Tuesday, December 01, 2015

What's Going On

This one, from last night, wondering why the decision whether or not to bomb Syria has turned into a bizarre nationwide pile-on to the leader of the opposition when it was the Prime Minister's idea in the first place, and not even he has made much of an effort to justify it.

Well, I'd suggest that the crazed Labour Party pissfights signify this - we're witnessing the UK's anti-war movement at the absolute zenith of its power and influence.  

Even now, when anti-war politicians have access to far greater resources and publicity than ever, the very idea that it's permissible to oppose war generally, or any war in particular, couldn't really be further from political acceptability.

This, I'd argue, is because there's simply no level of actually effective anti-war sentiment that's admissible to mainstream British politics.  Barring a very few and peculiar set of exceptions, it's just not possible for a high-profile public figure to consistently oppose the UK's wars without being showered in opprobrium. 

Note that I'm not even talking about some kind of grand Gandhian Satyagraha here, nor a Christlike national turning of the other cheek.  A visible public figure consistently noting that our wars backfire catastrophically, and then concluding that we shouldn't engage in any more until this massive defect is sorted, is usually enough to provoke the kind of clamorous condemnation on display above.

You might think that given recent events, this kind of fire-breathing hate-fest is all about Jeremy Corbyn but really, this misses the point.

Consider this - which anti-war politician or pundit can confidently expect a fair hearing in the UK, right now or at any point in the last two decades?  Can you think of any that could consistently criticise our endless wars, without being instantly dismissed, at best?*

I can think of maybe a couple - Peter Hitchens and Matthew Parris spring to mind, although only because they're tolerated as cranky eccentrics, like mad uncles ripping into the whisky at a wedding.  Their complaints are indulged because it's understood that they pose no threat to anyone.  They also allow the major papers to feign a kind of even-handedness - look, we might have filled the front eight pages with ecstatic wargasms and fearsome red-baiting, but Hitchens said the Prime Minister is a vainglorious fool, so it all evens out.

Otherwise, it's a bust**.  Because, contrary to our self-image, we are a warlike people.  All of our relevant institutions are bent towards it and every proposed war is automatically assumed to be the wisest course of action.  This being the case, the only chance of avoiding any particular war is an unexpected 2011-style, incompetence-based parliamentary fuck-up.

I note this not even to lament it, really - it just is.

The point worth remembering though is that this is probably it, the high-water mark of modern British anti-war politics.  And it amounts to every newspaper in the land queueing up to denounce dissenters as traitors or lunatics, and to back yet another deranged war to the hilt.

I put it to you that in this context, perhaps leadership squabbles within the Labour Party are the very least of our worries.

*The best I could come up with was Kurt Vonnegut, and he's dead.  It's also worth noting that half of the Times obituary for Vonnegut was devoted to painting him as a dupe of neo-Nazis at best, if not an outright sympathiser himself.  Wonderful people at the Times.

**There's also the regional parties, where it's widely understood that anti-war sentiment is an electoral gambit, open to reversal at the first sign that there might be votes in it.  And even then, nobody much cares what they have to say, outside of actual elections.  


Iain Roberts said...

Robin Cook? Menzies Campbell? Charles Kennedy? All got a fairly respectful hearing (as much as any politician ever does) when they opposed the Iraq war.

flyingrodent said...

Got a fairly respectful hearing once, I think. And in Cook's case, part of the reason for the respect he got for opposing Iraq was the common understanding that he was, in all likelihood, burning down his career to do it.

(In truth, I knew when I wrote this that I'd probably spend the whole comment thread coming up with ever-more reductive reasons for why person (x) doesn't count. I would put a bit of emphasis on either "consistent" or "effective", though - Campbell might meet the former, while Cook would meet the latter).

Anonymous said...

Charles Kennedy was jeered by the Tories when he entered the Chamber to speak about Iraq. He did not receive a sympathetic hearing. None of this was mentioned in the obituaries, except one by a close colleague.

I was about to comment about this somewhere else in the context of the row about Ken Livingstone. It is clear that Blair was dishonest in not passing on the full picture from the intelligence services about the risks of terrorism due to an invasion of Iraq. It should be noted that it takes a maverick like Livingstone to point this out and it is greeted with a great deal of screeching and finger-pointing about how it is unacceptable to say such things. The same applies to anyone pointing out that the invasion of Iraq, the intervention in Libya and the indulgence of the Syrian opposition between 2012 and 2014 have led to the present chronic instability in the region and ISIS; there is always some reason why saying such a thing is unacceptable.

I don't know how the Chilcot report is going to help us to learn lessons when there is clearly not going to be any acknowledgement of the gravity of the mistakes that were made.


Iain Roberts said...

@flyingrodent: Fair enough. Although if he'd lived, Cook would probably have been offered a senior job in Brown's government. (I know they disliked each other, but it would have been a handy way for Brown to signal he was different from Blair.)

Corbyn's problem isn't his opposition to war as such, it's all the Stop The War Coalition baggage he carries around with him. He looks and sounds like the very model of a naive pacifist, so the media have anointed him as Unserious and Unpatriotic.

It's not entirely fair, but politics is a rough old game and Corbyn has done himself no favours -- for instance by calling this week for a "peace process" in Syria. Exactly how the gangs of merciless killers on all sides in Syria are to be persuaded to negotiate, Corbyn does not deign to tell us.

Anonymous said...

"Exactly how the gangs of merciless killers on all sides in Syria are to be persuaded to negotiate, Corbyn does not deign to tell us."

But neither does Cameron, and his plan to use 70,000 moderates to fight ISIS depends on some kind of peace process that will turn them into a cohesive fighting force with their AK47s all pointing in the same direction, accountable to a central command and working to return areas they liberate into a functioning state. That is an enormous task and nobody can say much about it because, by its nature, it is difficult to know who can be incorporated into such a process and who will have to be taken off the field because they are spoilers; nobody knows whether it is possible to get them and Assad to agree to anything; nobody knows whether it is possible to stop the outside supporters and war-opportunists to leave the scene. But some kind of peace process, where these challenges are tackled rather than avoided, is the only solution.

Today's debate should be about that rather than about bombing, which is really a marginal issue.


Iain Roberts said...

@Anonymous: Show me a politician who isn't jeered by the opposing side in the House of Commons.

As for Livingstone, it's not terribly unusual to say the invasion of Iraq increased the risk of terrorism to the UK. The International Institute for Strategic Studies are hardly a bunch of sandal-wearing hippies, and they were saying as much as early as 2004.

Livingstone went further by saying the 7/7 bombers "gave their lives" in protest, as if they were the armed wing of STWC. It's this which kicked off the "screeching and finger-pointing", as you call it.

Iain Roberts said...

@Anonymous: Say what? How does recruiting and motivating an army of 70,000 people to go and kill the enemy (whoever that might be) constitute a "peace process"? I seriously doubt that's what Corbyn meant when he used the prase.

Don't get me wrong, Cameron's plan doesn't make a great deal of sense either. I'm no cheerleader for the SNP, but they appear to be the only major party whose leadership appreciates the complexity of the situation, and the fact that there are no good options.

Anonymous said...

Iain Roberts - I don't fully understand your comment and probably you don't understand my comment.

I think that Corbyn is referring to a peace process to end the Syrian civil war, and he is not referring to a peace process with ISIS. I think that he is, rightly, saying that eventually ISIS will have to be fought but settling the Syrian civil war is a necessary precondition. Cameron's strategy is presumably the same, but he doesn't want to talk about the steps that will have to be taken to get the 70,000 fighters to point their guns at ISIS; he doesn't want to highlight the fact that this would take about two years at a minimum and he wants to bomb now.

When Corbyn talks about a peace process, as I understand it, he is not being nebulous; he means clearly abandoning the failed strategy of trying to overthrow Assad by supporting a highly unreliable opposition.

One of the reasons that Cameron is trying to keep the focus off this is presumably because he doesn't want too much focus on the fact that, until recently, HMG was to support that failed strategy.


Anonymous said...

Original post - "This being the case, the only chance of avoiding any particular war is an unexpected 2011-style, incompetence-based parliamentary fuck-up."

I think you mean "2013-style"

Iain Roberts. "Corbyn's baggage." Why isn't other people's baggage recognised? Why isn't it recognised that, for example, Cameron and Hague are responsible for turning Libya into a failed state from which weapons flowed across northern Africa and the Middle East? Isn't that baggage?


Iain Roberts said...

@Anonymous: Yes, I imagine Corbyn was referring to a peace process to end the Syrian civil war. There is no prospect of that happening in the near future, because the various factions in Syria are too busy killing each other to negotiate.

If I understand correctly, you advocate organising a "third force" in Syria to fight ISIS and serve as a counterbalance to the Assad regime. That is not a peace process, it is an attempt to win the war. They're not at all the same thing. (In this context, "win" translates as "conclude in a way favourable to the UK".)

Also, you're reading an awful lot into Corbyn's rather vague public statements. Is there any reason to believe that Corbyn supports the strategy you outline?

My personal suspicion is that Corbyn has absolutely no idea how to bring the Syrian factions to the negotiating table, he's just talking about a "peace process" because it sounds nice.

Iain Roberts said...

@Anonymous: Of course Cameron has "baggage" from the Libyan war, among other things. But AIUI, the topic is why Corbyn is getting a particularly hard time from the media, not why Cameron is getting an easy one. (The answer to the latter is pretty simple, large sections of the media are fond of both wars and Conservatives.)

gregorach said...

"his plan to use 70,000 moderates to fight ISIS depends on [...]"

... them actually existing, which by all indications, they do not. He may as well propose fighting ISIS with an army of cave trolls or Space Marines.

Anonymous said...

Iain Roberts. No, I'm not talking about a third force. I'm talking about banging together the heads of all these factions, and banging their heads together with the heads of Assad's regime. This is because the state of Syria has to be rebuilt as precondition for tackling ISIS, or a new framework of states has to be built. The only other strategy (overthrowing Assad and build a new Syrian state on the basis of the factional opposition) failed about three years ago though it still has its supporters.

I am indeed reading a lot into what Corbyn says. I'm guessing that he, and a few others, are pointing in that direction. I don't think he's saying "peace process" because it sounds nice, but because he recognises that, to deal with ISIS, we have to deal with all the other conflicts that are going on around it. No-one knows how to bring these factions to the negotiating table but all the alternatives are worse. The first step would presumably to make it clear that the US/UK/French/Russian target is ISIS and that the factions are only going to get support if they are fighting ISIS and no-one else, and that all support is going to have to be accounted for.


Anonymous said...

Baggage. Yes indeed, the media think that being against disastrous wars is "baggage" and voting for them isn't. As the original post suggests, there isn't much we can do about that.


redpesto said...

Gregorach: " He may as well propose fighting ISIS with an army of cave trolls or Space Marines."

Starship Troopers had that covered from before the invasion of Iraq.

ejh said...

Meanwhile, since he's rarely entirely off-topic in these parts, I'd like to share with you this magnificient piece of Aaro.

Witchsmeller Pursuivant said...

@ Iain Roberts

My personal suspicion is that Corbyn has absolutely no idea how to bring the Syrian factions to the negotiating table, he's just talking about a "peace process" because it sounds nice.

I'm thinking that Corbyn's well-documented familiarity with the political actors in the Middle East means that he's more able to bring about the conditions for some kind of peace process than most. You do know that Cameron's 70,000 figure includes Hezbollah don't you?

Anonymous said...

EJH - "Meanwhile, since he's rarely entirely off-topic in these parts, I'd like to share with you this magnificient piece of Aaro."

I seem to remember that there was an edition of the Observer in early 2003 in which there were about six articles that made the assertion that it was an established fact that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. I seem to remember that that edition of the Observer only had one article (by Mary Riddell, I believe) that said (quite correctly) that it was not an established fact and that it was therefore important to exhaust the weapons' inspection programme.

David Aaronovitch was a journalist at the Guardian/Observer at the time. It would be interesting to know if he can remember how that edition of the Observer managed to contain so many times the falsehood that it was an established fact that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Justin McKeating said...

What sticks in my guts is we're being lectured and sneered at by blokes who would have been laughed out of the Britblog Roundup ten years ago. Michael fucking Deacon? I've shat better blog posts. If only I was a tenth as clever and witty as he thinks he is.

organic cheeseboard said...

Awesome to see so many Decent arguments revived in the tiny bit I saw of the Commons 'debate' last night. Hillary Benn's (I think really quite terrible) speech might as well have been entitled 'It is 1939 and I am Churchill'. Appaz Benn has been making similar speeches at PLP and presumably SC meetings, which demonstrates the power of the 'you are Nazi sympathisers' insinuations in changing people's minds.

Would be nice to see someone ask him how, when he was a Minister in Blair's government, he reacted when Blair covered up rampant bribery involving UK companies and the people who are in no way similar to fascists in charge of Saudi Arabia. Or maybe things were different then.

He also voted against bombing Assad, a murderous dictator, in 2013. But I guess things were different then, too.

I guess this is what oratory is - ignoring the facts (witness Benn's 'dunno how many people are going to help us over there but there'll be fewer of them next week so bombs away lol') and just shouting 'Nazis' over and over again (while wobbling around a lot). Cue the applause, which is acceptable if someone's speaking in favour of bombing somewhere and emonstrates the power of their argument, but unacceptable and prone to 'orchestration' otherwise.

organic cheeseboard said...

Tom Holland has praised this piece by Padraig 'Belligerent and Unpleasant Friend of Decency' Reidy as one without any 'trite virtue-signalling':


Except, of course, for the bit where Reidy both a) claims that the 'very limited bombing of Assad with no plan after that' in 2013 would have made all the difference, when it obviously wouldn't, and then b) says that the aforementioned vote to do something whose purpose Cameron couldn't even begin to explain was 'a betrayal of the Syrian people'.

Anonymous said...

OC "I guess this is what oratory is - just shouting 'Nazis' over and over again"

Though ISIS was a part of the Syrian opposition right up to mid-2014 and it was clear by late 2012 that the Syrian opposition was splintering and contained some nasty elements. Somehow mainstream politicians and pundits failed to notice that the Syrian opposition failed to notice this until mid-2014, or maybe ISIS only became fascists in late 2014.

Is there an easy link somewhere to Hilary Benn's speech? I am thinking of doing a critique of it for those who think it was the best speech of the day.


badnewswade said...

The high watermark for anti-war politics was when airstrikes on Syria were voted down 2 years ago, surely?

This is the problem I have with the left btw. Always forgetting their victories and always obsessing over defeats. You'll never influence anyone as long as you remain addicted to the victim pose. Buck up!

organic cheeseboard said...

Here you go


The most offensive bit, for me, is this:

Now on the subject of ground troops to defeat Daesh, there’s been much debate about the figure of 70,000 and the government must, I think, better explain that. But we know that most of them are currently engaged in fighting President Assad. But I’ll tell you what else we know, is whatever the number – 70,000, 40,000, 80,000 – the current size of the opposition forces mean the longer we leave taking action, the longer Daesh will have to decrease that number

That literally makes no sense. 'I have no idea how many there are, in fact there might be very few, the government hasn't given us any real evidence for this incredibly important part of its plan. But I do know that whoever the opposition are, they're mostly fighting Assad. So if we don't replace the French bombers, while not actually adding to the number of bombs, simply changing the flags painted on them, Isis can kill lots of the people who are currently not fighting Isis.' Um you what mate?

Anonymous said...

OC - re Tom Holland and Padraig Reidy

I think that we're going to see a lot of this kind of thing. These people are really not thinking through the consequences. This is like William Hague claiming that the 2011 intervention in Libya saved thousands of lives while failing to mention that Libya was turned into a failed state and its arms' stocks spread into Mali and Nigera and the Middle East.

By late 2012 the Syrian opposition had splintered and contained some nasty elements. Bombing Assad's forces in 2013 to weaken them and allow the Syrian opposition to topple the Assad regime would have led to similar results as in Libya in 2011 or in Kabul after the departure of the Red Army. Trying the same thing now would lead to similar results.

The attempt to topple Assad in mid-2012 failed. The assumptions that Assad would be easy to topple and that the Syrian opposition were viable alternative regime were shown to be wrong by the end of 2012. Yet implicitly the policy continued to be to end the Syrian civil war by supporting the opposition, which depended on the assumptions that had already been shown to be wrong. Cameron didn't have the honesty to say that bombing Syria in 2013 was meant to lead to the collapse of Assad's regime, and he lost the vote mainly because he couldn't say where his policy was leading. Obama probably backed out because some of his own advisors warned him of the consequences of the fall of Assad's regime.

The only military solution to the Syrian civil war was (and is) a massive international force to neutralise both sides and occupy Syria for a prolonged period while a new regime is created. I have a feeling that the Pentagon and MoD would give a dusty answer to any such proposal.

The only other solution is a peace process, with a great deal more effort put into it, without the precondition that Assad is removed (because there are too many Syrians who fear that Assad's departure means the collapse of what is left of the Syrian state).

I think that we are slowly moving towards this kind of peace process. Progress is slow because it is in fact a reversal of policy and there are still too many vested interests pushing for Assad's removal. Have a look at what Mike Gapes tried to write into the Foreign Affairs' Committee report about Syria.


Anonymous said...

OC - In what sense does the Spectator think that Hilary Benn's speech was extraordinary?

gastro george said...

McDonnell was on the Today programme pointing out, quite accurately, that Benn's speech reminded him of Blair's pre Iraq War and, of course, got called out that this was "unthinkable" and "shameful".

This was alongside some military guff explaining the necessity, in addition to bombing, of going into our schools and teaching "British Values", without a hint of irony.

Benn is shamelessly being punted as the next leader now ... but then you should never underestimate the ambition of politicians.

Igor Belanov said...

Benn's speech was extraordinary. Not for what he said, but because Jeremy Corbyn hastened the prolonged suicide of the Labour Party by allowing his Shadow Foreign Secretary to have the final say in the debate and completely contradicting the position of his own party leader on a vital matter of foreign policy. Oh, and his Deputy Leader and 11 members of the shadow cabinet also voted against him because he permitted them a free vote.

I'm sympathetic to Jeremy Corbyn's principles, but I really do hope he's got something up his sleeve because things are completely falling apart at the moment.

Anonymous said...

"Benn is shamelessly being punted as the next leader now ... "

Which means, I think, that we all have to make an effort to point out what is illogical in his speech.

Which might mean some of us coming out from behind our dinner party names and putting pen to paper (or switching on the printer) to write to directly to the players in this game

And this also means putting resolution of the Syrian civil war as a key issue, and questioning how much effort is being put into this, and whether HMG has given up the precondition that "Assad must go"

Which means having an open discussion with the Mike Gapes of this world about why this is a bad precondition.


gastro george said...

Heh, you can always rely on Martin Kettle.

Anonymous said...

"Heh, you can always rely on Martin Kettle."

It is, indeed, exactly what you would expect Martin Kettle to write. "He mentioned fascism ... the 1930s ..... electrified the House ..... future leader".

It's a pity that Cameron has an even less clear idea of strategy than Chamberlain.


organic cheeseboard said...

whether HMG has given up the precondition that "Assad must go"

I think they almost certainly have. Given that Russia are in on the peace talks for instance. Hague - former foreign sec- in the Lords yesterday discussing the breakup of Syria into smaller countries, presumably one being Alawite. War Nerd seems to think that's what the Assad forces are preparing for at the mo.

gastro george said...

I'm surprised that Hague's comments haven't had a higher profile, especially as he's also advocating UK boots on the ground.

Speaking of "allies", I'm sure that the Turkish and Iraqi governments, as well as the "autonomous Kurds", were paying close attention to his idea of splitting up Syria.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone asked "Field Marshall" Hague to comment on what is happening in Sirte?


flyingrodent said...

A small aside here, but I think this war is the moment where the Grand Alliance Of White People committed itself to the Israeli-style military strategy of mowing-the-lawn.

By which I mean, flinging high explosives at entire cities every few years to kill off the latest batch of heavily-armed nutters, thus keeping the natives at least relatively peaceful. Then returning five years later to do the same thing.

You heard it here first, yo.