Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Donald Rumsfeld's Amnesia

You might have thought that Donald Rumsfeld would at least have the decency to keep quiet.  Having wrought such damage upon the Middle East as the result of his ill-considered and misconceived policies, he could at least have spared us his ongoing thoughts.  Yet here he is again, giving an interview to the Times about the current problems and casting himself as a wise man of the past.

Extraordinarily, Mr. Rumsfeld has announced that he was never really in favour of imposing democracy upon Iraq.  George W Bush made a terrible mistake, he suggests.  His amnesia is all the more culpable given how much of Iraq's current day trauma stems from errors, mistakes and sheer arrogance on the part of Rumsfeld himself.  It does seem extraordinary that he is now suggesting he was not an ideological fellow traveller in the great crusade to impose western democracy on Iraq.  Indeed, it is worth just recounting just how responsible Rumsfeld was for the disaster that overtook Iraq, not so much from the initial invasion but from the botched aftermath.

The manifold failings of the worst man to hold the office of American Secretary of defence are documented in many places elsewhere.  Suffice it to say here that this was the man who – in pure neo-con fashion – was the strongest advocate of a war against Iraq in the counsels of the Bush presidency, and the strongest advocate of doing so with minimum men on the ground.  Having scythed through Baghdad, Rumsfeld’s forces were then confronted with a horrendous security operation, and faced with the Secretary’s unyielding demand that this too be undertaken with the most underwhelming force possible.  Rumsfeld, indeed, even stopped one division from going to Baghdad at all, in the belief that it was an unnecessary expenditure. 

The man in the Pentagon thus hamstrung the very forces he had sent into Iraq right from the start. There was worse to come, though, in the form of his sweeping aside of the cautious but politically aware team of American reconstructionists who were in Baghdad and headed by Jay Garner, in favour of the brash, arrogant and wholly unsuited Paul Bremer.  Bremer, a man of supreme egoism who likened himself to General MacArthur, insisted on complete authority to run Iraq.  It couldn’t have gone to a less qualified individual.  Bremer had no knowledge whatever of the Middle East – unlike Garner and his team, or the Iraqi originally slated to be a co-leader, Zalmay Khalilzad.  His foreign experience had been as a chief of staff to Henry Kissinger, and an ambassador to the Netherlands.  It was this lack of any prior involvement in Mid East affairs that endeared him to the ever cretinous Rumsfeld. 

Bremer arrived in May 2003 to an urgent need to establish some sort of authority in Baghdad. His predecessors, Garner and Khalilzad, had been making some useful moves to incorporate previous Iraqi civil servants and military commanders into a new governing authority.  Bremer swept this aside, since he had arrived determined to stamp his authority on Baghdad by dismissing the whole of Saddam Hussein’s political and military structure.  His first order was thus to bar the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government office.  As the CIA station chief in Baghdad noted, Bremer had just disenfranchised 30,000 people.

Bremer’s Order No 2 was even more catastrophic.  Despite the talks that had been going on between Garner and Khalilzad and potentially sympathetic Iraqi army commanders, Bremer’s order – drafted by former Clinton aide Walter Slocombe – removed the entire military structure that had existed under Saddam.  The reaction in Iraq was furious, with angry demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities; sixteen US soldiers were wounded by violent protests in Mosul, a matter of particular annoyance to General Petraeus whose forces had up to that point been making some headway in winning over the city’s population.  And if Order No 1 had sent 30,000 officials to unexpected unemployment, Order No 2 did the same for 300,000 well armed soldiers.  It is no surprise to discover that many of those soldiers formed the nucleus of the Islamic Army of Iraq and Syria that is causing so much grief today.

Bremer’s orders, confirmed by Rumsfeld, were ill considered and destructive, but even the logic on which they were based was flawed, not least because Bremer failed to make even the most cursory investigation of the country he had come to rule.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Iraqi army’s top ranks had far fewer Baathists than he had thought.  A mere half of the generals,  and only 8,000 of the 140,000 officers and NCO’s were committed Baath Party members.  The Iraqi officers who had been in discussions with Garner and Khalilzad knew this, but Bremer had dismissed their contribution out of hand.  He ended up pursuing de-Baathification of a military that hadn’t needed it. 

There is a final indication – and perhaps an appropriate one – of Paul Bremer’s mendacious ignorance of Iraq and Arab culture.  He and Slocombe had devised a scheme to replace the Iraqi military with a ‘New Iraqi Corps’.  NIC, when pronounced in Arabic, sounds very much like “fuck”.  It is a fitting commentary on a man who has retired into a peaceful life of painting and lecturing in the bucolic countryside of Vermont while the reverberations of his ill-thought out and gung-ho policies continue to condemn thousands of Iraqis to death, torture, or – often at best – a wretched existence carved out in the midst of slaughter, and fear of the ISIL monster which has filled the vacuum he created.   Mr. Rumsfled may not have been in favour of imposing democracy.  The trouble is, he doesn't appear to have been in favour of imposing anything at all.

The book “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (chapter 24) provides much of the narrative detail referred to above.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Education is failing poor, white, working class boys

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan hasn't yet explained why she thinks Academies are the answer to failing schools.  In fact, of course, they are an ideological expedient with very little educational thinking behind them.  the ones we have vary hugely in type, quality and success.

The reason this is important is because there is a crisis in education and the political fixes so far designed aren't dealing with it.  The Sutton Trust have produced their report "Missing Talent" - the high achievers (top 10%) at primary school who, after five years of secondary education, rank outside the top 25% of pupils in achievement terms.  That is some 7,000 pupils each year according to the Sutton Trust, and the largest proportion of these are white, working class boys.

There is more to mull on and consider in this important report, and the New Statesman gives an early commentary.  There are no easy or pat solutions, but in an age which has so vigorously set itself against formal academic selection, it is worth considering the words of the left-wing writer Iris Murdoch, in her contribution to the 1975 Black Papers:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

There's an open goal still waiting to be scored in by the party with some credible answers to raising educational attainment amongst bright pupils in secondary schools.

#the56 SNP MPs - could they be Commons reformers?

The problem for the well-publicised SNP #56 is that they actually have very little to do for their constituents in the Westminster parliament.  The meaty stuff, the legislation that affects the people who voted for them, actually goes through the Scottish Parliament, and will do so in even greater form after the increased devolved powers are given.  So what to do in Westminster?

Well one thing they could have a significant impact on is a change in the way parliament - and especially the House of Commons - actually does things.  In a sense, the SNP MPs have arrived as rather good-natured insurrectionists.  They have been sent to parliament by voters who see Westminster as the enemy.  Many of these new MPs share that view.  They've arrived in the hallowed halls of Britain's finest active museum as bewildered outsiders wondering what the hell is going on.  And they've lost little time expressing their frustration, being arguably the best group of politicians to co-ordinate a message on social media to date.

Too many MPs use social media as a tool for utterly dull, mind-blowingly tedious tweets; or else they make a careless slip when pressing the camera button which ruins them forever.  The SNP, on the other hand, seem to have been able to use their twitter feeds not just to create a unitary image - #the56 has become a great way of generating trend traffic - and to quickly communicate with the voters back home.

Take their views of yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions.  As the session veered into its usual melee of noise and unillumination, SNP MPs were quick to express the sort of outsider's contempt that has long been the view of those who are not MPs.  The Huffington Post recorded a number of the tweets here, but the general theme was the same - how is this noise a proper method of debate and accountability?

Now of course the SNP could just be being mischievous, playing to their outsiders' image for political gain.  They did after all start their 5-year pilgrimage to the mother of parliaments with selfies, seat-napping and provocative applause (although maybe applause is better than shouting?).  But if they wanted to find something genuinely positive to do, this group of fresh-air breathing Scots iconoclasts could do everyone a favour if they chose to push for a more appropriate, representative and effective modus operandi in the House of Commons.  SNP as constitutional reformers?  Who'd have guessed.


Philip Cowley gives his assessment of the SNP here.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

School history at GCSE is about to be wrecked. Should we care?

Education change is both a vast area and a small one.  Macro change concerns the very nature of our schools, their funding and their set-up.  Micro change concerns those small things that go on within a curriculum or inside the school.  Much political attention focuses on the macro – it’s easier and everyone tends to have a view.  But bear with me for a little as I try and explain why one of the less noticed micro changes – the complete overhaul of the GCSE history syllabus – is such a regrettable action of education vandalism.  Of course, my concern stems from the fact that I am a history teacher and clearly believe that history should be a strong and coherent aspect of any healthy curriculum.  Sometimes, though, these micro changes throw a much more illuminating light on the flux and turmoil within education than any of the macro items.  I've written a piece for the TES on this very topic, so here it is; why we should be opposing the changes to the history GCSE.

The untimely death of an under-estimated politician

It was shocking to hear of Charles Kennedy's death this morning.  There was no warning, no expectation, and the man was only 55.  How could he suddenly not be here?  If we who merely know him from the outside think that,  how so much more shocking must it be for his family.  A suddenly bereaved wife, and a young son who also lost a grandfather not very long ago.  It is a sign of the affection in which Kennedy was held, and the largeness of the man's presence in our political consciousness, that so many have leapt to record their shock, sadness and regard for him.

Reflecting on his life and career, I suspect we have all been guilty of under-estimating him as a politician and leader.  Yes, he was widely liked.  Yes, we all knew that he could carry a chat show as well as anyone, especially if it was "Have I Got News For You?"  But were we really fully aware of his sharp political mind and the impressive principle which made him so effective at articulating a vision for modern liberalism.  Did we look beneath that "chat show" veneer, that likeability, and note that here truly was a politician who could do things differently, speak to us all with a fresh voice, without ever sacrificing his keen and principled political judgement?  Strange thing is, despite his regular media appearances, he never came across as a gimic merchant, a slightly fraudulent politician seeking cheap celebrity.  He was always authentic.  A politician to his fingertips who enjoyed communicating with people, and could do so naturally and easily.

I was struck when reading a 2002 interview that Peter Oborne did with him, republished on the Spectator blog today, at how unwilling he was to spin things.  He was after those soft Tory seats, but had no intention of either reducing the volume of his support for Europe, or backing off from identifying closely with public sector workers and unions.  And he won those seats.  Perhaps not as game-changingly as Oborne suggested in the article then, but certainly on a larger scale than the Liberals had managed in nearly a century.  What would they give for that sort of success now.

Kennedy as a leader was undone by drink, the curse of many men and one perhaps exacerbated by the hot-house atmosphere of Westminster, where he worked and lived from a really very young age.  The plotting against him then was unseemly, and maybe he railed against it in private but I never remember anything other than a quiet, sad dignity when he spoke in public.

Do all political careers end in failure?  Kennedy's was certainly cut short at a singularly inopportune moment.  He had just lost his seat in the SNP landslide, after a term when he was at odds with his party's decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives.  On that, as well as on his opposition to the Iraq war, history will judge him to have been on the right side of the argument.  But even he couldn't withstand the shocking tremors of the SNP win. If anyone could have had an incumbency strength it must surely have been him.  And yet his colleague Malcolm Bruce commented this morning that Kennedy had been bemused by the reaction in his constituency.  He would be greeted by voters who said they liked him, wished him well and believed he would win, but were going to vote for the SNP.   Go figure.

Charles Kennedy showed that you could certainly do politics differently, but perhaps also showed that if you do there is a danger that you may well be sold short in terms of political weight.  The most electorally successful Liberal leader in a century was never actually regarded as a political superstar in his lifetime.  Tragically it's taken his early death for that to start being fully understood.

Monday, June 01, 2015

The One Nation PM

David Cameron announced that he would be a "One Nation" prime minister, and in both outlook and practice he would appear to be fulfilling the role he has set out for himself.

Although he has indeed appointed a more Thatcherite cabinet than his predecessors, this has largely been through the pragmatic necessity of getting the right people into the right jobs.  The Cameron style of governance in any case favours continuity - a significant and, many would argue, welcome distinction from the almost constantly moving BLair/Brown years - and this obviously saw a number of committed Thatcherites retain Cabinet office (Gove, Grayling, Javid, Hammond to name a few).  They were joined by rising stars such as Priti Patel (attending, rather than a full-on member of cabinet) and Andrea Leadsom, while Thatcherite old-stager John Whittingdale got his place in the sun, not least because he happens to be the best-qualified person to hold his role.  The cabinet selection, in fact, was a triumph of pragmatism over ideology, with the arch-strategist George Osborne increasing his own authority as part of the harmonious duopoly that he and David Cameron seem able to run.

The Queen's Speech, too, carried some right-wing headlining.  The promise on a European referendum, the proposed welfare cuts and the right to buy bill; all these could have come straight out of the Thatcher playbook.  But they were all also manifesto pledges.  The European referendum is Cameron's attempt to lance the boil in his own party and give membership of the EU a genuinely popular mandate.  Putting it straight in to his first Queen's Speech was a matter of necessary management.  The other headlining issues reflected promises made during the campaign.

Look, however, at what wasn't there.  No British Bill of Rights yet, nor a vote to repeal the fox-hunting ban.  And under the wire, look at what else is happening.  Childcare allowances to be doubled, apprenticeships to be increased, and of course Cameron's own well publicised commitment to actually extend NHS provision in a 24/7 direction.  There is definitely an issue of costing of these expensive commitments to be identified, but they form part of a One Nation commitment to social mobility and "caring for the poor" that is certainly redolent of One Nation PMs of old, as Anne McElvoy persuasively notes in her Observer piece.

It's not just in policy commitments that David Cameron appears to be showing his One Nation colours.  His practice too reminds us of the methods of government of the most prominent of his One Nation predecessors.

The originator of the One Nation brand (though he would hardly have used that term) was of course Disraeli.  But Disraeli reached the top office at a point when he was almost too tired to pursue any active measures himself.   He left the radical reforming to his ministers, most notably his Home Secretary Richard Cross who has as much claim as anyone to be the original executor of One Nation Toryism.  Cameron is certainly not a tired man in office, but like Disraeli it is possible that foreign affairs (in his case the necessary negotiations over EU membership) will consume more of his time.  Thus, the practical measures required to put his vision onto the statute books will lie in the hands of his ministers.  That's why Iain Duncan Smith stays at Work and Pensions, and Jeremy Hunt at Health.

Mr. Cameron also understands the art of steady rule.  The Spectator blog suggests that the greatest reforms of the Cameron administration come from his ministers.  True, but it is the PM who must both give the political freedom to pursue this, and the steady leadership to stop it being overly divisive. This is a classic Stanley Baldwin approach, another notable One Nation leader.  Baldwin presided comfortably over a potentially divisive inter-war Britain, ensuring Labour had its chance to govern, making sure that the General Strike didn't become a class war, and giving radical reformers such as Neville Chamberlain their head.

The most potentially divisive issue facing Mr. Cameron is the European Convention on Human Rights. He has apparently decided that Britain will not in fact pull out from this, believing that the production of a British Bill of Rights should satisfy most of the calls for a greater prominence of British rulings in such issues.  The Telegraph reports that this has put him at odds with Michael Gove and Theresa May, but the fact is that this is Cameron the arbiter in action.

David Cameron clearly does not see power as something to hold on to for its own sake, and has a refreshingly detached view of holding office - hence his off the cuff comment to James Lansdale of the BBC about not running for a third term.  He is a leader who sets the agenda, and understands that very often he has to find en effective middle way between the competing ideologies of colleagues and party supporters, as well as position the Tories as an effective whole nation party once again.  The early indications are that he has the temperament and commitment to achieve this.  Any One Nation Conservative should be cheering him on enthusiastically as he re-sets the party for a generation or more.