Wednesday, 30 September 2015

What is Putin up to in Syria?

First let's get one thing clear, Putin is not making a principled, humanitarian intervention against Islamic State.

Assad is Russia's ally in the region. The major disagreement between Russia and the West is Assad's place in the post-civil war Syria. Putin thinks it's Damascus, the west thinks Assad belongs in The Hague. Failure by the west to intervene left a power Vacuum into which Putin waded with his military. This served a number of purposes.

  1. It put Vladimir Putin centre stage in negotiations which allows him to present himself as someone who's made Russia a force once more in world affairs. Those handshakes with the American president are extremely important in the Russian Media.
  2. By deploying credible forces to the region Putin gains a seat at the table and earns a bargaining chip, potentially in return for the easing of Sanctions. This should be resisted.
  3. Helps secure Russia's southern flank, itself vulnerable to Jihadists 
  4. It's a show of military strength - a rapid expeditionary deployment of forces at short notice. In doing so he's made a virtue of necessity: you cannot hide such a deployment 70 miles from the British listening station on Cyprus, so use it to distract from the ongoing destabilisation of Ukraine and demonstrate capability.
  5. Finally, most refugees aren't fleeing the theatrical murderers of Islamic State, but the desperate Assad regime, which is killing seven times as many Syrians as the "Caliphate". The refugees are therefore fleeing a war which Assad is at present losing, and probably would have already lost by now were it not for Russian support. The resultant refugee crisis weakens the EU, another Putin bugbear, so he's perfectly happy to prolong the Syrian slaughter.

The fact is Assad isn't fighting IS all that much, but is instead losing ground to moderate rebel groups in the south, Jabat al Nusra (the official Al Qaeda franchise in the region)  and many others in the west. He's even ceded some ground to Hezbollah, in return for their military support. The Kurds, Hezbollah and JAN Islamists are the main opposition to IS. Most Russian actions appear to be against non-IS rebels too. The main purpose is to support Assad.

The main function of bombing IS is for Putin to further play to his supporters in the west's belief that "here is a man of action and a man of principle". Assad's regime is propped up. The refugees continue to split Europe, and western inaction exposed as weakness.

For the west's part, there's nothing that would solve many of our Foreign policy problems more than Russia getting sucked into an unwinnable war in the Middle East. By taking the best kit south, it would take pressure off Central Europe and Ukraine. It would cost Russia money it doesn't have, weakening them in the long run.

It's all breathtakingly cynical. We should not be persuaded by any of it. The Western powers had an opportunity to intervene in 2013 and earlier. Now it's too late. The Russians have made their play, and we (and above all the Syrians) must live with the consequences. If you take "Iraq" as a cautionary tale of going to action, Syria is a cautionary tale against inaction. Of the two, Iraq was basically a draw, and Syria is a catastrophic cluster-fuck that's strengthened one of the worst people in the world. Inaction appears to be worse.



Monday, 28 September 2015

The Real Reason Drugs are Still Illegal.

I have outlined many, many times why drug policy is insane, and how a properly regulated supply-chain, generating taxes rather than spending them on the futile task of interdicting supply, would be better than the current system of prohibition.


The arguments are compelling to all except those who cannot accept that "Drugs are bad" does not equal "Drugs should be illegal". Think about the issue in any depth, and most people come to the same conclusion. Politicians such as Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been on record as favouring a more liberal drug policy, as do many police I've spoken to on the subject (in a social, not *ahem* professional capacity).

So why does nothing happen when such people get to the top of the tree?

Most people do not take drugs, (at least outside the unofficially sanctioned, and generally accepted "few spliffs at university") and hope their children won't either. Many are absolutely persuaded (wrongly, as it happens) that one puff of a spliff is a first step on the road to becoming a smack-addicted self-arguer in the underpass. It is more reasonable to think of substance abuse as a mental illness, afflicting some people who take drugs. Alcohol is at least as bad in this regard as some substances listed as Class "A". Let's not pretend there's much difference between the self-arguers in the underpass with special brew, and those who inject Heroin. In fact they're often the same people whose objective is oblivion. The drug used to achieve it depends upon circumstance and personality. The dependence isn't a feature of the drug, but a consequence of multiple factors. Such substance abusers are highly visible. They are also a small subset of people who take drugs.

Ultimately the problem with drug laws is the people most affected: users, are either highly visible and acting as cautionary tale, or utterly invisible to officialdom. No-one is asking the happy stoners, the gak-snorting partiers, or the functioning junkies who only get high/stoned at the weekend and pay for it out of income, what they think. These people have to hide their opinions on drug laws. They either don't really care as their fix is just a phone call away, and won't rock the boat and cannot take the risk of coming out publicly as being users. Furthermore, should these people get caught up in, for example, a drug bust, all legal incentives will be for them to claim the drugs as a "problem", and hope to be treated as an "addict" rather than be dealt with administratively by courts. Problem users and drug related crime are therefore created in the statistics where absent the illegality, there would not be. Any hard data on drug use and effects on any but the most extreme problem users, is hard to come by, which skews the data, most of which is in any case highly motivated, assuming cutting use is the purpose of policy, not minimising harms.

Thus the media picture of "drugs" is set according to the availability heuristic: A problem, leading to destructive behaviour; when the reality, for most users, is vastly different.

Politics is full of solutions that are simple, easy to understand and wrong. The opponents of drug liberalisation have the simple logic of the statement "Drugs are bad, so ban them". The legalisers have to make the complex, counter-intuitive argument that most, if not all, of the harms that flow from drug use are a direct consequence not of their psychopharmacological effects, but of their illegality. And frankly most people to whom you need to make that argument will already be assuming you're a filthy junkie and will be ignoring you anyway. It's an extremely difficult argument to make to most people.

For example, it's likely there would be fewer heroin users were a full recreational pharmacy available legally than there are now. Why? Because of the pyramid marketing of drugs is particularly effective for heroin. Users become dealers to fund their habits. There were few problem opiate abusers before it was made illegal, and most of those picked the habit up in hospital. Just try making that argument to a Daily Mail reader.

Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently to any politician thinking of putting drug law on a less insane footing, is prohibition has gifted the most profitable business in history to criminals. In doing so, it has created rich, powerful and ruthless people, used to violence who have thought nothing of assassinating politicians. 

Any politician who looks like getting the supply-chain out of criminal hands would be a direct threat to the people currently in charge of a multi-billion dollar industry in a way an enthusiastic drug warrior would not be.

There is no public clamour for drug reform. Users are people who by definition can already get the drugs they want. Most people are happy that drugs are illegal, and are inherently conservative. And there are vested interests in law-enforcement and the criminal fraternity in favour of the status quo. A simultaneous monstering from the Tabloid press and the immediate threat of assassination by some of the most ruthless criminals on earth? Is it really a surprise when politicians who're known to be privately in favour of liberalisation keep their heads down over something of such marginal interest to most of the electorate, who in any case, have already made up their minds?



Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Prime Minister's Questions: Whither the Bear-Pit?

Jeremy Corbyn's first outing in the bear pit of Prime Minister's questions went better than either man could have hoped for. Corbyn, a lousy speaker and poor debater got off lightly, and the Prime Minister avoided the obvious banana-skin of publicly beating-up a careworn old geography teacher who accidentally found himself at the dispatch box while looking for some sandwiches.

There are few more tiresome tropes in politics that PMQs are a "national embarrassment", with all the jeering and petty tribal point-scoring. But it is just about the only debate people can be bothered to watch. If you're interested in an earnest debate about the issues, you can see everything live on the parliament channel, where the members who've taken the trouble to learn about a given issue turn up to craft and fine tune legislation. There are select committees where members scrutinise the business of Government, calling ministers and civil servants to account. Few bother.

PMQs however isn't about the business of Government. It's party-political. It's designed to test the mettle of the Prime Minister under fire - tough forensic questions, not about the issue, but to play the man. Put the man under pressure, in public and see how he fares. It means the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition learns to handle pressure, and crucially the voters can see how he fares in the bear-pit, often weekly, for years before a general election. He's out there in the manner of a Medieval king in front of his troops, meeting his opponent with the armies arrayed behind them. You find out which tribe is stronger, which is more unified and where the cracks might be. It tests the man as a leader, as a debater. Good at PMQs? Better able to stand up to Vladimir Putin in the great councils of the world.

The idea this is where you can forensically examine the Government's record earnestly is like complaining Rugby's too rough as England play Australia in a world cup final, declaring chess a better sport in world where physical prowess is no longer needed. You'll have missed the point. And get de-bagged by the Exeter Agrics 3rd 15 and have a pint poured down your crevice into the bargain. And quite right too.

Every politician comes to the dispatch-box for the first time promising "a new politics". I've little doubt that Demosthenes promised a new style of politics in the Ecclesia two and a half thousand years ago. But what Corbyn will find is instead of testing Cameron's mettle, and demonstrating his own, this Consensual PMQs will allow Cameron to calmly state the Government position in front of the largest political audience in the country; and neither man is tested. Far from being more democratic, the public have less information about the vital character of the people they are auditioning to lead the country. Corbyn is not doing his job either as a party political warrior, or leader of the opposition testing the Prime minister.

If you think this new style of politics, a consensual, nice, quiet PMQs is an improvement on the old one, you're a po-faced, sanctimonious bore, who's simply ignorant of what PMQs is for. The reason Corbyn sought to change the rules, is because he'd be demolished under the "old politics". He's going to get demolished anyway, but he's just spiked his own guns too. As for a "national embarrassment": nonsense. The commons bear pit is held up as an example of proper scrutiny not of legislation, but the man too. Our top politicians are held to account by the legislature in a way few outside the westminster system are, and many envy us that.

 
(Not PMQs, Not "England" either, but the point remains. The Bear Pit has its uses).



Monday, 7 September 2015

On Germany's "Morality"

Germany's population is falling, German women are breeding below replacement rates and so they have 1.7m empty homes. Thus offering to house 800,000 Syrians is a great deal easier for Germany than it is for the UK, which has net migration of more than 300,000 last year, plus something of a baby-boom (now tailing off). Germany can, and indeed needs, more immigrants. The UK does not. Syrian immigrants solve a problem for Germany - low housing prices, declining population and economic drift in many regions. The very same people in the UK would merely add to pressure on housing, and do little to boost an already strong economy.

Build more houses you say? The UK is building at capacity, there's a shortage of Bricks and Brickies, and we're not keeping up.

So there you go. It's handy when morality solves a problem for you. Cheap too.



Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Dead Children in the Mediterranean

The independent leads today with harrowing photographs of a small boy, maybe two years old, face-down in the surf having drowned. You will see this image shared on social media, along with impassioned pleas to "do something", as if opening Europe's borders to the 10m Syrians who are currently displaced is a viable option.

You will hear it said that this is all because of the 2003 war in Iraq. Perhaps that is a part of it. But perhaps a premature withdrawal before Iraq was able to look after its own security is more to blame. But actually this is a small part of the problem. People are fleeing Syria, where the west didn't intervene to topple a poison-gas using dictator (Assad, gassed people around Damascus in 2013) to one where we did (Saddam Hussein gassed Kurds in Halabja in 1988).

The origins of the Civil war in Syria are not due to the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, but more down to the self-immolation of a market trader called Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010, an event credited with starting the "Arab spring" whereby the populations of several countries, including Syria rose up in an attempt to overthrow their dictatorial leaders. As ever, economics played a part. The rising oil price back then made fuel subsidies unaffordable to non-oil exporting leaders such as Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and Syria's Bashar Al Assad. Removing the fuel subsidies created an environment where the previously content middle classes of Damascus and Cairo decided to throw their lot in with the usual malcontents, the Muslim Brotherhoods and less savory organisations who saw their chance.

But you will see the lazy assertion that the Syrian civil war is "our fault" because of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And certainly the rise of Al Qaeda in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi later became ISIS/ISIL/IS under Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was facilitated by the lawlessness of post-US withdrawal Iraq and the incompetence of the Governments.

But ultimately, this is the long-running sore sectarian sore of the middle-east, that various dictators have sat upon, with varying degrees of success, with or without help from outside powers, since the 9th century. The problem, those showing the photo of the dead child on the beach would have you believe, is that "we" caused the problem. "We" did not. The problem isn't that Europe is too "callous", and that the problem would go away if everyone was as achingly moral as they were. There are 10m people displaced around Syria's borders. The brunt is Borne by Turkey Lebanon and Jordan. Iraq too is taking its share. It's just in the UNHCR camps, well run, by the way, there's no work. It's a boring, depressing, but safe existence. There is food and water, from which shit is separated. It is quite understandable that people seek a better life in Europe.

Europe is spending billions, helping people in the camps. That people want to come is understandable. But the idea we're doing nothing to help them, or have an obligation to let them in, is more about the virtue-signalling of the person saying it, that the real moral position. Worse than the vacuous moral posturing, is the complete lack of agency you give to the people in this situation. Millions are waiting patiently in the camps, or in Beirut or Amman to return to their homes should peace return to Syria. Yet some decide to put their children in the hands of people smugglers and unseaworthy vessels and unventilated trucks. These people bear the responsibility for the dead children far more than the "Cameron" whom countless memes exhort to "do more".

 The very people most likely to share these self-aggrandising, shroud-waving memes on social media, are the same ones who're ostentatiously anti-war. Perhaps if any politician in the west is responsible for the success of ISIS it's Ed Miliband who successfully vetoed international military action in 2013, wholly for domestic political concerns in order to wrong-foot the Prime Minister. Perhaps if we'd started supporting reasonable groups in the Anti-Assad forces in 2013 (or earlier, my view it was already by then 18 months too late), IS may not have got such a foothold. Or maybe not. We will never know.

Not "our" fault, those dead kids. We do have an obligation to help Syrians and we are doing so through UNHCR, but that's not the same as playing host to the entire population. The solution in Syria is military. If you want to blame a British politician, blame Ed Miliband. An American one? Barack Obama who brought the Troops home from Iraq prematurely, before Iraq could look after its own security. But ultimately blaming politicians in the west for the complete failure of the middle east is futile.



Jeremy Corbyn.

What fun!

First, I am not a neutral observer. I am a £3 Labour supporter and Voted for Corbyn. I have a £10 bet with betfair at 23:1 (and a few quid on the others to ensure I come out ahead, whoever wins). But it looks like the Labour party is going to do it. A man who's barely spoken to most of the PLP in decades, preferring the company of like-minded trots.

And this is where it's going to get interesting. The hard-left is clannish. They do not tend to mix much. They may have apolitical friends who share some interests, but no-one actively from the other viewpoint. They'd no more be friends with a Tory than with a botulinum bacillus. These people congregate in certain professions: academia (social science faculties), local government and trandes-unionism. And given their concentration, and total unwillingness to befriend people with heterodox views, they're liable to underestimate the support for their opponents, and imagine themselves a majority.

Amongst these people, Corbynmania has taken hold. They flock to hear their man speak, repeating lefty shibboleths in the manner of a Strawbs tribute band. The tunes are the same ones the older ones in the crowd remember, but there's something lost in the delivery. "You can't get me, I'm part of the Union" somehow no longer fits the zeitgeist of this individualist age.


The problem the Corbynistas face is they are few in number, and strikingly poor at arguing. Jezbollah himself is rather thin-skinned, becoming angry when questioned forensically about supporting this terrorist group, or sharing platforms with that despicable anti-semite. Now I am sure Corbynladen is a decent guy. It's just he's spent decades in politics agreeing with those around him about what must be done. Meanwhile his solutions were tried, not just in the UK, and were everywhere found to be disastrous. The world moved on. Politics in successful countries is about the management of liberal, free-market democracy. How much do you tax? what is the most efficient way to administer benefits? Who manages what? It's clear that the state is not very good at managing stuff, even if it's an excellent financer of services. But those who yearn for the state to reclaim the commanding heights of the economy are going to be disappointed, whether or not they get their way.

Tories are currently at 42%, Labour at 28% in the polls, for what they're worth.

The electorate, when he's elected, will look at him, give him the benefit of the doubt for a bit. I dare say Labour may enjoy a Corbyn bounce, as people remember what great tunes were played in the 1970s and 1980s. Then the reality- the months-long wait for a telephone or washing machine from state-run stores, British rail as a by-word for inefficiency and delay, waiting lists for cars, the rubbish piled in the street, the dead going unburied and an attempt by hard-core marxists to assert that a country should be run not from the ballot box, but at the point of production.

Corbyn will spend his time as leader answering questions about his relationship with, and comments about organisations most people in the country regard as our enemies. He will be torn to shreds. If you think the "Tory smear machine" is working him over now, they've barely started. As for the Tory party itself - it's a studied example of masterful inactivity. Never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake.

So what will Labour do? That depends whether Working Class Eyebrows, Mrs Balls, Liz Magnolia-Paint et al. can regain control of the party. But I suspect the rot has gone too deep. The influence of the unions in the constituency parties is too all-pervasive. The whole party has been attracting hard-leftists since Miliband won his leadership battle. These people are going to try to retain their grip the party. As the hard left see Labour as THEIR party, and they're not going to give it up.

There's going to be a battle, not for the soul of the Labour party, that's always belonged to people who still describe themselves as "socialist", but for the brand. Will the next electable centre-left politician to be put before the British people be under the Red Rose of Labour, or will Labour's grown-ups split to form a Social Democratic party, perhaps a take-over of the Vacant Liberal Democrats? The question is who gets the Labour brand: the hard-left or the modernisers? Labour's problem is the Germ of socialism in the party's DNA leaves them vulnerable to exactly what has happened: a takeover by socialists who've kept the faith.

My guess is that this time, the Labour party will not be able to kick out the loonies. Parties are weaker, smaller and so more beholden to people with *ahem* excitable views. So there will probably be a split. The next non-Tory prime minister in about 2030 will likely not be from Labour.



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