seriously support that rationale.

This is, in effect, the position Blair finds himself in today and this is, in effect, the argument he and his supporters are using in his defence. It is utter drivel. He does not understand the problem and has made any number of serious mistakes in the "war" on terror. He continues to hide these misjudgments using the moral agency of the terrorists as cover. Forget the politics of it. The fact is that Blair's leadership is making us less safe.

Yesterday brought yet another example of the difficulty Blair has in understanding terrorism. After the July attacks, he announced a 12 point anti-terror plan. Most people will know what happened to his infamous 90 days imprisonment proposal and a good thing too. And the fatuous proposal to outlaw "the glorifying of terrorism" was watered down to almost nothing after it was pointed out that it was, in fact, totally unworkable. The 12 point plan was not a spectacular success.

Another of the 12 points was the proposal to close down "extremist" mosques. It is another of those suggestions which could only seem a good idea if you don't understand the way terrorism works. Yesterday, Charles Clarke was forced to admit as much in the face of overwhelming opposition to the plan. A quiet climbdown is what the government are after here.

But. The fact that this was ever suggested is a clear demonstration of the fact that the Blair government doesn't have the faintest idea what it's doing. Terrorism, even, no, especially "this new" terrorism, is entirely about what people believe. It is, if you like, a state of mind. You can legislate to outlaw a state of mind to your hearts content but it's fairly obvious that it's not actually going to have much effect. Even regimes prepared to use the most brutal methods are unable to control what people think. It just isn't possible.** Anyone who thinks it is has a serious problem understanding reality. And that's where we get back to Blair.

The man is a a danger to the country. His approach to the whole "war" on terror has been based on a simplistic, dare I say Hollywood, attitude towards terrorism. He is very much the incompetant commander and his command is made secure only by the countinuing loyalty of his equally incompetant lieutenants. If I could pass one word of advice to those lieutantants it would be this: Mutiny! The time is fast approaching when it'll be too late to save your own sorry skins. It may already be too late. If you don't want to go down with the general, you'd better do something about him. Now.

* It's an analogy. It's not meant to be directly comparible.

** It's not all doom and gloom. There are anti-terrorist strategies which might be successful. But not these stupid ones adopted by Blair.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Behind the Makeup

Today's election in Iraq appears to have passed off relatively peacefully. This will generate much enthusiasm on the historic nature of these elections in some quarters. There will be a tendancy to assume that the elections have somehow magically cured all the outstanding problems in Iraq and a related tendency to be over-optimistic about what's likely to happen next.* Many people will accept this interpretation of the situation uncritically, perhaps because they so desperately want to believe it. Unfortunately, this view is a glossy airbrushed photo on the cover of a celebrity magazine; it looks pretty but it has little foundation in reality.

Having said that, it would be churlish not to recognise that there is an historic aspect to today's election in Iraq. The courage and determination of the Iraqi people cannot be dismissed as an irrelevance. Huge numbers of Iraqis have taken part in these elections in an attempt to shape the future of their country through the democratic process. This is a remarkable achievement.

The results of the elections are not expected to be declared until the end of December at the earliest and this is likely to be followed by a period of negotiation between the various parties before a new government can be formed. After the January elections, this process took around three months to complete so it may be some considerable while before we learn the exact shape of the next government of Iraq. When the announcemnet comes, it's highly unlikely to be the instant panacea we'd all like it to be.

There are some conclusions which can reasonably be drawn even at this early stage. Iraqis have voted in huge numbers, that much is certain. A great deal has been made of the fact that Sunnis have participated in these elections (they mostly boycotted the January ones). Sunnis are expected to have voted for the Iraqi Accord Front in large numbers**.
A statement by the front stressed the importance of ending the "occupation", boosting Iraq's national identity and setting up a committee to review the new constitution. It wants to repeal laws relating to de-Baathification and the dissolution of Iraq's armed forces. [my emphasis]
Some of these aims are not at all compatible with the aims of the other main parties. In particular, it seems certain that the review of the constitution is going to be the make or break issue for the new parliament.

The party widely expected to be the largest when the results are declared is the United Iraqi Alliance. The UIA is dominated by religious Shiites.
The alliance's platform calls for national unity, the enforcement of the new constitution, the end of the US-led coalition's presence, the de-politicisation of government institutions, and the formation of regional governments.
I've emphasised the constitution because it's the most important issue but there are other seemingly intractable problems here too. It's very hard to see how the "de-politicisation of government institutions" can be reconciled with "the repeal of laws relating to de-Baathification". Chalk and cheese, as they say. And the UIA want to create regional governments while the IAF are far more concerned with boosting national identity, ie maintaining a strong central government. (In fact, the main policy they genuinely agree on is the need for an end to the coalition presence in Iraq, which is, in itself, an obvious cause for concern.) It could reasonably be argued that stability in Iraq now depends to a large extent on whether these two groups are able to reach some sort of compromise on these disagreements. A slight simplification perhaps, but this is the central issue. This is not a recipe for optimism in my opinion.

There are other issues. Allawi's Iraqi National List might yet be a moderate secular influence on the parliament despite repeated allegations of corruption during his time as interim prime minister. The Kurdish parties meanwhile, will continue to be mostly concerned with maintaining and expanding their independence from Baghdad. Control of the city of Kirkuk (and the nearby oilfields) is likely to remain a major source of contention.

The real test then, is not the elections themselves, impressive as they undoubtedly looked on your TV screen. The real test will be whether the newly elected political groups, with their openly stated and directly conflicting visions of Iraq's future, will be able to successfully work together. Will they be able to find the solutions to the many outstanding issues which currently fuel the insurgency and instability in Iraq? It seems an almost impossible task but perhaps, just perhaps, it can be done. For the sake of the people of Iraq, I hope it can.

One thing is certain though; yet another premature declaration of victory is the last thing anyone needs right now.***

* This is hardly an unprecedented phenomenon:
Cheney: Now, I think things have gotten so bad inside Iraq, from the standpoint of the Iraqi people, my belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators...
Russert: If your analysis is not correct, and we’re not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?
Cheney: Well, I don’t think it’s likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators. I’ve talked with a lot of Iraqis in the last several months myself, had them to the White House... The read we get on the people of Iraq is there is no question but what they want to the get rid of Saddam Hussein and they will welcome as liberators the United States when we come to do that.
- Vice President Cheney interviewed by Tim Russert for NBC's "Meet the Press", 16th March 2003

You'd think they'd have learned to be a just a little more cautious about woolly-headed optimism. Of course, you need to admit your mistakes if you're going to learn from them. That, I think, is the cause of the problem here.

** But not exclusively obviously. It's an insanely complicated process with 19 seperate coalitions on the ballot papers. The IAF is, however, highly likely to be the largest beneficiary of the Sunni vote.

*** For any regular visitors, apologies for repeatedly using this photograph. For me, it represents the extraordinary incompetance which has characterised this entire venture.