Monday, March 28, 2005


Two Years on.

Two years ago yesterday, I posted the following as my view of the Iraq war. I'd like to revisit it.

Why the UN is to blame for the 2003 Iraq War
Responsibility for this war lies squarely with the UN, despite the last-minute chickening-out. If the UN Security Council had wanted to establish peaceful relations between Saddam Hussein and the rest of the world (which would have been a Good Thing), it wouldn't have set up the stupid "safe havens". You can't make peace with a government while you're protecting a rebel army inside that government's own territory. The only options are
  1. Leave things as they were and wait for Saddam Hussein to find some way of getting revenge on us.
  2. Pull right out and let Saddam Hussein take control of the Kurdish areas, thereby showing up the half-hearted assertiveness of 1991 for what it was.
  3. End the whole mess by changing the government of Iraq by military means.
The UN Security Council plumped for option 1. I favour option 2, but I can see that politicians might see it as politically impossible to watch the Kurds get cut to ribbons again as a result of international dithering. Bush went for 3, which would be my second choice.
Is option 1 so bad? Or, to put it another way, is pre-emptive self-defence the real reason for the war? I think it is.
I have to admit a couple of things first: We have seen no evidence of any friendly contact between the Iraqi regime and anti-US terrorists. They are by no means natural allies; quite the contrary. And secondly, much of the propoganda on WMD's has been misleading or dishonest. Sure, Iraq is months away from making nuclear weapons (if someone else gives them fissionable material). The same goes for the Sons of Glendwyr — getting fissionable material is the only difficult bit.
Having accepted those, let me make the case: Both Saddam Hussein and bin Laden are prepared to make alliances of convenience across ideological barriers. As an example, they have both previously been allies of the U.S.A (against Iran and the U.S.S.R. respectively). There is no question that the U.S.A is now the number one enemy for them both. It is possible that Iraq can be indefinitely prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. It is not possible that Iraq can be indefinitely prevented from manufacturing chemical and biological weapons. If the current UN-sponsored policy of antagonising but not destroying the Iraqi regime is continued for years, it seems plausible or even likely that at some point Saddam Hussein would supply anti-U.S.A. terrorists with chemical or biological weapons. Bush chose war rather than accept this risk, and I understand and respect that.
This crisis came about as a direct result of UN policy. At the end of the 1991 Gulf war there was an argument. Some people wanted to remove Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. Others opposed this either because they felt it would have bad effects on the region as a whole, or more simply because it would cause unnecessary bloodshed. It was decided, in my view rightly, to end the war with the restoration of Kuwait.
Many who opposed an invasion of Iraq nevertheless hoped that Saddam Hussein would be overthrown. Part of the Iraqi population was already in revolt, and it seemed an easy and harmless thing to help things along a bit. The Iraqi security forces could be prevented from wiping out the rebellion by establishing safe areas and "No-fly zones", which could be justified on humanitarian grounds in any event.
Unfortunately the idea, approved by the UN Security Council, was not thought through. Carried away by the prospect of getting Saddam Hussein overthrown "for free", the long-term situation in the case that the rebellion was unsuccessful was ignored. The United Nations, a body whose purpose is peace, and empowered to sanction war only to prevent wider war, was in fact ordering a perpetual war. It is an act of war to send armed forces into another country to protect a rebel army. The U.S.A. and U.K. have, with U.N. backing, been waging war against Iraq every day for over a decade. This situation should never have been created. Once it was decided in 1991 to allow the Iraqi regime to stay in power, then for consistency's sake Iraq should have been accorded the full sovereign rights of any other country, including the right to use force against "traitors" in its territory.
If I had made this argument at the time (which I didn't), I am sure I would have found little agreement. I would have been told that I was putting inappropriate and outdated principles ahead of the lives of innocent people. It is only with hindsight that we can see what has come of the denial of the basic principle of Iraq's sovereignty. The twelve year war against Iraq, with its blockades ("sanctions"), its bombings and its imminent bitter end has claimed more innocent lives than either of the two logical alternatives in 1991 would have done, even without taking into account that it was the immediate provocation for the worst terrorist massacre in history.
At its root is arrogance. GWB has been widely accused of arrogance in recent weeks, but nothing has matched the arrogance of his father and his UN supporters in believing that they could expect peace and cooperation from a foreign government while openly attempting to overthrow it in defiance of its traditional sovereign rights. GWB has the humility to recognise that to interfere in Iraq to the extent of inspecting its chemical factories and limiting the actions its security forces, he must fight a war, take the responsibility and take the consequences. The UN Security Council still has the arrogance to believe it can achieve the same ends without bloodshed.
If one effect of this crisis is to reduce the power and effectiveness of the United Nations, then I will consider that to be one small blessing come out of the catastrophe.
Two years on, I see little to revise. Talking about the "imminent" end of the 12-year war could be said to be mistaken, but the war since 1991 was against the regime of Saddam Hussein. I repeated the error I criticised in others by not thinking carefully enough about the longer-term effects of the then-current policy. To the extent that the post-conquest violence has been worse than anticipated, that is a further point in favour what was my recommended policy, attempting to bring Saddam over as an ally against the Islamists. On the other hand, if the Bush strategy of democracy spreading from Iraq to other parts of the region succeeds, as seems possible, that would justify the approach actually taken.
What I still stand by is that what I call the "Cook doctrine" (because Robin Cook defended it in his resignation speech), that the "containment" of Iraq was a success and should have been continued, was both morally and strategically indefensible. The plan of keeping Iraq too poor and backward to constitute a threat should be called the "Irish Famine Strategy", in recognition of its successful implementation in 19th century Ireland. The point is not to kill millions with hunger and disease; that's just the inevitable by-product of deliberately imposing poverty on a country. And that would have been the result of success. Failure would have been worse.

Sunday, March 20, 2005


Protest Votes and Fringe Parties

A few ideas to bring together on dealing with a first-past-the-post electoral system.

Assuming you're not one of the few lucky people who have a major party that
shares your policies, you have several choices:
I would have thought the above list was exhaustive, but a new tactic has been introduced: The first five are working with the parties as they are — either making the best of what's
offered or attempting to change the voting system.

The next three attempt to change the political shape within the same system.

The only recent UK example of a minor party getting anywhere near becoming major is the SDP, which was formed by disaffected Labour MPs in the 1980s, won a few seats and eventually merged with the Liberal Party to form the current Liberal Democratic Party. The last new major party before that was the Labour Party.

Current minor parties worthy of notice are UKIP, the Green Party, Veritas, the BNP and Respect.

The chances of any of those becoming major parties (i.e. capable of winning parliamentary seats) seem negligible. (Respect has a sitting MP through defection) I think all of them would claim that that is their aim, but a realist would only vote for them to influence the major parties.

Such influence is real, either on a single issue (see this Telegraph piece on the Tory response to UKIP), or attempting to bring a range of issues into the mainstream debate, as the Greens have done, but for an activist, the question is whether providing voters with the opportunity for a protest vote is worth more than attempting to influence a major party directly from within. This is the question which Randy Barnett raised recently in an American context, when he suggested that the creation of the Libertarian Party was a mistake.

As I suggested on Thursday, in today's parties, the influence of the traditional part-time activist is diminishing. If you really want to have an effect within a British party these days, you have to become a full-time politician and join someone's staff. That swings the issue decisively for the part-timer. You can have more impact on the Labour Party by putting Respect leaflets through letterboxes than you can with Labour leaflets.

The weakness of the minor-party strategy is that while it demonstrates the level of support for your position, it actually gives a misleadingly low figure for that support. Many voters are unwilling to "waste their vote" on a candidate or a party which has no chance of winning. This makes little sense, since for many people — anyone in a "safe" constituency — their vote is a waste in any case. You don't win anything by picking the winning candidate from the list; to me a vote made "with nose held" is doubly wasted: not only are you not communicating your policy view, but you giving the false impression that you are satisfied with the choice that the current electoral system gives you. You are also failing to give any incentive to "your" party to follow your wishes.

The incentive concept is the basis for the Backing Blair strategy, of voting tactically against Labour with the intention of moving them to the Left. It is not as silly as it sounds, because it gives Labour more incentive to respond to the pressure than voting for a fringe Left party like Respect would. The strategy has two weaknesses. The obvious one, that it increases the chance of a more Right government, is accepted by the organisers as a cost, but, as they accurately point out, the "danger" of a non-Labour government after the next election is comparable to that of being destroyed by a supervolcano. The less obvious weakness is that it will be very difficult to communicate the number of votes that have been made this way. They can put Labour in a position where it would gain electorally by moving to the Left, but they can't prove it. Even if everyone who casts a vote according to the strategy publicly announces that they have done so, the party may assume that some of them are bluffing, and are trying to influence Labour without "paying the cost" of voting Conservative.

But campaigns like that, and votes for fringe parties, perform the useful service of emphasising what a poor choice the first-past-the-post system gives us. I pointed out on Friday that the scope of government has increased immensely but no power has been given to the voter to speak on the multiple areas that government now affects. Still one vote, every four or five years, for one of two or maybe three parties.

That is the real point of the recent abortion controversy also. The major parties are based primarily on economic policy positions. There just isn't room in the system for campaigning on policy positions that are not at least strongly correlated with the main left-right axis. The parties therefore have traditionally left those issues alone, with the result is made by MPs — elected without reference to their views on the issues — voting "according to their individual consciences".

How (and whether) to put the whole of government under democratic control is a very difficult question. I have no doubt, however, that giving voters a wider choice — through a proportional voting system — would be a step in the right direction.

Related Items

A New Party
A New Party II
Electoral Metaphysics
Bypassing Grassroots
Where's the Pork

Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The Northern Bank Robbery and the Peace Process

Fascinating article on the Northern Bank robbery, from the Observer

When I originally wrote my article "The Structure of Terrorist Movements", my plan was to follow it up with two sequels; First, a recent history of the IRA, and second, a piece on international terrorism. My overall intent was to challenge Eric Raymond's "Anti-Idiotarian Manifesto" on what I saw as its one flaw: the lumping together of terrorists and their supporters as one undifferentiated enemy.

What I found when I tried to write my summary of Northern Irelands terrorist war was, first, that people had spent years doing serious research on this, and I didn't have time even to read what they'd written, never mind improve on it, and second, that on many important issues, the real facts simply aren't known.

There is at least a good reason why the facts are so unclear: It was necessary during the peace negotiations for both sides to present the settlement to their followers as a victory. Each side recognised the other's need to do this, and were therefore prepared to disguise the cold facts in places.

So, of necessity, what follows is not the factual summary I originally envisaged. It is much more an opinion piece, describing what I believe has happened in Northern Ireland since 1992. Almost every statement I will make can be challenged.

First claim: the war is over, and has been since 1998, though it was not clear at the time. Violent incidents have occurred since then, notably the Omagh bomb which killed 29 in August of 1998. They will continue, but they are no longer the acts of a coherent political movement. They should tail off over the years. The individuals involved may have links to mainstream republicanism, but that mainstream, including Sinn Fein, no longer depends on them. Sinn Fein has almost completed the movement to being a purely political, rather than terrorist, organisation.

The reason it is over is that the IRA rely on support from a large section of the Northern Ireland population, and if they return to terrorism now, they will not have that support. Their former supporters have tasted peace, and they like it.

That does not quite mean the IRA lost. A united Ireland is not on the cards for next few decades, so in that sense the Good Friday agreement was their surrender. It was by no means an unconditional surrender, but the final settlement was one that any British Government would have taken since the 1970s. The only meaningful concession made by the government was the prisoner release programme, and the IRA had not been fighting for 30 years just to be let off for fighting.

It could also be said, in the same way, that it is the hard-line unionists that lost. After all, it is they who rejected Sunningdale in 1973, by their strike. Ahern described the Good Friday agreement as "Sunningdale for slow learners".

The IRA was given enough for it to save face. Their prisoners were released, which was the key concession needed: their loyalty would not allow them to give up the struggle while their comrades were still imprisoned. The power-sharing structure put in place for Northern Ireland was no more than what was set up in 1973; its acceptance marked a climbdown by the hardline Unionists who had destroyed the 1973 arrangement. The disarmament part of the agreement was woolly enough that the IRA will be able to hang on to most of their guns until they go rusty.

The important, and very difficult, question is: how did this happen? I must have heard half a dozen theories:

Theory 1, my own from the mid-90s: the IRA were tricked. The cease-fires of the early 1990s were intended to be a minor exercise of gaining international sympathy, and possibly significant concessions, at no cost at all. The backfired because the popular base in Northern Ireland soon adjusted to peace and was unwilling to support a return to conflict. As I wrote in the earlier article:

The key motivations are loyalty to the community as a whole, ("Supporting Our Boys"), peer pressure, a sense of grievance, a desire for revenge, and pride -- an unwillingness to personally or collectively lose face.

It is significant that these are, intellectually, not very good reasons. The fact is that terrorist movements rarely improve the lives of those they claim to represent, and rarely achieve their political goals. Peaceful political activism, or a more conventional coup d'etat, are usually more likely to succeed than terrorism.

If this is correct, there is a heavy psychological inertia against giving up support for terrorism, but it is much easier not to restart once the struggle has come to a pause.

Thus, once the ceasefire had been in place for more than a year, it would become difficult for the terrorists to mobilise support among their sympathisers.

Theory 2: The IRA won.

Contrary to my assessment, some have said that the confict ended because the IRA found a way to hit the British Government where it hurt – by attacking London’s financial district and other economic targets with large fertiliser bombs. The Baltic Exchange bomb in 1992, according to the insurance industry, caused a cost in damage greater than the whole history of the Provisional IRA up to that point.

The strongest point in favour of this argument is the timing: the secret talks between the Major government and representatives of the IRA started during this campaign. The weakness of the theory is that the British Government never gave up anything it wasn’t already offering, and had offered in 1973.

To my mind this line of argument strengthens Theory 1: the IRA could have gone into talks believing they had pressured the Major government into a settlement, and not realised until too late that they had given up the momentum of their campaign for no guaranteed benefit.

Theory 3: Intelligence

Various British intelligence agencies had penetrated the IRA to a significant degree. This resulted in operational coups such as the Coalisland ambush of 1987 (Guardian), where 8 IRA terrorists were killed attacking a police station, and the Gibraltar incident (BBC) in the following year, where three terrorists were controversially shot dead while preparing a car bomb attack. Other operations also failed less spectacularly.

Some commentators believe that this series of operational failures were what prepared the IRA for negotiating a ceasefire.

Theory 4: counterattacks

I’ve no links or facts to back this up, but I’ve heard it said that what brought the IRA to the negotiating table were the terrorist attacks against them by Loyalist organisations, the UFF and UVF. While these organisations have a long history of paramilitary violence, the story is that in the 1990s they targeted their attacks on senior Sinn Fein and IRA members, and that that is what defeated the IRA.

Whether this is true or not, the fact that the idea is circulating is significant. The official government line has always been that these groups are proscribed terrorist organisations. There have, however, been frequent allegations of collusion between them and the security services. It seems beyond dispute that there were contacts at a low level, and that sympathisers in the RUC and/or Army intelligence passed information to Loyalist terrorists. I have not seen any evidence that this went high up, or was actual policy, but to someone who believes theory 4, if it was a policy, then it was possibly a successful one. Depending on their point of view, this may mean that they think it should have been policy.

Theory 5: money

Amusingly, I just saw a link to this theory, described in Monday’s Times. The author suggests that the IRA effectively became institutionalised by its increasing wealth and (only partly criminal) economic activity. There are shades here of Austin Powers: "I believe if we shift our resources away from world domination and focus on providing premium quality coffee drinks, we can increase our gross profits fivefold."

To me, the theory is more entertaining than likely, but there could be a grain of truth in it, in that the immediate material causes that triggered the troubles in the 1960s have faded out. In the early 1970s you could say that the largest obstacle to prosperity for Northern Ireland's catholics was their status at the time as de facto second class citizens. By the 1990s, with both the UK and the Republic enjoying unprecedentedly healthy economies, by far the greatest obstacle to prosperity for everyone in Northern Ireland was the continuing violence.

The bank robbery also kind of fits with this. Why deploy your resources trying to take out police stations or army barracks, when the banks are where the money is? Sinn Fein's leaders have government offices, TV appearances, control over a business empire and a realistic chance of even greater political rewards. There's not really any way back from that. A united Ireland can wait another generation or two.

What are the lessons of all this, for, say Iraq? I'll probably return to the question in the future, but one point that might be relevant is this: The terrorists usually cannot be appeased, but sympathisers can sometimes be won over by a combination of strength and compromise, and if you win over the sympathisers, the conflict can in the long run be won.

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