Phrase of the Day: Armchair Isolationism

In his plea to look serious, Obama has would-a-been Presidents rallying to his cause. First, McCain appears on Fox News to put down its obligatory anti-Muslim bigotry currently masquerading as counter-jihadism:

(With thanks to Harry’s Place.)

Second, John Kerry has been speaking – some words so blunt one has to question whether Obama approved them – against what he feared to be the lingering political undercurrent of “armchair isolationism”:

“This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to a slaughter,” Mr Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“Neither our country nor our conscience can afford the cost of silence.

“We have spoken up against unspeakable horror. Now we must stand up and act.”

Mr Kerry made an impassioned case for punitive strikes against Syria over its alleged use of chemical weapons after President Barack Obama put off military action to first ask Congress for approval.

What Kerry calls “armchair isolationism” is quite important: it requires no effort on the part of the person sitting in the armchair, making it much more effective than the “armchair general” metaphor that reactionaries like to jump on.

It goes rather well with what Daniel Finkelstein has called in his blog the tendency of an “omission bias” where we instinctively presume that doing nothing is better than doing something, if the outcomes are uncertain:

Basketball referees are taught that there are four types of calls — correct calls, incorrect calls, correct non-calls and incorrect non-calls. It is better to make a correct call than an incorrect one, obviously. And if you fail to call an infringement when you should, you will be criticised.

But every referee knows that it is far better to make such an omission than to make a call in the dying moments of a game and be wrong. So what happens? In sport after sport, the referees blow their whistles far more in the earlier parts of the game than in the closing stages, thus penalising those infringed against. Omission bias.

Yesterday morning the Conservative MP Adam Holloway, opposed to taking action in Syria, provided as his chief argument that the outcome of intervention was impossible to predict. And he is quite right. In fact, he pierced to the heart of almost every foreign policy dilemma. The outcome of action is always hard to predict.

Kerry has had a morally dubious edge in his history, of course, having once boasted for shooting a member of the Viet Cong from the riverbank. As if that were not rather distasteful in itself, this would feature in the same presidency campaign he ran based on a platform of opposition to the Iraq war. I have seen people oppose both wars; I have seen others support the overthrow of Saddam but remain horrified at the prospect of napalm in the jungle. Kerry’s revisionism was more the twisting of rotten carcass than a breath of fresh air, his trade-off between principle and populism outperforming even Ed Miliband.

All the same – swiftly navigating away from that tangent – it’s encouraging to see that both the left and right of American politics seem willing to confront Assad. It seems that McCain will have advised the President on more than he did to the Senate, whom he recommended vote for action principally to maintain American credibility. Elsewhere, he has been more willing to emphases the need for a Syrian policy against Assad as necessarily being concomitant with an active one to support the more moderate rebels facing off terrorist groups.

In a way, it’s a long overdue slap down to the old Kissinger-esque assumption that a foreign policy of humanitarianism cannot also be one of realpolitik pragmatism. McCain, and to a lesser extent Kerry, have recognised that a war against sectarian jihadists satisfies both outlooks.

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Not In My Name: Why I Left the Labour Party

In 1939, in order to be excused from joining the war, Mussolini sent Hitler such a ludicrously long list of materials he needed that the Fuhrer simply waved them away. The hope was to jump in a few months later, win the war, and then claim the credit from the good old Berliner fascist.

I thought about that as I watched the horror on Ed Miliband’s face as he realised that he had, in fact, defeated the government on the matter of launching strikes against Assad; that rather than appearing to be the strong leader who had forced concession after concession from a war-monger, whom he could then criticise for his efforts while satisfying the undercurrent in his party longing for an intervention, he had forced Britain to abandon the principle of aiding the Syrians through military measures. He wanted to have his cake, eat it, and then serve up the excrement to the unsuspecting British public.

I have, as a consequence, left the Labour Party.

The Looming Legacy

“We have absolutely abandoned any idea of nationalist loyalty,” Clement Attlee told the Labour Party conference at Southport, in 1934. “We are deliberately putting a world order before our loyalty to our own country. We say we want to see put on the statute book something which will make our people citizens of the world before they are citizens of this country.”

True to his word, Attlee visited the volunteer British Battalion of the International Brigade in Spain, in 1937, who conjured the “Major Attlee Company” in his honour. But the most inspiring moment was perhaps in 1939 when the Republican government in Spain was close to collapse, Barcelona nearly overrun; the British public, resting in that awkward winter between Chamberlain’s announcement of “Peace For Our Time” and Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia and Moravia, had less stomach for war than in two decades; and there was expected to be a general election in a years’ time. And in spite of all that weighing in on his political capital, Attlee stood at a podium in Whitechapel to unveil Picasso’s Guernica as an attempt to raise funds for the Republican war effort. The goal was to persuade working-class Londoners, for whom the entry fee was only a pair of shoes, of the urgency facing their Spanish comrades.

b4570989b7313010_clement-atlee-speaks-before-picassos-guernica-at-the-whitechapel-gallery[1]

Clement Attlee unveiling Picasso’s “Guernica” at Whitechapel, 1939.

By a soft rhyming of history, to paraphrase the late Seamus Heaney, just as Attlee was forging alliances against fascism his predecessor was joining it for tea. First Hitler, and then Mussolini, the pacifist George Lansbury paid visit to all the leaders of Europe in 1937 believing them “children of one Father”. Reminiscing shortly before his death, Lansbury remained determined that “Christianity in its purest sense might have had a chance”; he had grasped perhaps a little too confidently Hitler’s commitment to an old man to a World Peace Conference under the chairing of Roosevelt. Lansbury’s failed nomination to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1940, the year of his death, was tragically fitting – it seemed to admit with a sigh of regret that, though the dove is peaceful, he cannot change the nature of the lion.

In his will, Lansbury gently requested that his ashes be scattered at sea because “although I love England very dearly … I am a convinced internationalist.” Neither his idealism nor Attlee’s pragmatism compromised their humanitarian impulses, which had simply been schooled in different ways. Neither undermined the basic instinct that transcended the trivialities of national barriers, languages and economies. Though both saw that the better world could be much better realised as a webbed community, only Attlee understood what the Tory benches meant when they shouted, “Tell that to Hitler!”

The Wretching Legacy

Nostalgia isn’t any good for anyone. The historian betrays his discipline if it livens him up too much; I am not attempting to draw a bland parallel between the Republican government and the rebel forces fighting Assad. The civil wars in Spain and Syria both began as struggles for pluralism, morphing into proxy wars from foreign powers with the liberal democracies sitting idly by – but we will never know how the Spanish war may have evolved if Attlee had won parliament over to his cause of ending the “farce of non-intervention”, as he called it. Would the Republicans have won? Or is it possible that, had Britain and France sent troops to aid the Republicans, the Germans would have doubled their efforts and in so doing brought war to the allies and defeated them?

We can never know, of course, and these sorts of questions don’t tend to be especially fruitful. But counter-factuals aren’t wildly different to the speculations filling the columns of every wannabe “expert” on Syria right this second; we must not presume that simply because one believes bombing Assad will help the secularists in the ranks of the Syrian rebels and the millions of displaced civilians that he is right to do so, or that those who oppose the methods he proposes are isolationists or hysterical “anti-imperialists”.

I’m a bit of a puritan, you see – motive is everything. A right action performed for the wrong reason is morally frivolous; equally, I’ll forgive a mistake made by an honest man.

So after Cameron agreed to publish the legal case for war, and then the Joint Intelligence Committee’s evidence for Assad’s responsibility, and then to work through the UN as far as the Security Council would allow, and then for a second vote after the UN reported its findings, why still did Ed Miliband vote against the government?

Did he fear that strikes against Assad’s weren’t worth the civilians they might kill, or that we should find a more humane route of assisting the democrat rebels with the long-term prospect of bringing down another Baathist dictator? Was it the imminenscy of a jihadist bloodbath if he falls? Did Miliband, instead, call for open borders for Syrian refugees and billions of pounds of international aid to be sent to those who remained?

All of these positions would have been honourable, and though I might have disagreed with them would at least have been comforted by the prospect of a principled leader.

With this in mind, allow us to consult the reasons he emailed to party members:

  1. We must let the UN weapons inspectors do their work and report to the UN Secretary Council;
  2. There must be compelling and internationally-recognised evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attacks;
  3. The UN Security Council should debate and vote on the weapons inspectors’ findings and other evidence. This is the highest forum of the world’s most important multilateral body and we must take it seriously;
  4. There must be a clear legal basis in international law for taking military action to protect the Syrian people;
  5. Any military action must be time limited, it must have precise and achievable objectives and it must have regard for the consequences of the future impact on the region.

The only man of importance still uncritically recycling Assad’s narrative, Vladimir Putin, holds a veto on the Security Council; I will not believe that a man who taught at Harvard cannot see the moral farce of a man selling tanks to its only non-Soviet ally, to kill children, advising on the principles of judicial legitimacy. As he well knows, no serious politician could bring this program into the Commons. Miliband has whipped his party into the stables of Moscow, by accident, and is now telling his passengers to enjoy the sights.

Not a single Labour MP voted with the government on Thursday. Not one. Their amendment failed; and so when the government’s motion was proposed to the house, it became a choice between the principle to support military intervention and to rule it out entirely. Ed Miliband grabbed his opportunity, and he reaped his rewards.

Unapologetic – and unhumbled – by his party’s victory over Cameron, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander appeared on the BBC to say:

If [Cameron] was now to return to the Commons, and say, “Well, actually, the President of the United States has decided to go to the Congress, I’ve changed my mind about what Parliament was saying and about what the British people were saying,” I think that would weigh very heavily on the ability for him to convince the public or parliament that his judgement was sound. [Emphasis mine.]

If the decision were a principled one, Alexander would not be invoking public opinion into the vindication of his leader’s decision; and it’s beginning to make sense that the Shadow International Development Secretary, Ivan Lewis, would happen to be the architect of Miliband’s project for old-school Tory paternalism, “One Nation”.

And this when the need for international solidarity has never been so great. The working-class electorate in Britain is – as Marx defined it, at any rate – shrinking, and labour power passing overseas. This is especially true of the Arab world whose economies are based heavily on undercutting European manufacturing, leading to artificially depressed wages and living standards. In times of war, we have an opportunity to alleviate some of that suffering that now has pushed northern territories of Syria into the open embrace of clerical fascism. Instead, Labour does nothing.

There’s some hysteria out there that Miliband has allied himself with the isolationism of UKIP – but that is rather to miss the point. One can be a patriot and an internationalist, because it’s possible, as Orwell put it, to wish for the best for those who bring colour into your daily life but to contextualise them as one school of art among many. One cannot, however, be a populist and an internationalist, because the moment you put vote-counting before international solidarity then you cease to truly believe in the equality of nations, and instead leave it dependent on the arbitrary whims and fantasies of mob rule.

An Abdication From Giving A Shit

For once, Miliband has it right that the vote on Thursday is not an invitation for “soul-searching” (hopefully not to excuse himself from the doctor’s invitation to Syria). But what’s a party without its members?

Looking back it’s odd to think that it was Tony Benn’s speech at the Oxford Union last year – a man who has otherwise not said anything sensible for two decades – that confirmed my faith in the Labour Party. When asked why he stayed a member of a party so mutated by its “Thatcherite tendencies” he responded, in a tone of slightly self-righteous victim-hood, that Labour was nothing if not a coalition. The best that one could hope for was that those closest to sharing his views would lead the party forward.

But LabourList revealed the results of a rather telling poll on the day of the vote, one which deep down I knew I was losing as I voted:

And what reasons did the readership provide for this landslide hostility to punitive strikes?

81.8% of LabourList readers said that Labour should only support action backed by the UN (as opposed to Miliband’s position, which involves evidence presented to the UN and debate by the Security Council, but doesn’t imply support from Russia/China is needed for military action). Only 18.2% said that Labour should back action without the UN.

I wish the likes of MPs Tom Harris, Ben Bradshaw and Megg Mun all the best of luck, anamolies though they are: they recognised the importance to support Syrian civilians, whatever form that should take. But I cannot overcome the apathy to greet Putin, Assad, Nasrallah and Khamenei dining on Friday to celebrate Britain’s moral lethargy, Asma even on a diet (because of all the children she’s been eating).

It is regrettable, it is sad, but decisive: the Labour Party, whose worst leader was said to be the Ramsay MacDonald who still had the guts to abandon the Fabians when they refused to condemn the Boer War, has fallen to those Western narcissists who have stolen the name “socialist” and extracted its heart. It is a wicked twist of fate for those of us now reluctantly named “liberal interventionists” that Blair, who abolished Clause IV from Labour’s constitution, would appear to be the last internationalist of Labour leaders; that the stumbling Red Ed should choose party politics over the death of non-English speaking children, for whom he clearly shares no more affinity than the average Joe.

The deeply humanitarian principles of the party have either melted away or slipped into the manifesto: the would-be programme of a “grown up” political party. One has only to ask, I suppose, why it was able to last for so long.

And the gong has been struck; it is the sound of the disenchantment of socialism.


On Moral Equivalence

Those who believed that the physical and sexual abuse perpetrated at Abu Ghraib under the US occupation put Bush in the same camp as Saddam have questions to answer. They refuse to rise to the challenge because they know their position is untenable – both morally, and factually. Spoiled children of democracies will always run into the hands of local criminals if it leads to the derision of those who brought them up.

Some more uncomfortable details for them:

The US soldier who murdered 16 Afghan villagers last year has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales, 40, opened fire on men, children and women during the attack in Kandahar on 11 March 2012.

He pleaded guilty to the massacre in June to avoid the death penalty.

He apologised during his sentencing hearing at a Washington state military base on Thursday, calling the attack an “act of cowardice”.

Sgt Bales had been making a case for why he should one day be eligible for parole, which would have meant he could have been released in 20 years.

The reason Bradley (Chelsea) Manning’s revelations caused such discomfort for humanitarians was because of the American government’s silence on the crimes in which they are now to be indicted; it might not have happened here, thankfully, but unspoken awareness is simply a step away from tacit approval. (No law exists allowing an official in the US government to overthrow other elected presidents, yet Henry Kissinger is still a free man.) It seems like a betrayal, it saddens me to say, in the same league as Pope Benedict’s to his followers, his refusal to cooperate with secular judiciaries on allegations of pedophilia leading to its institutionalisation and the blackened reputation of every humane priest. Justice, it seems, can lose its eternal authority at the whim of politicians courting the approval of their audience.

But, please – perspective.

To demand political transparency is as much a right as an imperative; but compare, for simply a moment, whatever supposed crimes of which the democracy and the dictatorship are charged. Assad’s recent chemical attack outside Damascus is a momentary echo of Saddam’s message to Halabja in 1988. The news of Sgt Bales’ imprisonment, meanwhile, is like valley to desert.

Failures in Iraq say nothing of our urgency to act in Syria.


The Inquisition is on Facebook

Islamism, reincarnating the medievalist witch hunt:

Sitting on the floor, wearing traditional Islamic clothes and holding an old notebook, Abu Hamizi, 22, spends at least six hours a day searching internet chatrooms linked to gay websites. He is not looking for new friends, but for victims.

“It is the easiest way to find those people who are destroying Islam and who want to dirty the reputation we took centuries to build up,” he said. When he finds them, Hamizi arranges for them to be attacked and sometimes killed.

Hamizi, a computer science graduate, is at the cutting edge of a new wave of violence against gay men in Iraq. Made up of hardline extremists, Hamizi’s group and others like it are believed to be responsible for the deaths of more than 130 gay Iraqi men since the beginning of the year alone.

The deputy leader of the group, which is based in Baghdad, explained its campaign using a stream of homophobic invective. “Animals deserve more pity than the dirty people who practise such sexual depraved acts,” he told the Observer. “We make sure they know why they are being held and give them the chance to ask God’s forgiveness before they are killed.”
The violence against Iraqi gays is a key test of the government’s ability to protect vulnerable minority groups after the Americans have gone.

More here.

We’re wrong to assume social media – and the blogosphere – is simply a force for uniting voices otherwise neglected from corporate media. It can be very much a tool of suppression.


The Arrogance of “Anti-War” Triumphalism

2003 London anti-war protests.

All this happiness on display is suspect. Everyone is thrilled to be together out on the streets—people are hugging themselves, it seems, as well as each other. If they think — and they could be right — that continued torture and summary executions, ethnic cleansing and occasional genocide are preferable to an invasion, they should be somber in their view.

Ian McEwan, Saturday (2005)

Everyday there seems to be yet another example of anti-Iraq posturing attempting to draw moral equivalence between Saddam and the Coalition. There’s never the slightest trace of humility. You either opposed the war, and have been vindicated by the “occupation”, or you are an imperialist stooge bloated in self-denial. Most commentators can’t comprehend that there might be principled people who happen to hold a different position to themselves.

McEwan’s novel was viewed by many as something of a pro-war pamphlet, trying to shame the protesters in their ignorance of the horrors of pre-invasion Iraq. Clearly anyone who has read the book – or even just the above quote – knows that this is crap; McEwan was at the march and that’s how he knows what most protesters were like – gleeful would-be hippies out to have a good time and do a little shopping on the London high streets. McEwan, like myself, has little respect for people for whom a decision the 2003 was an easy one, and I’ve virtually none for those who subsequently abandoned any attempt to help postwar Iraq, being more interested in spiting Blair than expressing solidarity. Promising, but sadly isolated, was the trade unionist support, especially those linked to Labour in Gary Kent or Iraqi exile Abdullah Muhsin; despite opposing the war they had no trouble in calling for aid to the Iraqi left-wingers in their struggle for secularism and economic security.

The sad truth is that “pacifism” no longer holds the integrity it once did. When I asked Tony Benn what he thought about the wars in Mali and Syria he said that all he cared about was that Britain did not get involved; the vast majority of “peace” protesters – virtually without exception those in the Socialist Workers’ Party, the Stop the War Coalition, Respect – are not opposed to war itself but Western involvement in it. The idea that the intervention of superior weaponry might end the war with less bloodshed seems either to elude them, or be an inconvenient truth to be pushed aside.


Philip Zimbardo: The Psychology of Evil

So my visit to a friend at Bangor University resulted in attending more lectures than I do during term time, and in this case it was a rather fascinating talk by Philip Zimbardo on “The Lucifer Effect” or the “Psychology of Evil”. I couldn’t find the exact lecture recording that I watched but this one probably covers the same material (being based on his book named to similar effect). I recommend you watch it if, as I could not, you are able keep your eyes away from his incredible beer belly.

It’s nothing short of fascinating. Psychologists are, we might say with dreary accuracy, renowned far and wide for their skills of eloquent bullshitting, tapping into fresh reservoirs of facts and figures to justify theories more ludicrous than the mental subjects they examine. But this particular talk seemed somewhat departed from that tradition; he humbly designates the first part of his lecture to explaining the importance of rehabilitating morality into science. If we want to override and prevent “evil” behaviour then we need to challenge its presuppositions, the conditions that produce it. The lecture gives some convincing material explaining the role psychologists might play here.

Zimbardo takes a tour around a few studies, some published and some not, but centre-stage is his own pride and joy – the well-known Stanford Prison experiment. Relevant, I suppose, that we’re currently reminiscing on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War are the comparisons that he draws between Stanford and the crimes of Abu Ghraib in 2003-4; Zimbardo noticed that the subjects in his study acted almost identically to those military personnel in Iraq. There were common factors: boredom, mental hierarchy between prisoner and imprisoned and all the rest and so if we want to counter evil then we have to change the system. Its vaguely put confidently asserted that psychology can provide a significant part of the answer – and I’m more than a little persuaded.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

The “Stanford Prison” Experiment.

I did, though, have one lingering reservation: perhaps Zimbardo is too keen. When the crimes of Abu Ghraib hit the media Zimbardo was invited to defend one of the detainees, and he did so in order to argue that the criminals were not military “bad eggs” but part of wider institutional problems that provided the conditions to make the acts virtually unavoidable. But to follow this logic is to assume that to explain is to justify; that to find the cause is to morally exculpate the individual involved. If social institutions make certain outcomes more likely then we should change the conditions, not excuse the subjects; to do so is the destroy thousands of years of Western moral philosophy – to equate Saddam’s chief institutional devices of rape and murder and torture with American democracy – all for the chance to sound that little intellectually superior.

Conclusion on Zimbardo: really interesting ideas with a tendency to jump the wagon.


Never Forget: Halabja 25 Years On

The flag of Kurdistan.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the town of Halabja: on March 16th 1988, as many as 5000 Kurds breathed as they did and then suddenly found that the air was poison. It was the most publicised event of the 1987-88 Anfal campaign: a systematic genocide of all the Kurdish and non-Arab peoples in the north of Iraq, leading to as many as 200,000 deaths. It should, I think, stand symbolic of the war against terrorism, however it manifests itself. There are some very distressing photographs online, but I decided against including them. Sometimes our imagination can capture horror well enough.

As the Kurdish ambassador said to Nick Cohen, “Everyone wants to remember Fallujah and no one wants to remember Halabja.” Well, for all the justifiable criticisms levied against the war 10 years on, we must never forget what the alternatives may have been.