Wednesday, January 15, 2014 

The wacky French and their wacky views on privacy.

When it comes to schadenfreude on the part of the media, it doesn't get much more pathetic than their collective opinion on France. You don't have to be aware of the Sun's headline "ZE FROGS ARE FILTHY: OFFICIAL" to know the press doesn't much care for our friends on the continent. They are, variously, dirty, weak, lazy, vain, self-regarding, womanisers, rude and good at pretty much nothing except surrendering. At the same time and contradictorily we naturally envy their very joie de vivre, their almost blasé attitude towards sex, and some even on the right grudgingly admire the bloodymindedness of their unions and farmers in sticking two fingers up to both governments and the EU.

Much as I tend to think in my more misanthropic moments that Britain is a beautiful country spoiled only by the natives, so those in the media who adore and might even have a holiday home in France itself think the same about the French. Their view of the nation and the stereotypes in which they so often paint the country, with the French then responding in kind about us "ros bifs", is especially refracted through the prism of our press versus theirs. On our side we have a boisterous, indefatigable, completely uninhibited media, which even now sees the sale of millions of copies of newsprint every day, whereas they have a cerebral, intelligent and generally respectful industry, which is precisely why in their view it sells a fraction of copies ours does.

More to the point, this apparent deference towards and respect for the privacy of even the most public figures makes a mockery of the very spirit of the free press. While the whole rest of the world is talking about president Francois Hollande and his apparent affair with Julie Gayet, a liaison which came as such a shock to Hollande's partner Valerie Trierweiler that she has been admitted to hospital, the French press limited themselves to asking about the alleged relationship in an extremely roundabout way, questioning Hollande over whether Trierweiler was still first lady, or if his security might have been loosened by the trysts. Hollande, politely as possible, insisted that private matters should remain just that.

Bashing the French and their odd little ways is of course tremendous fun. We would never allow our top politicians for instance to conduct affairs and then respect their calls for privacy, or indeed do the same when it comes to the royal family. From Fergie toe-sucking to Squidgygate, they've all been caught at it and exposed in the press. Curiously though, you don't tend to read much about the infidelities of Prince Philip himself, which seems distinctly odd. Still, the exception that proves the rule, right?

I mean, the media would never believe lies on the scale of those told by Mitterand, for instance. We draw the line surely at pursuing our representatives to the point of forcing them to resign over a blowjob, but otherwise we like to know who's shagging whom. It wouldn't take, say, the autobiography of a former minister to expose her relationship with a prime minister, for instance. Nor would suggestions that the breakdown of the marriage between a media baron and his younger wife might be linked to another former prime minister be quickly stamped on and not heard about again.  Our media is so dog eat dog in fact that even affairs between journalists themselves are reported on, especially when one of those involved was married to a soap star.  As for the exposing of those who've abused their celebrity, the record of the press is second to none, as we've seen over the past couple of years.

The fact is our media only exposes those it decides to, and even then only makes a song and dance about certain individuals, generally because they've either refused to go along with the narrative they're told to or have dared to involve their lawyers. It doesn't help that every editor seems to imagine that this latest example of infidelity by a politician could be a modern version of the Profumo affair, forgetting that one man died and another felt he had to pay penance for the rest of his days as a result of his shortlived relationship with a call girl. It also feels distinctly odd for the British media as a whole to feel so superior so soon after Leveson, when it was the very pursuit of such mundane details about celebrities and politicians that brought it so low.  Anyone would think some are trying to compensate for an ongoing trial which continues in the background.

Moreover, we're closer to the French position on privacy than the tabloids would like as it is. They might think indiscretions still sell papers, but it tends not to make us think any less of someone unless the details are especially sordid. And why should it? We only ought to know about an affair if it's affecting a politician so severely that their work has been significantly impaired. Only David Blunkett comes to mind as this being true of in recent years, while arguably Francois Hollande's alleged affair would also meet this criteria due to how it's impacted on Trierweiler. Vicky Pryce can also attest that seeking revenge via even as august an organ as the Sunday Times can go horribly wrong, not least when those you trusted turn over their source material with barely a fight.  It might also be worth remembering journalists and politicians consistently come bottom of trust surveys.  Could there possibly be a link?

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013 

All going to according to plan.

Everything is going exactly according to plan in MaliIn have swept the French, and out have swept the Islamist rebels. Of course, that means things are going exactly according to a classic guerrilla warfare plan, where a weaker force withdraws from territory it knows it could never hold only to return later with hit and run attacks designed to wear down both support from the local population and the morale of the conventional forces, but let's not split hairs.  The rebels have retreated, ordinary Malians are delighted, if some are now taking revenge on the Tuaregs, and only a few irreplaceable antiquities have been destroyed in the process.

It's therefore perfectly understandable that the government wants to send 330 troops to the region, principally to train Ecowas soldiers in how to keep the peace and how not to act like the UN forces in the Congo, for instance. Considering the claims being brought by 200 Iraqis today at the High Court that might seem a bit rum, but let's not be cynical about this. After all, that we've gone in the space of a couple of weeks from saying there would be no boots on the ground to planting them firmly in north Africa doesn't mean we should be worried about small things like mission creep.  It's not as though this is how many other counter-insurgency campaigns have begun in the past.

To drop the annoying sarcastic tone, there's a clear disparity here between Cameron's rhetoric of a decades long campaign against extremism in the region and our sending only of training forces. It would certainly be lovely if we could just train the Ecowas forces and then leave, but all these things take time. The French intervened as they felt the rebels would have overrun the country if left to their own devices until September, the planned schedule for the Ecowas' deployment, and only now have some of those forces began to arrive in the country.  Supposedly those sent out to train the soldiers won't be combat troops, yet if a full-blown insurgency does break out, as the Islamists are reported to have fled to the mountainous region in the north east, isn't there always the possibility they'll be forced into helping out, especially as the French want to quickly draw down their own combat forces?

Certainly, we don't seem to be offering much else other than a small amount of funding.  We can't apparently spare any drones, as they're all still needed in Afghanistan, despite the continued stories of how wonderfully things are going there now and how we're meant to be out in any case by the end of the next, and so yet again it seems as though it'll be down to the Americans to take out any targets from the comfort of bases back home.  Already there's news of a deal through which a drone base will be set-up in Niger, and one has to presume it will involve the same fundamental lack of accountability that has defined the drone wars so far.  There is also as yet no discussion of anything approaching a political solution, of an attempt to at last deal with the Tuareg grievances that have fuelled their repeated rebellions, this time with international consequences.

All this said, Mali could yet turn out to be relative success story, at least by the standards of past interventions.  The rebels are relatively weak, and have split further since the French mission began; the territory still held by the rebels is if anything even less hospitable than that in Afghanistan; and they also don't have support from state actors, as the Taliban have allegedly long enjoyed.  With help, AFISMA could quickly be up to speed and ensuring that the Islamists are kept on the run.

The problem is that all these things are very big ifs, and we could equally quickly found ourselves drawn into another seemingly unending conflict against a foe that is highly mobile and determined.  The coalition should be deciding which approach it's going to take: either that suggested by Cameron's first response after the In Amenas attack, or the one suggested by Philip Hammond in the Commons today, of a relaxed role in which we contribute but don't do much else regardless of what happens.  It's obvious which one would make the most sense, but then as the past decade has shown, sense has very rarely entered into our response to the post 9/11 world.

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Monday, January 21, 2013 

Deja vu.

The first duty of any government should be to protect their own citizens.  With this in mind, don't you feel safer knowing that we have such fine, rational beings as David Cameron and William Hague in charge of our foreign policy?  Who could possibly demur from Cameron's conclusion that the threat from Islamists in north Africa is so severe that it could continue for decades, and that a global response is absolutely necessary?  How could anyone disagree with Hague when he says that rather than our intervention in Libya exacerbating the conflict in Mali, had we not "saved lives" through our enforcing of a no-fly zone it's likely the insurgency there could have made things even worse?  After all, just because the French dropped weapons into the country from the air, who knows where the rebels would have obtained arms from if they hadn't?  And in any case, Somalia clearly shows what we have to avoid in Mali as well as suggesting a model for the future.

It's really rather staggering how little we've learned, the only consolation being that Cameron has slight overall influence.  The most obvious lesson from both Afghanistan and Iraq is that when you start talking about decades long conflicts, put foreign troops on the ground and talk of "conquest", as the French have been, you're inviting a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Western intervention is the equivalent of a red rag to a bull to jihadists: the insurgency in Iraq could not have been sustained for so long if it hadn't been for foreign fighters and funding, the chief attraction being the opportunity to try to kill Western soldiers.  With the draw down in Afghanistan fast approaching, Mali could well turn out to be the most attractive place for those suitably inclined to travel to.

As Jason Burke explains, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is a tiny section of the franchise, estimated to have only several hundred fighters.  It has shown no inclination to attack the West, unlike al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, even if the death of Anwar al-Awlaki has had an impact on that section.  Similarly, despite having previously been involved with AQIM, Mohktar Belmohktar is more of a bandit than an out and out ideologue, and the chief aim of the attack was likely to have been monetary, as it has been in the past.  Whether they bargained on the Algerians launching such a deadly assault or not, their managing to hold out for three days is bound to excite opinion on the jihadi forums.

As for the Islamist groupings involved directly in Mali, it seems dubious as to whether they had or have any international ambitions, although we were right to be concerned of the potential for a safe haven to have been established for jihadis had they took full control of the country.  This said, despite all the warnings about the Somalia and the initial success of al-Shabaab there, there's little to suggest that any Westerners who travelled there to train and fight have since returned with designs on attacks here (although the group did claim responsibility for an attack in Uganda).  After years of exaggeration, we have reached a point where even the most hysterical of terror "experts" admit that threat has been significantly lowered.

Why Cameron then wants us to think that we've got to start over again only this time in north Africa is perplexing.  He has no intention of doing anything in Mali beyond giving the French moral support and the odd supply plane, and yet he seems to be implying that the threat posed by these disparate groupings, almost all driven by nationalist rather than internationalist motives, are an "existential" threat.  It may well damage British business in the region, which seems to be the only thing that Cameron and the Tories truly care about, as his frequent fluffing trips with arms companies suggest, but the attack on In Amenas will be difficult to replicate, such will be the increase in security at similar operations.  It's certainly nothing that the oil and gas companies' balance sheets can't handle.

All of which leads one to suspect that Cameron's finally discovered his inner Tony Blair.  Having started out ridiculing Blair's doctrine, he's come to the conclusion that things are so grim on the home front that he has to radiate leadership abroad instead.  Never mind that Blair came to be loathed precisely for this reason and it increased Gordon Brown's control over policy on home affairs, by projecting an image as a strong figure on the world stage, especially when Brits are caught up in things they know little of, Cameron hopes to shrug off his otherwise falling ratings.  After all, it can't be that he really believes what he's saying, can it?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013 

The latest stop on our world tour.

And so to Mali.  One of the wonderful things about commentating, and indeed blogging is that everyone's an expert.  I know precisely jack about Mali, the Tuareg people and their repeated rebellions aimed at gaining an independent state in the north of the country, and yet here I am typing out a post on a country I have never visited and almost certainly never will.

At least I'm setting out in advance that my knowledge on the country as a whole is limited in the extreme, as have some of the other more honest people.  The same sadly can't be said universally, with some naturally turning straight to their usual positions when it came to the French intervention.  Not that this necessarily means they don't have a point: there is something in Glenn Greenwald's instant jump to conclusions that this will be seen once again through the prism of the war on terror and as an attack on Muslims.  How can it not be when those the French are fighting are an alliance of Islamists, the more secular Tuaregs of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad having been themselves driven out by Ansar Dine and an offshoot of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb?

It's also absolutely true that this is a conflict affected massively by our own intervention in Libya.  How much blame, if any can be assigned to our leaders and their decision to back the rebels against Gaddafi is however very difficult to ascertain.  The Tuareg leadership was indeed involved with Gaddafi, and they made up a significant percentage of his army.  Also apparent though is that the smuggling of arms to the fighters in Mali has not all been the work of the Tuaregs: some weaponry has been provided by the rebels in Libya themselves, who have also been (allegedly) supplying the likes of Hamas and the FSA in Syria.  As we saw in Benghazi, there are plenty in Libya of an Islamist bent who would have no qualms in helping out the likes of AQIM with supplies from seized Gaddafi stockpiles.  The French also have to take some responsibility: they apparently simply dropped weapons into the west of Libya during the intervention, an act of utter stupidity bound to lead to a free for all.

Paul Cotterill is therefore completely right to say this is a situation we should have seen coming months ago, and which could have been planned for.  Of course, we don't know properly what's been going on behind the scenes, but it's dubious whether much in the way of contingency planning for a march on the Malian capital of Bamako by the Islamists took place.  The French were apparently spurred into action by the threat to the town of Sevare, and the nearby military airport, which if taken would have left the only usable airstrip for heavy aircraft in the capital.  It must also be noted that there have been successive UN security council resolutions authorising intervention by the Economic Community of West African States; whether it covers active intervention by the French is dubious in the extreme, just as UNSC 1973 most certainly didn't authorise regime change, which is what we imposed in Libya.

This made clear, there is no reason whatsoever to doubt that at least for now the French intervention is wildly popular with the Malians in the south of the country, and why wouldn't it be?  When the majority follow Sufi Islam it's little surprise they loathe with a passion the brand of sharia imposed by the Salafist rebels, with the banning of music and desecration of holy sites, both reminiscent of the era of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.  They also prefer their former colonial masters to the likes of the soldiers from the other West African states, again hardly irrational considering the past record of meddling by neighbouring nations, as well as the tendency of some peacekeepers to flee at the first opportunity when deployed previously.

Nonetheless, the current goodwill could turn out to be shortlived, especially if the belief spreads that there are ulterior motives at work.  Should the Islamists have continued southwards, the threat to Niger and France's access to uranium would have been further exacerbated.  It's also the case that Algerian fears of a strengthening of AQIM may well have come to the fore: despite their colonial history, France has good relations with the country, and the Algerians favoured the election of Francois Hollande over Sarkozy.  It also follows the pattern of only those nations that have something to offer ending up enjoying a Western military presence: Iraq and Libya with their copious natural resources, while Syria, Iran and North Korea have all for now avoided the fate of the former, if for very different reasons.

The dangers are also manifold.  As Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, it's easy to go in only for it to turn out to be very difficult to get out.  Even in the case of Libya, the intervention took months longer than was first thought, while in Syria the downfall of Assad has been continuously prophesied only for the Ba'ath regime to hold firm.  It's difficult to make any real judgement based on the first few days, but it seems as though more resistance has been encountered than was anticipated.  Any intervention by the West where jihadists are involved also acts as a rallying call: while there might be plenty of places at the moment for those suitably inclined to go (they can choose from Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia to name but three), the opportunity to attack foreign troops usually takes precedence.  As the kidnapping today in Algeria has also made clear, and it's difficult to believe it isn't connected with Mali, there's plenty the groups involved can do in the region to strike back, even if they haven't the capacity to launch attacks here.

It may well be as Mark Malloch-Brown just said on Newsnight that the intervention by the French is the least worst option.  It could also be that the danger of a march on Bamako was overstated, and there was still time for a vastly preferable joint effort by African states to try to push back the rebels to be put together.  Whichever way it turns out, it's undeniable that our intervention in Libya had knock-on effects that we did little to counteract, and that we find ourselves yet again supporting a mission in which we'll attempt to bomb a country better.  We may still know little of Mali, but the people there will soon know plenty about us.

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Thursday, August 13, 2009 

The perifidious French and Germans.

France and Germany have both respectively pulled out of recession, by a whopping 0.3%. Keeping in mind that these are preliminary figures, which could yet be revised in either direction, this can either prove everything or absolutely nothing.

Those predisposed (like myself) to further stimulus measures will note that both France and Germany have had far larger such packages than we have, although both also had more room for manoeuvre than we did in terms of borrowing and less personal debt to consider. Neither was as predisposed and reliant on the financial sector as we were, although there's certainly an argument that Germany is too reliant on its own manufacturing base, although it seems for now as if it's just that base which has helped it pull clear. Vince Cable is also pushing this argument.

Then there's the Conservatives (such as George Osborne) who are quite naturally crowing about how Gordon Brown was telling us all about how well placed we were and how we'd be one of the first out. This is equally correct, but it's also exactly what any politician was going to tell us, and indeed, if he'd been doom-mongering, telling us how it was likely to last years and that we'd be last out, he'd have been attacked for talking us down and spooking the financial markets. As has also been the theme throughout, the Tories have no real message on what we should be doing now, apart from "forcing" the banks to lend; indeed, they're still insistent on what we should be cutting now to bring the national debt down, which is about as insane a position as it's possible to reach.

It might yet turn out that the 0.8% contraction between April and June might not have been as bad as originally forecast, based as it was only on the figures up to May. Either way, all those old insults and jibes about the stagnating European economies while the "Anglo-Saxon" model of capitalism raced ahead no longer hit quite as hard.

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