Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Painful Truths

George Bush has made the first of what will apparently be a series of major speeches on the strategy for victory in Iraq. Yesterday, Scott McClellan said that the speeches would all relate to a document called the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq." This document is, he said, "an unclassified version of the plan that we've been pursuing in Iraq". It's available as a PDF here, courtesy of the BBC (although I'm sure you could get it from the Whitehouse if you prefer). I've started reading through it and I'm pretty sure I'll feel the need to comment on this victory plan in due course. It's a big document so it may take a while to assimilate.

In the meantime, as I read through it, I couldn't help but notice that it contained an outrageous lie. It's on page 13 of the PDF (handily labelled as page 10), under the general heading "Victory will take time". The document attempts to explain why. One reason is this:
Saddam Hussein devastated Iraq, wrecked its economy, ruined its infrastructure, and destroyed its human capital.
That is simply a bare faced lie. How is it that the facts can be misrepresented so blatantly in this official document from the US government?

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator. This is true. He committed many atrocities against his own people. This is also true.

But, he *did not* wreck the Iraqi economy. And, he *did not* destroy its infrastructure. And he did not destroy its human capital*.

He was undoubtedly a vicious tyrant but the blame for these problems cannot be laid at his door. They are, instead, the deliberate result of policies of the US and UK governments since 1990. The economy, infrastructure and human capital of Iraq have been destroyed by a combination of bombing raids during and after the first Gulf war, including whilst enforcing the "no fly zones", and the UN sanctions imposed at the behest of the US and UK governments. These facts are not disputed. They are just very rarely mentioned.

Madeleine Albright's infamously stated that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children due to sanctions was "worth it". It has been suggested that these words were taken out of context. Here's the context:
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price--we think the price is worth it.
--60 Minutes (5/12/96)
Albright did not dispute that 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of the sanctions. The US and UK governments were aware that the sanctions regime they had imposed were destroying the economy, infrastructure, and human capital of Iraq. That was the point. They were fully aware that the price was being paid not by the regime but by ordinary Iraqis. Hundreds of thousands of innocent children died as a result of the sanctions and the governments who insisted on it knew that it was happening. It was, they believed, a price worth paying.

Some people will say that Saddam was ultimately responsible. These people probably don't understand the concept of moral agency (I'm only just coming to grips with it myself). The agents who were responsible for the effects of the sanctions were those who insisted that the sanctions be imposed and maintained. They did this in the full knowledge of the consequences that the sanctions were having on Iraqi civilians. Some people will say that the UN allowed the Oil for Food problem to be corrupted. This is true, and some portion of blame may well be attributable to the UN officials involved. Neverthless, the sanctions were maintained long after the war at the insistence of the US and UK governments. The devastating effects of this policy were visible long before the corruption came to light. The corruption was damaging, but the policy itself did far more damage. The US and UK governments, knowingly and deliberately, maintained, for many years, a policy which directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. They destroyed Iraq's economy, infrastructure, and human capital to a far greater extent than Saddam ever did.

This is something which the mainstream media is astonishingly loathe to report. You might have noticed that I haven't provided a link for the full Albright quote above. That's because trying to find MSM coverage of this is not at all easy. It is, I believe, a form of self-censorship. Journalists and editors understand, at least on some level, that reporting on certain matters will be detremental to their career. They, perhaps subconsciously, chose just not to go there. And besides, some truths are just too awful to contemplate.

But this is the truth We should never forget that.

* This third may have some small element of truth. He did destroy many humans in Iraq. But he was, before Gulf War One, very committed to promoting human capital in Iraq (as long as people did what he wanted them to) and invested very heavily in all forms of education.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Review of the review

The sofa master has, as expected, officially announced the launch of another energy review. Greenpeace disrupted proceeding and forced the PM to move to a smaller venue for the statement. That really wasn't a hugely helpful contribution to the debate, in my opinion. That sort of thing just makes it easier for the pro-nuclear lobby to portray all opposition as childish reactionary loons. Like this, in fact. OK, it got Greenpeace some publicity, but I'd have thought they'd have got that today anyway without pulling quite such a silly stunt. But what would I know? My idea of positive action is writing a really stroppy post. Maybe I should just "haud ma wheesht".*

Distractions aside, what has the Blair actually said? The official position is that this review is to determine the best solution and that nothing has been decided. This, despite the fact that all sorts of people have reported that Blair has made up his mind on support the building of new nuclear power plants. What to make of it?

For those who like primary sources, here's what Blair actually said on the subject.
Fifth [the previous four were about other issues], the issue back on the agenda with a vengeance is energy policy. Round the world you can sense feverish re-thinking. Energy prices have risen. Energy supply is under threat. Climate change is producing a sense of urgency. I have no doubt where policy is heading, here, in the US, across the emerging economies of the world. I believe there will be a binding international agreement to succeed Kyoto when the Protocol expires in 2012 that will include all major economies. The future is clean energy. And nations will look to diversify out of energy dependence on one source.

We will meet the Kyoto targets but we have recently seen an increase in carbon dioxide emissions. They are projected to rise further between 2010 and 2020. By around 2020, the UK is likely to have seen decommissioning of coal and nuclear plants that together generate over 30% of today's electricity supply. Some of this will be replaced by renewables but not all of it can.

I can today announce that we have established a review of the UK's progress against the medium and long-term Energy White Paper goals. The Energy Minister Malcolm Wicks will be in the lead, with the aim of publishing a policy statement on energy in the early summer of 2006. It will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations.

In Britain, on any basis, we also have the issue of our transition from being self-sufficient in gas supply to being an importer. Energy companies are making huge investments - £10 billion in total - in the infrastructure needed to import and store gas. Some of that infrastructure is already open - such as the doubling of the capacity in the interconnector from Belgium and the LNG facility at the Isle of Grain - even more will follow in the next couple of years.

But this winter, if it is as cold as the Met office suggests it may be, our gas market will be tight. For our domestic gas customers and most businesses the National Grid is clear there would not be a problem. But for big gas users, Ofgem, the National Grid, energy suppliers and the DTI have all been and will be working to make sure business is aware and ready.

If you've managed to plough through all that, well done. Not easy, is it?

Two points stuck out for me. The first:
Some of this [old plants being decommisioned] will be replaced by renewables but not all of it can. [my emphasis]
As part of my attempt to challenge my existing views on this whole debate, that seems to be one of the crucial issues.** Is there credible evidence which demonstrates that renewable energy cannot provide the necessary power? Or, has Blair made up his mind on this without seeing any conclusive evidence? Is he now claiming that renewables cannot provide our future energy needs based on nothing more than the "courage of his convictions"? It seems a reasonable question, given his form. Blair's statement does suggest that he's prejudging an issue which ought to be part of the review process he's in the middle of announcing.

The second point concerns the review itself:
It will include specifically the issue of whether we facilitate the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations. [my emphasis]
I saw a chap make a similar point on Newsnight and it's a good one. That "facilitate" totally negates the free market arguments put forward to support nuclear power. There's nothing in law to stop companies putting forward plans to build nuclear power plants right now. They don't do it because it just isn't economically viable. The only way to make nuclear power viable (and profitable) is if the government "facilitates" the market. In other words, nuclear power depends on government intervention. The same could undoubtedly be said for many renewable technologies but advocates of those technologies are generally more open about the need for government intervention in the energy market. So, never let it be said that nuclear is the free market non-interventionist option. It's just not. At all.

I'm still undergoing my self-enforced agnostisism towards nuclear power so I won't make any further comment on that right now. As for the Blair, I do strongly suspect that he's has made up his mind to support nuclear power and that this review is actually mostly about selling that decision. We shall see.

And Finally
You might want to reach for your bacofoil baseball cap before you read this:
An urgent inquiry has been ordered to investigate claims that major gas suppliers have been withholding supplies to push up prices. Gas and electricity watchdog Ofgem wants to ensure that the rise in prices in recent weeks is not due to "market manipulation". It is appealing to the European Commission to investigate why the gas pipeline between Britain and the continent has not been running at full capacity when demand has soared.
*Strokes chin*

The fact thay the UK may currently be experiencing a gas shortage due to "market manipulation" is a curious coincidence, wouldn't you say? And I've already heard Malcom Wicks emphasising the gas shortage issue today. Not so long ago, he was playing that down and accusing the CBI of scaremongering. He is still saying basically the same things but there's definitely been a slight change in emphasis on gas shortages. Hmm. In all honesty, this probably really is a coincidence. Some conspiricay theories are too far fetched, even for me.

* "If ye dinna ken fit yer spikin aboot, haud yer wheest." Not sure if that's an official saying but I do know that my grandad was fond of it. Like most grandads, he was a very wise man. If your not familiar with Scottish dialects, it translates as "If you don't know what your talking about, don't speak". It's something I should probably do more of.

** More on that soon.

Morons, Idiots, and Nefarious Bastards*

Colonel, U.S. Army (Retired) Lawrence Wilson can be added to the list of former insiders who feel the need to speak out about the conduct of the Bush administration. Colonel Wilson's credentials would appear to be rather impressive, if you like that sort of thing. He does not appear to be a wishy washy liberal lefie with an axe to grind. He is connected to the "doves" in the administration, having worked as Colin Powell's Chief of Staff from 2002 - 2005.

He gave an interview to the Associated Press on Monday in which he raised many concerns about the handling of the Iraq war and the way in which the "war" on terror has been prosecuted. On Iraq:
Wilkerson blamed Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and like-minded aides. Wilkerson said that Cheney must have sincerely believed that Iraq could be a spawning ground for new terror assaults, because "otherwise I have to declare him a moron, an idiot or a nefarious bastard."

Colonel Wilson believes that President Bush was "too aloof, too distant from the details" of post war planning. A cynic might suggest that even this is too kind. I didn't know there were any details about post war planning to be aloof from. Details seemed to be entirely lacking from the process. Colonel Wilson would no doubt maintain that the State Department did have lots of details on the subject and that the President and his advisers simply chose not to consult them.

Colonel Wilson also gave an interview to the Today programme in which he discusses his opinion of the post war planning which was implemented.
The post-invasion planning for Iraq was handled, in my opinion, in this alternative decision-making process which, in this case, constituted the vice-president and the secretary of defence and certain people in the defence department who did the "post invasion planning", which was as inept and incompetent as perhaps any planning anyone has ever done.

It consisted of largely sending Jay Garner and his organisation to sit in Kuwait until the military forces had moved into Baghdad, and then going to Baghdad and other places in Iraq with no other purpose than to deliver a little humanitarian assistance, perhaps deal with some oil-field fires, put Ahmed Chalabi or some other similar Iraqi in charge and leave.

This was not only inept and incompetent, it was day-dreaming of the most unfortunate type and ever since that failed we've been in a pick-up game - a pick-up game that's cost us over 2,000 American KIAs [killed in action]and almost a division's worth of casualties.
Quite. Again.

In that interview, he also discusses his thoughts on the use of intelligence by the administration to justify the invasion of Iraq, including by Powell, his then boss.
I was intimately involved in that process and to this point I have more or less defended the administration. I have basically been supportive of the administration's point that it was simply fooled - that the intelligence community, including the UK, Germany, France, Jordan - other countries that confirmed what we had in our intelligence package, yet we were all just fooled. Lately, I'm growing increasingly concerned because two things have just happened here that really make me wonder.

And the one is the questioning of Sheikh al-Libby where his confessions were obtained through interrogation techniques other than those authorised by Geneva. It led Colin Powell to say at the UN on 5 February 2003 that there were some pretty substantive contacts between al-Qaeda and Baghdad. And we now know that al-Libby's forced confession has been recanted and we know - we're pretty sure that it was invalid. But more important than that, we know that there was a defence intelligence agency dissent on that testimony even before Colin Powell made his presentation. We never heard about that.

Follow that up with Curveball, and the fact that the Germans now say they told our CIA well before Colin Powell gave his presentation that Curveball - the source to the biological mobile laboratories - was lying and was not a trustworthy source. And then you begin to speculate, you begin to wonder was this intelligence spun; was it politicised; was it cherry-picked; did in fact the American people get fooled - I am beginning to have my concerns.
Quite. Yet again. It's lazy blogging, I know, but I just don't know what to add.

And on the subject of abuse of detainees, Colonel Wilson claims that there were advocates of an "anything goes" approach inside the administration. Furthermore, he claims that these advocates did more than just argue the case.
Well you see two sides of this debate in the statutory process. You see the side represented by Colin Powell, Will Taft, all arguing for Geneva. You see the other side represented by Yoo, John Yoo from the Department of Justice, Alberto Gonzales - you see the other side being argued by them and you see the president compromising.

Then you see the secretary of defence moving out in his own memorandum to act as if the side that declared everything open, free and anything goes, actually being what's implemented. And so what I'm saying is, under the vice-president's protection, the secretary of defence moved out to do what they wanted to do in the first place even though the president had made a decision that was clearly a compromise.
How does it go again? These actions were the work of a few bad apples [graphic images]? Many people have long contended that the bad apples were much nearer the top of the tree than the bottom.

Colonel Wislon goes futher still when asked if Dick Cheney might be guilty of war crimes.
Well, that's an interesting question - it was certainly a domestic crime to advocate terror and I would suspect that it is - for whatever it's worth - an international crime as well.
Quite. What else can be said?

* It's a cheap, hackish, out of contect title, I admit, but it was irresistable.

Hang the DJ

Last week, Frank Gaffney, neo-conservative, appeared on Newsnight to discuss the allegation that President Bush had wanted to bomb the al-Jazeera media organisation. I can't claim to know whether the allegation is true or not and I'm surprised that quite a few bloggers seem to have inside information on the contents of the memo.

I would very much like to know what the memo says. The evidence which will prove or disprove the allegation does exist but the government says we're not allowed to see it. We're told it contains information about troop movements and that revealing it would be harmful to our national security. If that's the case, why not release only the relevant part of the memo? That would seem to be the best way to satisfy our right to know without revealing state secrets. For the record, I'd publish it in that form. Send it here.

So, at the moment, it is an allegation only. Perhaps it was a joke or a throwaway comment. We are not to be told.

Given this lack of memo, it seems only right and proper to speculate in a slightly provocative manner. Some of this might be old news to some people but here are some details to speculate on at your leisure.

When Frank Gaffney, neo-conservative, suggested to Paxman that al Jazeera should be a legitimate target, it wasn't the first time he'd aired those views. I'm afraid this involves linking to a Fox News comment piece he wrote in September 2003. Mr Gaffney, neo-conservative, has been arguing that al Jazeera should be taken off the air "one way or another" for quite some time.

Did I mention that Mr Gaffney, neo-conservative, was also a founder member of the Project for a New American Century? There he is down at the bottom with all his neo-conservative chums. He knows a lot of people, does Frank (neo-con). He must be very good company at parties. The stories he could tell...

Anyway, Daily Kos has a transcript of part of the Newsnight interview (the audio link is no longer valid).
We're talking about a news organization, so called, that is promoting bin Laden, that is promoting Zawahiri, that is promoting Zarqawi, that is promoting beheadings, that is promoting suicide bombers, that is other ways enabling the propaganda aspects of this war to be fought by our enemies, and I think that puts it squarely in the target category. Whether the best way to do it is with bombs or through other means is something we could discuss, but I think it's fair game, under these circumstances, given the way it conducts itself.
- Frank Gaffney, neo-conservative
Al Jazeera should be "squarely in the target category", says Mr Gaffney, neo-conservative.

Leaving aside the views of Frank (neo-con) it's interesting to note that Donald Rumsfeld had some strong words to say about al Jazeera just one day before the alleged conversation between Bush and Blair. They were "vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable", according to Mr Rumsfeld.

I've looked up the context of that snippet to try to get a better feel for Donald's mood (it's almost exactly half way down the page).
Qu: If I could follow up, Monday General Abizaid chastised Al- Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah for their coverage of Fallujah and saying that hundreds of civilians were being killed. Is there an estimate on how many civilians have been killed in that fighting? And can you definitively say that hundreds of women and children and innocent civilians have not been killed?

Sec. Rumsfeld: I can definitively say that what Al-Jazeera is doing is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable.

Qu: Do you have a civilian casualty count?

Sec. Rumsfeld: Of course not, we're not in the city. But you know what our forces do; they don't go around killing hundreds of civilians. That's just outrageous nonsense! It's disgraceful what that station is doing.
He doesn't appear to be joking around here. And he said something similar in June of this year.

He, like Mr Gaffney, labours under the mistaken belief that al Jazeera have broadcast video footage of beheadings. This is, yes, propaganda. Very effective too. In actual fact, al Jazeera claim that they have never broadcast a beheading at any time. David Frost, veteran BBC broadcaster, and soon to be working for al Jazeera, says claims of beheadings being broadcast are a myth.
It's definitely true to say that the beheading thing on al-Jazeera was a myth. I don't think it ever happened.
- David Frost
Urban myths are a powerful phenomenon though. Once the allegations are out there, they tend to spread quickly.

Feel free to speculate further. Without the memo, that's all we can do.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Not Breaking News

I know they do it all the time but the Daily Express today has really gone above and beyond the call of duty. I find it works best if you treat each word as an individual sentence.

Approximately eight years and three months, if you're interested.

The continuing Express campaign is, of course, designed to keep the real truth hidden from public view. The "Diana" in the crash was actually an advanced prototype android of alien manufacture. It was initially constructed to please Prince Charles as part of a trade agreement but it malfunctioned and ended up going off to please some other men instead. As a consequence of this, the android's programme was "crashed" in a covert joint CIA, SIS (not MI6, did I mention it's not called that?), Mossad, DGSE, MFI, B&Q, Prince's Trust operation. And where is the real Diana? What do you think Charles traded for the love doll?

It's true I tell you. I read it in a newspaper.

Checking the small print

The IPCC has decided to launch an investigation into Sir Ian Blair's conduct following the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes. Given that Sir Ian gave orders which, by his own admission, he did not have the authority to issue, this sounds like good news.

Unfortunately, the terms of the investigation are very narrow. It appears that it will concern itself only with the possibility that Sir Ian and other senior officers made false statements concerning the circumstances surrounding the shooting.

At the time, Sir Ian very carefully said that "the shooting is directly linked to the expanding and ongoing anti-terrorist operation". At night, he secretly dreams of being a politician. There was nothing factually incorrect about that statement.

He also said that "the man was challenged and refused to obey the police instructions". We now know that that didn't happen and Sir Ian will find that statement more difficult to justify to the investigation. We can, however, see how it's likely to go. "At the time, we were in the middle of the biggest anti-terrorist operation ever seen in this country. I was constantly receiving huge amounts of information from my officers and in that the course of that process, some confusion was inevitable." Yes, very plausible. Except it actually does nothing to explain how it was that Sir Ian came to believe that "the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions". Confusion does not normally cause an entirely new version of events to be created in this way.

How the IPCC will interpret Sir Ian's comments remains to be seen. Did I mention that the investigation has been authorised by Charles Clarke? Call me a cynic but I suspect that might tell you all you need to know about its likely conclusions. We shall see.

Are we leaving yet?

Democrat Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. has caused a bit of a stir across the pond by writing an article called Time for An Iraq Timetable in the Washington Post.
The question most Americans want answered about Iraq is this: When will our troops come home? We already know the likely answer. In 2006, they will begin to leave in large numbers. By the end of the year, we will have redeployed about 50,000. In 2007, a significant number of the remaining 100,000 will follow. A small force will stay behind -- in Iraq or across the border -- to strike at any concentration of terrorists.
- Sen. Biden
It's not really the article which is causing the stir, it's what Scott McClellan said about it.
Today, Sen. Biden described a plan remarkably similar to the Administration's plan to fight and win the war on terror. We welcome Sen. Biden's voice in the debate.
-Scott McClellan
Careful Scott, that sound a bit like Whitehouse support for a timetable for withdrawal. On the same day, the LA Times reported that the administration had begun to lay the groundwork for a significant troop withdrawal. A former Pentagon official told them there was a "growing consensus" on withdrawing around 40,000 troops by November next year. Newsweek also reported on the US administrations changing attitude to troop reductions.
When Democrats said we should pull out our troops from Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney and others were quick to label them defeatists. When the administration floated the idea this week of bringing home a third of the troops by election time next year, it was presented as good old patriotism. As the church lady on “Saturday Night Live” used to say “How convenient!” The striking change of tone is all about politics, and perhaps that’s how it should be in a democracy. Public support for the war has collapsed. The administration wants to avoid an embarrassing debate over who lost Iraq, so there won’t be the precipitous pullout that would look like a retreat. The troop withdrawals will be dictated by the election calendar, both in Iraq and here at home.

For all those who support the war, answer me this: do you think the UK government has even the tiniest influence over this process? This US domestic political timetable will, to a large extent, determine what happens next in Iraq. Over here in the UK, we can debate and discuss what we should do for the best and it'll make not the slightest bit of difference. We'll go when they go and they'll go when it suits them.

And, if you're trying to assess how much of this new approach is down to democracy in Iraq, remember that elections for what we're told will be the first democratic fully sovereign government in Iraq are going to be held on December 15th. Since that sovereign Iraqi government doesn't exist yet, it's hard to see how it could be playing a huge role in the formation of this new strategy. It is about public opinion, but it's almost exclusively about US public opinion.

That was, I'm afraid, always going to be the most likely result of this misadventure. From the start, the Whitehouse, and the Blair, have demonstrated time and again that their understanding of Iraq was woefully inadequate. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" banner spoke volumes. For me, it's the ultimate symbol of his administration's complete failure to understand the situation they faced in Iraq. Confronted with a situation of immense delicacy and enormous tension, the US administration handled it with all the skill and tact of a bulldozer driving the wrong way up a motorway. And now, after two and a half years of heavy handed occupation, just as the country is threatening to tear itself apart, they've had enough.* Head for the exits boys and gals, our work here is done...

At the end of September, I wrote:
The US military will start a staged withdrawal starting in the spring or summer of next year [2006]. This will be in response to the Iraqi government stating that their security services are now better equipped to fight the insurgency. This is unlikely to be influenced much by the actual state of the Iraqi security services or the insurgency. It will be influenced by the need to have good news to sell in the campaign for the US elections in November.
It looks like that's going to be fairly close to the mark. When I wrote that, the administration's position was that a timetable for withdrawal would be tantamount to surrender. It would only "embolden" the terrorists, they said. Now, it looks like we're about to get just such a timetable, although I doubt they'll call it that.

One thing about this has surprised me though. I did think the US administration would wait for the Iraqi government to be elected before they announced the plan to withdraw. That way, they could have claimed that they were acting in partnership with the democratically elected government of Iraq or some such nonsense. Doing it now means they can't claim that the Iraqi government was involved in the decision in any way. That's a bit of an own goal there, I feel.

At the same time, in a couple of months or so I'm sure we'll be told that the plan was created with the full cooperation of the the government of Iraq. That will, of course, make me laugh bitterly.

I believe President Bush is going to make an announcement on this on Wednesday. It'll be interesting to see exactly what he says. If you can't wait till then, you could always read the Dear Leader's daily thought on the matter.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

New Iraq

Now with added Sharia

Ayad Allawi, Iraq's first Prime Minister after the fall of Saddam, and one time Washington favourite, has given an interview to the Observer. Mr Allawi is a secular Shi'ite. His verdict on the state of the Iraq does not match the picture portrayed by Downing Street and the Whitehouse:
People are doing the same as [in] Saddam's time and worse. It is an appropriate comparison. People are remembering the days of Saddam. These were the precise reasons that we fought Saddam and now we are seeing the same things.
He goes on to say:
We are hearing about secret police, secret bunkers where people are being interrogated. A lot of Iraqis are being tortured or killed in the course of interrogations. We are even witnessing Sharia courts based on Islamic law that are trying people and executing them.
I suspect you understand why I described Mr Allawi as a "one time Washington favourite". That's not what people are supposed to be told. The line is that democracy is taking hold and the situation on the ground is constantly improving. Journalists would be able to see this for themselves if they would just make the effort and actually go to one of the most dangerous countries in the world Iraq. Mr Allawi must not have received the relevant memo. Either that, or he's just not prepared to stand by and pretend that his country isn't falling apart.

Mr Allawi has already been accused of electioneering by the current leadership of Iraq. There's probably a hint of truth in that accusation in all honesty. But, if the average Iraqi genuinely felt that the situation is much better now than it was under Saddam, this sort of electioneering wouldn't be possible. In other words, if there was no foundation to Mr Allawi's claims, they would be totally self defeating. Most Iraq's would say " he's talking billhicks, it's much better now" and there'd be no votes in that. If, on the other hand, many Iraqis think "he's right, this is awful, what's changed since Saddam?", then he's got a viable strategy. As such, I believe that Mr Allawi's description of Iraq is basically accurate (if, perhaps, a little over-stated).

The fact that Iraq now has areas under Sharia law is a particularly bitter irony. The Peter Oborne documentary I mentioned in the previous post also highlighted this issue. Sharia law is being imposed by militia groups in Sadr city, Basra, and elsewhere. A US soldier described the way in which the coalition troops identify those who have been executed in this way. The hands and feet of the bodies are bound and the shoes have been removed (the victim will have had to remove his or her shoes before being taken into the the Mosque for the "trial"). Normally, the victims are killed with a single shot in the back of the head. In some cases they have been shot repeatedly. The soldier described how one woman they'd found had been shot in the groin.

Bush and Blair would prefer if we didn't know that militias are imposing Sharia law on large parts of the country. They'd prefer to pretend that Basra isn't under the control of Islamist militias and gangsters. What they'd like is for us to believe that we're still "on course" to achieve or aims in Iraq. Unfortunately, this now means they have to ignore the plight of ordinary Iraqis. That fact that these ordinary Iraqis are the very same one's who's welfare was belatedly adopted as the justification for the invasion just adds a further dash of tragedy to the whole sorry affair.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

A Beacon of Democracy

According to Peter Oborne's Dispatches, shown recently on Channel 4, the coalition in Iraq has ceded control of various parts of the country to militia groups. There are any number of independent militia groups operating in Iraq and it appears that the coalition has realised that it is unable to do a great deal about them. Significantly, large parts of Baghdad are apparently now under the control of the Mehdi army, Muqtada al-Sadr's militia. Al-Sadr is an Islamic hardliner and his militia are the de facto rulers of Sadr city, an area of Baghdad with a population of around 2 million people. In the documentary, Oborne interviewed a US soldier who confirmed that an understanding had been reached with al-Sadr and that he'd been granted immunity from arrest by the coalition.

The soldier then realised that revealing this fact to a journalist might not be altogether wise. I can see why. Admitting that you've been forced to accept an arangment with an Islamic hardliner, and that this hardliner will, in effect, dictate how 1 in 10 Iraqis vote in the December elections, probably doesn't do much for the coalition's pretend democracy campaign. On the streets of Sadr city, democracy is little more than a pantomine, a show put on to satisfy an audience (the US and UK public). Many of it's residents live in fear of the Medhi army's strict Islamic dictats. Similar conditions exist in Basra, and in various other parts of the country. This is the real Iraq.

I've been reading up on some of these issues and I'll probably post something with more sources in due course. In the meantime, I thought a report from yesterday's Times was also worth highlighting. The Times reports that areas of Iraq are increasingly becoming divided along sectarian lines. Violence, and threats of violence, are causing this segregation.
As the toll of threats, attacks and killings grows, more and more families are leaving their mixed neighbourhoods for homogeneous areas where they will be safe among their own. In doing so, the migrants are beginning to redraw the sectarian map of Iraq, corralling themselves into polarised ghettos, exclusively Sunni or Shia.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand how dangerous this process can be. How long will it be before the disputes over parade routes start? I suspect that's still a long way off; it's still far too violent for anyone to be worrying about such things at this stage.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Nuclear Advocates

There's a letter in today's Press and Journal advocating nuclear power and dismissing wind power as unworkable. It particulary interested me today as I've been thinging about the whole issue quite a bit (as mentioned in the previous post). Before discussing the letter, I should point out that the Press and Journal's letters page is no stranger to opinions like these. In fact, letter's expressing similar views appear really rather frequently; pro-nuclear letters vastly outnumber anti-nuclear one's.

This one is here (it's the third letter down). It's written by a William Oxenham from Edinburgh. This is slightly odd because the Press and Journal (The Voice of the North) isn't really aimed at the good people of Edinburgh. Anyway, the letter is solidly pro-nuclear, calling Blair's decision to support new investment in nuclear power "eminently sensible". Mr Oxenham argues that wind power is "unreliable, unaffordable and ecologically damaging" and that the nuclear solution is the most friendly option for the environment. He also argues that nuclear power would be "immune to outside influence".

These arguments closely echo those of the government. Perhaps that's just because they are actually good arguments (except for the "immune to outside influence" one which is clearly, at best, an exaggeration). But I'm a cynical sod so I thought I'd see if I could find out more about Mr Oxenham.

The first thing I discovered was that Mr Oxenham had *exactly* the same letter published in yesterday's Herald, a Scottish national broadsheet. Word for word. The Press and Journal probably aren't aware of that fact but they do now have a comment on this feature on their website, so I pointed it out there. The nub:
Mr Oxenham is obviously very keen on sharing his pro-nuclear opinions with the rest of the country. I wonder is there is any particulary reason for this enthusiasm?
It is ever so slightly odd, don't you think?

I also found that Mr Oxenham had written to the Western Mail, a Welsh newpaper I believe, in March of this year (6th letter down). That letter is a slimmed down version but the arguments are basically the same. And I found this letter from December 2004, written in response to an article in Green Light, a magazine concerned with the environment. Again, very similar arguments are presented. Mr Oxenham really does appear to be very keen to share his opinions with the rest of the country.

There is, of course, no law against that. I just thought it was interesting.

Setting aside the issue of Mr Oxenham's letters, there is a wider point to be made. The pro-nuclear lobby is certainly a many tentacled beast. If you don't believe that those with a vested interest are orchestrating a subtle and not so subtle campaign to attempt to win public support for the nuclear option, then I'm afraid you're being naive. This irks me enormously and it makes approaching the issue with an open mind extremely difficult. But I'm still going to give it a go.

Power to the people

As I've mentioned before, I'm intending to write a post about eveyone's favourite radioactive potato, nuclear power. The comments on that post really got me thinking about my own opinions. As such, I thought I'd avoid just repeating my long held views on the subject and try to approach the issue as objectively as possible. I'm trying to ignore all my preconceptions and start again from the beginning, and I'm sort of in the middle of that process at the moment.* This post is partly an appeal for information in an effort to spend less time searching the interwebs. So, if you know of any links which might be useful, from either side of the debate, I'd be much obliged if you could drop them off in the comments to this post. I'm particulary interested in the facts. How much does it really cost? What are the environmental impacts of the various options? Are windfarms and other renewable solutions really not feasible ways to meet our future energy needs, as the nuclear lobby contends? Any help would be much appreciated.

And now, just so you know I've not gone completely mad, here's a reminder of what those friendly BP types are doing at the moment. That's not very nice at all.

In my more fanciful moments, I wonder whether it might be possible to make greenwash stick. Everyone has their dreams.

* I should say that I'm not questioning the theory of climate change; my opinion is that climate change is real and that we should be very concerned about it. I have given this matter a great deal of thought, including subjecting it to the bird flu media hyperbole check, and the greedy scientists want more funds analysis, and I don't think climate change can be ignored. I realise that not everyone shares that view and I would explain my opinion in greater detail but I don't really want this post to be about climate change.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Pointing and Laughing

Question Time, this week, threw up what I found to be an irresistable opportunity for some pointing and laughing. Jane Moore was on the panel. The fact that she's a Sun columnist means I can point and laugh whilst experiencing no guilt whatsoever and that just makes it even more irresistable.

The question related to climate change, future fossil fuel shortages, and the desirability of nuclear power. To be fair, Jane did admit that her position on the whole issue was "nebulous" and that she didn't know a great deal about it. Her opinion on climate change is apparently some sort of hand gesture. I assume it means she hasn't made up her mind on the issue. She explains:
I talk to one person who'll tell me that there were great floods back in the Thirties and nobody talked about global warming then and whatever, and then I'll watch the news and I'll see, you know, the hurricanes, the earthquakes, and I will start to think, well hang on a minute, these are, you know, these are coming fast and furious now and surely this must be for a reason.
- Jane Moore
Earthquakes, Jane? And climate change?

*points and laughs*

Some sniggering might also be permissable. Dear, oh dear.

If, like me, you like to watch people saying very silly things, the latest programme link on the Question Time website should get you there until around this time next week. It's 36 mins 40sec into the broadcast.

Get Involved

The Iraq war has generated a huge number of controversies with regard to the conduct of the UK government. What is undoubtedly needed is an independent review to investigate these matters. MPs have the power to make that happen.

Justin has all the relevant details. I strongly recommend getting involved. I've just sent mine:

Dear Anne Begg,

In March 2003, you voted against the declaration of war against Iraq. Since then, a number of allegations have been made with regard to the government's conduct in relation to all aspects of the Iraq war. As such, I am writing to ask you to support Early Day Motion 1088 (Conduct of Government policy in relation to the war against Iraq). Given the many allegations, I believe a thorough review is in the best interest of all concerned and hope that you share that view.

If you are not able to support this motion, I would ask that you explain why this is the case.

Yours sincerely,

Garry Smith

Terrorist Propagandists

Did Bush really want to bomb the al Jazeera offices in Qatar? The Mirror reported yesterday that they've been warned not to publish any further details of the memo. The Times (along with many others) report that the UK government has threatened to invoke the Official Secrets Act against any newspaper which publishes details of the memo.
THE Attorney-General was accused last night of using the Official Secrets Act “big stick” to gag newspapers in an attempt to save President Bush from further embarrassment over Iraq.
It seems that the Government is very determine to keep the details of this memo secret. And yet, they are the ones who love to remind us that if you've nothing to hide... How odd.

I thought it'd be illuminating to see how al Jazeera has been reporting the story. Here we go. Rabid terrorist propagandists? The claim is laughable.

And that led me to wonder about something else. As I mentioned in my previous post, Frank Gaffney, an influential neo-con, clearly and unequivocally advocated the use of violence against al Jazeera staff during his Newsnight appearance on Tuesday 22nd November.
Offences Against The Person Act 1861
Section 4 - Conspiring or soliciting to commit murder.
All persons who shall conspire, confederate, and agree to murder any person, whether he be a subject of Her Majesty or not, and whether he be within the Queen's dominions or not, and whosoever shall solicit, encourage, persuade, or endeavour to persuade, or shall propose to any person, to murder any other person, whether he be a subject of Her Majesty or not, and whether he be within the Queen's dominions or not, shall be guilty of a isdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable ... to [imprisonment for life].
[my emphasis]
That law is still in effect and has been used to prosecute muslims for incitement to violence (as recently as 2004). As such, it would appear that Mr Gaffney may have committed a serious crime. I intend to write to the relevant authorities to ask whether steps are being taken to investigate this possible criminal activity. At this stage I'm not sure who to contact but I'm sure I'll work it out. In the meantime, if anyone knows, I'd be most grateful if they could pass on that information.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Blame Game

This survey was widely reported in the media earlier in the week. It's about rape. The fact that rape happens sickens me and I understand why so many people try to avoid even thinking about it. It's the classic Ostrich syndrome; fear and disgust lead to a refusal to acknowledge the problem. It's understandable but at the same time, it's clear that ignoring the problem won't make it go away. People are raped in our country. Lot's of people. More needs to be done to stop it happening.

One person who consistently highlights these issues is bookdrunk at rhetorically speaking.
More than a third of people believe that a woman is totally or partially responsible for being raped if she has behaved in a flirtatious manner
And that's the culture of rape, plain and simple, that says that the victim of crime has invited that crime. Remember, this is a critique that applies to women and women alone for exhibiting behaviour that would never be used to criticise a male victim of crime.
It is a truly appalling statistic. Bookdrunk has also collected some readers comments from the Daily Mail website. Some of them may make you feel quite ill.

I'd also recommend reading this excellent post by Emma at gendergeek (via bookdrunk).

Apologist attitudes to rape should not be allowed to go unchallenged. There is no excuse.

Satire is dead

PRESIDENT Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a "Top Secret" No 10 memo reveals. But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash.
Cast aside your first impression, the above is not taken from Private Eye*. It appears to be a legitimate piece of journalism from the Mirror newspaper. They strongly suggest that Dubya really did want to bomb the offices of a legitimate news organisation in a country allied to the United States. This allegation is based on a leaked memo which apparently records the conversation between Blair and Bush. A civil servant is currently on trial for a breach of the Official Secrets Act regarding the memo.

This is still only an allegation but the circumstantial evidence all seems to point one way. Perhaps Mr Bush should allow the memo to be publicly released in order to clarify his position. I won't be holding my breath.

If it is true, then the man really is a dangerously ignorant simpleton. Does the president of he most powerful country in the world seriously think like this: "him bad, me kill"? I sincerely hope not.

Newsnight covered the story in some depth. Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy, made two key points when questioned by Paxman*. The first was that these allegations are not proven and the second was that the US government probably should bomb Al-Jazeera. He claimed that Al-Jazeera is a propaganda tool for terrorists and is, therefore, a legitimate target. Al-Jazeera in English certainly doesn't bear out that accusation but that's almost beside the point. It shouldn't even be up for discussion. It'd be morally indefensible (it's a very good candidate for moral equivalence to terrorist attacks, I'd say) *and* it'd be enormously counter-productive. In short, it's probably the stupidest idea I've heard in a very long while, and in a time when stupid ideas are all the rage that's really saying something.

Frank Gaffney's just a guy though. He is President of the Center For Security Policy, a think tank with strong links to the Republican party (particularly the neo-conservatives). And he's also a seniour advisor at Americans for Victory Over Terrorism (an offshoot of the Project for a New American Century), an organisation designed to manipulate and manufacture sustain popular support for the war on terror. Oh, and he's a contributor to Front Page, a neo-con magazine. He is, as you might expect, a firm supporter of the invasion of Iraq. He's also in favour of rebadging the global war on terror. The "War for the Free World" is his prefered option (rebranding is the best solution for all failing products as I'm sure you're aware).

Anyway, Mr Gaffney is rather well connected to the US administration and the neo-cons in particular. If he says we should bomb al-Jazeera, I suspect that's the considered view (I use that term for want of a better one) of more than just one guy. The question is, are all of those involved dangerously ignorant simpletons? I couldn't possibly comment.

* I've no idea how well known Private Eye is beyond these shores. It's an often amusing satirical magazine. I believe it gets sued rather a lot.

** Does the US administration ever actually allow an official spokesman to appear on Newsnight? I can't remember seeing any.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

News from the provinces

Conservative leadership hopeful* David Davis visited Aberdeen yesterday. Around 15 people turned up to hear what he had to say. To put this in perspective, Aberdeen has a population of around 210,000 and average earnings are significantly higher than the Scottish average. The city does have a long history of strong Conservative support, particulary in Aberdeen South, my own constituency, where a Conservative MP has been elected many times since 1945. Not recently though. Aberdeen is one of the places where signs of a Conservative revival in Scotland would be most likely to be in evidence. It clearly isn't. In fact, I suspect it'd be easier to revive a dead dog.

Still, only 15 people? That really is very embarrassing. It might reflect the fact that the people of Aberdeen are even more disinterested in politics than the UK average, but 15 people? I wonder if DD thought the trip was worthwhile?

As a side note to this, I couldn't help but notice that the Press and Journal report quoted several of the 15 people in attendance. An 80 year old gentleman, his 72 year old wife and another lady described as a "pensioner" were all asked for their views. A representative of the Aberdeen University Conservative and Unionist Association was also quoted, although his age and pension status were not mentioned. I'd love to know whether this was an accurate reflection of the age of the audience or whether it was the P&J playing around with a stereotype. My money's on a combination of the two.

Also in today's Press and Journal was yet another letter attacking the unprincipled attitudes of the opposition in voting against the 90 day detention proposal of the Blair. It's the fourth one down, "Opposition attitudes". This one is specifically aimed at the opportunism of Charles Kennedy. Oh dear. I wonder if anyone has explained basic Liberal Democrat principles** to the author. I've already mentioned this but to argue that the Liberal Democrats voted against this proposal simply in order to embarrass the government is just exposing your own ignorance and prejudice. Shame on you sir.

* Hurray for cliches. Where would we be without them?

** Yes, they do exist. I believe they are usually kept in a vault on an uninhabited Scottish island and are very rarely seen in public.

Public Service Announcement

Tim's new animation is ready. Read about it here and follow the link to view. After you've watched it, I recommend just sitting still and thinking for as long as you can.

You might also want to read about the mounting evidence of UK involvement in the "extraordinary rendition" process.

And if you believe that "the end justifies the means" in these dangerous times, have some theory.
To believe that depriving citizens of their individual rights and suspending the democratic process is necessary to maintain 'order' is to put oneself on the same moral plane as the terrorists, who believe that 'the end justifies the means'. However serious the threat of terrorism, we must not be tempted to use repressive methods to combat it. To believe that we can 'protect' liberal democracy by suspending our normal rights and methods of government is to ignore the numerous examples in contemporary history of countries where 'temporary', 'emergency' rule has subsided quickly and irrevocably into permanent dictorial forms of government.
- Grant Wardlaw, Political Terrorism (2nd ed.), Ch 8.

Home Grown Energy

It's being widely reported that Tony Blair has decided to go nuclear. Given the noises he's been making, it seems entirely plausible. Malcolm Wicks, the UK energy minister, has denied that Blair has made his choice. He put up a good show on Newsnight (7 mins in) but I doubt it convinced anyone. Paxman was particularly incredulous at Mr Wicks' many denials. Quite amusing if you like that sort of thing.

Anyway, I'm sure I'll write a proper post about this before too long. In the meantime, here's a flashy map type setup. I wonder if Malcom or Tony have had a chance to peruse it's many informative statistics?

Monday, November 21, 2005

A series of unconnected things

Thoroughly decent chap

First of all, I'd like to say a big thank you to the Devil's Kitchen for help with my latest foray into the weird world of HTML/CSS. It's much appreciated. [Note to self: remember to update "thoroughly decent chap" list.]

I'm pleased with the new layout but may still make a few cosmetic alterations if I can work up the necessary enthusiasm. I do actually quite like the grey background though, so it'll probably stay. I'm going to say that it reflects Aberdeen granite in the light of a winter sky (rather than my general disposition). Anyway, I hope it looks OK where you are.

Stop the world
Earlier today, I was faced with a tough decision; either I bought some bottled water or I continued to be very thirsty. I was about to do a couple of hours of reasonably strenuous physical activity so staying thirsty didn't seem like a very good idea. I normally drink tap water but that wasn't an option and I'd forgotten to bring any. So, I decided. I bought a small bottle (500ml) of mineral water at the bus station (phoned the bank manager, he OK'ed the loan while I waited). It does amaze me that something which literally falls out of the sky can be so expensive. Remarkable achievement for marketing really. But that wasn't what provoked my demand to be let off this mad planet of ours. I'd been expecting the astonishing price. No, what really did it was one of the labels on the bottle. It said:
Mummy, I feel dizzy...

I love the BBC
The BBC is not a perfect institution but I think it's bloody good and a lot better than most other broadcasters. They've taken a fair few knocks from this government, most notably over the Gilligan "sexing up" allegation. It's still a mystery to me, that one, but never mind that now. I've been worrying that the BBC might be starting to feel the pressure to be more government friendly. Tonight on BBC 2, there's a Money Programme special investigation into Guido's favourite Lord, Lord Grayson. And what's it called? The Irresistable Rise of Tony's Crony. I love the BBC.

I don't love Fox
But I do love Family Guy and American Dad. Proper funny. Just thought I'd mention it now that the BBC has started showing them back to back on Saturday nights. I love the BB... actually, I think I might already have mentioned that.

Those were a serious of unconnected things. That is all.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

These are some other droids

Derren Brown is a pretty scary fellow. If you've never heard of him, reading this page and then watching the 45 second video clip will give you some idea of what he does (beware of Channel 4's very irritating love of pop-up ads). I should make clear that I don't mean he's "spooky" scary or any of that nonsense. Basically, he uses the power of suggestion to make people do some really very freaky things. And I do mean really very freaky. What I find scary about him is that he has such a powerful understanding of human psychology and the workings of the subconscious mind. We humans really are very easy to manipulate if you know how it's done, and that's what I find so frightening. To be fair to Mr Brown, part of the reason he does what he does is so that people become more aware of this. He also likes to expose some of the scams used by hocus-pocus merchants and I'm all for that. Given his remarkable talents, I'm sure he'd be considerably richer if he'd decided to be a scammer himself rather than an entertainer. All in all, he's probably a decent bloke but I still find him scary.

But it's not really him; it's the implications that his talents have when applied to other areas of our lives. I'm on my way to politics (what a surprise) but I'm stopping off at the shops first. Try to imagine how successful Mr Brown would be if he worked in advertising or retail. "Look at me. You need these." "Yes, I need these. I'll take twelve."

There's actually no need to imagine it, of course, because it already happens. Maybe they don't have the same depth of understanding as Mr Brown but they're certainly working towards it. The ever-present smell of baking bread at the supermarket, and the equally ubiquitous fruit and vegetable displays by the entrance, are specifically designed to appeal to the subconscious mind of the customer. Many other elements of retail design are grounded in these strategies, like the fact that many shops are designed to enclose you completely. (No views of the outside world while you're in here. In here, everything is safe and warm and the outside world doesn't exist at all.) And many advertisments attempt to use the same sort of techniques of suggestion to part you from your hard earned cash. You can sometimes spot these attempts, especially in advertisments which are targetted at others. If the advert is targetting you though, you probably won't spot it (and even if you do it's probably still had an effect). Now I'm not saying we're all being brainwashed into mindless consumer zombies, well... I don't want to overstate this but that's not far from what I am saying. Watching one advert won't do it but there is a cumulative effect. It's not an evil conspiracy; it's just a whole lot of companies trying to maximise their profits to the fullest extent. In short, our subconscious minds are being poked and prodded every day by marketing goons who are just doing their jobs. As I've argued before, I believe this is fuelling an increase in dissatisfaction in our society. Leave my brain alone, that's what I say.

And so, to politics. It's obvious that influencing what people think is a very important aspect of politics. As Derren Brown knows, there are easier ways to do that than to actually win them over with the intellectual vigour of your argument. Unfortunately, Mr Brown isn't the only one who knows this. Image based politics is the result of that knowledge and it's destroying the political process. It isn't a new phenomenon, far from it, but the pervasive nature of it in today's politics is something new.

After the general election, Lynton Crosby, the Tories evil spin doctor, claimed that they could have won if they'd just been a little bit more like Kyle Minogue. That provoked me to make this rather unpleasant image.* Politics is supposed to be about policy, not about trying to be more like a tiny Ozzie singer, no matter how attractive she may be. I despaired. Is this what politics has become?

Sadly, it is. In the Conservative leadership contest, both David's have accused the other of being an image based politician, or a media obsessed policy maker or something similar., and they're probably both right. The contest seems to be more about which of them will look good compared to Blair and Gordon Brown and less about anything either candidate might actually have to say. It's about who "comes across better" on TV. This excellently titled article, by Newsnight editor Peter Barron, gives an interesting insight into the level of detail which goes into the process. We know that politicians choose their words with care, and we know that what they wear and how they look has been chosen to show them in the best possible light, and we know that backdrops are important (who hung that up there?) but it's really getting ridiculous. Cameron can't appear in front of a portrait of Thatcher on a Newsnight interview? A suitably plain backdrop was required (he's a man of the people, don't you know). Political debate at it's most stimulating it is not.

Unsurprisingly, I often tend to blame this on the Blair; he is undoubtedly a master of these black arts. In fact, the man could sound sincere reading the telephone directory; a pause here, a look there, here a gesture, there a change in tone and an arched eyebrow. Most New Labour loyalists would still clap at the exact same pauses without even having to go to the bother of engaging any part of their tiny little brains. He reminds me of an evangelical preacher in many ways and there's no doubt that he has hastened the arrival of policy free politics in this country to a greater extent than any other politician.

But, if I'm entirely honest, I don't think Blair is really the problem. If Blair wasn't doing it, someone else would step right up and do it instead. That doesn't let Blair off the hook, he's still a shallow, vacuous, manipulative, lying toerag, but in some ways he's more of a symptom than a cause. The real problem, I think, is in the political process itself. More accurately, it's caused by the intersection of politics, the media, particularly television. and an increased knowledge of how to influence people's opinions (there are other factors at work too but those are probably the most important). Unfortunately, it looks as if the slide towards image based politics may be an inevitable consequence of the world we now live in. The US and the UK are leading the charge but it's happening elsewhere too. Personally, I'm very worried about where that charge might eventually lead.

To conclude, I'd very much like to suggest some solutions to this problem. I just wish I could think of some.

*It's still the most viewed image on my Flicker account by a long way. People are very strange.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

If You've Nothing To Hide...

...Guantanamo Bay shouldn't worry you at all.

The UN has refused to accept the conditions which the US government had wished to impose on their inspection of the detention facilities.
There are certain conditions which we feel are non-negotiable and unannounced visit to places of detention and private interviews with detainees is one of those totally non-negotiable pre-conditions.
- UN special rapporteur on torture, Manfred Nowak
Again, if you've nothing to hide... Isn't that the sum total of the US administration's defence of Guantanamo? The fact that they're being so secretive is a clear sign that they're guilty of something and, as such, they should obviously be held in isolated detention facilities for a number of years. It'd probably also be a good idea to extract the urine out of their religious beliefs and rough them up a bit too. Keep them off balance and they're bound to confess eventually. So the entirely spurious theory goes anyway.

What's happening at Guantanamo Bay is wrong on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. The justification for it is just a tiny bit familiar. These extreme circumstances mean that extreme methods are justified. Faced with this evil enemy, the normal rules of acceptable behaviour cannot be followed. These people are guilty because they were in a certain place at a certain time. I'll spell it out; that's how terrorists rationalise their actions. Now I'm not implying a direct moral equivalence but the arguments are strikingly similar. The ends justify the means, no matter if a few innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

For me, what is acceptable behaviour is not determined by circumstance but by our moral values. Allowing circumstances to blur the lines of what is acceptable is to be defeated by those circumstances. We should never adjust our values because we face a threat from terrorism (or any other threat). Real courage is to hold true to our values in the face of unprecedented dangers, to say that these values define us and are worth fighting for above all else. When we allow the circumstances created by terrorists to alter the values and beliefs which define our society, then we allow the terrorists a victory and we take a step closer to thinking the way they do. It. Is. Wrong.

Acceptable behaviour means treating suspects humanely and in accordance with the law. It means allowing them to know the charges levelled against them, and allowing them to mount a defence against those charges. It means doing this in a timely and open fashion so that justice can be seen to be done. It means treating suspects with a basic level of decency and respect, no matter what they are accused of. These values define us as a society. They are clear lines in the sand; on our side, democracy and freedom, and on the other, tyranny and the police state. Guantanamo Bay is on the wrong side of the line.

Friday, November 18, 2005


Please ignore.

This post represents considerable behind the scenes HTML confusion.

Some progress. Still very much a work in progress.

Update 2
It looks OK in Firefox and Opera as far as I can see. I'll probably put in a new version of my top banner thingy if I manage to make one which fits. Please let me know if it looks awful where you are. Thanks to Thur's templates over in the Netherlands for the template. Bedankt is the word I'm after, I think.

Mysteries of the Interweb

I've just been trying to add the Google Analytics tracking (found via). I seem to have followed the instructions but when I check the status, it says it can't detect the tracking code on my main page. Having viewed the source code for my pages, the tracking code does seem to be where they said it should be. Bah and humbug.

In other news, I tried to add the blogger "links to this post" doodah the other day and I've got a feeling that's not working properly either. It certainly seems to have made a mess of the layout of individual post pages but it doesn't seem to be doing much else. Double bah with cheese.

The blogger comments systems seem to have improved as well so I'd sort of like to go back to that for my comments and just use Haloscan for Trackbacks. Unfortunately, that'd mean losing all the existing comments and I'm not happy with that idea. Triple bah with bells on.

Other than that, I love the interweb.

Bloody Media Lefties

Supporters of the invasion of Iraq often claim that the notoriously liberal media establishment are ignoring the good news from Iraq and concentrating on the bad. An irrational hatred of Dubya seems to be considered to be the standard motivation for these outrageously biased reports.

Unsurprisingly, I don't agree with that view. Today, those evil leftie's at the BBC are reporting that a number of suicide bomb attacks have occured in Iraq. At least 65 people have been killed and 80 injured in the attacks. Bloody liberals...

I just don't understand how people can take that attitude. Don't shoot the messenger people. Iraq is a very dangerous and unstable place. To my mind, the mainstream media has consistently downplayed the bad news from Iraq. Try to imagine the type of media coverage which such attacks would generate if they'd happened in the UK or the US. It would be on an entirely different scale. What's more, many of the people who accuse the media of playing up the bad news in Iraq would be the very same one's who'd be encouraging, welcoming, and amplifying the media's (quite justified) outraged coverage of the attacks.

In Iraq, it's just another day of attacks. These attacks are very unlikely to make the front pages of tomorrow's newspapers. And yet, they are clearly worse than the attacks of the 7th July. Those attacks still make the front pages of the newpapers but today's attacks in Iraq will not. It's a classic double standard. Iraqi lives are apparently less important than British ones. Why? Is an Iraqi worth less than a Briton or an American? No, clearly not. (If you think the answer's yes then I'd expect a clear explanation as to why. Otherwise, I'm likely to consider you xenophobic at best.)

The straightforward explanation is that suicide bombs in Iraq are no longer newsworthy because they happen on such a frequent basis. The capacity to shock the reader/viewer has greatly diminished as a result. And as a result of that, the mainstream media doesn't focus on the attacks in the way that they ought to. The attacks will get coverage, but they won't be big news.* Because of this, I find claims that the media is the problem to be difficult to get to grips with.

The attacks themselves are very worrying. Two Shia mosques were targetted in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to stir up sectarian hatred in an area which had been relatively peaceful until now. These attacks are clearly the work of Sunni insurgents/terrorists. I have a strong suspicion that they are a reaction to this. (Note: this is not a justification but an explanation of the attacks. Please don't confuse the two.) It's just one more indication that the battle for hearts and minds is not being won.

The Vice-President isn't having it. He'll not have people questioning the motives and actions of the Whitehouse, no matter what evidence emerges. There's a war on, you know. We must unite against the common enemy. You're either with us or against us...

The Democrat leader, Senator Harry Reid, in response to Dick, shows that, unlike Dick, he understands the real problem:
Trust and confidence in the United States has been seriously eroded... We are seen by many in the Middle East as an obstacle to peace, an aggressor and an occupier. Our purpose and power are questioned.
That's it in a nutshell. That's why the whole Iraq debacle has been so damaging to the United States and its allies (us, unfortunately). Whatever the truth is, the most important thing to understand is how it has been perceived by people in the Middle East and by Muslims in general. It's not hard to see why so many Muslims now distrust the motives and actions of the US government in this. In fact, I, a Scottish atheist, often find myself questioning these same issues. Saddam had no WMD and was not in league with Bin Laden. They could have found this out without invading so why did they attack Iraq?

Having thought about this long and hard over a prolonged period, and having considered the various theories (some quite outlandish, some more plausible), I've come to the conclusion that it was because those in command at the Whitehouse are simplistic morons. All things considered, that's probably the least worst option. The others are too frightening to contemplate.

* With the possible exception of the Indy or Grauniad.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Devil's Kitchen: Asylum seekers and work

How does this "link to this" button work then? Write it and post it, I guess.

The Devil's Kitchen and I disagree about many things. Today, I find myself in complete agreement with DK in this post. It just seems to be common sense that we should allow asylum seekers to work. DK does a very good job of explaining why. I might have added "as long as they are mentally and physically able to work" to the last part but then I am an incurable leftie with a penchant for stating the obvious. Anyway, I concur.

Absolutely Useless

If we have ID cards at vast expense and people can go into a back room and forge them they are going to be absolutely useless. ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don't think they are necessarily going to make us any safer.
- Dame Stella Rimington, former head of MI5

Andy Burnham, Minister for ID cards, has rejected the opinion of the former head of MI5 out of hand. He does not accept Dame Stella's criticisms "for a second". He doesn't do a great job of it though because he also says the proposed scheme would "make it impossible - impossible is a big claim - it will make it almost impossible to forge an identity". For crying out loud, will someone please give the man a brain. He accepts that it will *not* be impossible to forge identities under the scheme. Yes, quite. Isn't that exactly the reason Dame Stella uses to argue her case that ID cards won't make us safer?

If the ID card scheme is to work as promised, if it is to be the "gold standard" of identification, then it must be impossible to forge. Not almost impossible, but actually impossible. That "almost" will be exploited to its fullest extent by fraudsters, people smugglers, drug dealers, assorted other criminals, and terrorists. And, because the system is "foolproof", their "almost impossible to forge" new identities will be far more convincing, and far less likely to be queried by the relevant authorities. The people who will suffer will be those who've had their biometrics stolen or had their own identity attached to a fraudsters biometrics. Ordinary, law abiding people, in other words.

What Dame Stella understands, and what Mr Burnham does not, is that a system run by human beings cannot be foolproof. This is especially true if a very large number of human beings are involved in the process (as they will have to be if the scheme is ever to be implemented). Human error has some bearing but it's human greed and human ingenuity which are the real problems. Human beings, perhaps unfortunately, will always find a way to exploit a system if the rewards are large enough. In the ID card system, and particularly in the national identity register, the rewards for gaining illicit access will be enormous. Bribery, blackmail, computer hacking, or what ever else it takes; weaknesses in the system will be found and will be exploited.
When that starts to happen, the government won't be able to admit that it does without looking very stupid indeed. "It's all going swimmingly" they'll say, "just a few minor teething troubles, that's all". This, as every claimed benefit of the scheme is eaten away from the inside and the costs continue to exceed all expectations. I think I've got a good nose for a fiasco and this scheme stinks. It's time to reflect on the wise words of the Kaiser Chiefs: "I predict a riot". More than one actually.

One more thing. I heard Mr Burnham on the World at One today (15 mins in) saying that he'd heard no-one objecting to the principle of ID cards. I beg to differ, you brainless git. Has he even visited the NO2ID website do you think? Mr Burnham's claim calls for my first official entry in the New Labour dictionary:
Consultation (noun)
The act or process of hearing what you want to hear. And nothing else.
Anyway, here's mine in short: I'm not a criminal. My finger prints, the patterns of my irises, the shape of my head, and everything about my identity belongs to me and me alone. They are my own personal property. They do not belong to the government. If I choose to keep them private then that is my right. If the government wants to put them in a huge database (one which I believe cannot be invulnerable to exploitation), then they can, pardon me, fuck right off. What business do they have demanding that I provide these details? None. End. Off.

Btw, Listen to the experts Mr Blair. They always know what's best. Not necessarily true of course, but I thought that was the Blair's attitude? Ah, don't you just love the selective application of principles? Such a fine display of intellectual competance...

Charlie's suggestion in the comments to this post echoed my own thoughts over dinner. To this end, I've set up a pledge.
I will write to Home Office Minister Andy Burnham expressing my principled objections to the ID card scheme but only if 10 other people will too.
Let's try to cure the poor man of his curious hearing affliction.

Contact details are a little hard to come by. I think the closest a non-constituent will get is through the Home Office but Andy doesn't seem to warrant much of a mention on the Home Office website or the ID card one. I'm open to better suggestions but this is the best I've got so far.
Contact us:
Andrew Burhman MP
Home Office
Direct Communications Unit
2 Marsham Street
London SW1P 4DF

With any luck, I'll get something more suitable before too long. If that's the best there is then I will, of course, be stressing the importance of passing on my letter to the Minister himself. Can't have the unfortunate fellow speaking more of that nonsense in future, it's embarrassing.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I See Dead People

Slightly behind on this but I have to mention it.
Let's be clear about this: this country is a less safe place because of the actions of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and, yes, a minority of our own side, last Wednesday. I very much hope that we will never have another terrorist atrocity in Britain. But if we do, and if it happens because the police have not had sufficient time to accumulate enough evidence to charge the perpetrators, then the Tories, the Lib Dems and our own rebels will have blood on their hands.
- Kitty Ussher, New Labour MP for Burnley
And there's more like that. For Fu..

*tries to remove remnants of recently expectorated feathers from between teeth*


*takes a very deep breath*

For Fu...

*takes another even deeper breath*

What a stupid fu...

This may take a wee while. Maybe you should read the excellent responses of NoseMonkey and Talk Politics while I compose myself (if you haven't already read them).

Now that've calmed down, I've spotted what may be a silver lining round the dark cloud Ms Ussher uses as a brain.

Playing politics. It's a nasty business at the best of times but when it comes to matters of national security it's downright dangerous. Before, during, and after the vote on the 90 day proposals, both sides accused the other of playing party politics. Yah, and very much boo, as they say.

I've actually read at least two letters in my local morning paper accusing the Lib Dems and Tories of political opportunism. And everyone's favourite terrorism expert, David Capitanchik, weighed in with this in the Evening Express, the evening local. (Anyone not familiar with David's opinions, and my opinions of those opinions, should start here if interested.) To me, these accusations are pretty feeble. As far as the Lib Dems go, it's clearly a non-starter. The Lib Dems would have voted against 90 days even if they were the only party doing so. The clue's in the name. The Conservative one is less clear cut but they do have strong libertarian leanings. Also, if the opinion polls (and the PM) are to be believed, it appears that the Conservatives will lose more votes than they gain out of all this.* Not very good political opportunism then really, is it? OK, the Tories might display questionable judgement at times but not that questionable. I think they decided to vote the way they did in spite of the political consequences, not because of them.
I'm on my way back to Ms Ussher, honest I am.

It seems to be clear that Blair could have compromised and got more than 28 days out of the Commons. 60 days is the figure most commonly aired. I'm glad that didn't happen. The accusation Blair faces is that he didn't compromise because he was looking for a way to blame the Tories and Lib Dems if any further terrorist attacks occur. He could have had 60 days (and his rhetoric, if he genuinely believes it, means he must believe that this would have made us significantly safer than the 28 days he ended up with) but he was more concerned with making the Tories and Lib Dems look "soft" on terror. Michael Gove said it the other day on BBC News 24. Some of the "usual suspects" also claimed that Blair had very explicitly stated this motive in private meetings he had with backbenchers before the vote. I believe these allegations but I can see how many people would say "well, they would say that, wouldn't they?".

The thing is, it really only works if you do it subtly. That's why Blair and Saftey only ever implied that the other parties should be blamed for future attacks. If they had come out and said it openly, well, it'd just be too obvious. The plan was to let the media do the pointing and blaming, a task they're more than qualified to complete to the highest of standards. As such, Ms Usshers cheap political opportunism is a bit of a spanner in the works. Remember, she is very, very loyal to the Blair. And now, she's given away the ending and spoilt it for everyone. Oops.

In a way, reading Ms Ussher's drivel has cheered me up. The New Labour puppet show is becoming increasingly threadbare and exposed. The strings are starting to show on an all to frequent basis. I believe it's a sympton of panic caused by the fear of imminent unemployment and, as with so many things in life, it's a slipperly slope; panicking only makes it worse. Of course in this case, that's a good thing. Tick tock...

* Leaving dodgy opinion polls to one side, I still believe that public opinion was in favour of 90 days. I'm not happy about it but it's probably true.

Hearts and Minds and Peeling Skin

More news from Iraq and it's not good. Iraqi security forces in Baghdad have apparently been torturing detainees.
I saw signs of physical abuse by brutal beating, one or two detainees were paralysed and some had their skin peeled off various parts of their bodies
- Hussein Kamal, Iraqi Deputy interior minister
Like any normal person I'm horrified by such things. Torture is unacceptable. There are no qualifications. Some activities cannot be condoned *under any circumstances*. Once torture is acceptable, we're well on the way to becoming the very thing we're supposed to be fighting.
Torture. Is. Not. Acceptable.

Leaving that aside, this particular situation is very bad news on a purely practical level. I know I'm repeating myself but it is hugely important to understand that the most important battle in Iraq is the battle for hearts and minds. This is another victory for the insurgents. It's a simple as that.

Note what the Sunni politicians are saying:
An Iraqi Islamic Party spokesman said only an international inquiry would get to the bottom of the alleged abuse. "There have been similar cases in the past and investigations into them led to nothing," Iyad al-Samarrai, the party's spokesman, told AFP news agency. "We want an international and impartial inquiry as we are beginning to think there are people high up in government who are responsible, or at least accomplices."
Another party spokesman, Alaa Makki, accused US-led forces of giving the alleged abuses "the green light".
Now those are controvesial opinions and I'm sure many people would strongly disagree with them but that's slightly missing the point. A hearts and minds campaign is about what people think, not about whether they're right. If the Sunni politician are expressing these opinions, it's fair to assume that the Sunni insurgents are expressing far stronger versions of the same. Confidence and trust in the political process, in the current government, and in the security forces has been undermined. Again. It's very bad news, whichever way you look at it.

I have to ask whether the US government's ambiguous approach to torture has had an influence on what the Iraqi security forces think is acceptable behaviour. Senator McCain's attempt to ban "cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of prisoners" has been resisted by the Bush administration. Why? And what message does that effort to resist the proposal send to the rest of the world? McCain knows the answer. The Bush administration doesn't seem to.

Btw, Senator McCain is a Republican and I disagree with many of his political opinions. All the same, he does appear to be an intelligent and honest human being with a strong sense of integrity and decency. I respect him, even when I don't agree with him. I'm afraid I can't say the same about many of those currently occupying positions of power in the Whitehouse.

Progress Report

At the end of September, US military officials announced that one Iraqi battalion was able to operate independently of coalition forces. Previously, they had reported that three had been judged "Level 1" troops. ABC News reports on the new figures announced yesterday (Tuesday 15th Nov.).
Today's report from the Pentagon says only one battalion — about 700 Iraqi troops — has reached level one, meaning the soldiers can operate independently.
I should have called this post "No Progress Report". At least it isn't getting worse. The Pentagon are trying to spin this up, headlining the 200,000+ Iraqi police and army personnel trained to some other level. That's just not acceptable, I'm afraid. Before anyone accuses me of always looking at the bad news, I'll point out that the "Level 1" status is the only one which actually affects the ability of coalition troops to start to withdraw. The coalition's whole exit strategy is dependant on the number of Level 1 troops available. It really is the only number which matters. The other numbers reflect only the partially trustworthy and partially trained. Fans of the Star Wars series will know just how dangerous a combination that is. Seriously, having over 200,000 armed security bods of questionable loyalty in a highly unstable country is not something I'd be inclined to boast about.

Even Republicans are starting to worry. What's that you say? Mid-terms? Next year? Worried about your own sorry skins? How very noble.

Just tried to work out what this rate of progress implies in the longer term. It's truly frightening.

Let's give a little leeway and say that the training of Iraqi security forces started 2 years ago. It actually started, or certainly should have started before that but 2 years is easy to work with. In that 2 years, 700 bods have been fully trained. Let's assume for simplicity that Iraq needs 200,000 fully trained bods in total. Again, that's probably a bit generous but it'll do. At the current rate, how long would it take to fully train the required number?

700 bods every 2 years = 350 bods per year.
200,000 bods /350 bods per year = 571 years.
571 years - 2 years (for 700 bods already trained) = 569 year.
I accept that it's a very rough number, with lots of potential for error in all sorts of ways, but it does give some indication of the current rate of progress of the coalition exit strategy. Only another few hundred years and we'll be mostly home and dry.