Monday 29 April 2013

Who's speaking up for the mad-as-hellers?

If you're old enough to remember the 1970s, you may remember an Oscar-winning film called "Network" in which an unhinged television broadcaster played by Peter Finch persuaded thousands of his viewers to open their windows and yell: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!"

Well, there are, I suspect, many millions of voters who are sorely tempted these days to shout something very similar. So my question for you is this: why do there seem to be so few mainstream politicians prepared to reflect the sentiments of the "mad-as-hellers"?

Let's try to name a few angry politicians: in the UK, Nigel Farage of UKIP and George Galloway of Respect: in the US, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich and a handful of Tea Partyers. In France, Marine Le Pen of the National Front; in Greece, Alexis Tsipras of Syriza. Mainstream, they ain't.

Tony Blair wrote a remarkable piece in the New Statesman the other day, in which he said: "The guiding principle should be that we are the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger."

Now, I have nothing against seekers after answers -- I've pretty much made it my life's work to be a seeker -- but what on earth is wrong with politicians being a repository for people's anger? What's wrong with seeking to represent the people who increasingly feel that no one is listening, no one cares, no one understands what their lives are like?

Anger alone, of course, is never enough -- you need to offer credible solutions as well -- but it's not unreasonable, is it, to expect someone other than Mr Farage to try to articulate the rage that a significant number of voters feel about the events of recent years? Banking crash, bank bonuses, corporate tax avoidance, double-dip recession, job insecurity -- yes, and the EU and immigration -- surely it's not so unreasonable to be angry?

It's not easy for parties in government to articulate voter anger -- to do so would naturally encourage the response "So why the hell aren't you doing something about it?" But for Nick Clegg to argue, as he did yesterday, that Labour are "making the classic mistake of opposition" and that "by offering anger rather than hope, [they] are steadily becoming a party of protest", strikes me as frankly bizarre.

Almost as bizarre, in fact, as Boris Johnson's attempt to argue that the rise of UKIP is actually good news for the Conservatives because it confirms that "a Tory approach is broadly popular" and that the Labour party "is going precisely nowhere". Hmm …

As for Nick Clegg's argument, why can't an opposition party both articulate anger and offer hope? Why should anger be the prerogative of the political fringes? And anyway, I'm not sure I've seen much sign of Labour offering anger; from where I sit, the main Labour message seems to be "we know you don't like what that coalition lot are doing, but we think we may have to do something quite similar if/when you elect us."

I have a theory about why the anger has gone out of mainstream politics -- and it revolves around television. The telly-box is what the media studies people call a "cool medium" -- it is much kinder to soft-spoken, reasonable people with an ample store of pithy sound-bites than to tub-thumping ideologues who could make themselves heard in the far corners of Trafalgar Square without the aid of a microphone.

So Michael Foot has morphed into Tony Blair, and Enoch Powell has become David Cameron. I exaggerate slightly for effect, of course, and it's not exactly irrelevant that neither Foot nor Powell ever won a general election. (Arguably, neither has Cameron, but we can leave that for another day.)

But if UKIP do well in the local elections on Thursday, let's see how long it takes Ed Miliband to start speaking up a bit more for the mad-as-hellers.

Friday 26 April 2013

Syria: is the horror-meter still not high enough?

For nearly two years, Western governments have been looking for reasons not to send troops to Syria. And despite the most recent claims about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, they're still looking.

According to the US defence secretary Chuck Hagel: "Our intelligence community does assess, with varying degrees of confidence, that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically, the chemical agent sarin."

There are two key phrases in that sentence: "varying degrees of confidence", and "on a small scale."

The UK foreign office says it has "limited but persuasive information from various sources" of chemical weapons having been used in Syria. Again, note the caveat: "limited". It doesn't take a genius, does it, to work out that they are treading very, very gently.

This morning, David Cameron said there is "limited but growing" evidence that Syrian government troops have used chemical weapons. It is, he said, "extremely serious, this is a war crime."

Why does the chemical weapons issue matter? Because for many months now, President Obama has said that if the Syrian military use chemical weapons against rebel forces, they will have "crossed a red line". As recently as last month, he said: "We will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people."

So, what does "we will not tolerate" mean? Last August, Mr Obama said the use of chemical weapons "would change my calculus … That would change my equation.” Last month, he told Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, that if such weapons were used, “the world is watching, we will hold you accountable.”

But last night, in a letter to US senators, the White House said merely that it will now press "for a comprehensive United Nations investigation that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place."

The watch-word is caution, not a call to arms.

No one should be surprised if governments treat intelligence assessments these days with a high degree of caution. If the Iraq experience taught them anything, it was that the spooks don't always get it right. "Evidence" of chemical or other so-called weapons of mass destruction is not always quite what it seems.

So let's put all that to one side, take a couple of steps back and ask a basic question. What is the desired goal in Syria? Suppose it's simply an end to the bloodshed, after the deaths of at least 70,000 people over the past two years, more than 6,000 of them last month alone.

Would foreign military intervention end the bloodshed? Well, we have some precedents to guide us. Bosnia, for example, in 1995, or Kosovo in 1999, where foreign military intervention did end the slaughter of civilians. Ditto in Sierra Leone in 2000, and East Timor in 2006.

In Iraq, a reviled dictator, Saddam Hussein, guilty of having used chemical weapons against his own people (the Kurds in Halabja in 1988), was overthrown and executed. Likewise in Libya, where foreign military action enabled local rebel forces to overthrow, and then murder, another reviled dictator, Muammar Gaddafi.

But the Iraq and Libya precedents aren't as clear-cut as some pro-intervention advocates might like. Sure, the tyrants were toppled -- but did the killing stop? On the contrary: in Iraq, certainly, and in Libya to a somewhat lesser extent, the level of the killing was actually higher after the foreign intervention than before.

It's more than a year now since the secretary-general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, asked the key question: if international military forces were to intervene in Syria, how likely do you think it is that they would be able to create a sustainable solution to the crisis?

The unfortunate truth, as I pointed out at the time, is that there is always a risk that by stepping in to prevent people dying, you end up being responsible for even more people dying. There is no iron rule of politics that says that what follows a brutal dictator will always be better than what went before.

None of this means I think foreign intervention in Syria is necessarily a bad idea. There may well come a time when the sheer horror of what is happening there is too much for Western (and some Arab) governments to stomach.

For now, though, it looks to me as if the assessment in Washington, London and Paris is that we have not yet reached that moment. Callous though it may sound, the needle on the horror-meter has not yet gone high enough.

There's one other factor for you to consider: it still looks inconceivable that if there is to be foreign military intervention, it will have the backing of the UN security council. So if you were against the intervention in Iraq on the grounds that it wasn't approved by the UN, you need to come up with a good reason why that wouldn't matter in Syria.

Thursday 18 April 2013

A shameful day in Washington

Something truly appalling happened in Washington this week -- and yes, I said Washington, not Boston, where three people were killed in a bomb attack on the Boston marathon, and not Texas, where several people died when a fertiliser plant exploded.

In Washington, last night, the US Senate failed to approve a measure that would have gone a little way -- a very little way, in all honesty -- to tightening up controls on gun sales.

There can't be many places on earth where legislators think it's perfectly OK for absolutely anyone to buy a gun online, or at a gun show, without having to pass some kind of check on their background.

Sometimes, I read something and think to myself: "There is no way I could have said that any better." So here is part of such an article, written in the New York Times by the former Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in January 2011.

"Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown. Some of the senators who voted no have also looked into my eyes as I talked about my experience being shot in the head at point-blank range in suburban Tucson two years ago, and expressed sympathy for the 18 other people shot besides me, 6 of whom died. These senators have heard from their constituents — who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks. And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.

"I watch TV and read the papers like everyone else. We know what we’re going to hear: vague platitudes like “tough vote” and “complicated issue.” I was elected six times to represent southern Arizona, in the State Legislature and then in Congress. I know what a complicated issue is; I know what it feels like to take a tough vote. This was neither. These senators made their decision based on political fear and on cold calculations about the money of special interests like the National Rifle Association, which in the last election cycle spent around $25 million on contributions, lobbying and outside spending.

"I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers at the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote. I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I’m asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences.

"People have told me that I’m courageous, but I have seen greater courage. Gabe Zimmerman, my friend and staff member in whose honor we dedicated a room in the United States Capitol this week, saw me shot in the head and saw the shooter turn his gunfire on others. Gabe ran toward me as I lay bleeding. Toward gunfire. And then the gunman shot him, and then Gabe died. His body lay on the pavement in front of the Safeway for hours.

"I have thought a lot about why Gabe ran toward me when he could have run away. Service was part of his life, but it was also his job. The senators who voted against background checks for online and gun-show sales, and those who voted against checks to screen out would-be gun buyers with mental illness, failed to do their job.

"They looked at these most benign and practical of solutions, offered by moderates from each party, and then they looked over their shoulder at the powerful, shadowy gun lobby — and brought shame on themselves and our government itself by choosing to do nothing."

The Financial Times reported today: "Although polls show that about 90 per cent of voters back mandatory checks for all gun sales, the bill’s provisions were more modest than the universal background checks that Mr Obama promoted after the Newtown shootings, when 26 people, including 20 children, were killed."

In which case, why weren't more senators prepared to back the proposals? I can think of only one explanation, and it's the one suggested by Gabrielle Giffords: that they are more frightened of incurring the wrath of the pro-gun lobby than they are of more children being gunned down in yet another murderous rampage.

No wonder President Obama called it "a pretty shameful day for Washington."

Friday 5 April 2013

Is it time for the UK to give up its nukes?

It's quiz time.

Who said this? “We need our nuclear deterrent as much today as we did when a previous British Government embarked on it over six decades ago … The nuclear threat has not gone away."

And who said this? "While the world has changed greatly since the 1980s, the political reality has not: we will appear dangerously weak …if we are prepared to give up [Trident] while the world remains so unstable."

Not much difference, is there? The first was David Cameron, writing in the Daily Telegraph yesterday, and the second was the Labour frontbencher Angela Smith and a former aide to Gordon Brown, John Woodcock, writing jointly in last Monday's Guardian.

So our two major political parties still agree, as they have done for many years, that the UK needs to hang on to its bomb. (Funny, isn't it, that when we have it, it's an "independent nuclear deterrent", but when someone we don't approve of has it, or threatens to acquire it, it becomes a "weapon of mass destruction.")

Has nothing changed, then, since Nye Bevan argued passionately against unilateral nuclear disarmament at the Labour party conference in 1957, on the grounds that "it would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber"?

In fact, of course, a great deal has changed. For one thing, Joe Stalin and the Soviet Union have long gone; for another, the main security threats we face have changed beyond recognition. Now, according to the government's Strategic Defence and Security Review published in October 2010, they are terrorism, cyber-attacks and natural disasters, like major flooding and pandemics.

And even though the Review also says that an effective nuclear weapons programme remains "the United Kingdom’s ultimate insurance policy in this age of uncertainty", it is far from clear, at least to me, what our nuclear warheads will be aimed at if we do suffer a cyber-attack or a major pandemic.

I raise these questions, of course, while Western and other governments watch nervously as North Korea goes through another of its periodic bouts of nuclear sabre-rattling. (I wrote about North Korea seven weeks ago, when I suggested "We're not paying enough attention to rising tensions in east Asia" -- so don't say I didn't warn you.)

The prime minister wrote yesterday: "Only the retention of our independent deterrent makes clear to any adversary that the devastating cost of an attack on the UK or its allies will always be far greater than anything it might hope to gain."

I wonder. Any adversary? It didn't deter Argentina when it invaded the Falklands in 1982, did it? Nor did it deter the 7/7 suicide bombers when they attacked London's public transport network in 2005. Nor did the fact that the US possesses the biggest nuclear arsenal on earth stop Osama bin Laden and his comrades from launching the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

So the deterrent argument is, shall we say, arguable. I don't discount it all together, however, because I accept the possibility that, for example, India and Pakistan may be slightly less likely to take up arms against each other, now that they both have nuclear weapons.

What surprises me is that there's been so little discussion about the UK nuclear arsenal in the context of the current public spending debate. We could save billions by scrapping the Trident nuclear missile programme -- or even by not going ahead with a like-for-like replacement -- but the Westminster consensus seems to be that any major party that openly calls for an end to Britain's nuclear bomb programme would lose support at the ballot box.

(In fact, an opinion poll carried out in 2010 for the foreign policy think-tank Chatham House suggested that 50 per cent of UK voters want Trident either scrapped entirely or replaced with something cheaper. So the "it'll-lose-us-sackloads-of-votes" argument may not be as powerful as most politicians seem to think.)

So far, only the Green Party is prepared to say openly what many senior military and defence analysts say privately. Green MP Caroline Lucas stuck her neck out last October: “With the total cost of replacement likely to come in at an eye-watering £100 billion over the next 30 years, can the UK afford such an extravagance? Is a Cold War deterrent really the right solution for our defence needs in the 21st century?"

The Lib Dem view, as set out yesterday by the MP Sir Malcolm Bruce, is more nuanced: "We do accept the case for a nuclear deterrent and we are not in favour of unilateral disarmament. We are saying we shouldn't replace Trident on a like-for-like basis but we are looking at alternative nuclear deterrents once Trident has passed its sell-by date."

An official government review into Trident replacement options is due to be published within the next couple of months. Perhaps that's when we can start to have a proper debate. Has the time come for the UK to give up its nukes as an irrelevant extravagance?

Mind you, if I were a North Korean policy-maker, I would look at what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi after they abandoned their nuclear weapons programmes, and I would conclude that I do not intend to make the same mistake they did. But no, I don't put the UK in the same category, because I really don't think we face the remotest threat of hostile military action from either the US or NATO if we renounce our "deterrent".

So how worried should we be about North Korea, as the US and others ramp up their defences in response to the blood-curdling rhetoric from Pyongyang? I'll take my cue from the South Koreans, who don't seem worried at all. And after all, they, of all people, would have the most reason to be worried if the current tensions really did threaten to spill over into war.