Archive for the 'Middle East' Category


Challenges, challenges

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

It is perhaps too easy to assume that Western democracy, capitalism and liberalism will continue to thrive and prosper, certainly in the West, and that they will continue to act as a model for countries elsewhere. To counter any complacency, here are two long-term challenges which the Western model faces.

Money or freedom?

Paddy Ashdown said that the biggest mistake the West made in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan was to fail to make the rule of law and security the first priority. Economic activity and democratic structures need this basic framework. Without it, corruption thrives and embeds itself. People need security before they can contemplate parliaments, opposition, debates about policies and all the liveliness and unruliness of a healthy democracy.

For all the risks posed by terrorism, the lack of physical security is not the primary problem for the West. But the failure to provide economic security is. Most voters are not wedded to democracy or capitalism as a matter of principle. They prefer the democratic capitalist system because it has proved the most effective way to combine relative freedom and ever increasing living standards for the widest group of people.

But what if it stops doing so? What if the fruits are concentrated in ever fewer groups, whether of people, companies or regions? What if other systems manage to provide greater economic growth and wealth more reliably and widely?

China has, after all, been very successful in extending wealth amongst its citizens and doing so without feeling the need – or being put under domestic pressure – to liberalise politically, let alone adopt Western democratic norms. It is one of the few states which has managed to clip the wings of the global tech giants. And now it is extending its reach into Africa. Why then should African states look to the West as their model? Why should the Middle East – especially after the chaos unleashed in part by recent Western interventions? Or Asia?

The US no longer seems willing to set itself up as an example. And if the Chinese model continues to succeed and the West continues to stagnate by comparison, how certain can we be that Western electorates will continue to value and maintain a system which no longer produces results – or the results electorates have come to expect? The willingness of voters to vote for unconventional leaders or movements in recent times should maybe be seen as a warning sign that results matter to voters, rather more perhaps than the theoretical elegance or historical longevity or formal legitimacy of their political/economic systems.

Diversity of opinion?

It is ironic and not a little depressing that at a time when diversity – of culture, identity, lifestyle – is so feted, diversity of opinion, beyond a relatively narrow circle of received and impeccably liberal opinion, is increasingly viewed with disdain. (Substitute “conservative” for “liberal” in that phrase and it would describe mainstream opinion in most of 19th century Europe.) Even asking a question in a university about whether colonialism might have brought some benefits seems to excite horrified disapproval.

We seem in danger of losing the belief (best expressed by JS Mill) that what our society should be and think should emerge from people, as many people as possible, expressing their views, debating them and negotiating compromises. If we determine in advance how society should be organised, what its principles and values should be and ban or ignore or otherwise make it impossible for any views which do not fit with a predetermined outcome to be heard, how can we answer the question “Why?” when (not if) it is put?

There is something very brittle and unselfconfident about a liberalism, about any dominant opinion, unwilling to argue its corner. The self-righteous intolerance of those seeking to deny others a voice is its shrill companion. In truth, both have a curiously religious approach to the idea of debate. The all too frequently used “You can’t say that.” / “I am offended” / “Bigoted” / “He’s a Marxist” / “hate speech” mantras are in danger of making mini-Torquemadas of us all.

And there is something very complacent about a capitalist system which assumes that its benefits are obvious and seems to have no answer, beyond more of the same, when those who are locked out turn elsewhere. Capitalism should have a better justification than “Well, look at how awful Marxism was.” To those contemplating a life of paying off student debt and renting, “Venezuelans have no loo paper” is an eccentrically irrelevant answer.

And yet debate, winning the battle of ideas, defeating bad ideas by putting forward better ones, by arguing for something, by arguing why – and showing, with examples – why democracy is good, why fairness matters, why discrimination is wrong, why social cohesion and looking after one’s neighbour matter, why capitalism can work and how, why free speech matters, why liberty benefits people, why the rule of law matters to all of us, why the right to own property securely is important, why the state should not be permitted to act overbearingly or retrospectively or without restraint are the only way in which our society and economy can renew and refresh themselves. Too often in recent years the answer to the questions posed (by our young, but not just them) has been “umm…” Time for a more vigorous response.



The Syria vote: Cameron looks set to win but how many LAB MPs will back him?

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Just over an hour to go to the big vote

Voting takes place at 10pm and the result should be known within about 16 minutes. Then there’ll be the wait, not too long, for the division lists so we can see who has not followed their parties.

There will be Tory rebels going against their party line but it is the LAB split that will get the most attention.

Mike Smithson


Syria – the big debate goes on

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015


The Commons might be about to vote for Syrian air strikes but the public is becoming less convinced

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Men strongly in favour – women much less certain

As we come to the crucial Commons vote on Syria there’s new YouGov polling in the Times this morning that suggests that support for British action is declining with, now, fewer than half of those sampled approving. YouGov had this at 48%.

The affairs impacting on the Labour leadership appear to have overshadowed the movement in opinion.

It’s hard to see the vote not going through but this latest survey will provide ammunition for those who are less convinced. This is from Peter Kellner’s Times article:

“… Last week, 59 per cent of Britons backed airstrikes; now the figure is just 48 per cent. That eleven-point decline equates to five million electors. The number opposed is up eleven points, from 20 per cent to 31 per cent. Every political and demographic group has seen a change, but two stand out:
· The gender gap has widened. Now men favour airstrikes by more than two-to-one (58-26 per cent), while women divide evenly: 39-36 per cent.
· Those who voted Labour in May have switched from backing military action by 52-26 per cent a week ago, to opposing it, by 42-35 per cent today.. *

So while Corbyn’s leadership ratings have collapsed (see last post) his position on what is the key issue of the day is getting more support.

My reading is that we are still seeing the effect of Tony Blair’s Iraq decision in 2003. People need to be convinced that what Cameron is proposing now is right for clearly understood reasons. It is more than a response to Paris.

Mike Smithson


Needed: a Geneva Convention for the 21st Century

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

The world of warfare has changed and its rules need to catch up

My wife and I were recently watching the excellent More4 drama series Saboteurs, about the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb and the Allied operations to stop them, principally by putting the Norwegian factory producing the heavy water needed for the atomic reactor out of action. At one point, the Norwegian commandos take off their winter white camouflages before beginning their assault into the factory wearing their regular fatigues – something my wife commented was a bit of a strange thing to do. And on one level it was: the uniforms were much more obvious to the German guards (or should have been). On the other hand, their action was in line with a very old tradition of war: that soldiers can be readily identified by their enemies and distinguished from civilians.

So what, you might ask. The point is to illustrate the revolution that’s taken place over the last seventy years in the nature of the kind of wars fought, and particularly fought by Western powers. Which is a problem because the rules of war – largely written by Western powers – are designed to regulate the sort of conflicts which are now very rarely fought and are not designed for the sort of conflicts which are: intervening in civil wars or failed states and fighting groups which exist in a legal twilight zone; armies without states (or at least, without a widely-recognised state).

Which is where the deaths of two British jihadists in Syria, at the hands of an RAF drone, comes in. Britain is not at war with Syria, nor in targeting ISIL operatives is it acting under a UN mandate. There may well have been evidence to connect the two to a terrorist plot against Britain but even if so, does that justify their immediate deaths? Does it make a difference that they were fighting in a civil war zone? Indeed, what was their status in Syria? What rights and responsibilities does the government have in protecting its law-abiding citizens? For that matter, under the HRA, what responsibilities does it have to its law-breaking jihadist ones in Syria or elsewhere? How do you even ‘go to war’ against any entity other than a state never mind something as amorphous as ISIL?

These questions, and many others like them, lie at the heart of the problem of trying to provide a legal basis for governments to intervene in civil wars and failed states, and against non-governmental armies, militias or terrorist organisations. Not the least of the problems is in regulating when countries can intervene. At what point do security or humanitarian concerns override the sovereignty of the state in question?

What is really needed is a greatly updated Geneva Convention, to regulate and provide the mechanisms for legitimising the actions of states intervening in these situations. This is diplomatically difficult stuff because to do that confers a legitimacy on the non-state parties, and hence gives rights not simply to treatment but to recognition as something close to an equal. Many would understandably baulk at the notion that terrorists should be considered a legal entity, never mind a proto-state (that some terrorists have been successful in transforming themselves in to proto- then fully-fledged states will increase rather than diminish that reticence). It’s also asymmetric: the parties to a new Convention would have obligations to their enemies that the organisations they’re fighting against in many cases not themselves honour.

Yet the alternative is the kind of legal quagmire that now exists, where rules are made up on the hoof on the basis of what seems appropriate at the time. Public opinion might accept that but human rights groups – and potentially the courts – will not. A drone strike against a jihadist fighting for ISIL and planning attacks against the UK may well be justified, even when in another country, but what hoops should be jumped through first to be sure? And how do you extrapolate from that specific example to create a framework for the general case?

Put simply, how can the international community come up with a set of rules that allows states to lawfully and effectively protect their populations against external threats, and to protect vulnerable and innocent civilians in countries afflicted by conflict, while simultaneously not giving the green light to states to use those same rules to oppressive ends?

Finding an answer to that question will be no simple task but in Human Rights legislation makes it essential all the same. In the first place, and in the absence of an international agreement, parliament needs to pass domestic legislation to do the same job.

David Herdson


Syria: a call to alms?

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. Trite and perhaps misattributed though that quote is, it has probably never been more true than this week when the image of one young boy on a Turkish beach did more to highlight the plight of Syrian people than any number of reports of the death toll in the conflict (about 240,000 so far, including 12,000 children), or of the number of displaced people (more than 12 million – half the population of Syria – with more than 4 million outside the country). Numbers are abstract; Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless, crumpled but seemingly uninjured body was shockingly real.

Inevitably, public revulsion at the sight of innocent and unnecessary death prompts generates an emotional response that ‘we must do something’. And here is the point at which politicians earn their money because the public’s demands are wrong and they need to be told so.

For the fact is that being more open to refugees is largely unrelated to the problem at hand and some would in all probability make it worse. The breast-beating that Britain should ‘take more’ and the unseemly bidding between countries for moral virtue with public money has little to do with improving the lot of those millions displaced. Indeed, effectively encouraging illegal entry into the EU will in all probability lead to more drownings, more misery and more money being channelled into organised crime and terrorism. It is also a solution most open to the fit and healthy and the moderately well-off; the poor and the weak will still be left behind.

So if the public really want to help rather than to do something that will make itself feel better then the problem needs to be dealt with at the point where those fleeing Syria become refugees, not after they’ve already travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles.

The reality is that relatively few Syrians become asylum seekers in Europe. Of the more than four million displaced outside their country, 1.6 million are in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon (a country of only 4.5 million in normal times), over 600,000 in Jordan and 250,000 in Iraq. In other words, the vast majority have stayed in the countries bordering Syria. It would be far better to focus the humanitarian effort on improving the living standards of the refugees in these countries – providing better accommodation, better medical facilities, education for children and care for the elderly and vulnerable – rather than rewarding the winners of the trafficking lottery.

There will no doubt be those who will note with cynicism that such an initiative (which Britain does quite a lot of already, as it happens), could be viewed as a means to appease the anti-immigration lobby and keep the refugees out. To do so, however, would be to place the perceived moral virtue of those making the case above the needs of the refugees. Usually, it is better to be wrong for the right reason than right for the wrong one (as if your values are right then chances are that so the majority of decisions will be in the long term). This is an exception: the stakes are so high with regard to the effectiveness of whatever policy is decided upon that here it is better to be right for the wrong reason.

Not that the anti-immigration lobby is wholly wrong. ISIS has already said that it has smuggled fighters into Europe as refugees. Whether it has and indeed whether it would need to when it’s recruiting fighters from Europe is obviously unknown but there can be little doubt that it would only take one or two outrages carried out by their supporters given asylum to turn public opinion on its head again. That might be a risk worth running were a policy of offering mass refuge the only means of preventing a disaster – but it isn’t.

However, even dealing effectively with the refugee crisis is not really getting to the root of the problem, which is the war itself and it is that to which the international community should put their collective minds.

At some point, the war will end, either in stalemate or in victory for one side or another. Early on in the conflict, it might have been possible for a moderate anti-Assad force to have won. No longer. The only realistic alternatives now are ISIS and the Assad regime. Clearly, neither is palatable to Western opinion but that does not mean that neither is preferable. For all that Assad leads a bunch of thugs, they are considerably better than the murderously oppressive alternative. It would clearly be embarrassing to Western leaders to have to back Assad having previously (and rightly) condemned his actions but what are the alternatives? Do nothing and let the war drag on resulting in more death, more destruction and a political outcome almost certain to be no better? Create and sponsor a third viable force – but how and from where? Back ISIS? Intervene directly on the ground and suffer thousands of casualties? Attempt to broker a peace between two sides who clearly don’t want it and won’t keep it? When all the options are bad you look for the least bad.

To take such an option would inevitably lead to a great deal more criticism from the morally righteous but the only realistic practical alternative – to do nothing other than try to ameliorate the worst effects of the war – amounts to the hoping for the same outcome while doing nothing to bring it about; something that smacks not only of moral cowardice but of rank hypocrisy too given that a prolonged war almost certainly means a more deadly and destructive one. An ISIS victory would also pose a direct threat to the security of virtually any country in the world.

So what of those who took to Twitter and Facebook in response to the photos from Bodrum this week? In the first place, that outpouring of sympathy needs to be redirected into an effective aid solution – idealism without application is nothing – and there both media and governments have a role to play in widening the focus beyond the Mediterranean. But the bigger and the more difficult piece is in accepting and explaining that no solution available in Syria is really satisfactory. At the moment, no-one, not in Europe and not in North America, seems willing to do so – so the killing will go on, more innocents will die and the chaos will spread.

David Herdson


Syria: Whose Mandate?

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

(Flag of Syria under French Mandate – From Wikimedia Commons)

Imperial echoes in the Middle East

Much of the debate surrounding potential military action in Syria has focussed on two aspects: what effect would such action have, and would it be lawful as things stand. In a sense, the two are linked in an unusual way. The normal reasons for intervening militarily are for one government to force a change of policy upon another, or to impose a settlement on an area.

Although there’s been some talk about deterring Assad from authorising further chemical attacks through air- or missile-strikes, those same politicians have been much quieter about they envisage such action affecting the situation on the ground.

And not without reason: Syria’s civil war is one that Western governments are keen to see end but distinctly less enthusiastic about seeing either side win. Changing the situation on the ground by striking against the Assad’s forces not only makes it more likely that his opponents will end up victorious but makes those governments involved partly responsible for the outcome – which could place some highly unsavoury characters in power.

Hence the attempt to raise the level of debate from that of power to one of justice, where the air-strikes aren’t about intervention but punishment for a crime against humanity (ignoring the fact that whatever the justification, the effect will be the same). Under such thinking, the strikes cease to come from an active participant but from a higher authority, concerned with means rather than ends.

The problem with that is that those who would see themselves in such a role are self-appointed. There is no United Nations backing for air strikes (indeed, the Security Council hasn’t been able to pass any resolution on Syria for over a year), nor are states enforcing the verdict of some international court.

The argument advanced is that the action is justified by the Duty to Protect, though it’s dubious just how far citizens will be protected by the lobbing of even more explosive into the country. There is also rather a biting irony of states wishing to impose a quasi-judicial sanction on a regime, while quite possibly acting outside the law in doing do.

Not that outside intervention is a new thing to Syria. From its incorporation into the Roman Empire by Pompey in 64BC, that part of the Middle East spent almost all of the next two millenia under the sway of one imperial power or another based far from Damascus. Most recently, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it was a French League of Nations mandate.

One has to wonder whether that has anything to do with the current French government’s keenness to be involved. Ten years ago it was the British government participating in a war in its former Middle East mandate next door, so whether by chance or design there’s a pattern there and one which is unlikely to have gone unnoticed within the region.

David Herdson


Thanks to Double Carpet, you can view the results of the Australian election, live, here


CON and UKIP voters are becoming more supportive of missile attacks on Syria – LAB and LD ones more hostile

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

This is looking more partisan

The above chart has been produced by taking the party splits on the Syrian missile issue and comparing them with the data from a week yesterday.

As can be seen the net support/oppose numbers have overall moved more towards the latter. But both CON and UKIP voters have become more supportive of the proposal. The latter is in a manner that appears at odds with Farage’s high profile anti-position.

Labour voters have moved sharply to the oppose camp while the Lib Dems have seen the biggest movement in that direction. This is odd given the high level hawkish position of ex-leader Paddy Ashdown and the supportive role of Nick Clegg.

My reading of the CON movement is that it reflects the attacks on EdM that we’ve seen from many quarters

Given that we are just about to enter conference season I wonder how all this will play out.

Mike Smithson