Wednesday, June 08, 2016 

Where are the Blairs of yesteryear?

A couple of weeks back, Sam Kriss wrote an absolutely glorious, unrelentingly scabrous and marvellously offensive takedown of Nick Cohen.  Cohen, Kriss writes, is "the one who looks like a kind of malignant egg, with his pervert’s dent of a top lip".  This didn't go unnoticed by David Aaronovitch, with the great man tweeting Kriss on how he only wrote such things as he knew Cohen wouldn't sue him.  Oh, and that he should fuck off.   Cohen himself was left with little to do other than the equivalent of shouting leave him Dave, he ain't worth it, adding only "the poor fucker can't write".

I mention Aaronovitch and Cohen only to compare them with their fallen leader.  Not that either would ever confess to being a Blair booster, despite that being the role both have effectively played for years, the outsider commentators pushing for that muscular liberalism Blair only really embraced and talked of once out of office, even if it was the very essence of the Blair doctrine.  While there are still Blair devotees in Labour, the Tories and among the leader writers of various newspapers, actual commentators with a weekly column pushing the interventionist line are getting rarer.

This is hardly surprising when none of the liberal interventionists have ever had the eloquence, the force of argument, or most importantly, the belief that Blair had and still does.  Tony you truly have to accept believes what he says when it comes to bombing it better; he still believes the Iraq war was the right thing to do.  He still thinks despite everything that we should have fully intervened on the side of the rebels in Syria, even if that means allying with jihadists funded by the Saudis, or al-Qaida itself.   He still poses the question of how things would have turned out if we hadn't decide to get rid of Saddam, as though you could ever say surely nowhere near as badly as they have done.

In short, it's always been difficult not to regard Blair with a grudging respect.  Say what you like about him, he has a world-view, and he's stuck to it in spite of everything.  Of his followers, Cohen has been the only one never to accept that Iraq was a disastrous mistake.  It hasn't stopped them from pushing to repeat the mistake elsewhere, but they didn't have the balls or that word again, the belief, to keep on defending something that to so many of us quickly became indefensible.

Only Blair finally seems to have cracked.  Perhaps the imminence of the publication of the Chilcot report and the strain of what it might say about him has finally pushed him over the edge.  To many of us nothing Chilcot could possibly conclude will make any difference at this point.  He's not going to say Blair lied.  About the best we can hope is for the blame to be spread equally, for it most certainly wasn't Tone that dragged us kicking and screaming into a war of aggression.  A large number of those that supported it did so with almost a spring in their step.

A Blair thinking straight wouldn't launch an ad hominem, straw man attack on Jeremy Corbyn as he has today. Blair raging against Corbyn for not lifting a finger against an actual war criminal in Bashar Assad might make more sense if it wasn't now 3 years since the Commons rejected air strikes that were meant as some sort of punishment for using chemical weapons, not aimed at actually deposing him.   If Blair wants to go after anyone over that, it should be Ed Miliband, the coalition for making such a fuck-up of the case, or as he probably acknowledges deep down, himself for forever giving ill-thought through and badly planned military adventures a bad name.

No, see, our Tone got rid of a bona fide war criminal when he and Bush overthrew Saddam.  Of course, Saddam principally committed his war crimes while we were supplying him with weapons and the likes of Corbyn were condemning the gassing of the Kurds as the government of the time said not a dicky bird, but that's by the by.  What has Corbyn ever achieved with his protesting?  Is his brand of opposition ever likely to lead to power?  Does he even want power?

The sad thing is, Blair has a point.  Being opposed on principle to war until all other alternatives have been exhausted, or keeping our nose out of civil wars in the Middle East doesn't tend to win you elections.  We only need to look across the pond to where Hillary Clinton has just triumphed in the Democratic race, despite how Hillary has never seen a conflict she didn't want to join in with or failed to support when suggested by the Republicans.   Hillary owns Libya even more than Obama does, and if anything has even greater interventionist credentials than our Tone, among her closest advisers and friends Samantha Power, who really has wrote the book, Susan Rice and Anne-Marie Slaughter.  Whichever of Trump or Hillary ends up as president, you can guarantee there's going to be a whole load more wars, with our good selves following meekly behind.

Unless Corbyn wins.  Which he won't.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016 

Syria, Islamic State, and seeing conspiracies that weren't there.

War is not neat.  War is not tidy.  War is nearly always fought in the equivalent of a fog.  All three of these statements are such truisms they are practically cliches.  In times of struggle you often have to make tacit alliances with people you would otherwise go out of your way to avoid.

This is especially true when it comes to Syria in terms of oil.  Practically, everyone is guilty of buying and selling to each other: Islamic State sold to Assad.  Islamic State sold to Turkey.  Thieves stole from Islamic State and sold to everyone.  Trying to make some grand statement about how about one country or one side is in bed with another on the basis of oil is foolish.  Turkey until recently turned a blind eye to Islamic State and other foreign fighters travelling through her borders as they didn't care who replaced Assad, as long as he fell.  Of all the double games that have been played, Turkey's has been just about the most egregious.

And yet, even now, even after the retaking of Palmyra by the Syrian Arab Army, still this kind of nonsense is being spouted, including by the Graun:

The second conclusion is that when governments stop playing a double game in which they use extremists for their own purposes, they do better. Assad did this for a long time, leaving Isis alone so as to put more pressure on its other opponents. After the loss of Palmyra in May 2015, the Syrians abandoned that policy and tried to retake the areas they had lost, but they had not the resources and, in particular, the airpower to do so, until the Russians made up that deficiency.

To an extent, Assad did indeed leave Islamic State alone. This was for the reason that the territory taken by IS in the country's eastern, mostly desert regions was not strategically essential to the regime's survival.  The SAA gave up Palmyra in order to retrench and reinforce its other frontlines, primarily around Damascus, Latakia, and in Aleppo.  It was only after the Russian intervention at the end of September last year that the SAA alongside Hezbollah and other groups was finally able to make some headway, and then it took months.  Likewise, Islamic State has somewhat learned the lesson of the thrashing it received in Kobane, once the Americans decided the overrunning of the town would be an advance too far; they withdrew from Palmyra to cut their losses, as they also did in Sinjar in Iraq.

As Juan Cole writes, it's not immediately clear why the SAA would now retake Palmyra when the likes of al-Nusra are still much closer to home.  Part of the reasoning is no doubt for symbolic reasons, that expelling IS from Palmyra makes for good propaganda.  Whatever the exact motives, it does dispel once and for all the idiotic notion that there was some kind of accord between Assad and IS, or that the Russians were effectively Islamic State's air force, or any such gibbering.  The retaking of Palmyra has happened primarily because of the ceasefire with the groups other than IS and al-Nusra, which is holding to the surprise of pretty much everyone; without wanting to blow my own trumpet too loud, this is what I suggested was the more realistic outcome if a ceasefire happened.  Not the "70,000 moderates" fighting Islamic State for us, but the SAA backed by the Russians from the air.

Whether retaking Palmyra is purely symbolic, with the Russians having no intention of providing the backup required for the SAA and allies to retake Raqqa, the ultimate target once Deir al-Zor has been relieved, we're yet to see.  We don't for instance know if like in Palmyra Islamic State might simply retreat; the declared capital of their caliphate or not, Mosul seems more likely to be where IS would choose to make a last stand.

Last stand is in any case a relative notion.   Just as IS's previous incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq, appeared to have been defeated, Islamic State seems unlikely to be defeated completely when its resurrection was far more an expression of the rage of Iraq's Sunnis at their on-going persecution and under-representation in post-war Iraq than it was sudden support for the group's internationalist ideology.  Also unlike in Syria, where those who have survived have been hardened and bloodied by the experience, in Iraq the army still seems to have fundamental issues with morale, continuing to run away at the first sign of Islamic State striking back.  Retaking Mosul remains an ideal, not something likely to turn into actuality any time soon.

As for whether or not you believe the reports about "hundreds" of foreign fighters being sent back to attack Europe, that the cell that first attacked Paris and then Brussels seems to be as large as it was hardly suggests a lack of ambition.  Even if IS loses the territory it holds, its success has been in updating the template laid down by al-Qaida, creating a banner to which both the disaffected and the deeply religious have been attracted.  Either it will rise again, or another group, even less scrupulous, even more murderous will take its place.  What will really matter is if we then repeat the same mistakes we have twice already.  I'm not betting on the third time being the charm.

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Monday, March 28, 2016 


Odd, isn't it, that for all the expressions of horror at the taking of Palmyra last year by Islamic State, the subsequent demolitions of treasures of the ancient world, the calls for a stepping up of the bombing of the group, even outright intervention, come the liberation of the city there is almost silence from those same people.

Well, no, it's not.  But you get my point.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2016 

Turkey and the EU ought to be a dream for Leave. It won't be.

If the various Leave campaigns had any sense, which is a contradiction in terms in itself, but bear with me for a moment here, then they would drop the whining about scaremongering and turn their own fearmongering up to maximum volume.  Never mind these laughable attempts to suggest they care about fishing quotas and the like and in turn get us to care about them, they ought to target their fire on the EU's true weak spot: the organisation's commitment to expansion.  Bulgaria and Romania were never in a million years ready to join the EU, and yet in they came.  Similarly, while the picture is more complicated with what were the accession A8 eastern European states, some still fail to come up to scratch on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, not to forget having complicated histories they would rather didn't get much attention.

Turkey is without doubt though in an league of its own.  Countries across Europe openly discriminate against the Roma to varying degrees, but none are in a state of open warfare as Turkey once again is against the Kurds.  Sure, the war is technically against the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, regarded as a terrorist organisation by the EU, and yet everyone is aware of the reality.  Since President Erdogan's AKP won the second of last year's two elections, the repression of all opposition to the government has increased dramatically.  Today brings news that Turkey's second largest news agency, Cihan, has been seized in an identical fashion to how Zaman, the country's biggest newspaper was taken over last week.  Both are linked to the Gulen movement, once allied to Erdogan, but since turned on after a breakdown in relations between the men is alleged to have sparked a 2013 investigation into corruption that implicated Erdogan and his sons, among other AKP figures.

In usual times, it wouldn't be the best of ideas to be crushing media dissent and teargassing protesters at the same time as asking for talks on joining the EU to be restarted.  These are not usual times.  Last week saw Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe claim to the Senate that Russia and Syria were "weaponising" the refugee crisis in a bid to "overwhelm European structures and break European resolve".  If there wasn't a Nato member from which the vast majority of migrants were making their attempts to get to Europe proper, rather than say Syria itself, this would just be the familiar spectacle of the Americans tending to send their most insane/most anti-Russian generals over to Europe.  As Turkey is a Nato member, a Nato member that Simon Tisdall in the Graun writes has arguably made the refugee crisis worse through its policies in Syria, it makes fairly apparent that in the end the Americans will always choose Turkey.

As for the "arguably" part, read definitely.  Turkey has been the main conduit for weapons for the non-Islamic State opposition to Assad, a conduit operated in part by the CIA.  As for IS itself, until very recently Turkey all but waved through anyone who wanted to pledge themselves to the caliphate, while more "arguable" is just how close the relationship between Turkey and Islamic State was, whether it extended to mere trading of oil, something that all actors involved in the conflict were caught up in, or whether it extended to perhaps even the sharing of intelligence.  Either way, Turkey has more than a case to answer for prolonging the war in Syria and contributing to the refugee crisis, including in its attitude towards the Kurds.

Erdogan essentially concluded that hosting millions of Syrian refugees was acceptable in the short-term if it meant not losing face when it came to his policy of seeing President Assad overthrown.  Besides, it's turned out to be something of a happy accident for him.  Refugees, unable to work legally, tiring of living in camps and despairing of the war ending any time soon last year started to turn in larger numbers towards the people smugglers, encouraged further by the humanitarian if disastrous in hindsight gesture of Chancellor Merkel.  In spite of the winter and an agreement last year between Turkey and the EU that was meant to see a crackdown on the traffickers, up to 2,000 migrants a day are now landing on Greek shores.  Just how well in practice a country with a coastline as long as Turkey's can stop those determined to get Europe and those determined to provide them with that service is open to question, but with Schengen in danger of collapse and fences going up on borders in the Balkans, EU leaders want a deal at almost any cost.

If that means providing succour to a president who has modelled himself on Putin, a leader with the audacity to close down newspapers and bomb his own citizens at the same time as those talks are going on, then apparently Merkel, Hollande and others have decided so be it.  The proposed deal whereby the refugee boats will be taken back to Turkey, with Syrians from the camps resettled in the EU in an "one in, one out" scheme has as many holes in it as the average vessel the traffickers put their customers to sea in.  That's before you even get started on the legality, let alone morality of sending refugees from countries other than Syria that are just as dangerous back to where they fled from.  The chances then of even a "preparation of a decision on the opening of new chapters in talks on EU membership for Turkey" taking place are fairly remote.

And yet even this merest suggestion that Turkey could join the EU ought to be seized on by the Leave side.  Yes, there's the obvious scare line about the potential for 75 million more people potentially having the right to come and work in the UK, and their overwhelmingly being Muslims to boot for the hard right to make much of, as Paul Mason identifies.  Also though there's the potential for dwelling on how this often seemingly anti-democratic union has very few qualms about doing the most dodgy of deals with outright autocrats, so long as it solves a problem in the short-term.  There's both a positive and negative case to be made for why Turkey should be refused entry, and to how it makes clear the direction in which the EU appears to keep on heading.  Expect though that Leave will just carrying on with their bitching and moaning about how unfair their opponents are being, as that seems the only thing they know how to do.

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016 

Syria and the pessimistic imagination.

One of the best, most thoughtful posts on whether we should join the bombing of Islamic State in Syria came from Shuggy.  3 months on and if anything it's even better:

A number of people supporting this military action have said to me personally that 'things can't get any worse than this'.  This has to one of the most over-used phrases in the English language and relates to the title of this post.  What we have is a regional conflict with the Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side; Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the Sunni insurgents on the other.  On top of this we have the United States and France air power.  The Assad military - depleted though it undoubtedly is - is still the largest functioning military force in the country.  It cannot win the war but now it is backed by Russian air-power, it can't lose.  Without it, the only other force capable of winning is ISIS and its affiliates.  Among the many problems the American have is that they don't want either side to win but are not - thank goodness - willing to countenance a military confrontation with both sides.  It is this horrible situation that we have been drawn into and one would have thought the dangers of this escalating into something wider and very much worse should be obvious.

In the time since things have indeed got worse, and thanks to the terror gripping the Turks, and to a slightly lesser extent the Saudis following the advances of the Syrian army towards encircling Aleppo, we are facing a situation where like it or not, the Americans may find themselves in something resembling an outright confrontation with both sides.

The strange or in fact not strange at all thing is how just as the Russians used the excuse of Islamic State to intervene on the side of Assad, despite 90% of the time attacking the other rebels, jihadist, Islamist or "moderates" alike, so our allies have done also.  Turkey claimed to be striking against Islamic State only to in fact attack the Kurds 99.9% of the time.  Now the Saudis have made the offer to send in ground forces, again supposedly to fight Islamic State.  This doesn't for so much as a moment fool Michael Clarke, former director general of the RUSI thinktank, writing in the Graun:

Militarily, the Saudi threat issued at Munich has to be made credible. If a ceasefire does not materialise soon, the Russians, Iranians and Assad himself have no incentives to quit while they are ahead. Only the possibility of Arab ground forces, from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, heavily backed by western logistics and intelligence, air power and technical specialists, could force Assad and his backers to make a strategic choice in favour of cessation. Only the US could make that work for the Saudis and others – and only Britain could bring along other significant European allies.

How genuine the Saudi offer of ground troops is remains open to question, not least as the deployment of troops in Yemen in support of their own air strikes has been limited.  This more than suggests they have little to no confidence in their ability to achieve much that their air strikes aren't already.  Bearing in mind that the Houthis, capable as they are, do not have an air force backing them up as the SAA, Hezbollah and the other groups fighting for the government do, and that with the best will in the world the Houthis would be no match for Hezbollah, chances are the Saudis would not last long, advanced weaponry brought with them or not.

In any case, you might have imagined that after 5 years of miscalculations concerning Syria, now would be the point to fold rather than double down.  Yes, we could of course let our regional allies send in troops, and back them logistically and with air power, and possibly tempt in the process a third world war, or we could say sorry, we tried, and let everyone who still thinks Syria is worth fighting over get on with it.  Clarke sort of gets this, and sort of doesn't:

This would undoubtedly be a dangerous escalation of the conflict. But in the absence of a genuine ceasefire, the conflict is destined to escalate in any case as Russian forces and Iranian militias put a vengeful Assad back in control of a broken country. If that has the eventual effect of letting him deal with Isis in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor it will leave the west with much bigger strategic problems across the region as a whole. Fifteen years ago these would not have seemed such difficult choices. But after Iraq and Afghanistan they look like dismal options.

Yes, it's a difficult decision, isn't it? Do we put everything on black, and risk the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Russians, as would be more than plausible if things didn't go to plan and we really did have to support Arab ground forces from the air, or do we let Assad deal with Isis himself, leaving "the west much bigger strategic problems"?  These strategic problems would be seemingly not much different to the ones we faced prior to the Syrian uprising, wouldn't they?  Or is Clarke obliquely referencing how if we don't back our regional allies now, they might lose all faith in us?  Is not being aligned with governments that have backed the Syrian rebels such a terrible thought?  Earlier in the piece Clarke correctly identifies that Isis is not the crisis, but rather a symptom of the civil war within Islam in the Middle East, and the struggle for dominance between the Saudis and Iran.  Now, if we had to pick a side, my choice would most certainly not be the one that finds common cause with Islamic State, and that has armed and funded jihadist groups in Syria and around the world for that matter.  It wouldn't be the state set to be effectively fighting on the same side as Islamic State if it intervenes.

Which really does sum up how utterly deranged and mangled American policy, if not British policy also, has become on Syria.  The Americans are supporting the Kurdish YPG as the only ground force they trust against Islamic State.  At the same time Turkey, our Nato ally, has been bombing and shelling the YPG, which has also been advancing in alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces, under the umbrella of Russian air strikes.  The Turks are once again raising the idea of a "safe zone", protected by a no-fly zone, which is just by coincidence in the same area as the Kurds have advanced into.  Germany is now apparently supporting this venture, which the Americans continue to oppose on the grounds they are still resistant to getting into a shooting war with the Russians.  While Turkey is asking the Americans to choose between it and the Kurds, probably not entirely seriously, the similar game of supporting the rebels through the arming and training of "verified" groups, who routinely ally with jihadists, including the al-Nusra Front, goes on, at the same time as condemnation of Russian attacks on these "moderates" continues to be hurled.

Clarke concludes:

The west can choose a dangerous push for a settlement now, or a tepid continuation of a policy that promises a longer war and strategic failure in the region – while hundreds of thousands of desperate people wait at Europe’s doorstep.

It comes back to what Shuggy called the "pessimistic imagination". What Clarke describes as "dangerous" looks to me about the most foolish gamble imaginable, hoping that the Russians will blink over the laughable combined forces of the Saudis, Jordanians and Emirate nations, and the not so laughable backing of the West.  What happens if they don't and they start bombing them in the same way as they have "our" rebels?  How do we respond?

By contrast, a "tepid continuation" of our policy as it stands is preferable by a factor of 50.  Not offered as an option it's worth noting is telling Turkey to stop bombing and shelling the YPG, telling the Saudis their hopes of overthrowing Assad are over and that if they must carry on with their proxy war with Iran they should concentrate on Yemen, and making clear to the rebels that now is the time for a deal.  These would also be options, although presumably would add to our "strategic problems".  Perhaps, as noted above, it's about time that regional strategy was reviewed.

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Thursday, February 11, 2016 

Syria: where our "best intentions" go to die.

If it wasn't for what's happening in Syria being horrific, you'd have to laugh.  Syria is where the West's best intentions, for which read best intentions in terms of what's best for our allies in the short-term, have come to die.  Gradually, slowly but surely, every claim of our politicians and often our media also have been shattered.

First, we were told that President Assad was doomed.  He would fall imminently.  Five years on, and he's still there.  Let's for argument's sake assume that prior to the Russian intervention last September that he was finally beginning to wobble.  This was not due to those within Syria who have supported the government from the outset withdrawing their consent, and whom we chose to pretend didn't exist.  It was down to attrition: territory gradually being taken by the rebels and Islamic State, supply routes being cut off, the displacement of millions, manpower shortages in the military, all of which you would expect after four years of brutal, often sectarian war.

Second, the claim that the rebels other than Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front are "moderates" of the kind we can work with, that some are even secular liberals who genuinely want democracy.  Regardless of the beginnings of the uprising, as the revolution became civil war it turned viciously sectarian in very short order, unsurprisingly considering the support and funding that was soon provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Emirate statelets, with Iran following in to help the regime.  Even now, when it could not be more apparent that the remains of the Free Syrian Army are allied with jihadist groups, whether they be the Saudi-backed Islamic Front or the Army of Conquest, the latter of which includes the al-Qaida aligned al-Nusra, we still hear of how terrible it is these moderates are being targeted without mercy by the Russians.

Third, that the Russian intervention was failing or would fail, that it was helping Islamic State, that it wasn't achieving anything.  Suddenly, as soon it became clear from the shrieks of said moderate rebels that Aleppo was in danger of being encircled, starved, according to today's Guardian editorial being "exterminated", subject to a siege equivalent to that of Sarajevo, we've been getting articles either grudgingly respectful of Putin while still slandering him, or ones that remarkably have some relationship to what's been going on quietly for months.

The most obvious example being this fine summary by Jonathan Marcus for the BBC.  He only really errs in saying many of the so-called moderate rebels are being "forced" into alliances with groups close to al-Qaida, when the truth is they've been fighting with them for months and in some cases years.  The Russian goals in Syria have been simple, and make sense, agree with them or not: ensure Assad doesn't fall in the short-term, then build his forces up in the medium-term in order to support them in regaining the territory the government needs to survive long-term.  In the process Putin has shown that Russia is still a military power to be reckoned with, displayed his new weaponry in the field to buyers around the world, and prevented a regional ally from potentially falling.  Whether once these goals are achieved Russia will turn its attention fully to Islamic State or not, who knows.  It doesn't matter so much as IS is relatively contained, if not in danger of losing as some of the more wishful thinkers imagine.

Meanwhile, just what has our policy been in Syria all these years?  Has it made even the slightest sense?  Has it looked like achieving our supposed goal, which is the end of the Assad regime and some sort of inclusive governmental system to replace his one-party rule?  As Marcus says, essentially our policy for some time has been to ally with al-Qaida against both Assad and Islamic State, while pretending that in fact we're helping moderates.  Has it worked?  The Ba'ath certainly looked in danger of falling last year, but what would have replaced it?  Something better, little different, or in fact worse?  If your answer is anything other than one of the latter two, try again.

So here we are.  Rather than say encourage genuine peace talks when it looked as though the rebels were in the ascendant, we preferred to allow them to make excuses about why they couldn't attend.  We preferred to go along with the foreign policy objectives of our regional allies, the Saudis and the Turks, helping to fund and arm the rebels through their auspices, while knowing full well who their backing always goes to.  We carried on doing this even as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled and came to Europe, as we still apparently believed that our side could win, whatever winning would look like.  Even now, we talk about "stains" on "records", as though anything we've done in Syria has been about protecting civilians at any point.  The more deranged talk about moral bankruptcy, and would it seem quite happily push the world to the brink of war to prove our "moral commitments" and "humanitarian objectives".  Sorry, boys.  You've been outfought, outplayed and outmanoeuvred.  Time to admit it and cut our losses.

Except, of course, we won't.

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Monday, February 01, 2016 

A fundamental lack of imagination.

At the weekend, out-going chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick gave a blistering interview to the Graun.  All but told his services were no longer wanted after he proved to be one of the most critical of inspectors in what has often been a post filled by those of an independent bent, he made clear he was in fact glad to be leaving, fearing that he was at the point of becoming desensitised to the problems of the prison estate.  Levels of self-harm and suicide are at record levels in a system that Hardwick declares has deteriorated further in the 5 years since the coalition government promised a "rehabilitation revolution".  

The only bright spot is Chris Grayling, who Hardwick relates attempted to interfere with his annual report, has since been moved on from his role as justice secretary, replaced by Michael Gove.  Amazingly considering his record as education secretary, Gove is now without doubt the best minister of a very bad lot, if only because he has spent almost the entirety of his time cleaning up the mess left by Grayling.  In little more than six months Gove has lifted the ban on sending parcels to prisoners, scrapped the criminal courts charge, reversed further planned cuts to legal aid, and persuaded David Cameron to put an end to the proposed link up with the Saudi Arabian prison system.

As Hardwick outlines in his interview, there are manifold things wrong with the prison system, but one of the most obvious is that there are still far too many people in jail who either shouldn't be or who would be far better cared for elsewhere.  Policymakers, he says, have two major failings: "lack of imagination and failure of empathy".  This could be expanded from just policymakers to be a criticism of the justice system as a whole, afflicting not just politicians and those who put pressure on them, but also the police, prosecutors and judges.  It affects not just those being processed through the system, but victims too: witness how 20 years after her death the family of Cheryl James have only now managed to obtain a second inquest, thanks to the Human Rights Act the government wants to repeal.

The absurdity of the system as it stands is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of consistency in decisions made by prosecutors.  Approaching a year after they left, the four school girls from Bethnal Green academy who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State will still apparently be treated as victims should they return to the UK, despite it would seem having no intention whatsoever of doing so.  As I've pointed out on a number of occasions, it seems doubly perverse to prosecute the sad sacks who do return home after quickly discovering they are not cut out for life in a war zone, the Mashudr Choudarys, the Nawazses, and now most notably of all, Tareena Shakil, the 26-year-old who travelled to the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, only to make her escape less than 3 months later.

Shakil it's safe to say is also the most perplexing character of all the jihadis so far charged on their return.  She apparently loved shows like The Only Way is Essex, seems to not always worn the hijab, let alone the full veil that she would have been required to in Raqqa, and it's not disputed that her brief flirtation with the jihadi cause came after the breakdown of her marriage.  Whether she genuinely was radicalised online by contact with individuals who told her she would go to hell if she didn't live under Sharia law, as well as by other notorious online figures Aqsa Mahmood and Sally Anne Jones we can't know, but it seems more realistic a claim than in many similar instances where families have insisted their loved ones were preyed upon.

Also not in dispute is that whatever the reality of how she managed to make it out of Raqqa, bribing a tax driver and then slipping past Islamic State fighters on the border as she told the court after first telling police she had been kidnapped, she did so because she had become disillusioned with life in Syria.  The claim made by the police that she posed a threat to this country has not been substantiated in the slightest by the evidence heard in court, nor by her conviction for being a member of IS and sending messages inciting terrorism.  She genuinely was escaping, not attempting to return without being noticed with the aim of either proselytising for IS once back in the country, or worse, launching an attack.  Some of the case presented against her was downright laughable: a "senior security analyst" insisted that women in Raqqa were only allowed access to weapons if they were members of an IS police unit, as clearly Shakil couldn't of borrowed a gun for the pictures she posed for from one of the other 30 women she was living with.

This is not to overlook how utterly irresponsible it was of Shakil to take her young son with her, nor how shocking and perverse it was to allow him to be photographed by the side of an AK-47, or wearing a hat with IS insignia.  We can't know for certain how much of a choice she had in much of what she did once in Raqqa, especially when like most radical organisations IS is paranoid in the extreme about spies, where refusing to do what is asked of you can soon result in suspicion and potential execution.  Nonetheless, after admitting the truth of her decision to travel to Raqqa, she has also said she doesn't want sympathy.  Nor does she deserve any for that decision.

What she does deserve sympathy for is realising the terrible mistake she made.  While it doesn't seem to have been reported what has happened since to her child, one would presume he is either now with his father or in care.  Precisely what benefit the public receives from imprisoning her for six years, of which she will likely serve three, is not immediately obvious.  Is it meant to send a message of deterrence to others in a similar position, thinking of travelling to Syria, when we know full well that such thoughts are often furthest from their minds?  Is it meant to make clear you can't "join" a terrorist organisation and then come back as though nothing has happened, regardless of regrets?  

Would it not make far more sense to let individuals like Shakil tell their story, once it has been confirmed they pose no threat, when the only people those at risk of radicalisation are likely to listen to are those whom for whatever reason felt the same way they did?  Wouldn't it be a far better use of police time and court resources to ensure that those who do pose a threat, like Siddhartha Dhar, aka Abu Rumaysah, the man thought to be in the IS video directly addressing the UK are not able to skip bail?  Shouldn't we have learned at least a few lessons by now about the way Islamic State operates, and that while we must be suspicious about anyone attempting to return, the IS view in general is that to leave is to disassociate yourself, to go back to the land of unbelievers?

Indeed, the other message the sentence sends to others who've travelled to Syria is that there is no escape.  You can leave, try and repudiate what you've done, but you'll still likely go to prison for years.  Life after prison is hard enough for most offenders, let alone those branded for life as a terrorist, needing to report to the police for years afterwards as Shakil will.  Knowing that awaits, it's hardly surprising that few whether still believing in the cause or not have made the journey home.  As Hardwick identified, fundamentally it comes down to a lack of imagination.  Shakil could have been an asset in the fight against IS.  Now she'll rot in a cell.  Terrorism aside, her fate is the same as many others who could have been helped previously, who could still be helped, but won't be until our criminal justice policy is completely re-evaluated.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2016 

A question.

Is it victim blaming, or making excuses for terrorists to argue that Istanbul has now fully "reaped the whirlwind" of its at best years of turning a blind eye to the activities of Islamic State within its borders, and at worst active connivance with the group for unbelievably short-sighted political reasons?  Who could have known that IS wouldn't be satisfied with killing merely the opponents of President Erodgan and the AKP, and would eventually turn its sights to tourists?

Considering even Kyle W. Orton, for it was he, suggested in a piece back in December that "Turkey has laid the foundations for what would be called, if it happened to Westerners, “blowback”", perhaps not.  Of course, you could also make the case that it is Turkey's very belated and still not wholly convincing crackdown on Islamic State inside the country that has prompted today's slaughter and the previous bombing on the 6th of January, and I could also be less of an arsehole about it when the bodies of the German and Peruvian nationals are not yet cold.

Forgive me though, as I've become more than a little sick of late having to read the bloviating opinions of people determined to assign positions to their opponents that they do not hold, at the same time as refusing to accept so much as the merest possibility that foreign policy could have something of a role in the threat we face from terrorists, even if it does not for an instant excuse them or make them less responsible for their actions.

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Monday, January 04, 2016 

Meet Kyle W. Orton, for he is the future.

How many 24-year-olds get to write a comment piece for the New York Times?  Answer: not many, not even around the dog days of Christmas time.  And how does a 24-year-old who aspires towards writing for the New York Times go about achieving that goal?  Answer: by saying the right things to the right people at the right time.

Meet Kyle W. Orton, for it is he.  Orton you might recall was one of two analysts getting big ups for telling us exactly whom those 70,000 moderates in Syria David Cameron mentioned were, despite err, the government itself saying it couldn't for reasons of national security.  Not many will make the leap from say, Left Foot Forward to the NYT, Orton's former main stomping ground away from his own blog.  At least, not unless you have the chutzpah to break out a really big lie, an untruth so humongous it dwarfs everything else you're ever likely to write.

Even better is if your lie overturns an established truth.  The vast majority of people think the Iraq war was a disaster.  They don't however agree on an over-arching reason as to why it was a disaster.  Some think it was a disaster because of the Iraqi loss of life.  Some think it was a disaster because there were no weapons of mass destruction found.  Some think it was a disaster because it has made subsequent interventions in the Middle East more difficult to sell to the public.  Some think it was a disaster because we invaded and *didn't* take the oil.  Some think it was a disaster because one of its unintended consequences was the creation of the predecessor groups to Islamic State.

What then if you make the case that, rather than the Iraq war in part being to blame for the desperate situation in the wider region, you instead turn history on its head and say no, we're not responsible, Iraq's leader was at the time and still is now?  Isn't that exactly what a whole class of politicos who always have great problems taking responsibility for their actions and those of their immediate predecessors want to hear?  Isn't that exactly the message a decent proportion of the public themselves want to hear, that rather than it being somewhat their fault, or their country's fault, it's in fact always been the dastardly workings of a leader long since dead, who was so evil that even in the grave his wicked scheming has come to fruition?

Yes, Orton's big lie is that Saddam Hussein put in place everything Islamic State needed to eventually gain power.  Hussein according to Orton created an Islamist state; his Faith Campaign led to a "Baathi-Salafism".  Sure, the occupation made mistakes, but the point remains: Islamic State was not created by removing the Ba'ath; Islamic State is the aftermath of the Ba'ath.

It's a lie so huge it temporarily blindsides you.  Forget the claims before the war that Saddam was in league with al-Qaida, that he had links to 9/11, and all the rest of it.  That was bullshit, but the truth, the real truth is he was using Salafism to maintain power.  It all makes sense.  It all makes perfect sense.  How did no one prior to Orton see this before?

Bit of a shame then that Salafism only bothers Orton when it comes to the Ba'ath's "Salafism", or the IS brand of Salafism.  Along with most of the other high profile Syria analysts and aligned commenters, Orton cried into his Christmas dinner over the killing of Zahran Alloush, leader of Jaysh al-Islam, most likely in an Russian airstrike.  This is the purest example of Russia's perfidy, went the wail.  Russia, allied with Assad, is killing the leaders of the groups needed to reach a deal with the Syrian government!  Couldn't it be clearer what they're up to?

That Alloush was a Salafist didn't matter.  That Alloush had repeatedly denounced the Shia, Alawites, had called for Damascus to be cleansed, repeatedly allied with the al-Nusra Front (indeed, was apparently killed at a meeting between various rebel groups, including al-Nusra), wanted an Islamic state, just not an Islamic State, was explainable as rhetorical exuberance or understandable in such an atmosphere of war.  After having met with American officials, Anne Barnard in the NYT explains, Alloush had "softened his tone".  Hassan Hassan (so good they named him twice) writes it would be a mistake "to equate [Alloush's group] with extremist organisations, especially since such statements by no means reflect the group’s intentions or actions."  Why, Alloush even reassured a Christian dissident of how the Alawites were victims of Assad.  The head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, went so far as say the killing of Alloush was part of the effort to reduce Syria to a false choice between Assad and IS.

Don't get confused.  Orton doesn't think Alloush was a moderate, or at least, "never said" that he was.  Get it in your head, there's huge differences between Jihadi-Salafism, Ba'athi-Salafism and just plain old Salafism.  Besides, Alloush was supremely anti-Islamic State, and that's the sort of thing that matters most.  His differences with IS were with mainly over turf rather than ideology, but that sort of thing is what we have to work with in Syria.  Don't allow it to be to a binary choice, as Roth said: it's not Assad, or IS.  It's far more complex.  It's Assad, IS, or rather Ba'athi-Salafist or just plain old Salafist.  Those Salafists may be moderates, they may not be moderates.  They're better than the alternatives, though, right?  How can you not trust a 24-year-old with the wherewithal to get in the NYT, to make discoveries the rest of us can only dream of?  Orton's going to go far, that's for sure.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2015 

Droning on about targeted assassination.

In all the excitement over the decision to bomb Islamic State in Syria, you'd be forgiven for it slipping your mind that we err, already had been.  Not only were British pilots embedded with the Americans without parliament needing to be informed, a British citizen no less was also judged to be such an immediate danger to us back here that he needed to be evaporated via drone.  Rather than let the Americans do it, as they did our good pal Mohammed Emwazi, on this occasion we did so ourselves.  Why?  The answer seems to remain along the lines of "because we could" and "fuck you, we'll bomb what we want".

For the decision behind the drone strike on Reyaad Khan (for it was he), Ruhul Amin, the other British jihadi killed in the strike, and an unknown Belgian, remains completely opaque, as evidenced by today's appearance by defence secretary Michael Fallon before the Joint Committee on Human Rights' inquiry into the apparent change in policy.  Integral to the government's case that it is entirely legal to kill whoever it feels like so long as they are judged to pose a significant enough threat is Article 51 of the UN Charter.  This talks of "armed attacks", and how nothing in the rest of the charter should impair the right of individual or collective self-defence if one occurs.

If you find it dubious that the authors of the UN Charter were thinking of armed attacks by jihadists using improvised explosive devices, or quite possibly even knives when they wrote it, rather than say the actions of another state's military, then you're probably not on the attorney general's Christmas card list.  Individual terrorist attacks, the memorandum submitted to the JCHR by the government goes on (PDF), may rise to the level of an "armed attack" if they are of sufficient gravity, as the 9/11 attacks clearly were.  In any case, the "scale and effect's of ISIL's campaign" as a whole are judged to reach the level of an armed attack against the UK.  Islamic State, you'll note, has not directly attacked the UK, even if it has threatened to do so.  Force can also be used where an "armed attack" is "imminent".  It's not clear if imminent is the same thing as "highly likely", as in a terrorist attack is highly likely, as judged by the current and all but perpetual overall threat level, but we can take a wild guess and hazard that yes, it is.  Fallon for his part told the committee "I don’t think it’s possible to have a hard and fast rule about how you define imminent".

In other words, the government considers it lawful to kill Islamic State cadres full stop.  This seemingly applies outside of Iraq and Syria also, or at least that was the impression Fallon gave, as he said there was no overall policy on targeted killing at all.  Considering David Cameron had already hinted at the potential for future drone strikes in Libya this isn't surprising, and yet it would all but confirm the wholesale adoption of the US policy on drone strikes, with Fallon refusing to address questions about any substantial difference.  This would be the same US policy that has come in for heavy criticism of late, including from no less a figure than the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.  Quite why we would decide to emulate it at this point isn't clear.

If indeed we have, as it remains an open question of why Khan was targeted, as the memo certainly doesn't explain any further than the government did at the time.  Khan the memo argues could have launched an attack at any time, such was the danger he posed; it's extremely odd then that not a single one of the plots it is claimed he directed would it seemed have reached the point of being launched.  The memo interestingly notes that "some were foiled", presumably the ones newspapers splashed on, including the one the Sun itself claimed to have averted.  What then was the result of the others? Did they just fall apart?  Were they abandoned?  Did those recruited to carry them out get cold feet?  Or were these "plots" of the type like the one the Sun saved us from, of the inspiring and telling sympathisers how to make pressure cooker bombs variety?  As there still doesn't seem to have been a single person arrested for terrorism offences linked to Khan, it's worth asking the question.  The memo goes on to argue that there was no other way of stopping Khan as he had no intention of leaving Syria, and yet his plots seem to have petered out all by themselves.  Of course, there is no guarantee he would have continued to fail, but this rather undermines the claim he could have ordered an attack at any time.  Certainly, there has been no evidence presented to substantiate that, or that he had risen to that sort of position in IS.

It's almost as though the fact the newspapers were reporting on these apparent threats to events and people, however lacking in reality they were, was enough on its own for Khan to be put on the "kill list".  This might seem all but moot now that we're fully joined up members of the death to IS club, but how can it not be troubling when politicians take the decision to kill one of their own citizens on evidence they refuse to expand upon, beyond vague declarations of the righteousness of doing so?  Khan was not Emwazi; his guilt was not and is not obvious.  Fallon might have bristled about how the others killed along with Khan were not innocent civilians, which is true; did they deserve to die, however?  If the policy is expanded to countries like Libya as suggested, why should we have any confidence based on what we've been told about Khan that others won't be killed alongside the target?  At the very, very least there ought to be a genuinely independent investigation and review after the fact, as the JCHR suggested. 

The smart use of drones could be the least worst option when a real, genuine threat cannot be countered in any other way.  The government has not even begun to prove that is the policy it has decided on.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015 

The brilliant PR and distraction techniques of a terrorism sponsoring kleptocracy.

Unless you're one of those members of the general public we talked about yesterday, you won't have missed the wonderful news at the weekend of how a tiny number of Saudi Arabian women were able to vote (and stand for election) for the first time.  They were voting for local councils that have essentially no power whatsoever, the country remaining an absolute monarchy, or better described, a vast kleptocracy, Saudi Arabia literally meaning the entire country belongs to the Sauds, but such things nonetheless remain important.  At least as long as you regard such gestures as retaining meaning; the film Suffragette thought it was notable enough to include in its ending sequence of the year women first gained the vote, so who am I to argue?  It's the principle of the thing, and if say some women who wanted to take part weren't able to as their guardian refused to drive them to the polling station, as suffrage or not, women remain chattel, that can be worried about later.

If nothing else, the Saudis have great PR, and you can bet every foreign desk in the world was informed weeks ago of the approach of this great democratic advancement.  Turnout overall might have been derisory, most of those eligble might have taken part in the boycott, and it might have made Iran's managed democracy and presidential elections where hundreds of candidates are blocked from standing look the very model of free and fair, and yet the headline, that women were able to vote, will be all that matters to the Sauds.

The exact same thinking is behind the launch of a Saudi-led anti-terrorism military coalition of Sunni Muslim states.  Just as much play was made of how the Saudis, Emirate nations and Jordan were taking part in the bombing of Islamic State, sorties that lasted at most a few months before those jets flew off to take part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen, it's not whether there's any realistic chance of the coalition doing anything whatsoever, it's that it exists.

Some might for instance think it a striking coincidence that last week also saw the Saudis play host to the first ever foreign meeting aimed at bringing the various opposition factions in Syria together, excluding Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front, of course.  Invited was Ahrar al-Sham and other groups in the same Saudi backed alliance that includes the al-Nusra Front, but can you imagine al-Qaida signing up to a declaration that Syria after Assad will be a rainbow nation of every colour and creed, democracy a necessity?  Granted, Ahrar al-Sham did withdraw and only returned when it was explained that their goal of an Islamic state could be achieved via a democracy that would then never be called on again,  but let's not splits hairs, eh?

Also purely coincidental is how this week sees talks between the Houthis and Yemen's nominal president Hadi, talks not being attended by Iran, the Saudis or the Emiratis, the key backers of the respective sides.  The Saudis and their allies have been reducing what was already the Arab world's poorest nation to rubble in a war backed by both the UN and our good selves, without so much as a smidgen of the outrage or opprobrium that has rained down on President Assad.  Like with the backing given to the allies of al-Qaida in Syria, one of the side effects of the conflict has been the advance of al-Qaida in Yemen, aka al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, aka until the rise of Islamic State the jihadist group most feared in the West, and the one linked to the two French nationals who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Cynics might be drawn to the conclusion there is some sort of connection between the Saudis making clear just how against terrorism they are while groups they either enable or actively support march on.  As Hayder al-Khoei has tweeted, this joke doesn't need a punchline.  It's too bad we're the joke.

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Monday, December 14, 2015 

The vicious circle of twatitude.

Hey, you there.  You're a twat.  Yeah, you heard me.  Now, wait a second, I didn't mean you're a twat in the sense that you, singularly, are a twat.  Far from it.  What I meant was, we're all pretty much twats.  I'm a twat.  You're a twat.  The people gathering around us anticipating you smashing me in the face with your clenched fist are twats.  That twat there with the beard and man bun with the smartphone filming all this, he's really a twat.  And all the people that had some sort of role in the production of that phone, whether it be the designer, the programmers that coded the apps, the poor sods in China that put it together while getting poisoned in the process, the people that marketed it, they're all twats.  Most of all, the people that will then share the video of you twatting me, the journalists who will write clickbait articles on it, all the people on Twitter that will laugh about it, they especially are twats.  Life isn't a bowl of cherries.  It's a neverending parade of twats, twatting about, twatting each other and shoving their twats in our faces.  Do you get me?

It won't have escaped your attention that a good section of the commentariat appears to have declared the general public to be twats.  Of course, they aren't talking about the general public at all.  The actual general public are completely indifferent to what the commentariat thinks about anything.  A good percentage of the general public never watches the news, listens to the news when it comes on the radio, reads a newspaper, or so much as visits a news site unless a huge, earth-shattering story like man bites dog breaks.  The real general public, if they are on social media, use it to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances and talk about everything other than politics or the news.  The commentariat are really talking about the people who don't agree with them.

And now, especially following the Syria vote, MPs too have decided that the general public, i.e., anyone who contacts them, are for the most part twats.  They're a bit more discreet than most hacks, but former MP Tom Harris rather lets the cat out of the bag.  Think Hugh Abbott in the have you ever had to clean up your own mother's piss episode of The Thick of It, only without agreeing with him that the public are another fucking species as it's impossible not to like him.

Harris, bless him, thinks just as how the way someone treats a waiter tells you a lot about their character, the same should be the case with how MPs get treated.  Leave aside just for a moment how there are plenty of waiters out there who could do a darned sight better job than a good number of the MPs we currently have, and just focus on the thought process behind that.  Waiters, MPs, what's the difference, apart from the power they have, the wage they get, the people they serve, the clothes they wear, the having to deal with incontinent brats barely past shaving whining about how their steak isn't precisely medium rare?  I'm stumped.

Just for good measure, Harris brings up Jess Phillips MP telling Diane Abbott MP to "fuck off".  Harris and all the people cheering on Phillips don't like Abbott.  Abbott just happened on this occasion to be right, in telling Phillips to stop being so sanctimonious about women not getting top roles in the shadow cabinet when there were more women overall than ever before, but that doesn't matter.  Phillips is to put it mildly, another of those MPs who believes the world revolves around them and if their name isn't in the press on any particular day they have failed.  They adopt a faux of-the-people persona, write comment pieces about how hard it is being an MP while at the same time not suggesting for a moment that they want or deserve sympathy, and then carry on stirring the pot for all it's worth.  The media as a result love them, regardless of how idiotic, repetitive, narcissistic or publicity seeking their comments and reactions are.  Simon Danczuk and John Mann have made great careers out of being loudmouth blowhards jumping on every passing bandwagon, with only the former ever held anything approaching to account.  Phillips will apparently stab Jeremy Corbyn in the front if it comes to it, thinks the public wanted to hear from Corbo that terrorists with AKs and bombs strapped to them will be shot in the head 10 times on sight, just like that Brazilian jihadist was, and the party needs to stop going on about Trident.  Because you haven't been able to move for the Labour party obsessing over Trident of late, rather than about itself thanks to say twats like Phillips not knowing when to shut the fuck up.

Which brings us to the media as a whole.  They love twats even as they denounce them.  They couldn't exist without twats.  While the commentariat denounce petition writing twats and complain about free speech being eroded, the hack at the screen opposite them writes up the latest piece about whichever petition some idiot on Twitter has just started, and how many people a second are signing it.  The editor demands yet another piece on what Trump just said, and another to go with it on what it all means, and then a thinkpiece by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett or someone of that ilk on why Trump has a dodgy hairpiece and herpes.  Of the brain.  Look at what this twat is wearing!  Look at what this twat thinks!  Look at how this twat looks tired!

It doesn't seem to occur that you can only go on regarding everyone as a twat for so long.  This is being borne out by, you guessed it, Trump.  The media in America might be slanted to the right to a ridiculous extent, but Trump supporters still don't believe a word they write.  And why should they?  They think the media are twats, and the people behind the media think they're twats.  It's a vicious circle of twatitude.  The same is the case here.  We saw it in the Labour leadership election, where the "modernisers", the "moderates", whatever you want to call them, exasperated the grassroots to the very limit.  The result was Jeremy.  You see it with the SNP and their supporters, who are convinced the media is biased against them, which it is, and that it matters, which it apparently doesn't considering the election results.  Look at this opening line from a Wings Over Scotland post, and try not to see either projection, or an irony so overwhelming that it should by rights knock you off your feet:

A strange phenomenon we’ve remarked upon numerous times since the independence referendum is the inexplicable undying rage of a certain subset of Unionist voters.

We heard lots about how the internet was supposed to be this great democratic force, how it will transform everything, how nothing will ever be the same ever again, the end of history, and so on.  In fact what it seems to be doing is quite the opposite: we've never been exposed to so many different views, and yet at the same time we've never been so prepared to dismiss them when they don't fit with our prejudices.  Like the old Marx (Groucho) joke about those are my principles, and if you don't like them I have others, if we don't like the fare offered by the lamestream media, there are a whole host of new and improved alternative news sources that will tell it just like it is.  Their content might be unbelievably narrow in scope and subject, but when they think the same people are twats that you do, what does it matter?

Naturally, you can discount all of this as I'm a twat.  Indeed, I'm an even bigger twat than most, as I'm a twat pointing at twats being twats while being a twat myself.   If there's a coda to all this, beyond how we so often mistake those we disagree with as being twats or being the majority when the majority is never very interested in anything you're doing, it's that disagree on how serious what this group or this person or that petition writer is currently doing, there are some individuals who would rather we were less human, and they're not necessarily the Trumps of this world.  For example, see the conclusion of this otherwise fairly reasonable Laura Bates piece:

The feminist endgame is not to publicly punish everybody who makes a rape joke, or ban every advert that uses rape as a titillating way to sell products. It is to create a society in which it would never occur to anybody to do either in the first place.

That's a world I for one would not want to live in.  A society where we cannot make jokes about anything, to anyone, where the very human spirit of finding humour in the bleakest aspects of our nature is denied, even if that means Dapper Laughs or Jimmy Carr still existing?  Count me out.  I'll take my chances with all my fellow twats.

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Thursday, December 10, 2015 

Can you imagine if they had stopped a war?

Here's a challenge to someone of a cultured literary bent: write an alternate history short story/novella based around the premise that rather than fail, the February 15th 2003 Stop the War march led to the resignation of Tony Blair.  Ian McEwan set his novel Saturday on the day of the march, after all; why not a "what if" considering the ramifications had the march succeeded?

The incredible thing is that in the minds of some, that march did succeed.  How else to explain the vitriol, the gnashing of teeth, the sheer fury the Stop the War Coalition continues to inspire among those who demand it be condemned whenever it rears its head?  How can an organisation that is otherwise such a laughing stock, ran by far leftists who have never won a thing in their lives be regarded as such a malign force?  How can an group that has not stopped a single war it has campaigned against inspire otherwise well-grounded individuals, who insist they respect those with anti-war opinions, to repeatedly come out with the most childish taunts and absurd criticisms?

Believe it or not, today's Independent regards the latest machinations surrounding the StWC and Jeremy Corbyn as being the top issue facing the country.  Labour MPs and the likes of James Bloodworth are demanding that Corbyn, whom is attending the StWC's Friday dinner to effectively hand over the chairmanship that he resigned from after becoming Labour leader, to not go.  Corbyn in response has said that "The anti-war movement has been a vital democratic campaign which organised the biggest demonstrations in British history and has repeatedly called it right over 14 years of disastrous wars in the wider Middle East."

Well yes, but what exactly do opponents of those wars have to show for it other than being able to signal their righteousness?  Almost nothing.  At best, they can point to how, finally, the debate on Syria last week was somewhat better informed than previous ones and did consider if we could be making the same mistakes again.

Otherwise, what is there?  As has been made clear, to be against war is one thing; to campaign against it, whether that involves lobbying your MP or protesting outside an MP's constituency office is to risk being tarred as a bully or far worse.  In this world, a vigil organised in part by a local vicar becomes a mob, with the Labour deputy leader going so far as to say that if Labour members were among the crowd they should be expelled from the party.  Words taken completely out of context from blog posts that were hosted on the Stop the War site before being swiftly deleted and disowned are repeated over and over.  Yes, it does sound awful on the surface that StWC apparently said "Paris reaped the whirlwind", or that "IS fighters are the equivalent of the International Brigades", only they didn't, and the author of the latter has apologised profusely for any misunderstanding.

It is nonetheless impossible to pretend that the StWC are the ideal organisation or vehicle for mainstream anti-war sentiment.  They are not, and have always been tied up with the familiar baggage Trotskyist groups carry, some of whom do still believe in being anti-imperialist only when it's Western countries invading and bombing other nations.  They are however the only one we have, and there is no reason to believe if there was a new anti-war group created that was entirely separate from the manoeuvrings of the rump far left it would be regarded any more kindly when its goals would be the same.

This is because the majority doing the finger jabbing now are the exact same people who were condemning their comrades on the left back in 2003.  The standard flavour of discourse both now and then can be gleaned from a Nick Cohen piece for the Telegraph back in January of that year, when he complained of how the anti-war movement ignored Iraqi democrats.  12 years later, and what's being used as one of the principal weapons to bash the StWC, including by Peter Tatchell, who ought to know better?  That they won't so much as let Syrians speak.  The precise details, that these Syrians are in fact a UK group specifically calling for a "limited" intervention in their country, not against Islamic State but against Assad, something that would entail a direct confrontation with the Russians, are naturally left out.

When that gets a bit stale, it's back to the what-abouttery the Eustonites claim to be so against.  Why aren't they protesting outside the Russian embassy?  Why? Why aren't they condemning this, or this, or that?  Why aren't they doing what an anti-war group of my fantasy would, which is admit it's wrong about everything and commit ritual suicide on the graves of the victims they both blame and ignore?  There is simply no satisfying them, however much they claim to be reasonable: Bloodworth in his article writes "even on those rare occasions where the government appears to be acting militarily for the greater good, there is usually some base motive buried under it all," as though he has opposed any of the wars when in his words the government wasn't acting for the greater good.  The StWC could protest outside the embassies of every government involved in the proxy war in Syria, and still it wouldn't gain them any grudging respect.  Nor would it have any impact whatsoever; what is the point of gathering outside the Russian embassy when our government, about the only one that could possibly be influenced by such protests has so little sway over them?

What it all eventually comes back to is the touching faith the pro-war left continues to have, for reasons unknown, in politicians and military commanders who often hold views diametrically opposed to theirs.  The Iraq war was never about those Iraqi democrats, whom the likes of Cohen dropped just as quickly as the Americans did.  Syria has never been about protecting civilians, not in 2013 and certainly not now, otherwise we would have been serious about trying to reach a settlement in the early years of the conflict.  Hillary Benn can talk about fighting fascists, when to George Osborne far more important is that "we've got our mojo back".  Reducing bombing to being about national prestige, slandering opponents as terrorist sympathisers, both seem a lot more disreputable, repugnant and abhorrent than going to a fundraiser for an organisation that whatever its faults, has always exercised its democratic rights legitimately and lawfully.  In the end, there's a choice we all have to make.

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Monday, December 07, 2015 

The definition of terrorism is in the Mire.

Often after terrorist attacks you'll get the odd tiresome and incredibly wearying piece about how you're more likely to die eating a cheese salad than you are getting sprayed with bullets or having your neck sawed by some mouth-breathing goggle-eyed halfwit with an exceptionally ill grasp of their cause.  This is probably true, unless you're unfortunate enough to live in one of those places we've bombed better, it just rather misunderstands the whole risks you personally take and accept on a daily basis versus the fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time when Abu Beavis decides to do jihad rationality scale.  If it's impossible to convince people of the inadequacies and injustices of the draconian approach to controlled substances when statistically it is more dangerous to go horse-riding than it is to take MDMA, then the same argument adjusted to terrorism is hardly going to work when it comes to the chances of getting caught up in a bombing.

In truth, there is a similar sort of grim calculus at work in America on a daily basis.  For just about enough people the 2nd amendment right to bear assault rifles, use incendiary ammunition and own your very own rocket launcher* is more important than the right not to be shot dead at your place of work or education by the latest person to decide they're mad as hell and not going to take it any more.  Every so often there is a massacre so exceptional, like that at Sandy Hook, that it seems, even if just for a moment as though something might finally be done, only for momentum to very quickly dissipate.

It does then get all the more difficult to quickly work out whether the latest incidence of mass bloodshed is a "simple" case of loser going down in a blaze of infamy, or rather An Attack on Us All by Islamic Fascists.  Indeed, Dylann Roof's racially motivated mass killing wasn't deemed terrorist, nor was the attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic a week and a half ago, even if in the case of the former it was very much politically motivated, with more than reasonable suspicions about the same with the latter.  Mass shootings in America have become an epidemic: depending on whether your prefer the collating method of the GunsAreCool group on Reddit, which counts incidents where four or more people are shot regardless of the circumstances and for this year comes to the figure of 353 so far, or the one used by Mother Jones, which has far tighter criteria and counts "only" 4, both make clear that mass shootings are occurring more often.

On quite a few levels the mass shooting in San Bernardinho by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tafsheen Malik still doesn't make a lot of sense in terms of being an outright terrorist attack by Islamic State sympathisers as opposed to a curious mixture of terrorist act and more familiar "going postal".  The killers don't seem to have given any explanation themselves as to their actions during the attack, while they destroyed or smashed up all their electronic equipment prior to carrying it out.  The terrorists and spree killers of our modern media age usually want their reasoning, however twisted or self-serving to be broadcast and disseminated as widely as possible, for us to feel their rage, their anger, their anguish, to be scared that we could be next.

It could be that as Farook and Malik left behind pipe bombs and other explosives at their home the plan was to go on and commit further attacks, possibly even returning to the house to replenish their arsenal.  Alternatively, it could be that the argument Farook has been said to have had at his workplace, the Inland Regional Center social services agency, earlier in the day made him decide at the last minute to change targets.  Malik it is claimed may have pledged allegiance or made some sort of dedication to IS just before the attack took place, but regardless of that the very involvement of a woman in a mass shooting is rare in itself, let alone for a husband and wife to apparently act as a team.

That Farook was an Illinois born US citizen and Malik a Pakistani who spent a large period of her life living in Saudi Arabia hasn't of course stopped the Republican presidential candidates stepping up their demands for not so much a single Syrian refugee to be allowed in lest they be a terrorist.  Your average American is far more likely to be caught up in a mass shooting/spree killing carried out by a white male with a legally bought weapon, an action almost indistinguishable in method and results from an attack deemed to be "terrorist" carried out by two brown people, and yet the clamour, fearmongering and the demands that something be done, not about the easy availability of firearms and ammunition designed for warfare, but instead about Islamic State abroad is the overriding discourse of the day.  Just, you might add, as it was always going to be and always seemingly will be.

Which brings us to Leytonstone underground station last Saturday night.  According to the Metropolitan police the stabbing there was a "terrorist incident".  The decision to distinguish it as such was apparently "as a result of information received at the time from people who were at the scene and subsequent investigations".  These subsequent investigations must have moved extremely quickly, as the police were describing it as a "terrorist incident" within a couple of hours.  A former counter-terrorism officer quoted by the Graun agreed with the Met's description of the incident, as "he espoused a political motive and he caused someone harm and threatened violence".

Terrorism is undoubtedly something different to each person, although I especially like the War Nerd's designation that a terrorist group is any armed faction that doesn't have an air force.  Some, like myself, will argue that the murder of Lee Rigby was not a terrorist attack, while others will vehemently disagree.  I would like to think though that most people would not declare on the basis of someone shouting "this is for Syria, my Muslim brothers" they are a terrorist by that very fact.  Anyone can "espouse a political motive" while doing any stupid fool thing; it doesn't mean they so much as believe themselves, let alone that the police or the public should take them at their word.  The Telegraph is reporting tonight that the family of Muhaydin Mire, the man charged with attempted murder over the incident, had contacted the Met with concerns over his mental health 3 weeks ago.  Whether or not it turns out that Mire was suffering from delusions when he stabbed and then we're told sawed at the neck of his victim, to treat one man with a knife as a terrorist based on his ravings is to give in to and elevate his act from the merely criminal into something that it neither deserves to be nor should be treated as such.

If the incident carries on being treated as "terrorist" however, where does that leave us?  Predictably enough, anyone on social media who cited a link between last week's Commons vote on Syria and the words of Mire was quickly called out.  Apart from Mire saying "my Muslim brothers", a line that wasn't included in most accounts until the hearing today, there was nothing to suggest any sort of sympathy for Islamic State or that he was linking his actions to Islam at all.  No one has claimed he shouted "Allahu Akbar", the most common cry of Islamic militants when they are carrying out an attack.  The house magazine of IS, Dabiq, in its latest issue encouraged lone attackers to "pledge allegiance, record a statement and carry a banner", none of which it seems Mire did, unless more is still to come out.

Who though are we to second guess the police?  If they say an incident is a terrorist one, then surely it follows that we should look at what transpired and react accordingly.  "This is for Syria," the assailant said, and what conclusion are to we draw other than he was influenced by what went on earlier in the week, influenced it would seem to the point where he decided to act?

For if his was actions were those of a terrorist, then where else do we need to look for explanation than to the obvious?  We don't need to consider whether he has mental health problems, just as we didn't in the case of Michael Adebowale.  We don't need to wonder if it might occur to an especially narcissistic criminal in the future to ascribe political motives to their crime for the extra attention it would bring despite their apparent absence, as if something looks to be politically inspired despite other evidence suggesting otherwise, that's enough.  We don't need to worry if there is something other than extreme silliness, or narcissism, again, behind social media solidarity of the #YouAintNoMuslimBruv variety, the need to make clear just how united and together we are and project our goodness to our friends, as how else should a city respond to a "terrorist incident"?  Why should we do anything other than, while blaming the perpetrator wholly for their own actions, not look at who or what inspired him to act, whether it be Islamist extremists, or politicians taking decisions of life and death?  That, surely, is the logical end point of describing his actions as "terrorist", isn't it?  Or is it just another label increasingly denuded of meaning?

*RPGs probably don't fall under the 2nd amendment.  Probably.

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