Thursday, November 26, 2015 

Everything repeats. Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

The problem when it comes to writing about the government's case for war against Islamic State in Syria is it's difficult to get properly angry about or diametrically oppose something that will in truth, be so marginal if the Commons votes for it.  All the government is asking for when it comes down to it is to be able to chuck a few more bombs into a country that is already awash with weapons, explosives, death, hunger, the whole four horsemen bit.  Technically, that ought to make it absolutely enraging; why on earth make a bad situation potentially even worse?

Except support it or not, Syria will get worse before, or rather if it gets better.  From as soon as the rebellion turned almost fully Islamist/jihadist, our plan has been for the two sides to fight down to the very last Syrian.  We obviously didn't imagine it would get so bad that hundreds of thousands of Syrians would come to the realisation there was nothing left for them in the Middle East at all and so make the perilous journey to Europe, but in actuality it hasn't altered our thinking all that much.

Indeed, if we're to believe David Cameron's response to the Foreign Affairs committee report (which its chair, Crispin Blunt, has pretty much disowned in any case) then we are still clinging to the especially fetching fantasy that "moderates" will eventually win the day.  Yep, according to Dave and the security services, there are around 70,000 moderates on the ground who we can work with, and they'll be the ones taking back territory from Islamic State in conjunction with our main allies, the Kurds/Syrian Defence Forces.

All but needless to say, there are a few fairly major flaws in this argument.  First, that there really are 70,000 moderates among the rebels.  Cameron has provided absolutely no breakdown of who these revolutionaries are, nor of where they are currently based.  The response talks airily of how moderate rebels have defended territory north of Aleppo, and also how in southern Syria moderates have kept out both IS and the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front.  Raqqa, Islamic State's capital of its self-declared caliphate, is over 200km from Aleppo itself, just to begin with.  No one seems to have any real idea of where this 70,000 figure comes from, but the best guess is it's probably the near entirety of the non al-Nusra rebels, as the FCO has been talking about previously.  It likely includes groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whom with the very best gloss put on them are nationalist Islamists who want an Islamic state rather than democracy.  They routinely in any case ally with the outright jihadists; Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Army of Conquest, aka Jaish al-Fatah, which until very recently included al-Nusra (if they truly have exited the coalition, that is).

This strategy, such as it is, is predicated on two things that have not happened yet.  That the Vienna talks will succeed in negotiating a ceasefire between Assad and these "moderate" rebels; and that these rebels will then turn their attention entirely to IS.  Even if Vienna does somehow lead to a ceasefire, why on earth would these moderates leave territory they've captured undefended to go and fight a group they share far more with than they do Assad?  The answer is they won't, and the best that can be hoped for is that ceasefire, which will instead allow Assad's forces to turn their guns wholly on IS.

For this is the strategy, again such as it is, that lies beneath the rhetoric.  Cameron gave the game away when asked by Tim Farron about safe zones.  Safe zones you have to enforce, he replied, and that could lead to ground forces becoming involved.  If we had fundamental trust in these 70,000 moderates, a fraction of them could clearly do the job, and we could probably come to a deal with the Russians as to where these safe zones would be.  Fact is that we don't trust them as far as we can throw them, so the idea's a non-starter.  Not that we trust the Syrian Arab Army either, but they can be relied upon to follow orders.

The truth is for all the clowning, hyperbole and bluster against the Russians, the attack on the Metrojet plane and then Paris has concentrated minds.  We can't be seen to be helping Assad, but now the Russians have intervened they can do that for us.  The fighting currently going on in the west of Syria seems to be the SAA trying its best to carve out as much territory as it can for itself, helped by Russian airstrikes before the Vienna talks somehow manage to reach the goal of a ceasefire.  The Russians will then keep overwatch to make sure the rebels don't try and take back territory the SAA might have vacated in the west to concentrate on IS in the east.  

Whether this eventually leads to the partitioning of Syria or the creation of autonomous zones, with a Sunni enclave in the west, an Alawite/Druze/Christian enclave including Damascus and extending to Raqqa, with a Kurdish enclave in the north or not remains to be seen.  Alternatively, the Kurds could probably take Raqqa themselves if given sufficient backing and time, but they've made it pretty clear that whatever territory they take they're keeping, and why shouldn't they?  The Turks are already pissed off enough as it is with their advances, so that seems off the table.

In short, the only strategy we have is not the one being presented by the government, and the one we do have is reliant on an almost unimaginable ceasefire between two sides prepared to fight each other to the death.

The rest of Cameron's case isn't much stronger.  The difference our military can make in Syria amounts to the Brimstone missile, a camera that can see the goosebumps on a terrorist's neck from 150 miles away, and that the Americans and French think we'll be helpful.  The French defence minister has set out his case for why they desperately need us by their side, and it's all reasonable enough until you get to the part about how we achieved so much together protecting innocent civilians in Libya and you realise it's time to stop reading.  The Brimstone missile is apparently more accurate than other similar guided high explosives, only as Brendan O'Hara unhelpfully pointed out the Saudis have them too.  Sadly they're too busy taking part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen to start bombing Syria again, so clearly the coalition needs our supply.

Only as Ewen MacAskill points out, the Americans and others have already fired so many Hellfires in Syria that they're running out of targets as it is.  Jeremy Corbyn's first question, as to whether or not joining in would increase the threat from IS brought the response that the threat could not be any more severe.  Cameron and the intelligence agencies may be right, but they're asking us to accept as coincidence that both Russia and France were targeted within weeks of their specifically targeting IS in Syria.  Of the 7 plots claimed to have been foiled so far this year linked to IS, 2 of those were the ones "exposed" in the media that resulted in no arrests and no explosives or weapons being found.  

Potential threats should not of course stop us from acting, but politicians should be honest with the public if the threat will be increased, especially when the action will hardly be integral to the wider cause.  Solidarity, helping our allies is not enough of a justification when there is no real plan, when there is no exit strategy beyond Islamic State being degraded and defeated at some point, when we have no idea of what Syria will look like after both IS and Assad have gone, other than there won't be a Swiss-style democracy and we won't make the mistakes of either Iraq or Libya in the aftermath.  The state will not be dismantled we are told, and yet how likely is that when all involved have a completely different image of how Syria will look once or rather if and when the fighting ends?

Cameron himself was at something near his best today.  He was respectful, didn't resort to cheap point scoring and kept any references to evil death cults to a minimum.  He didn't want to overstate the case he said, and yet he couldn't at times help himself.  He repeated the argument that we shouldn't be leaving our security in the hands of our allies, and yet that was the exact same case made by Michael Fallon the week before the Paris attacks.  Our security will either be improved, unaffected or damaged by our involvement.  It can't be all three.  

Nor is it reasonable as the prime minister put it to suggest he will only bring a vote when he is certain to win as doing otherwise would risk a propaganda coup for Islamic State.  This is exactly how the Tories behaved after losing the previous Syria vote, denouncing Labour and Miliband for giving succour to Assad.  Nor is it anything close to accurate to claim, as Cameron did, that "doing nothing is a counsel of despair".  We will not be doing nothing if parliament declines to authorise strikes in Syria.  This idea we have been doing nothing is utterly bogus; we have been doing everything other than nothing, and will go on doing so.  Our "doing nothing" is part of why we are here now.

As Jeremy Corbyn has written tonight to Labour MPs, in a letter I can't disagree with a word of, a convincing case is yet to be made.  There is a basis of sorts to the government's arguments, but it falls down first and foremost because it isn't honest or open enough about the reality on the ground in Syria.  If there is anything worth getting properly angry about, it's what's led us to this point, as while the government and Cameron tell what lies about how big of an impact our involvement could have, I can't gather the enthusiasm to do much other than sigh.  We've been here before.  We'll be here again.  If there now is an IS attack in this country, it won't be anything to do with our bombing, but down solely to the wickedness of an evil death cult.  Everything repeats.  Everything changes.

And yet it stays the same.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015 

The lucky chancellor, and the hopeless opposition.

Some say you make your own luck.  Football managers often claim that any refereeing decisions that wrongly go in their favour average out over a season.  Others still will claim that when you're on a downward trajectory anyway, fate tends to intervene all the more.

Then there are those who are just plain lucky.  George Osborne is such a person.  Whenever he's found himself in a hole, someone or something has always heard his pleas and prayers for help and came along to pull him out.  It would be remiss to not admit that some of his luck is of his own making, as whenever he has done something stupid he's recognised his mistake, whether it was the litany of errors in the omnishambles budget, or today with tax credits.  As the autumn statement and spending review demonstrates, the usual wisdom that making a full 180 always damages a politician is wrong, so long as the reversal is made early enough and is a total one.

Had the Office for Budget Responsibility not of course discovered there was £27bn down the back of the Treasury settee, Osborne would have been in complete stuck.  As well as upping its forecasts as to what income and corporation tax will bring in, a mammoth 2/3rds of the £27bn "windfall" comes from the OBR altering its tax modelling.  While there is nothing to suggest this wasn't solely the doing of the OBR, it does bear mentioning that the OBR figures are based on government finances up till the end of September, and not the ones from October that showed a large year-on-year rise in borrowing.  Whether they would have changed the OBR's working substantially or not is less important than how it demonstrates once again Osborne's good fortune.  He is the lucky chancellor.

Eventually though your luck must run out.  Whether that happens before Cameron exits Number 10, or it happens once Osborne moves next door, as is increasingly odds on, it will happen.  You can't go on acting with as such arrogance as Osborne did on tax credits, believing that no one would cotton on to how he was shafting the very people the Tories claimed to help and keep getting away with it.  You can't keep insisting on cuts to unprotected government departments that in the case of the Department of Transport will amount to 75% by the end of the decade, or an even more eye-watering 77% in the case of local government, without something breaking, and breaking irrevocably.  You can't have such luck as to get a £27bn windfall, and then still preach of the absolute necessity of running a surplus of £10bn by the time of the next election.

For now at least Osborne can sit back and enjoy for the umpteenth time paeans not just from the Tory press but the majority of the media.  How does he keep doing it they wonder?  Much of the answer is in how, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out, we've fallen for the same trick each time.  The Tories brief of how drastic and severe their cuts are, how tough it's going to be, then turns up George to tell us it's not going to be so bad after all.  Since the autumn statement last year each time Osborne has stood at the dispatch box, the Commons listening rapt, he's reduced the amount needing to be cut.  He's done it in different ways, whether through today's mixture of windfall and tax rises, to go with the tax rises he'd already announced back in July, but achieved it he has.  The amount of departmental cuts has now been reduced overall to a "mere" £10bn, and with the police also now protected, from fewer sources.

The usual budget day/autumn statement smoke and mirrors have naturally been turned to also.  The tax credit U-turn isn't a true one as Osborne has not abandoned his £12bn of welfare cuts; instead universal credit has been raided again before it properly rolls out, if it ever does such have been the problems associated with it.  Hidden within the wider good news is that the OBR revised downwards its forecast for both household disposable income and average earnings, making clear that the tepid growth of the last few years is here to stay.  The increases in the money for social care and for the police are also dependent on councils introducing precepts on both through council tax, which as Jo Maugham points out is highly regressive.

Once that mist has cleared, the Tories' priorities will be as clear as ever.  There was money showered on housing, but only on housing to buy; as for those who want to rent or won't ever be able to afford to buy, their options will dwindle further with the extension of right to buy to housing associations.  The 3% surcharge on stamp duty for second homes or those buying to let is welcome in the case of the former, but will almost certainly lead only to further increases in rent on the latter.  Post-2012 students will find the threshold at which they start paying back their loans has been frozen in spite of a consultation.  With the state pension increasing by £3.35 a week while other benefits will be frozen in line with inflation, it will once again be those most likely to vote who gain most.  As government spending heads south to 36.5% of GDP by 2020, 42% of that spending will be on either health or older people.  Of all the spending described as unsustainable in the past few years, surely that level on one department and one part of the population will prove to be so before much longer.

Osborne's plans at heart remain a huge gamble.  If it turns out the OBR has got its revenue forecasts wrong (again) then he has little room for manoeuvre, unless he makes the ultimate U-turn and cuts back on his dream surplus.  He could ask for further departmental cuts, but from where?  He could make further welfare cuts, but it's not even clear where the £12bn is going to come from now that tax credits are protected.  He's raised taxes on every area possible other than on income, national insurance and VAT, which the government plans to make illegal, it's worth remembering.  He could put corporation tax back up, but that would be a further U-turn and would anger business, already quietly seething both about the "national living wage" and now the new apprentice levy, or as the Tories would describe it were they in opposition, a jobs tax.

Sad as it is to say, a proper opposition would be pointing all of this out.  A proper opposition would have made as much as it could, not just out of the tax credits U-turn, but also how it means Osborne has fallen into the very welfare trap he laid for Labour, breaching the cap he foolishly legislated for.  A proper opposition would be asking where the £12bn in cuts to welfare will now be coming from, as the answer can only be through taking an axe to housing benefits, cutting employment and support allowance or hacking even further at JSA.  A proper opposition would while emphasising Osborne's miserable failure to clear the deficit in a single parliament also be setting out what it would be doing differently.  

What the opposition cannot keep doing is providing gifts to the government like John McDonnell quoting from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, regardless of his point or it being a joke.  No wonder the Labour benches looked so grim as he threw it across the Commons; no wonder George Osborne looked as though all his Christmases had come at once.  You can point the finger at the media and the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP all you like, as I have and will keep doing; there's no getting away from how the real joke at the moment is the Labour (non)-leadership and its failure to do so much as the bare minimum.

Osborne will finish up laughing on the other side of his face.  When that will be when the opposition is so hopeless and the wider media so in awe of an opportunistic and lucky but otherwise mediocre chancellor remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015 

Our NATO allies, everybody.

There are, as you'd expect, a whole load of ways of interpreting why Turkey decided it was a fabulous idea to shoot down a Russian jet that may or may not have invaded their airspace, and most of them will have some measure of truth to them.

You could for instance start by saying that Putin's tears and rage at the action are both hysterical and hypocritical.  Maybe, just maybe if you could keep your raging war boner somewhat under control Vlad, things like this wouldn't happen.  You are after all the one apparently bombing the Turkmen, and the Turks are notoriously defensive about anyone sitting near their border, whether they be friend or foe.  Going into Turkish airspace, no matter for how brief a period is probably not a wise thing to do, especially when they made clear previously their feelings on such invasions.  Besides, there is also the little matter of MH17: the Russians might not have been personally responsible for downing the Malaysian Airlines flight, but giving Buk anti-aircraft missiles to halfwitted militants who don't or can't know the difference between a commercial flight and a Ukrainian military jet was an accident waiting to happen.  Instead of owning up and apologising, Russia has of course since denied it was their tame separatists and obstructed the investigation in every way possible.  Feel your pain we don't.

Then there's a more sympathetic to the Russians interpretation.  The Americans have said any breach of Turkish airspace was limited to seconds; the radar released by the Turks in an effort to justify their actions suggests precisely that.  If every country shot down every plane that went into their airspace without explicit permission for as much as a matter of seconds, no one would ever fly again.  The Turkish account that they supposedly repeatedly radioed the Russian plane telling it to stay out therefore doesn't tally with the evidence of the radar.  The reaction of NATO, which has essentially been to distance itself as much as it can from whichever trigger happy commander ordered the shooting down, has been to say this is a matter between the Turks and the Russians.  In other words, they're on their own on this one, even if in public they're saying Turkey has the right to defend itself from 16 second incursions.  When you bear in mind that the reaction of ourselves and most other European nations is to scramble jets to escort Russian planes if and when they decide to venture into airspace they've not received permission to and then complain about it later for the reason it's not worth the repercussions of doing otherwise, the Turks deciding to shoot one down for a breach of a matter of seconds is not going to win them many new friends.

Next there's a slightly more conspiratorial interpretation.  It is as Lindsey Hilsum has tweeted somewhat odd there just happened to be a TV crew in place to film the shot down jet hitting the ground.  It might have been sheer luck, but there are certainly good reasons to believe the rebels in the area have a hotline to their friends over the border.  They could well have informed the Turks, who apparently now believe that back in power with a majority they have little to lose, especially when they can rely on NATO to back them up.  Using the excuse of the slight breach of their airspace, making clear to Russia and Putin precisely what they think of their intervention on the side of Assad might have made something approaching sense in theory.  In practice, not so much.

Lastly, to keep this somewhat brief, there's the full on conspiratorial interpretation.  Turkey has a lot to lose if as looked possible there was an accommodation or deal between the various powers, whether it comes at the Vienna talks or more informally between the American-led coalition and Russia.  The Paris attacks have finally concentrated minds, making clear that the Western policy of letting the Sunni Gulf states + Turks fund whichever rebel groups they felt like while hoping it's not enough to actually defeat Assad cannot go on.  We can't of course lose face by admitting as much, but thankfully the Russians had already intervened to ensure Assad wouldn't fall.  Dealing directly with Assad is off the table, but the Russians with a little persuading can do that for us.  The Syrian Arab Army can then be the ground force we lack against IS, only they'll be liasing with the Russians instead.  Bearing in mind the only other ground force we can rely on, the Kurds, are also in direct conflict with the Turks, there are a myriad of reasons as to why the Turks would want this alliance of convenience to fall apart before it can so much as come together. 

That's without getting on to the relationship between Islamic State and Turkey.  Evidence has been mounting for some time on the links, but there really isn't any better than the Turkish reaction to the siege of Kobani.  It was only thanks to the Americans realising letting the border city fall as the Turks advised them to would be a propaganda victory too far and send a terrible message to about the only genuinely moderate forces in Syria that they started co-ordinating with the YPG.  Add on how the Islamic State attacks in Ankara just before the election undoubtedly helped the AKP to their majority, and not that much more needs to be added.

As said, there's something to all these interpretations.  Yes, Putin's reaction has been absurdly over-the-top, but then it's a fair bet ours wouldn't be much different if say the Iranians shot down one of our jets if it strayed into their airspace while carrying out sorties in Iraq.  His remarks on the links between Turkey and Islamic State are fairly sound also, as Erdogan has without doubt been playing the same double game in Syria as the Saudis and Qataris  have.  Indeed, if I wasn't a subscriber to the cock-up rather than conspiracy school of history until there is overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise, then the full on conspiratorial interpretation would make the most sense.  You can't though seriously believe the Turks would do something so unbelievably stupid, not knowing whether or not NATO would back them when they know full well the game they've been playing all along.  They might well be trying their best to sabotage the Vienna talks and will be making clear the risks their allies are playing by working with the Russians, but the best explanation for this is a trigger happy commander going out on a limb in an area where nationalist passions run hot.  Turkey has way too much to lose and far too little to gain.

The other obvious conclusion from today is there are already too many nations operating in Syria or at the margins, all with competing agendas and all with grudges against each other.  There is incredibly little to be gained and much to be lost by as David Cameron heroically put it "getting to grips with the Isil menace".  Still, come Thursday the prime minister's explanation as to what distinct and unique role the British military can provide in Syria as demanded by the foreign affairs select committee should be worth a laugh.

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Monday, November 23, 2015 

How to get your war on.

If, like me, you find it fitfully amusing that every new threat regardless of its potency must always be described as the most deadly and worst since the year dot, you'll find a lot to delight you in UNSC Resolution 2249.  Passed unanimously last weekend and drafted principally by the French in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it's an absolute classic of the genre.  It is after all one thing for a idiot politician playing to the gallery to declare Islamic State to be a bigger threat to international peace and security than Hitler/Napoleon/Genghis Khan/Black Death/the discovery of fire, and quite another for the UN Security Council to agree and declare that anyone and everyone if they feel like it can join in the fun of chucking high explosives at "an evil death cult".

As that's what 2249 does.  It really does say that Islamic State "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security".  Global?  Unprecedented?  Islamic State and its fighters might slaughter anyone they feel like and draw recruits from a wide variety of nations, but are they really a major threat to Japan, say, or your pick of any one of the South American nations?  Yes, they've executed hostages from China and Japan, but a threat?  

When it comes to unprecedented, on what reading of history exactly?  Are we talking since the creation of the UN or going further back?  Islamic State is a threat, certainly, but far more of one to the Middle East than anywhere else.  It was only able to expand as it has thanks to the failures of governance in Iraq and Syria; it calls itself a state and tries to operate as one but no state can last long when it has little real popular support and projects its power through violence.  It can send cells of supporters into democracies to launch attacks, and yet such tactics will bring its demise closer.  The threat might paradoxically in its death throes increase, as it loses ground and its safe havens, and the threat will likely not be extinguished entirely as another group drawing on the same ideology will rise, but Islamic State itself can be defeated.  The threat is only unprecedented if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the past, and crucially, if you want it to be such.

And politicians do want it to be so.  It's why the resolution also calls on "Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures", the UN's traditional euphemism for military action.  Whether that precisely makes our proposed joining in with the bombing legal or not is up for debate, although for most politicians that would be more than enough.  Indeed, Cameron and friends have been declaring that action without a UN resolution would be legal as it would be in self-defence.  That's based on an extremely broad reading of what constitutes self-defence, but then state sovereignty has been in retreat for some time, or at least has for states that aren't in the free world.  If anyone is worried about the plethora of countries that are involved or have been in bombing Islamic State, which is currently in double figures and might well at some point go beyond the 20 mark, then they aren't yet.  Come on down everyone, eastern Syria is so bracing!

Syria is the ultimate conclusion of the insanity of Western foreign policy post 9/11.  Taking the worst aspects of 80s foreign policy, which was to pick on a shithole nation and either supply and arm murdering bandits, for which see Nicaragua, or bomb it/invade it, for which see Tripoli/Grenada and combining it with the liberal interventionism of the 90s, not a single country the US/UK has bombed is a better place for it.  If you want an example of when intervention does work, you could look at Mali, but as last weekend demonstrated problems remain even there.  Syria is the culmination of the initial mistake of invading Iraq, the mistakes made post-invasion, and mistakes made since the uprising against Bashar Assad.  This is not to say we are overwhelmingly responsible, as we are not.  We might have created the conditions in which a group like Islamic State could flourish, but we didn't force the Iraqi Shia to persecute the Sunnis to the point where a substantial minority if not majority would ally with IS.  We did not invent the jihadist way of thinking, even if at times we sponsored groups that subscribed to it and have had a major role in the spreading of the ideology.

Without wanting to speak for those with similar views to mine, what I suspect most of us want is recognition, however slight, that we are here in part because of those mistakes.  I don't want an apology, although others might; I want our policy going forward to be informed by those mistakes.  To an extent, some lessons have been learned, as was proved in Libya.  Rather than try and rebuild a state we smashed, we left as soon as Gaddafi was dead.  Enjoy your liberation, we're off now.  We went from one extreme to another, with predictable results when Gaddafi was the state, as the Ba'ath in Iraq was the state and Assad in Syria is also the state.

It's also true that Iraq/Afghanistan have rightly made us wary of "putting boots on the ground".  That is an undoubted positive, as it's what groups like IS want more than anything else.  What we have not learned is that a secular dictator is in some cases preferable to the chaos of what comes after.  This doesn't mean we should have supported Mubarak in Egypt for instance, or have acquiesced to the military coup which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood, but that a feeble and contained Gaddafi is preferable to the civil war that has followed there.  In the face of IS and al-Nusra as well as all the other jihadist and Islamist groupings in Syria, demanding Assad leave immediately as we have been for years now has been a madness.  Yes, to an extent Assad has enabled those groups through his butchery, and there is an extremely arguable case that if we had intervened early in the uprising much of the carnage could have been avoided.  This overlooks however that it was not long before the Islamist rebels dominated the opposition, and that the cash from the Sunni Gulf states which subsequently went to those rebels would have without doubt gone to political parties instead with much the same views.  Seeing Syria as purely a civil conflict is too simplistic - it is a regional, proxy conflict.

At the same time we should take a step back and consider what would have happened had we intervened against Assad in 2013As Flying Rodent tweeted, no one seems to think it odd that a mere two years later we must now urgently target the very force that would have benefited most had we intervened.  Discount the idea we were merely going to chuck bombs at a range of targets in retaliation for the Ghouta attacks, as that made no sense then and even less now.  It would have been Libya a second time, with likely co-ordination with rebels on the ground.  Whether or not IS would have taken complete control is arguable, but a scenario where the jihadists even if fighting each other are in majority control would be the all but certain outcome.  Difficult as it is to imagine, the potential for further ethnic cleansing, even genocide and for more refugees fleeing than have already would have been massive.

Are our politicians grateful they were prevented from making that horrific mistake?  No, because they care far more about their own prestige and "our standing" in the world than such things.  Matthew d'Ancona informed us a few weeks ago of how Cameron and friends would never forgive Miliband for inadvertently stopping their march to war.  George Osborne yesterday told Andrew Marr that bombing IS is less about destroying the group and more about ourselves: "whether we want to shape the world or be shaped by the world", the chancellor claiming we had "retreated into ourselves a bit" after Iraq and the economic crash.  Buying the most useless and most expensive military aircraft ever created is about "projecting power abroad in order to defend ourselves at home".  It's no use whatsoever against non-state actors, the biggest threat we face and will continue to face according to the strategic defence review, but we must project our power in order to defend ourselves.

What the proposed war against IS comes down to in the end is our perceived standing in the world, our relationships with our allies, the vanity of politicians, and the one remaining way in which they can sell themselves to the voters.  Not bombing IS when every other major nation is just can't be allowed.  We must do something, even if it's completely negligible militarily.  We must be seen to be reliable, to not shrink into ourselves, to not be feeble, like the spineless Corbyn.  A P5 nation not involved in the struggle against "a global and unprecedented threat", one that has killed British citizens, even if not yet in Britain itself?  It's just unthinkable.  At the same time, Cameron could not possibly endure the humiliation of being defeated by the Commons for a second time on such a vote, and so it will only go ahead when the government is certain it can win, and by a sizeable majority.  It doesn't matter how bogus the arguments and justifications are for our involvement, especially the idea that by bombing IS in Syria we will reduce the threat to the UK when the opposite is more realistic, so long as they are made repeatedly and with force.

Lastly, there's the old Adam Curtis Power of Nightmares thesis.  Politicians have abandoned so much else which they used to control to either the markets or regulators.  They claim not to be able to buck the market in order to save jobs.  They can claim to have restored economic security and credibility until the next crash arrives.  What they can still do is pledge to protect us.  It doesn't matter if the wars they've fought in order to protect us have demonstrably, objectively made us less safe, as there is always a new threat more serious than the last about to come along.  It doesn't matter if they restrict civil liberties or want the ability to see our every interaction online as long as they say it's to stop terrorists in their tracks.  So long as we are acting elsewhere in order to stop the war from coming home, it doesn't matter.  It worked for over 10 years in Afghanistan.  It will undoubtedly work with Syria too.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015 

Idiot(s) with a cause.

Ken Livingstone is a prat.

He is also, sadly, about the only person who can be relied upon to defend Jeremy Corbyn in the media.  That he invariably in doing so says something daft that further riles the Anyone But Corbyn ranks makes the venture pointless, but so it goes.  If he genuinely didn't know that Kevan Jones had gone public with his battles with depression, then it's odd his remarks were so pointed and specific.  He didn't merely say Jones should consider psychiatric treatment, or that he was mad, rather that he should seek help from his GP for depression.

After a couple of hours of equivocation and no doubt after being told to make a proper apology by Corbyn's office, sorry did stop being the hardest word.  Ken's remarks were unquestionably offensive, prejudiced and stupid, but the idea he owes everyone else offended an apology is a nonsense politics needs less of.

Appointing Ken to the party's review of defence as co-chair with Maria Eagle was itself a provocation, albeit one with a point.  If any further evidence was needed that a sizeable number in the party are prepared to do everything other than declare open mutiny with the leadership, then yesterday's performance in the Commons was the final confirmation.  It wasn't just Ian Austin, Emma Reynolds, Chris Leslie and Ann Coffey who all expressed sentiments clearly directed at Corbyn, there was also Pat McFadden, shadow minister for Europe.  He asked the prime minister to "reject the view that sees terrorist acts as always being a response or a reaction to what we in the west do".  Cameron duly obliged, praising McFadden's "moral and intellectual clarity".  As opposed to Corbyn, who wasn't even sure if the police should be shooting dead "genocidal fascists", to quote another Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw.

There isn't much Corbyn can realistically do in response to such challenges to his authority, other than put the few supporters and sympathisers he does have into positions where they can temper the policies of his opponents or if nothing else stare them down.  Parachuting in Ken, as dumb and self-defeating as such a move is, still makes a kind of sense.  After Maria Eagle all but agreed with General Sir Nicholas Houghton on Andrew Marr, Corbyn read the riot act to the shadow cabinet, as he had every right to.  It's one thing to brief journalists or have disagreements in public, both of which are on-going; it's quite another to have your defence secretary all but accept her leader is a threat to national security as he won't incinerate everyone should the balloon go up.  As is obvious, Corbyn's attempt to restore something approaching order has been ignored, as his opponents seem to have decided that if their leader won't sign up for mutually assured destruction, they'll take the party down with them anyway.

This clearly cannot go on.  If anything, David Cameron today went easy on Corbyn at PMQs for the reason that the opposition leader's real enemies are all seated behind him, a situation he can no doubt empathise with.  He didn't as much as mention the Ken farrago because he didn't need to, leaving a final comment on "shoot to kill" for the last answer instead.

If the point has already been reached where any slim confidence some Labour MPs had in Corbyn has gone, then they should make that clear.  They're fully entitled to take the view that as Corbyn was a serial rebel they can do and say whatever they like, but they ought to reflect on the damage it is doing and will do to Labour as a whole.  Atul Hatwal, despite advocating the exact same steps as his paranoid colleagues accuse Momentum of planning, is right there is no unifying alternative to Corbyn and not the slightest appetite for any move as yet.

Should a majority in the PLP really want to get rid of Corbyn, then they have to box a lot cleverer than they have so far.  Criticising their leader in parliament, to their journalist pals and over such idiotic things is not going to win them any new friends, and only encourage the keyboard jockeys like me to call them out.  Instead, let Corbyn do their work for them: many more interviews as catastrophic as the ones on Monday, if not necessarily for the reasons they believe, and it will become ever more apparent that he isn't improving as he should be.  Rather than plotting in public and complaining about Corbyn supporters daring to criticise them, they need to get organised, coalesce around an alternative who can appeal to both left and right and start the process of preparing the ground.  At the moment all they're doing is putting the equivalent of two fingers up to the 60% who voted for Corbyn, and no amount of sneering at the "selectorate" is going to make their actions more palatable.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015 

14 years of war, and it's whose fault again?

It's a tale in essence of two deleted tweets.  On Friday night at 10, while the siege at the Bataclan was still on-going, John Rentoul of the Independent, noted Blair fan and supporter of assorted interventions sent out a message asking "Will Corbyn say France made itself a target?"  He fairly swiftly erased it, and the next morning made a fulsome apology.  Stop the War Coalition meanwhile tweeted out a link to an article it had sourced from a certain Chris Floyd, titled "Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East".  They too later deleted the tweet, and the article from their site. 

You can no doubt guess which of these messages was brought up in the House of Commons this afternoon.  In fact, it wasn't made reference to just the once, but three times, all by Labour MPs.  The article itself, despite being fairly standard, simplistic anti-war boilerplate does not blame France or the French in the slightest.  It makes no direct reference to France's taking part in strikes against Islamic State.  It condemns the attacks in no uncertain terms, as does the actual statement from Stop the War.

This makes no odds, for there are only two groups of people that care what the Stop the War coalition thinks about anything.  First, the Stop the War coalition; and second, those who got their war in Iraq but ended up losing the argument.  Ever since they've wasted their time pointlessly trolling the StWC, achieving precisely nothing except making themselves feel better.  The prior example to this was activists from the Syria Solidarity UK group turning up to the last StWC public meeting.  SSUK wants a "limited" UK military intervention in Syria; StWC doesn't.  Surprise, there was conflict, spun as the StWC refusing to listen to ordinary Syrians, even while the actual peace talks between the various powers involved in the war have no Syrian involvement whatsoever.

The most egregious remarks in the Commons came from Ian Austin.  In his view those suggesting that Paris had "reaped the whirlwind", or that "Britain's foreign policy has increased not diminished the threats to our own national security are not just absolving the terrorists of responsibility, but risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment which can develop into extremism and terrorism".  David Cameron agreed.  "We have to be very clear to those people who are at risk of being radicalised that this sort of excuse culture is wrong. It’s not only wrong for anyone to argue that Paris was brought about by Western policy. It is also very damaging for young Muslims growing up in Britain to think that any reasonable person could have this view."  This it's worth noting came after Cameron had pointedly responded to Jeremy Corbyn stating President Obama had recognised that Islamic State grew out of the Iraq war by saying "we should not seek excuses for a death cult".

At times like these it's hard not to wonder if you've gone through the looking glass.  Forget for a second about the clear attempt to frame those who so much as suggest that foreign policy might have played a role, not in the Paris attacks themselves, but in the wider threat we face as terrorist enablers.  Forget that some Labour MPs are so caught up in their hatred of Jeremy Corbyn they are willing to ignore President Obama and Tony Blair, both of whom have recognised that Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war.

Let's instead just focus on the idea that our foreign policy over the past 14 years has decreased the terrorist threat.  Austin was referring to the speech Corbyn was due to give on Saturday but cancelled in light of the Paris attacks, where he would have said that "For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process."  

Which part of that statement is incorrect?  The security services, the home secretary, the prime minister, all inform us that the threat we face from terrorism is the most serious it has ever been.  Have those wars made us safer?  For short periods they might have done, prior to Islamic State rising again, with al-Qaida struggling to stay relevant.  That is surely not the case now, when our failures in Iraq, even if we are not even close to being fully responsible, have undeniably helped Islamic State to grow.  Our policy on Syria, of hoping that by letting or encouraging the Saudis, Qataris and Emirate states to fund whichever Islamist/jihadist groups they felt like would lead to the fall of Assad has not decreased the threat.  It has increased it.

So too would joining in with the airstrikes on Islamic State increase the threat we face.  Don't though take it from me; take it from our American allies, with the defence secretary no less stating that Russia would pay the price for its intervention.  Well golly, they did, didn't they?  The Daily Beast went so far as to report that some in the US government "privately delighted in the news that Russia was made to pay".  Seeing as the prime minister and other politicians are so keen to police what are and what are not acceptable views on foreign policy, we could also remember that earlier on Friday Cameron was insisting killing Mohammad Emwazi was "a blow at the heart of Isil".  The Sun's front page, before it realised it was in appalling taste in light of what was happening but not before 20 had already been confirmed dead, had a picture of Emwazi with the headline "JIHAD IT COMING".  It's perfectly fine to say that our enemies had it coming and enjoy the schadenfreude, but when someone suggests perhaps there could be a link between our failures and terrorist attacks it's time to get out the ducking stool.

The fact is that to plenty of Labour MPs and their friends in the media, their real problem with Corbyn has always been his views on foreign policy more than anything else.  It admittedly doesn't help when he fails to explain himself clearly, whether it's in interviews or at meetings of the PLP.  It was painfully obvious however that his comments on "shoot to kill" to Laura Kuenssberg were in relation to manhunts, not in bringing an end to situations similar to those in Paris.  Plenty of his critics are happy to be wilfully obtuse so long as it's seen to damage him.  Things like how "shoot to kill" policies have gone horribly wrong in the past, or how the two murderers of Lee Rigby, who charged at the police while armed were not shot dead are unimportant.  When it comes to Corbyn's comments on the legality or alternatives to the drone strike on Emwazi, they point to how it would be impossible to have acted otherwise.  It almost certainly would have been, and yet time and again the same people make the case for military intervention without the slightest thought for the implications or to the how it should happen as opposed to the why it must right now.

If the prospect of Corbyn attending the Stop the War Christmas fundraising party really is enough to make shadow cabinet ministers consider resigning, perhaps it's time they re-examined their priorities.  How exactly did they think Corbyn was going to respond to a terrorist attack on the scale of Paris?  Did they honestly believe he would come out swinging, agreeing entirely with Dave in his "the case for action has grown stronger since Paris" claim?  Did they really think he would go all gung-ho for the sake of it, when the best thing an opposition leader can do is to urge calm and for cool heads to prevail?  Do they genuinely imagine that if Corbyn came over the military hard man that the public would be impressed by it?

Of course they don't.  The only thing John Rentoul did wrong it turns out is sending his tweet too soon.  It doesn't seem to occur to Corbyn's opponents that the reason they're stuck with him at least for now is because of their own failures.  They lost to a near pacifist hard leftist and rather than consider if there's a reason why the Labour party membership voted for such a person, they insist on carrying on regardless.  The attempt to pillory and silence anyone who thinks there might be more to attacks like the ones in Paris than they hate us and our freedoms is predictable, but also revealing of a total refusal to accept even the most basic lessons of the past 14 years.  What amazes above all however is that after those 14 years, somehow, incredibly, it's the people that have failed to stop any of those wars that are the ones accused of making excuses for and giving succour to the terrorists.

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Monday, November 16, 2015 

The inevitable Paris attacks post.

(This is long, nearly 3000 words long, and concerns the attacks in Paris.  If either of those things and the necessity to discuss unpleasant truths, such as about foreign policy trouble you, best not to read it.)

Over the weekend, I've been racking my brains, trying to find the right words to describe those who carried out the attacks in Paris on Friday night.  So many just don't seem either adequate to the task, don't seem to convey the full horror, if not of the shootings outside restaurants or the bombings outside the Stade de France, then definitely of the assault on the Bataclan and what went on inside the concert venue.  Many have gone with barbarians, but that carries many connotations with it, just as so many other adjectives do also.  Vermin, scum, filth, they all allude back to a previous time in Europe when ordinary people were described as a disease, a cancer, a bacteria, in order to dehumanise them to the point where they could be targeted, discriminated against, and ultimately, annihilated.

The jihadists of Islamic State are called many things they're not too.  Nihilistic for one, although they often seem set upon destruction for its own sake, so it's understandable.  To a certain extent they are a cult, as they certainly display cult-like traits, and yet cults tend for the most part not to be outwardly homicidal, more often suicidal.  There are exceptions, like Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that released sarin on the Tokyo underground, but they're rare.  One tweeter called them "miserable, spiteful, pious, joyless [and] boring", while Camilla Long settled on a "bunch of self-important, cunty old dads".

Cunts.  Yeah, I think that sums it up.  These people are cunts.  They are not inhuman, but they do not display the slightest sign of basic humanity.  They are oblivious to everything that contradicts their world view, living in their own solipsistic, hateful parody of the life the rest of us experience.  Despite how some of them, perhaps only a matter of a couple of years ago might have been out on a Friday night to see an act at the Bataclan or a similar venue, now they believe it is justified to slaughter people they may have once stood alongside in pursuit of an unattainable goal.  It helps of course they might consider music other than acapella singing to be haram, that men and women were mixing freely, that alcohol was being drank, that drugs will have been taken, that some would have a met a lover there, even if only for the one night, but really that's secondary.  Takfirist jihadists kill people because they can and because many of them enjoy it, especially if they're "apostates".  They target the West and Westerners especially because they hope above hope to sow discord, to inspire a military response, especially one involving Western troops, because they know this will bring further recruits to the cause.  The more alienated ordinary Muslims become as a result of such reactions, everyday discrimination, attacks on what some consider to be the ummah, the more they believe will come to accept their world view.

Let's not get onto that quite yet though.  There was something especially depraved about the assault on the Bataclan, the sheer viciousness, the murderous intent, they way the attackers went about killing so many.  Some will disagree vehemently with me on this, but there is an element of masochism about a "mere" suicide bombing, just as there is a far larger one of sadism.  Is there a certain amount of cowardice in pressing a button and dying instantly, not seeing anything of the carnage the act has caused?  Certainly, and yet at the same time it takes an amount of courage as well.  Yes, they have of course been prepared for what they've often volunteered to do, told of the "rewards", of how it helps the overall "fight", but still at the end they have to be ready to die.  The attackers except for one did kill themselves in such a way, but not before they had seen the consequences of their actions.  Not content with merely shooting down their victims, they prodded prone bodies, firing more volleys into those believed to still be alive, in the same way as their fellow fighters have done to those captured or in the wrong place at the wrong time in Syria and Iraq.  We hear of the sadistic joy at least one attacker apparently experienced through his actions, of the terror those still alive went through, expressions of love and saying goodbye that had no apparent effect on the murderers.  For all the violence we have experienced or lived through, it's extraordinarily rare for an act of such evil to happen on a street in the peaceful West.  We forget just how lucky we truly are.

Some of that luck has been down to the jihadists being far more concerned with the spectacular than the practical.  September the 11th managed to be both, taking advantage of the more relaxed attitude to security that had arisen after the chaos of the 70s when plane hijackings were close to being an epidemic.  Time after time post-9/11 plots were disrupted that involved home-made bombs, when so much can go wrong and where often so many people became involved that suspicions arose.  Al-Qaida believed as much in "propaganda by deed" as the anarchists that first came up with the notion did, thinking that the more shocking an attack the more people would be overawed by it into joining up.  They ignored the example shown time after time by single spree killers, where someone with often little more than rudimentary knowledge of firearms can kill dozens before either killing themselves or being shot dead.  If the aim is to kill as many as possible, why rely on explosives with all that can go wrong when basic training in using an automatic weapon takes a matter of hours?

The Mumbai attack showed the potential for the number of casualties, the difficulties that authorities can have in bringing an assault to an end, and still in the main the example was ignored.  Now, after a further experimentation with telling sympathisers to act on their own, to do anything, the sum of all fears might be upon us.  Obviously there are reasons to be cautious, not least when the plots the security services claim to have foiled here have continued to involve relatively primitive "pressure cooker" bombs, or the targeting of armed forces personnel or police officers, but if Islamic State really is changing tactics and encouraging the combination of the practical with the spectacular, we should be deeply concerned.

Indeed, unless the accounts change then the attacks in Paris demonstrated again the limits of bombs.  6 of the 7 known attackers apparently blew themselves up with their suicide belts/vests, and yet it seems only one bystander was killed as a result.  This again may be down to luck and a desire for the spectacular instead of practicalities: the aim seems to have been to get a group of three into the Stade de France itself, only for at least one to be stopped when he was patted down.  If the others then blew themselves up knowing they wouldn't gain entry, as seems to be the case, even worse carnage was prevented.  They seem to have tried to enter after the match had already started also, when they could had they wished detonated their bombs when the streets would have been full of people heading for the stadium.  Again, you have to suspect the aim was for the explosions to happen live on TV, with all the panic that would have caused both inside the stadium and among those watching the home.  The potential for further massive loss of life was thankfully averted.  That the bombs would also seem to have been fairly weak to go by the lack of casualties, despite the bang they produced as documented, further makes clear the difficulties of making explosives vis-a-vis using an AK-47.

Something though clearly has changed in the calculations of Islamic State.  The reason I and some others argued that IS was not that big of a threat to us back home was because it was focused on establishing and defending its "caliphate".  Those who came back from Iraq or Syria having joined it were the equivalent of "drop-outs": either those who couldn't hack being in a war zone from the start, those who developed PTSD or its equivalents, those who were persuaded by relatives to come back, your gap year jihadis, etc.  To leave IS was to be ridiculed for journeying back to the decadence of the West.  Why go back having made the modern day equivalent of the "hijrah"?

Up until Friday IS had not definitively launched an attack outside of the Arab world/Middle East.  The Hyper Cachet attacker claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamic State, but any real link remains unproven.  Likewise, the foiled by chance train gun attack is now being linked back to IS, but that was not made clear at the time.  Now, in the space of not more than a couple of months IS has attacked a peace demonstration by leftists/Kurds in Ankara, Shias in Beirut, likely the Russians through the downing of the Metrojet plane, and lastly Paris.  Paris is still unique in that it seems to have been in the main carried out by French returnees from Syria, but it's also clear that IS is turning its attention further afield.

The question is why.  Some will point towards Islamic State being threatened, and it's true that IS is finally being pushed back to an extent.  Despite the continuing claims that Russia is only hitting the "moderates" in Syria, last week the Syrian army took back an airbase that has been under siege for 2 years by IS thanks in the main to Russian airstrikes.  Palmyra is their next target, which will finally give the lie to the media narrative about the Russian intervention if/when it happens.  Given far greater coverage has been the taking back of Sinjar in northern Iraq, if you can call completely wiping Sinjar from the map after both civilians and IS had fled taking it back.  It could be that IS does believe the noose is tightening, as anyone would when all the major world powers other than the Chinese are bombing you, but the fall is not coming any time soon.  Both of the ground forces ranged against it, the SAA and the Kurds, are weak, even when getting full backing from the air.

A better explanation is that IS is just doing what it does when things have gone relatively quiet: it hits targets that either will or it believes will once again get those sympathetic to its cause back on side.  Killing leftists, Shias, Westerners, knowing what the response will be makes sense, at least to them.  Some have pointed towards an article in Islamic State's Dabiq magazine about "the grey zone", about how 9/11 made everything either black or white, and it could be this is part of some grand strategy and the Paris attack is linked back to that.  It could equally have just become arrogant, believing it's here to stay regardless of the forces ranged against it, and has dramatically overreached when it should still be focused on Syria/Iraq, and not on making its enemies who until now have been relatively content to let the stalemate continue determined to bring it to an end.

It would be lovely to think the Paris attack will concentrate Western minds on Islamic State, and the initial signs look fairly encouraging.  Sadly, there are reasons to doubt this will last, especially when so much else of the response has been as dispiriting as ever.  Hollande's speech to the two houses of parliament today, as predictable as the measures he announced were, are almost precisely the ones Islamic State would have hoped for.  If as looks likely all the other attackers are either French or European nationals, that there was a token Syrian involved who just happened to take his passport with him to be found after the fact suggests IS knew full well how that would be responded to by those who have been warning of the "threat" from refugees.  That so many have fled from their glorious reinstitution of the caliphate has irked them for a long time, the group repeatedly criticising those daring to escape their clutches.  The response from the vast majority of Europeans to the refugee crisis also undermined their propaganda about everyday, habitual discrimination.  How better to trigger a rethink than to send a lone Syrian to make his journey to France along the refugee route, ending in a suicide attack on fans watching a football match involving Germany, whose teams were among those making clear that refugees were welcome?

This is not to pretend that Europe as we know it is not under threat.  It is, just not from refugees.  If a single suicide bomber is enough to bring down the Schengen agreement, then that will be a failure on the part of politicians to defend their actions.  All the same, this is clearly not the end of Europe as we know it, let alone "how civilisations fall" as Niall Ferguson put it.  If we have learned anything from the last 14 years of war, then it surely ought to be that military action pursued on the basis of ideology or out of a sense of revenge will backfire.  Chucking bombs at Raqqa might be useful as catharsis, but it's not one that's advisable.

Likewise, that it is absurd we have 650 "armchair generals" blocking action in Syria appears so only to those "armchair generals" that have been demanding it since at least 2013, only then it was against Assad.  We shouldn't pretend that deciding not to take part in military action against IS in Syria will make us safer, as it probably won't.  Conversely however, there is every reason to believe that taking part in such action will make us even more of a target, and increase the threat.  Those who are pushing for such action should make that clear to the British public: no, we shouldn't be inhibited from intervening due to such threats, but equally the risks of doing so should be plainly stated.

Defeating Islamic State will also require us to accept some harsh home truths.  Whatever the rights or wrongs of the initial Iraq war, it had a major role in the creation of IS and its predecessor organisations.  Our decisions in Iraq have contributed at various stages to Islamic State's fortunes: the insistence on continuing the occupation, on the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the de-Ba'athification process, the attack on Fallujah, the propping up of a sectarian Shia government that led to many Sunnis who had previously fought against and opposed IS coming to support it.  Similarly, our choices in Syria, still continuing today have not helped.  Supporting the revolution to begin with was the right move: continuing to demand the immediate removal of Assad once it became clear that there were no more moderates in the armed opposition to him, or none of any note has been a disaster.  Allowing or turning a blind eye to the Sunni Gulf states arming and funding the jihadist opposition, even if they have not directly done either with IS, has been a disaster.  Islamic State is especially vile and dangerous, but to pretend the likes of al-Nusra or any of the other jihadist rebel groups or alliances are any better is foolish.  Painful as it will to be admit, Russia's intervention has made the most sense of any, regardless of its ulterior motives.  Demanding that Assad leave now without knowing who or what will replace him is not a policy.  It is a madness.

The solution, if there is one, is to continue what we're doing but more intelligently, including working with the Russians.  President Obama is right to rule out using American ground forces, as that's precisely what Islamic State needs to inspire further recruits to the cause, just as the Iraqi insurgency did.  The forces on the ground that we can support, such as the Syrian Arab Army, the Syrian Defence Forces and the Kurds in Iraq have to be strengthened.  Ceasefires if possible on an individual basis with the rebel groups in the west should be negotiated, allowing Syrian forces to turn their attention to IS in the east.  The promise to the rebels will be that once IS has been driven out of Syria as much as it can be, Assad will leave office as soon as possible, and elections will be held.  This will involve both a huge swallowing of pride on our behalf, and the utmost luck and fortune.  It almost certainly won't work, as the non-IS jihadist rebels will not accept it, nor probably will the few remaining moderates.  It is though just about the only option that will lead to IS being defeated sooner rather than later.  If not now, when we will we recognise that our alliances, our mistakes, our continuing arrogance, if not leading directly to Paris, have had a major role in the creation and success of Islamic State?

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Friday, November 13, 2015 

If he hadn't existed, we would have invented him. Oh, we did anyway.

I've just heard that Jihadi John is dead.  Had his head taken off by a golf ball.  Tragic, tragic!

Or at least that's the way Basil Fawlty might have put it.  Frankly, it would have been preferable to David Cameron's statement.  You can understand President Obama announcing to the world the death of Osama bin Laden; when David Cameron feels the need to put out a lectern in Downing Street and starts explaining how killing Mohammed Emwazi is "a strike at the heart of Isil", it's time for a drink.

Mohammed Emwazi was a nobody, and he ought to have remained a nobody.  The only slightly interesting thing about him is how he came to be radicalised, and then it remains only slightly interesting.  He had no real position of authority or command in Islamic State; he became notable only because he was chosen from any one of however many Western recruits to be the organisation's face to the West.  David Cameron called him Islamic State's chief executioner, which is arguably true, in that he was the one who murdered the group's Western hostages.  By comparison to any number of Islamic State's ordinary cadres however, he almost certainly killed far fewer than many of his fellow fighters.  Once the Western hostages apart from John Cantlie were murdered, he returned to the shadows, both because there was little further use for him and because the Western media and politicians had conspired to make him Islamic State, far more than Islamic State's actual leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ever has been.

Killing Emwazi proves we have a long reach, said Cameron.  Well yes, it certainly is a long reach, so long that it took months after he stopped being a direct threat to us or our citizens to pick him up, or in this case obliterate via drone.  In this instance there probably wasn't any alternative: dropping special forces into Raqqa and expecting them to get out alive or without potentially being captured themselves was a risk few would be willing to take.  Killing Emwazi in such a way raises fewer questions than the previous extrajudicial strike against Reyaad Khan did, not least because Emwazi's crimes were filmed, not merely alleged plots, and it was an American rather than a British operation.  With no other possible way to capture him, and without anything to suggest he would leave Syria except in a body bag, there is an arguable case that doing so was in "self-defence" as Cameron claimed.  That's all it remains, arguable.

As Jeremy Corbyn has said (and of course as soon as the news came through Emwazi had been killed our great political journalists began to speculate on how terrorist lover Corbo would equivocate), it appears as if he has been held to account for his crimes.  That's the best that can be said though, as killing someone, however vile and however brutal their crimes is not a substitute for a trial, nor will it ever be.

David Cameron finished his statement by saying his thoughts were with those who Emwazi so cruelly murdered, and their families.  They would be remembered long after the killers of Isil had been forgotten, he insisted.

Except, sadly, they won't.  We remember the murderers, not the victims.  We know of Jack the Ripper, of Peter Sutcliffe, of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, while the names of those whose lives they ended are firmly in the background, if that.  When the prime minister has to refer to Emwazi by his tabloid nickname, it's clear who will be remembered in 10, 20 years time, and it won't be Alan Henning, David Haines, James Foley, Steven Sotloff or Abdul-Rahman (Peter) Kassig, let alone Haruna Yukawa, Kenji Goto or the unnamed and unknown Syrian officer Emwazi was also filmed beheading, without any cutaways as was the case with the Westerners.

Killing Emwazi is not even the cutting of a head off the Hydra.  It's the equivalent of cutting off the head of the Hydra's spokesman.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015 

Cameron has always been the PR man. Osborne isn't.

The much commented on, if not as widely reported exchange of letters between David Cameron and Oxfordshire council leader Ian Hudspeth is unquestionably brilliant.  It's not often a prime minister is treated like an especially boneheaded teenager might be by an exasperated teacher, with Hudspeth having to explain one more time exactly why it is that he cannot follow the "best practice" of other Conservative councils as Dave suggests.  Oxfordshire has already made back office savings, dispensed with "surplus assets", cut everything other than social care.  Spending has not increased, Hudspeth makes clear, and the council has not cut only a mere £242m so far.  £242m was not a cumulative figure, as Dave wrote, the cumulative figure in fact being £626m.

As Rick says, the prime minister's advice is the equivalent of a quack applying more leeches to a dying patient.  He seems to believe the same solutions as were proposed back in 2010 are still valid now.  He's far from alone in this of course, with Theresa May crowing about how the cuts to the police have proved once and for all that more can be done with less, at the same time as forces consider sponsorship deals to bring in cash and as residents in rural areas are employing private security to patrol.  Just today the sports minister Tracey Crouch advised people having difficulties making ends meet to cancel their Sky subscriptions.  Some doubtless would regard giving up Sky as a breach of their fundamental human rights, but the idea many living on the breadline, relying on food banks or worrying about cuts to their tax credits are paying their dues to Rupert Murdoch doesn't fly.  Many of those people would be in an even worse position if they couldn't access the internet, something satellite and cable providers also happen to provide.

While some in the government might be oblivious or ignorant as to exactly what it is they're asking of both their colleagues at the local level and of the very people they've been elected to represent, there's also those who are very much aware.  George Osborne for instance, who earlier in the week celebrated those departments that have already outlined the amount they can save two weeks ahead of his comprehensive spending review.  Should his attempt to cut tax credits be scuppered or the amount due to be saved fall in the effort to soften the blow, that money will have to be found elsewhere.  With the triple-lock on pensions, all the ring-fenced departments and tax rises verboten, although not as a result of the public being opposed as Ken Clarke claims, rather due to politicians refusing to make the political case for doing so, the only areas left to target are those cut to the bone already.

Indeed, the "impossible constraints" Clarke talked about are entirely of Osborne's own devising.  Running a surplus is a choice, rather than an imperative central to our economic security as the chancellor claims.  As the Guardian's leader today argues, it's true Osborne is not the crude neo-Thatcherite as he is sometimes painted.  He has been more flexible than that, and has stolen Labour and Liberal Democrat policies when it's suited him.  He has also though presided over a hollowing out of the state, to the point where it looks to be perilously close to collapsing in on itself.  Hudspeth is far from the only council leader worrying about where it is he's going to make further savings from, not least when raising council tax above 2% requires a local referendum to be held.  Asking for cuts of 30% on top of a reduction in funding which has amounted to 37% so far, according to the National Audit Office, can mean the only place left to make savings is by cutting the frontline.  So far, in part thanks to how Labour did "fix the roof while the sun was shining", most services have held together.  You wouldn't bet on the same being the case come 2020.

Rest assured however that as the NAO report also found, the Department for Communities and Local Government is on the case.  The DCLG in their words has a "a limited understanding of the financial sustainability of local authorities and the extent to which they may be at risk of financial failure" and also "does not monitor the impact of funding reductions on services in a coordinated way."  Like the prime minister, they haven't got a clue.  Still, by 2020 all things going well Osborne will be our new overlord, primed and ready to explain why absolutely nothing is his or the Tories' fault.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015 

Pornageddon: nope, still isn't upon us.

As alluded to on Friday, last Thursday saw the House of Lords discuss pornography.  Generally, the near cliche that the Lords is a more urbane place with a higher standard of debate is mostly correct.  Party politics rears its ugly head far less often, and the fact some members of the other place have been appointed due to their expertise in one field or another does mean those debates at least are often more evidence based.

Obviously there are exceptions, and last Thursday was one.  It couldn't really be otherwise when the venerable Bishop of Chester opened the debate and confessed that tempted as he has been on occasion, he was not especially familiar with pornography.  Two of his clergy have in the past been prosecuted for downloading images of child sexual abuse, he felt it necessary to admit, but rest assured they won't be practising their Christian faith again.  Despite this lack of hands-on experience with porn, he nevertheless knew that it was bad for the soul, as indeed did the majority of other participants in the debate.  Both he and Baroness Uddin (best known for being suspended from the Lords for 18 months over her "made wrongly and in bad faith" expenses claims) quoted the charity Naked Truth, which helps those who have become "addicted" to pornography.  Evidence you really can become addicted to porn isn't easy to come by, but Naked Truth, predictably enough run by God-botherers (or more pertinently by the God-bothering son of a child abuse image downloading God-bothering charity boss), know better.

Indeed, anyone looking for evidence in the debate beyond the anecdotal for all the evils ascribed to pornography would do so in vain, but when those anecdotes are so colourful and so potentially worrying it's difficult to get beyond them.  Lord Farmer woke anyone who might still have been snoozing up with his insistence that teenage girls, from the Home Counties no less, not some "inner city urban jungle", were presenting to at least one GP with incontinence as a consequence of being unable to say no to demands for anal sex.  It was pretty much left to Baroness Murphy (and Lord Scriven, to give him credit also), a cross-bencher and academic psychiatrist, to point out that definitive proof of harm caused by violent pornography, let alone the humble garden soft or hard varieties remains lacking.  The studies that have been carried out were often the equivalent of cold laboratory tests, not involving the raison d'etre of pornography, masturbation.  A recent meta-analysis of not always very good data suggested some young men already predisposed to violence would watch correspondingly violent porn, but that in itself was not evidence of causality.

Those, as they say, are the facts.  We know very little about any negative effects porn has, and even less about the impact post the internet making it available to everyone, the vast majority of it free.  At the same time, it's a reasonable conclusion to draw that the effects of violent pornography, and other violent media in general for that matter have been fairly minimal, considering how violent crime has fallen across the Western world in the past 20 years, criminologists having failed to reach any overarching reason as to why.

When newspapers then attempt to draw a link between hard cases involving both children and adults on the basis that the perpetrators all used violent pornography and/or child abuse images, they ought at the very least be highly cautious.  First that they are mixing up the viewing of material that is illegal with that which might not be, and second that it is all but impossible to quantify the true role, if any, the material had on the perpetrator.  Both the criminal and the police often look for something to blame or explain, when the more prosaic truth might be they were always inclined to such acts.  Jamie Reynolds, the killer of Georgia Williams, had clearly long had a strangulation fetish.  Whether his use of pornography that depicted similar encouraged or drove his desire to turn fantasy into reality only he can answer, and it is not always wise to trust the word of a killer.  What we do know is that others with similar fetishes, which include women just as much as it does men, view the same material and do not ever want to turn a fantasy into consensual reality, let alone go further.  Just as important in Reynolds' case would be that he repeatedly wrote short stories about killing and then violating women, and that he had also written a script which to a certain extent he followed when murdering Georgia.  Rather than just consuming extreme images, he had been actively projecting himself as someone who could commit such a crime by putting it down on paper.

The same caution must be urged when it comes to claims of a "dramatic proliferation of online images of abuse and violent sexual acts" and "the huge increase in individuals who are accessing it".  Unlike with drugs, where there have long been reliable surveys alongside statistics on arrests and convictions, we don't have any real baseline figure of those accessing images of abuse, and so nothing solid on which to compare the numbers now being presented as showing a huge increase.  Even the merest scratching of the surface of online paedophilia necessitates visiting the dark web, and beyond that outright illegality lies.  The suggestion there are 50,000 to 60,000 individuals in the UK sharing abuse images online sounds as though it could be right, but there is no reason to believe that is any more or less than the number that have been involved for years.  More creditable is there has been a proliferation of images of abuse, but this is understandable when digital cameras and smartphones have made capturing abuse all the easier.  We should be equally critical about the alarm over "sexting" among teenagers, but the sharing of those images and the rise of "revenge porn" adds another possible explanation to the reported increase.

It would of course be lovely if we could, in the words of Baroness Murphy, not be so "virulent about an issue that we hardly know anything about".  We could also quote Myles Jackman, as Lord Scriven did, that “Pornography is the canary in the coalmine of free speech: it is the first freedom to die".  That has more than a ring of truth to it, but it's also the case that bad as the current law against "extreme" pornography is, it would be futile if not impossible for the government to follow through on its pledge during the election campaign to block porn sites that refuse to put in place age verification.  Pornageddon, whether it be in the form of good middle class teenage girls from Tunbridge Wells becoming incontinent from anal sex, or the construction of a great filth firewall, is not about to descend on us.  What we could do with is more in the way of evidence, but then as a nation we've always preferred to have a panic rather than take a step back.  Video nasty, anyone?

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