Thursday, August 28, 2014

Losing a Free Thinking Conservative

Douglas Carswell's announcement that he has defected from the Conservatives to join UKIP is a matter of no small moment for the Tory party.  First, Carswell - currently the MP for Clacton - has, entirely consistently with the principles he has always proclaimed in speeches and writings, chosen to resign his seat and re-fight it as a UKIP candidate.  Given his effectiveness as a local MP, and the prominence of his announcement, there must be a high chance that he will win it back under his new colours.  I would have thought he is likely to retain it through a general election as well, firmly embedding him as UKIP's first MP.  Headache number one for the Tories.

Second, this is bad news for David Cameron on two fronts.  The first front is the reaction of his own party.  If the Conservatives cannot accommodate an MP of the calibre of Mr Carswell on the grounds of its European approach, it might be reasonable to conclude that it may have trouble with the large number of members - parliamentary and grassroots - who broadly share Mr Carswell's views. Mark Wallace on Conservative Home has a useful analysis of the wider implications of the Carswell resignation here.

The second front is more personal.  Douglas Carswell rapidly carved out a position as one of the Tory Party's most interesting thinkers, not just on Europe, but on broader issues of constitutionalism and ways to make politics work better in the modern age.  Douglas Carswell won't stop thinking and making important contributions to the debate on politics and its application in the UK, but what a blow it is to have that mind outside the Tory Party and not in it.  We always knew the Tory faultline on Europe was unlikely to be sealed by the promise of a referendum.  Mr. Carswell's defection appears to have illuminated this in spectacular fashion.

For a comment on how Carswell's defection will not fundamentally alter the political water, read Dan Hodges' commentary here.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ice, Ice....

There was a point last night on my facebook pages where if I pressed refresh every few minutes, I would be greeted with a slew of new, yet very similar, video clips.  People in various states of undress stood, talked, and were then doused in water.  Yes, the Ice Bucket Challenge hit its viral high as pretty well everyone got in on the act.  Now before I go any further, and land myself in hot water rather than shower under charitable streams of ice cold water, I should acknowledge that the friends I watched – or whose video selfies I rapidly skimmed through – are pleasant, charitably minded, humane individuals who undeniably want to do something more than simply mind their own business.  And all credit to them for that.  But did it, over the past few days, really have to be in the uniform style of a single, unvarying challenge for one clever charity?

There is an obvious danger in pricking the bubble of mass charitable giving that one comes across too readily as some sort of grinch who wants to steal charity.  And it goes without saying that that is absolutely not my aim.  Nor is it my aim to cast snide, superior verbal brickbats towards those who have enough humanity in them to bother to respond to a charitable call, no matter how universal the call appears to have become.  But it is worth considering for a moment what the Ice Bucket Challenge tells us about ourselves, and the impact of the social media which has made it so quickly, and hugely, successful.

First, the ‘viral’ nature of the challenge reveals much about our herd instinct, and the impressive ability of facebook and twitter to manipulate it.  If you’ve been in any sort of a crowd at any sort of event, you know just how easy it is to get drawn in to following the mass movement of your fellow crowd members, physically or emotionally.  It really doesn’t matter who starts it, once a move gets going it is very difficult to stand in its way.  The Ice Bucket Challenge has undoubtedly achieved this status.

Second, it reveals our desire to belong, to reconfirm our membership of the tribe.  Getting nominated becomes a welcome thing, since it shows us that other people are willing to include us in this mass act of self-saturation.  There comes a point where we really don’t want to be on the outside of this activity that everyone else is getting involved with.  We need our own video to put alongside everyone else’s.

Third, it appeals to our sense of egoistic exhibitionism.  No matter how retiring we may normally be, the Ice Bucket Challenge gives us an excuse to parade ourselves before our peers in a happily dramatic, fun and apparently altruistic way.  We may endure a little bit of discomfort as the ice water cascades down our bodies, but even the discomfort is all part and parcel of this collective routine.  The videos become just that little bit more ‘likeable’ if we do the screwed up face thing.

Finally, it suggests that we lack discrimination in the face of mass action.  ALS appears to be a thoroughly worthy charity, but some might be discomfited by its promotion of stem cell research, and others might consider that its needs are not as great as other charities.  Our charitable giving should be based on more secure understandings than a successful viral campaign which requires little more of us than to follow the herd by standing under a bucket of water.

In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge it would be difficult to argue that the results of the herd instinct engendered by its social media campaign will be anything other than positive.  Even if it means other charities are left in the shade, one area of important medical research will have benefited and in consequence the lives of those afflicted by this tragic condition may be significantly improved.  There is, nonetheless, an element of ‘charity fascism’ about all of this which could too easily be translated into other, less salubrious activities.  We have seen how witch-hunts can quickly develop on twitter (witness the lamentable hounding of Alastair McAlpine, who at least had the resources to push back such twitter hounds as Sally Bercow) and it is iniquitous to see the impact of social media on promoting the jihad in Syria and Northern Iraq.

Perhaps we should be alarmed, too, at how easily we are coerced into something if it can be marketed ably enough.  This comment from Scott Gilmore, writing in “Macleans” magazine , sums up the concern about the successful marketing of the ALS campaign –

The marketing gimmick is very clever. It is short, immediately understandable, and like the most popular forms of slacktivism, it is easy to do, entertaining to watch, and narcissistically self-promoting. Every screen on our desks, on our walls, and in our hands is filled with celebrities, neighbours, porn stars, and politicians showing off their earnest compassion and occasional humour.

Instead of being thinking, evaluative individuals, the Ice Bucket Challenge suggests we simply succumb to the latest fad, and no matter what its good intentions, that really should concern us.

[The Gilmore article, by the way, includes an excellent analysis of how we should be conducting our charitable giving, which is well worth reading].

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cameron's non-interventionist policy against IS is a potential disaster

By Chris Schofield



Barack Obama recently ordered the fourth round of air strikes against the Islamic State, which began last week in a frantic attempt to prevent the predicted genocide of 40,000 Yazidis and other minorities. These refugees had fled in desperation to the arid slopes of Mount Sinjar, fearing extermination at the hands of extremist fighters carrying the haunting black flag of ISIL. Also high on the President’s agenda was the protection of vulnerable US intelligence personnel and other military assets currently stationed in northern Iraq.

The targeted strikes by the US Navy came too late, however, to prevent the mass slaughter of over 500 Yazidis, with horrific accounts emerging of women and children being buried alive by ISIL militants and a further 300 Yazidi women reportedly kidnapped into slavery. This is in addition to the barbarous actions of ISIL militants across Iraq and Syria in the past weeks during their sweeping territorial gains made in a rapid advance southwards, which at times brought them uncomfortably close to Baghdad.

Obama has been clear that the US military is not willing to perform the role of a substitute Iraqi air force and has declared outright that “there is not going to be an American military solution to this problem.” With the mass surrender of Iraqi security forces to ISIL in June, however, it remains difficult to see how the country can fend off the advances of the Islamic State without external military assistance.

Across the Atlantic, David Cameron has publicly announced that the UK will only commit to a limited humanitarian role, assisting persecuted minorities via a handful of RAF aid drops to exposed Yazidis still trapped on Mount Sinjar. Alarmingly, both the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond have made the unprecedented decision to rule out any military action in Iraq.
This is despite having recognised the grave threat that an expanding Islamic State poses to both civilians across the Levant and to the geo-strategic interests and security of Britons. As prominent analysts like Ian Bremmer have noted, there is now more reason to confront ISIL than there ever was to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

It begs the important question as to why Cameron has chosen to refuse the use of UK combat forces in what is perhaps the most pivotal change in the political landscape of the region since Sykes-Picot.
There are a number of possible explanations:

1.) Cameron has underestimated the threat
This is possible but unlikely. Since their sweeping advance across Iraq in late June, ISIL have been incredibly effective militarily. With years of hardened experience fighting Assad’s forces in Syria and after the seizure of US-supplied Iraqi military assets, the Islamic State represents a potent challenge to Iraqi state security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. It is unlikely that British intelligence had not briefed the Prime Minister on the risks of ISIL making huge strategic gains, such as the seizure of the Mosul Dam last week and its profitable capture of Iraqi oil-fields (revenues from which are returning $100 million to the Islamic State every month). Aware of these grave threats, as well as the jihadists’ wish to exterminate minorities and even “to attack us here at home”, Cameron knows that the severity of the crisis can not now be neglected by Britain.

2.) Public opinion
So why not attempt to halt ISIL’s advances with targeted military action? The last thing the Prime Minister wants in the run-up to a general election is dead British troops returning from an all-too familiar war-zone. After years of prolonged conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the electorate is reluctant to face the costs of yet another Middle Eastern war, with no clear objectives or foreseeable ending. However, Cameron’s decision to join a NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 was not met with the wave of public criticism one might expect — British voters supported the military action by 45% to 36%.

The option of dramatically slowing ISIL without putting British boots on the ground is very much an attainable objective, as Cameron knows and as the effective air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces demonstrated. Such a limited response would also minimise the risk to British personnel — ISIL as of yet have no operational air assets.

3.) Parliament
If the Prime Minister had decided that action against ISIL would be electorally permissible, his next obstacle would be convincing MPs. Cameron would likely seek cross-party approval for any combat operations in Iraq, knowing the risks of bypassing the legislature when sending young men and women to fight abroad. However, last summer he erroneously conflated Labour’s demand for UN evidence before potential action in Syria with a lack of parliamentary support for military intervention altogether. This experience might be critical in dissuading Cameron from going through the process of recalling parliament from recess and securing cross-bench support all over again.

4.) The US is already doing it for us, so why bother?
A more likely reason for ruling out military action against ISIL is Cameron’s knowledge that Obama will do so anyway. In times of fiscal restraint and with just months to go before an election, why run all the risks cited above if the US will stop the Islamic State for us? Because Obama is not stupid. The US has in recent years ramped up its rhetoric about Europe needing to do its part in securing global stability. For decades, America has all but guaranteed the security of European states, at a hugely disproportionate cost.

The President knows that as long as British interests are at stake in Iraq — be it from disrupted economic and resource flows or domestic terrorism — then the country should play its part in securing them. Cameron may be playing a game of ‘how much can we get away with not doing’, but he also knows the anger felt across the pond at a seemingly lacklustre commitment to international security in Europe. The pressure on European leaders from the White House to commit operationally in Iraq is likely to be significant.

5.) The UK lacks the military capacity
Even if Cameron did understand the threat posed by ISIL, decided he could weather public opinion, muster support from MPs and agreed that Britain has a global responsibility to play its part in Iraq, he may have simply doubted that the UK has the military capacity. In an era of defence cuts and stretched resources, Britain is no longer seen as the world power it once was. Indeed, as the former Chief of the General Staff has warned, we could not even reclaim the Falklands were they to be invaded again, due to lack of military assets and dwindling personnel numbers.

But as stated above, the current repertoire of action available to Cameron in Iraq is wide. His deployment on Monday of Tornado jets to the region signals a ramped-up effort to involve British forces. Though strictly for “surveillance” purposes and reserved for the humanitarian purpose of assisting other aircraft with aid-drops, these jets can easily be armed for ground attack, as they were in Libya. The targeted use of these assets against ISIL forces are likely what President Obama hopes his European allies will commit to.

There is no immediate solution to the crisis unfolding in Iraq and beyond. Western military action will not eradicate ISIL and will certainly not solve the age-old problem of divisive sectarianism and arbitrary colonial borders. Targeted air strikes can, however, slow the advance of militants where they pose a deadly threat to civilians.

The reasoning behind Cameron’s outright refusal to engage in combat operations against the Islamic State is thus unclear, and if lived up to, will likely be remembered as an extremely irresponsible foreign policy decision in the face of a grave security threat.

What is clear is that both the US and UK will regret leaving the fight against ISIL to the hollowed-out Iraqi military. The strategic landscape could be radically altered, either by a crushing ISIL victory in Iraq or by the military intervention of other regional stakeholders such as Iran.

In the meantime, thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds will continue to be displaced or massacred by the horrific onslaught of ISIL and their agenda of annihilation.

Chris Schofield studies International Relations at Exeter University.  This post first appeared on "Medium".

A Black President Has Not Led to Black Equality

I mentioned in the previous post the disappointment felt by many black Americans that Barack Obama's election, whilst it may have shattered a glass ceiling in one instance, has not led to demonstrably better relations between black American citizens and large swathes of government and law enforcement agencies.  Well, right on cue, I just came across this Newsweek piece by Pema Levy, who quotes Harvard Law graduate Ryan Hatten:

“In order to understand what happened in Ferguson, one need only know that Mike Brown was black, Darren Wilson is white and Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown numerous times while Brown was unarmed and, according to eyewitnesses, surrendering.”

 Ferguson is not just about Missouri, it seems.


The Democrats' Liberal Siren


When Barack Obama became president in November 2008 he embodied both the hopes of liberal Democrats looking for a more assertive leadership after the Clinton years, and of black Americans who saw it as a major step forward in the realisation of full civil rights.  Six years on, both groups have to some extent been disappointed.  The current riots inFerguson, Missouri may have specific local causes but they also represent an on-going, wider disconnection that exists in much of America between black communities and law enforcement agencies.  The Ferguson riots are still playing out, so any conclusions from them must wait.  Liberal Democrats, however, may already consider that six years of unrequited love from the Obama White House make a new political direction imperative.  Step forward Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

For those disappointed with the political tenor of the Obama administration as a liberal government, Elizabeth Warren provides an admirable lightning conductor.  She ousted Republican Scott Brown from what had been Ted Kennedy’s senate seat, and she says the things about taxes and poor families that many ordinary Democrats firmly identify with. 

Take this clear challenge to that standard right-wing notion that self-made people get where they are without the help of the state:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Given that President Obama has proved relatively Clintonian on fiscal issues then, Elizabeth Warren represents a useful counterpoint who may not be a presidential candidate herself – she has publicly declared for Hilary Clinton – but who could act as a liberal counter-weight to a Hilary candidacy, and a rallying point for the Democrat liberals.

Michael Tomasky provides a cogent assessment of Warren’s position in his review of her autobiography in the current edition of “Foreign Affairs”, and while he concludes that the Democrats are not as ideologically riven as the Republicans, the policy debate is out there and Warren’s presence gives it fire.