Sunday, July 31, 2005


Humanitarian Intervention

Chrenkoff asks, since there are 250,000 Iraqis living in Britain, how come none of them are doing suicide bombings?

Separately, Judith Klinghoffer points out that two of the suspects are from Somalia, where the invasion by Westerners was carried out at the urging of the U.N., but was abandoned in the face of strong resistance.

At the same time, the anti-war Neil Craig reminds us of some of the uncomfortable facts about Western intervention in Yugoslavia.

Now my gut feeling has always been against sending armies overseas. It may come as a surprise to my (literally several) readers, and I tend to forget it myself, but if asked outright whether it was the right policy to invade Iraq in 2003, I would say I think it was probably wrong.

There are several reasons why, believing this, I still am generally much closer to the "Pro-war" side than the "Anti-war" side.
  1. I think the policy, mistaken as it may have been, was nevertheless an improvement on the policy it replaced, as I discussed here.
  2. I felt that the previous attack on Yugoslavia was so outrageous and unjustifiable, that to make a big fuss about the much more finely balanced question of Iraq was to show a lack of sense of proportion.
  3. I had expected the operation in Afghanistan to be a failure, and, seeing it now as largely a success, I entertain the possibility that George Bush knows something I don't.
  4. Whatever the right answer to the difficult question in 2003, I am convinced that to cut and run from Iraq now would be a catastrophe. It would reinforce the most damaging belief held by Islamist terrorists -- the illusion that they can beat us.
  5. And at least there was a plausible national interest proposed for intervening in Iraq, unlike Yugoslavia or Somalia, and Bush was clear and explicit about it. I didn't agree with Bush's conclusions, but I liked his style.
Why are "humanitarian" military interventions so much worse in their effects than self-interested ones? I think partly it is related to the tragedy of plentiful raw materials.

It has often been observed that some of the richest countries are the ones with the least raw materials -- Japan, the Netherlands, etc. At the same time some of the countries with the richest raw materials -- much of Africa, Russia, South America, are among the poorest countries.

The most likely explanation is that, where things of value are easily available, either diamonds in Sierra Leone, or plentiful wild food crops, power will all go to those that can most easily dominate the available resources - bandits and warlords. Where survival requires actually making things, banditry will still exist, but there must be a structure in society that leaves some power to the people who make or grow stuff. It is that societal structure that enables further development.

Likewise, when a "humanitarian" force gets involved in a conflict the incentives for the factions change. It becomes most important to influence the "humanitarians" I remember a British officer on U.N. duty in Sarajevo, in a press conference, saying that he had proof that both sides had deliberately shelled their own civilians, in an attempt to win sympathy from the other end of the TV cameras. I thought this was one of the most astonishing and major pieces of newsof the whole conflict, but I have never heard any mention of it again from that day to this.

Influencing the humanitarians is, in general, easy, because those who sent them are mainly concerned with "doing something to help", and not with the nasty details of the situation. One of the reasons that I find Neil Craig's conspiracy theories about Yugoslavia far more believable than, for instance those of about the London bombs, is that fundamentally, nobody here really cared what was actually happening in Yugoslavia. We heard some sob stories, we said "something must be done", we did something, the details of context and consequence are of only idle or passing interest. Conversely, we care deeply about what happens on the Piccadilly Line and why, and it will be very difficult to pull the wool over our eyes for more than a very short time. (Another consequence of the "fire-and-forget" nature of humanitarian interventions is the opportunity of private exploitation of the situation by the personnel involved, as I discussed here.)

The unpredictability, from the point of view of the participants, of the "humanitarian" forces, means that otherwise lost causes are kept alive by the hope that the foreigners will intervene to support them.That is why, in my opinion, Western intervention in Yugoslavia and in immediate post-war Iraq in 1991, cost lives.

If the foreigners are acting on a clear statement of their own interests, then it is relatively obvious which groups can expect support and which can't. A foreign force which is pursuing its national interest is more likely to see through whatever it's doing, and less likely to fail to act at a critical moment, chicken out, or change sides. If the government behind the intervention gets a reputation for doing exactly what it says it's going to do, as Bush has done, then all the better. Carefully-judged hints about what a government might do create the uncertainty which perpetuates fighting. That's why I say I like Bush's style: style matters.

Saturday, July 30, 2005


Kinds of Privacy

Our ability to keep our private business private has been declining steadily for decades, but it's not often recognised that the decline takes two quite separate forms.

One is that information that was available to the public, but only easily available to a relatively small number, is now very easily available to anyone who wants it. That is a simple result of information technology that makes the communicating of all information easier. It ranges from simply inverting the index of a telephone directory to make it easy to identify a person from their telephone number, to businesses compiling and trading details of their customers' shopping habits.

The other, quite different phenomenon is that the government is demanding, with legal force, information that by previous standards would have been totally private. They demand to be informed of every transaction of various types, even if all parties would rather keep them private.

The distinction is often made harder to see, because the government is obtaining the information from the same source -- large businesses, as are responsible for spreading some of the non-private information of the first kind. But the difference between a supermarket selling a mailing list and a phone company handing a database of call records over to police is all the difference in the world, if the first is voluntary and the second is not.

It's true it can be difficult if you want to release much less "voluntary" information than most other people do, but that is to be expected, because it is always expensive (one way or another) to be out of step with the rest of society. At least there are limits on exposure of this sort, in that it has to be acceptable to most of society.

The most important right you need to keep your privacy was lost many years ago, without anyone noticing very much. It is the right to choose how you will be known. In Britain, only decades ago, your "real name" was whatever name people knew you by. It did not have to be on official record anywhere, and there was no offense of using a "false" name, unless you were pretending to be some other real person, for fraudulent purposes. Very few people availed themselves of the option of using another name, but mere fact that the option was open had large effect, because it made it pointless to casually collect and collate names, as some proportion of them could be made up.

The other large and old breach of privacy is in vehicle and driver registration. As soon as you set foot in a car, you lose most of the rights of privacy that people have held for centuries. Not only are you required to identify yourself on demand, you are required to advertise your identity to everyone via the registration plates on the car. When the argument came up a few years ago about drivers licenses carrying photographs, my position was that it was only reasonable for a drivers license to have a photograph on it, so that you could prove that you were licensed to drive, and it was a doubly good thing because then the name and address would no longer be necessary and could be removed - a valid license with your picture on it proved that you were licensed, whatever your name was.

Obviously, the name and address were not removed - the government finds that information far too valuable to give up. The only direct driving-related issue would be that you couldn't easily enforce driving bans as punishment, as the banned person could get a new license under a new name, but if enforcement became too difficult then other punishments could be used instead. London transport travelcards work that way - if buying a monthly or longer ticket you need to get a photocard, to prevent people sharing season tickets, but the name on the travelcard doesn't need to be your real name, and they ask for no evidence that it is.

The "bad" effect (compulsory government identification) increases the bad consequences of the "inevitable" effect (wide publication of public information). Most of what you do on-line, for instance, is traceable back to you only because at the end of a chain you've paid for it through a bank account, and bank accounts, as of around 1990, have to be in your "one true name". I opened a bank account in 1989, and was not asked for any evidence of identity -- as they had no reason to care, since they were not giving me credit. Shortly afterwards, however, that fundamental, basic freedom for me and the bank to do business according to our own convenience, was taken away in the name of combating laundering of drug-dealing profits.

After that, the ID cards that are on their way are a relatively small imposition - the completion of a process of loss of freedom that is mostly done already. I will oppose it, and I hope as many as possible do the same, but it is too little, much too late.

The lesser loss of privacy, the wide publication of public information, has bad consequences sometimes - there is much debate of the dog-poo girl - but it is inevitable because to prevent it would involve a greater loss of privacy than to allow it. If government agents have the right to inspect your ISP's records, to make sure that they are complying with "data protection" law, is your privacy enhanced or reduced? For me, it is much reduced. Communication is essentially a private activity, and it cannot be restricted in the name of privacy.

There is no inevitability to the greater loss of privacy, the compulsory disclosure and compulsory identification. The benefits are minor, and the costs enormous. It is done in the cause of very minor benefits, such as making it possible to catch "criminals" - such as drug sellers or "insider traders" - whose crimes are so popular with their "victims" that it is impossible to actually catch them doing the crimes. It is part of the general expansion of state power, into every aspect of life, which is reversible and which should indeed be reversed.

(this article is expanded from a comment on slashdot two years ago).

Update: DH makes a good point in the comment below, that in examining the matters of principle involved in ID cards above, I am not addressing the practicalities of how effective and efficient the scheme is likely to be -- and indeed, while the anti-money-laundering measures came in quietly and have not been noticed by many, ID cards will be a far more visible breach of principles of good government. If the implementation goes as badly and as expensively as I expect, it will be a disaster for the country and the Government.

Sunday, July 17, 2005


Death Throes

The conclusion I previously drew from the London bombings is that the terrorists are weakening.

I will go further than that: the whole of modern Islamist terror is a sign of the weakness, and indeed of the death throes, of what could be called "primitive" Islam.

I leave aside the nationalist struggles that have produced terror - the Algerian conflict, for example, had nothing to do with "primitive" Islam; it was essentially a western-style nationalist movement, and the Palestinian movement also had that character through the 1970s. Today, however there is a mixture of western-style nationalism and primitive Islam involved, and that may be the reason it is proving so intractable.

The truly Islamist terrorist movement, however, that of the Muslim Brotherhood and Osama bin Laden, is, as the leftists tell us, driven by anger.

And the root cause of that anger is that wherever their culture comes into contact with ours, it loses. From Turkey under Kemal Ataturk to modern Pakistan, traditional Islamic society is giving way to an imitation of the West.

This does not mean that Islam is dying out, just that, like Christianity, it is evolving into a form that makes less conflict with the practicalities of living in a developed society. I expect that in a hundred years Moslems will continue to recite the Koran and observe Ramadan, but what I am calling the "primitive" elements -- intolerance of Western practices of commerce, sexual behaviour, freedom of expression, whatever -- will have died out.

Among Moslems in the West, as well as the more Westernised Moslem countries like Turkey, this is already the case for the majority. And this is why the "primitives" are angry.

Given that this decline has been evident for a hundred years, why have they only been fighting for the last ten? I think that several trends conspired to give them a false idea of their own strength.

The first of these was the cold war. The bifurcation of western civilisation, and the surrogate battles between the two halves on lands around the globe, both presented western civilisation at its worst (in the form of the tyrants supported by one side or the other across Arabia), and gave opportunity to primitivists to be supported by either side, most obviously in Afghanistan.

The next is the same thing on a smaller scale, as the current political battles between left and right within the West have again involved Islamists as pawns and given them an exaggerated idea of their power. This is what I addressed in my first article on Islam in Europe
- "there are many political battles in various European countries which appear to be between 'native' Europeans and Muslim immigrants. In fact, these political issues are argued between left and right within the native political community, with the immigrants themselves as interested but largely powerless bystanders."

The third is that as Westerners have sought to come to terms with their unchallenged global dominance, they have become tolerant of Islam to an unprecedented and sometimes illogical degree. While this is essentially a symptom of Western strength, it can easily look like weakness.

This illusory strengthening of primitive Islam, and weakening of Western society, encouraged the primitivists to think that their decline was reversible, and that if they started to fight back, divine intervention would close the cultural "missile gap". The PR coup of September 2001 gave them added momentum, and they were able to take over what were originally western-style nationalist movements in Palestine and Chechnya (much to the disadvantage of the Palestinians and Chechens).

That momentum is now running out.

The key image of the conflict for me, I saw in the aftermath of September 2001. A TV news crew was in rural Pakistan, showing a stall selling T-shirts emblazoned with bin Laden's face. What struck me was that alongside the bin Laden T-shirts were the logos of U.S. sports teams. I have no doubt that from the North-West Frontier to the streets of Luton, the New York Yankees, the
LA Raiders and Barcelona FC are outselling bin Laden and al-Zarqawi, both on T-shirts and in every other way that matters.

The owners of a fish and chip shop in Beeston were "shattered" that their son decided to blow himself up on the Circle Line. How do you think the owners of my local fish and chip show will feel if their sons start to spend a lot more time at Mosque? Compared with a fortnight ago, will they be glad that their children are keeping in touch with their traditional culture, or
will they be worried and suspicious? I'm tempted to ask them, but I would feel a bit rude.

The challenge for the West, in order to end this conflict with the minimum of casualties, is to persuade the primitivists that God has not chosen this generation to restore the Caliphate. The way to do that is to show confidence, to show unity to the degree that democracy allows, and to make sure that where we come into direct conflict with Islam, (which should be as rarely as possible), we win. The war in Iraq has been expensive and dangerous, and it is arguable whether it was necessary in the first place, but the most important thing now is that it be won. If a stable, independent government can be set up there, that is Moslem but not primitive, the
demoralising effect could make Al-Quaeda and the primitivist terrorist movement history.

The recent omens are good:

USA Today:
Terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi criticized his spiritual mentor for urging militants in Iraq to rein in attacks on civilians and warned that the sheik's comments could split Islamic fighters, according to a purported statement posted on an Islamic Web site Tuesday.

Winds of Change:
Support for Osama bin Laden and suicide bombings are plummeting throughout the Muslim world.

Washington Post:
Several senior clerics of Iraq's disaffected Sunni Muslim minority will soon issue a decree calling on followers of the faith to vote in upcoming elections and help write a new constitution, a prominent Sunni leader said Monday. The step could draw Sunni Arabs away from the insurgency and into a political process they have steadfastly rejected.

Friday, July 15, 2005


Terrorist Motivation

In my essay on the Structure of Terrorist Movements, I examined different participants in a terroist movement and their roles and motivations.

Looking at the information that is coming out about the London bombings, there are striking hypotheses that immediately emerge.

Firstly, there is no coherent visible political leadership to the movement. When dealing with the IRA, or even Hamas, there is an obvious political movement controlling the violence. The leadership may be open, anonymous or pseudonymous, but it clearly exists and makes political statements.

Second, the soldiers did not operate from out of a mass of sympathisers. I might be being naive here, but I think that if a rumour of terrorist activity was going up and down Bury Park road, it would reach the police pretty quickly. What sympathisers there are are probably small groups around particular radical mosques or other organisations. There are of course large areas of sympathy overseas (e.g. the madrassas in Pakistan which the bombers may have visited), but they are remote from the soldiers.

The operation last week looks to me to have been almost entirely the work of five to ten individuals, including the bombers and the bomb-maker. The assistance that may have come from outside organisation would be:

It seems quite conceivable that no organisation supplied any of these things. The individuals may well have all the knowledge required to make the bombs, the operation was not expensive, and it might not have been part of any wider strategy. The participants may have met each other and carried the whole operation out on their own. That would put it more in the category of the Columbine shootings than the Manhattan attacks or the bombing campaign against Israel.

At the other extreme, it is possible that there was a "chain of command" extending up through several layers to a political strategy group in some James Bond style hideout somewhere, possibly including bin Laden and/or al-Zarqawi.

The motivation of the suicide bombers is likely to be not so much related to the political consequences of their actions, as might be the case for more "conventional" terrorist soldiers, as by their own feelings about the past and about how they expect other people (and God) to feel about them. In other words, it is about self-expression rather than strategy.

Assuming their operation was part of a wider strategy, the nature of that strategy is far from clear. It may mirror, on a larger scale, the inward-looking expressive motivation of the individual bombers. This is the Lee Harris "Fantasy Ideology" theory. Under this theory, the bombings are primarily an expression of the organisers' feelings about the growth of Western power and the occupation by westerners of traditionally Muslim lands, rather than a practical attempt to stop or change those things.

Another possible strategic aim, which I have not seen suggested, is distraction. The organisers may be primarily concerned with the war against the "near enemy": moderates or secularists in Muslim lands (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq etc.) Striking against the "far enemy" may be done in order to make the movement seem stronger and more powerful, to attract support in the day-to-day local wars. This form of strategy has been put forward by commentators to explain violent acts by successive US presidents, but it should make at least as much sense for Zarqawi or bin Laden as for Clinton or Bush.

These both seem more probable than the "straightforward" strategy - to effect a change in British policy, primarily towards Iraq but also to Israel and other foreign policy areas of interest. Such a strategy seems destined to fail, and likely to backfire. Indeed, it is more likely that the strategy is to deliberately escalate the conflict (as they see it) between Britain and Islam. If that is the strategy, it has had mixed results so far - the Islamists have lost ground in Afghanistan, but have strengthened their position in Iraq.

Do these speculations lead to any ideas about countermeasures? If Britain is a symbolic target rather than a real enemy, attacks could perhaps be avoided simply by keeping a lower profile, thereby being a less attractive symbol. On the other hand, the symbolic value of appearing to cause a change in policy, as in Spain, is greater than merely causing destruction, so the appearance of weakness should be avoided.

However, a counterstrike might increase the symbolic impact of the original attacks. The way to minimise the impact is to do nothing, neither to hit back abroad, nor make a big fuss, nor show any sign of caving in.

It is slightly suspicious that this is pretty much what I identified as the instinctive British reaction - passive defiance. Am I guilty of going to great lengths to rationalise what I would want to do anyway? Perhaps.

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