Cherwell: We Can Still Save Syria

I wrote this before Ed Miliband betrayed the Syrian people, so it is a bit out of date/lacking necessary expletives, but here is my article for Cherwell.org:

“Never again,” we like to tell ourselves, again and again. Looking back, we know Thomas Hardy was right to anticipate “all nations striving strong to make red war yet redder”; the so-called “war to end all wars”, beginning in 1914 with Gavrilo Princip’s bullet of the century, would not really end until 1991. Outlived as he was by the old men who sent him to die, Wilfred Owen’s glib submission “dulce et decorum est” should represent more than anything else the grim legacy our generation inherited from the 20th century. Our heroes showcase a grand hatred of war.

Except we see the world beyond through different spectacles. The student voice, which in the 1960s called on Britain to take a moral lead in the world, drops dead with apathy or sinks into “post-colonialist” hysteria whenever faced with foreign conflicts; the Labour Party has been mellowed by a populist sickness that chases after old Tory slogans; and Barack Obama, with his innocuous charm and Nobel Prize to think of, would rather pretend there is no war than bring it to an end.

Read the rest here!

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The War for Tahrir Square

A year ago, I suspect the blogosphere was in fits over Egypt. The army had allayed the fears of those suspecting an army takeover and two candidates were in the run for the presidency: Morsi, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafik as the spectre of the Mubarak government.

Religion has a habit of screwing over the political spectrum. For many secular Egyptians, a vote for progress paradoxically became a vote for radical Islam; meanwhile Shafik bled nostalgia for the very system that the elections were intended to reject. What a caricature – a revolutionary is meant to be spoiled for choice!

There was a quiet wonder, though, which seemed to skip over foreign commentary like a pebble on the sea – waiting to drop. Morsi proved to be the first real triumph for Islamism, even by the eyes of the West; Sharia nestled into the ballot station, and it did so unarmed. It won a free election. But today the paradox proved to be unraveling.

The thousands marching in Tahrir Square and outside the presidential palace tells us that last year’s polar election was not as theatrical as we might be led to believe: it was not interpreted as a choice between theocracy and militarised oligarchy, but on principles which seem both secular and moderate. The army deflected Morsi’s Islamic dreams from the law and revealed his poverty of solutions to the economic crisis.

When people found poverty they did not turn to extremist Islam, but judged it by what it delivered and found it wanting. Islamism fought the election, and won; but then it realised it had chosen to answer questions on which it had little to say. Unsurprisingly, Morsi’s popularity has plummeted from 79% last autumn to a mere 32% today.

A lingering fear does of course persist: the Egyptian army now holds more authority there than Turkey’s did under Atatürk. Protesters in Tahrir Square demand Morsi step-down; it’s not the constitution to which they are opposed. Rhetoric, though, screams revolution – worryingly fitting given a military presence forced to live up to the expectations it has set itself. (There is currently speculation that the presidential palace is being left unguarded.) 32% is a low approval rating, but one not a lot lower than David Cameron’s in the UK.

So where does the revolution lie? In the pockets of benevolent army officials, the footsteps of Cairo, or the grim calm of the ballot office?

Everyone thinks they have power but only time will tell who is able to assert it.


Heart-ly Worth the Time

… but that won’t stop me.

If George Galloway is correct about the recent footage of cannibalism – or “bestiality” as he fascinatingly terms it – as being symptomatic of all of Syria’s “western-funded” rebel forces, then he is probably fortunate that he lacks a heart.

Here he is on the Iranian state propaganda channel Press TV:

If, unlike me, you happen to have an especially strong constitution then I would recommend you read this article on 10 things worse than eating a dead man’s heart. For perspective. (You might find it easier than listening to Galloway, on reflection.)


The Times They Are a-Changin’ (In The Arab Spring)

When you worn to exhaustion by the vampiric presence of Jeremy Kyle or that perpetual newsreel on poor Maggie’s demise, the mind drifts. And it drifts towards one final tool for procrastination. Well – should I? You’re faced with a Socratic challenge. It will demand the evasion of judgmental family members. An easily concealed TV set is obligatory; an already stained conscience helps. In spite of the inevitable guilt that threatens to mute any pleasure you might dare to enjoy, you continue.

And I did it: I watched Loose Women.

It all seemed somehow vindicated by the story which the ladies shared with us – about a 104 year-old gentlemen whose gardening abilities have been maturing for nearly a century:

But it is the roses that fill Ralph with most pride. At the rear of his garden are some 200 floribunda and hybrid-tea bushes which in summer will produce flowers of many shades and a glorious scent.

Despite his age and a creaky left knee, Ralph still does most of the work himself. He can still, with difficulty, plant potatoes, although he now uses a tall hoe for weeding and a grabbing tool for picking things up. His great-grandchildren help with dead-heading the roses and weeding, but only under his close supervision.

This year it’s been too cold to get out much. He is waiting until the end of the month to sow his onions and potatoes but doesn’t mind the delay.

‘Gardening is all about having something to look forward to,’ he says. ‘It gets me through the winter. If I’m ever depressed or lonely, I think to myself “never mind, the roses will be along soon”. It gives me the willpower to keep going.’

And with this wise image I was left thinking about the Arab Spring. For roses we might replace the scent of Jasmine in Tunisia, whose democratic seeds may have been planted too close to the surface and now risk being uplifted in the rains. If it is true that the ousting of Ben Ali was the “encounter of the social and the democratic” then we would do well to remember that not all reunions have a happy ending. Some end in divorce, and others with the wife stabbing the unsuspecting husband with a screwdriver.

The inevitability of the seasons, if it does exist in the Arab Spring, is as likely to incubate fear as freedom – in part, I suppose, because many of its fanatics see the terrorising of others as a liberty. What if we reach winter when all the colours in the flowers are dead?

Ivy is a tenacious little bugger – it’ll survive winter’s chill. So will all the creepy insects just waiting to crawl out and infest the world again, like Camus’ La Peste, a dormant plague slowly bubbling its way to the surface where it readies to bring down another free city. I don’t know. Perhaps we can take comfort knowing that even if the tree sheds its leaves it doesn’t go anywhere. It can have them back soon enough.

Just don’t fall into that mellow optimism that the language of the seasons seems to tickle in us. It’s a simple tool used to absolve us of our rightful responsibility – because talk of nature implies a self-fulfilling ecosystem whose horrors will be purged from within. In reality, though, some of the people out there really need our help.

I never mixed so many metaphors with so little apology. Anyway, consider donating to the DEC’s Syria Crisis Appeal?


“Sextremism”: Supporting FEMEN and its Critics

It’s an obvious truth that women shouldn’t have do what men want them to do. But it’s surely also a staple of feminism that women listen to the views of men as they would fellow women – on account of their merits, and nothing more. So I don’t intend any post I write on feminism, or women in general, to read like condescending trite. Anyway.

Today (April 5th) there were protests across the world in Europe and North America organised by the Ukrainian-based feminist group FEMEN. It began in Ukraine in support of the Tunisian Amina, a woman who after posting partially nude photographs of herself on Facebook received death threats and the most visceral abuse. Women activists call their movement a “topless jihad” fighting against the oppression of Islamism; their choice of protest is nudity, and nudity clothed in politics:

Source. (Be honest – you only came here because of the photo.)

Not all Muslim women are happy about this. A counter-protest, “Muslimah Pride Day”, was organised in response as part of the “Muslim Women against Femen” in order to support all Muslim women “whether we choose to wear hijaabs or not” because it “is nobodies business but ours”. Central to the reaction was the view that nudity is not liberation; that objectification is not feminism.

The counter-protest is understandable enough. Despite rhetoric against “Islamism”, radicals appeared far from the only target by the “sextreminist” FEMEN. Some took place outside the Tunisian Embassy in Paris – good. The character of Amina represents the central struggle of the movement. But less clear is why various mosques were targeted – in Berlin and Paris for example. What does that achieve? Nothing does more to undermine the attack on the misogyny in fanatical Islam than to conflate the moderates with the fascists. If I were a Muslim woman – which I’m rather far from – I too would be unhappy with the bland and generic characterisation of us as helpless infidels.

But I think the “counter” is less of a counter than it claims. I don’t think that one or the other is right; in fact they resonate quite powerfully in unison. If we say that Islamism needs to be countered for feminism’s sake – and Nick Cohen, as usual, also posits the case brilliantly – then we do so in the view that women should be allowed to choose what they where. Nudity is hardly necessary. This is also the position of the counter-protesters who would do well to remember that many women are forced into being the sexual objects of their husbands.

We have to stop pretending Islam is a monolith – secularists would do well to ally themselves with the moderates.


Ranj Alaaldin: “Blame Iraq, not America, for sectarian civil war”

I laud the author in The Independent for at least attempting to escape the obsessive eurocentrism of the Iraq war:

The opponents of the Iraq war often claim that the invasion caused the bloody sectarian war that erupted between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia. This is far from the truth.

While it is indisputable that the failure of US post-conflict management in Iraq contributed to the disarray and violence that followed the toppling of the regime in April 2003, the US, her allies and the invasion itself, cannot be blamed for the ethnic and sectarian divisions that exist in Iraq.

Iraq has for long been a divided nation; it has been a state since it was created in 1921 after World War I in search of a united nation but which, to this day, remains divided along ethnic and sectarian boundaries.

Well, that’s true. But I’m very uncomfortable with Alaaldin’s dismissal of “US post-conflict management” as merely contributing “to the disarray and violence”. This has a desperate tone of flippancy to it; now it’s unavoidable, and indeed important to stress that Saddam’s government ruled by sectarianism. His regime implicitly elevated the Sunni minority to a sort of ethnic aristocracy, granting them the chief posts in the judiciary and the “civil” service; meanwhile, he taught the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north the full throttle of WMDs. For the sake of all things humane worth the name this cannot, and should never be, undermined or side-lined as “just another dictator”. When Saddam’s regime collapsed in 2003 there was the brewing realisation that parliamentary democracy might allow the settling of some scores, bringing as it inevitably would a large Shiite majority. On this note Alaaldin is perfectly correct.

But there was such a thing as Iraqi nationalism, if that is even the right word. It wasn’t an especially violent kind; rather, enough to bring most Iraqis together over a shared territory, a common rule over land stretching back far into ancient Mesopotamian history. The Kurds, in this, deserve tremendous respect: their history with wider Iraq was one of a struggle, finally achieving political autonomy from Saddam in 1992. And yet when Saddam fell in 2003 they did not, as they might justifiably have done, abandon Iraq to religious sectarianism; the Peshmerga teamed up with the Coalition to help oust Saddam, and then the Kurds produced Iraq’s first ever democratically elected President in Jalal Talabani in 2005. This is no sign of imminent ethnic or religious warfare.

Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq

What the United States must take responsibility for is failing to harness this in the machinery it went on to produce. Talabani remains the Iraqi President but his Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is little more than a populist sectarian thug whose credentials include organising the execution of Saddam for a Sunni holy day, and calling for the death of the Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi. Under Paul Bremer Iraq was administered along religious and Arab-Kurd lines; insufficient ethnic and religious guarantees were placed into the constitution; too much power was, despite the shadow of Saddam, left in the hands of the central authorities rather than distributed in a loose but workable federalism. Named Iraqis brought the sectarianism on but the Coalition did virtually nothing to prevent the outbreak.

I read some blogger’s post a while ago who said that if there were an armed invasion of Syria to bring down Assad, then we’d have to make it clear that the inevitable outbreak of sectarianism would not be the fault of the West. I’m not interested in absolving our responsibility. Assad, like Saddam, remains the central problem: but he is also the state machinery and, legally at least, in possession of one of the country’s few, limited forces for unification. When he goes there has to be something to replace it – more than an ephemeral military presence.

But it looks like Syria is going the way of Iraq: for as long as we leave struggling refugees and families dependent on the food supplies of fanatics, the prospects for the conflict just get longer and bloodier.


Hugo Chavez: The Friend of Crony Capitalism

For my friends, anything. For my enemies, the law. ~ Hugo Chavez

I regret having to abuse Orwell two days in a row, but defenses of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and, depressingly, Western leftist circles, echo of doublespeak. Despite usually proclaiming the demolition of capital transaction, in all 20th century communist regimes one trade invariably persisted: that between political liberties and social conditions. They diverged; the improvement of one was to the detriment of the latter. Stalin managed both to unleash Terror and systematise universal health; and the reverse was the case when the Soviet Union collapsed, with democracy founded on the most ruinous infrastructure. Cuba, too, is remarkable for its health care system, its social equality, and its generally liberal cultural outlook – a pity that fraternal dictatorships strangle its political freedoms like a gardener clutching weeds by their roots.

But a transition has occurred in recent years, and with remarkable velocity. William Dobson’s latest book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, is of especial importance to my generation who know little about the ancien regimes of bygone dictator’s: we grew up in an world receptive to democracy and to the ideas of pluralism and the vote, assuming that the world of Idi Amin or Pol Pot or Mao or even Tito was one consigned to the world of history. There were crazed dictators out there, but they were increasingly dying off-breeds of the Medieval worlds. And yet if one looks more closely, one can’t help but feel that that’s receding, that the tide is going out. There are a huge more nominal democracies in the world than there were half a century ago, but for many that is all they remain: nominal. Authoritarians have learnt how to adapt popular institutions, to rule not by the fist but by the vote; the vote becomes a weapon, manipulated behind the scenes and in the polling booths, and then masqueraded as a guarantee of political legitimacy. Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad have all failed to do this, and for this they fall. Others are not so stupid.

Nobody embodies this spirit better than the late Hugo Chavez, until a week ago the President of Venezuela. In office for more than a decade, he consistently scored the majority of the popular vote. In the most literal sense of the word he was one of the most successful democrats ever to have triumphed in pluralism; for this Dobson was, I think, too flippant in fashioning him a “dictator”. But he was an authoritarian, and he was coercive; but he was also persuasive and depressingly charismatic. Human Rights Watch has pulled out just a few ways in which he manipulated the Venezuelan constitution. Crawling into the judiciary:

In 2004, Chávez and his followers in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, adding 12 seats to what had been a 20-seat tribunal, and filling them with government supporters.

Over electronic media:

It expanded the number of government-run TV channels from one to six, while taking aggressive steps to reduce the availability of media outlets that engage in critical programming.

Putting its political victims in the shadows and hissing away the investigators:

The Chávez government also sought to block international organizations from monitoring the country’s human rights practices. In 2008, the president had representatives of Human Rights Watch forcibly detained and summarily expelled from the country after they released a report documenting his government’s violation of human rights norms. Following the expulsion, his then-foreign minister and now chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, announced that, “Any foreigner who comes to criticize our country will be immediately expelled.”

And in spite of this Chavez was – and sadly remains – something of an ideologue for a lot of Western leftists who are uncomfortable with calling out any self-styled Marxist for their authoritarianism. You’d have thought we’d have learned to be more careful. But no; what they refused to accept was that every time he unleashed his anti-Western rhetoric against Blair or Bush he was merely branching out his own doublespeak against internal opponents whom he always banished as “imperialist spies”. This was no surprise, of course: persistent demonisation of anything American never stopped him turning the country into his largest national oil client.

Hugo Chavez Rally

I can’t help but feel there’s something Boris Johnson-esque about the pictures here.

The sad story is that Chavez did improve Venezuela for a lot of ordinary people, and their indulgence of the man is therefore hardly all in delusion: the country saw advances along poverty lines and he went some extraordinary lengths to fabricate his revolutionary ideology, but always with the noise to ensure it turned into votes. And yet while this was going on he was buying the votes of big businesses and putting down local strikes: in 2002, 19,000 employees of the oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. went on strike to protest Chavez’ management changes. In response, the government fired them all and replaced them with foreign workers, pensioners and the army.

Chavez befriended the oppressed to oppress them even more.

Here is Dobson giving a brief summary of his book: