Random Thoughts

Inside job
I happened to catch a rerun of the Oscar winning 2010 documentary film “Inside Job and it was a sobering experience, as it illustrated to me how in many respects nothing has changed, and its probably if not when the next financial crisis hits. Incidentally, there’s a copy of the film online available via the internet archive here.

There are many myths about the financial crisis. The first is that this was some sort of bolt from the blue that nobody say coming. bollix to that is all I can say! The first time I heard the term “credit crunch” was in the early 2000’s, on the BBC money programme who were reviewing the Japanese asset bubble. In 2006, Irish economist Morgan Kelly discussed the probability and consequences of a property bubble bursting and its effects on the Irish economy.

Others such as Raghuram Rajan, George Soros, Satyajit Das, Christine Legarde, Bethany Mc Lean, all flagged up warnings at various points (from as early as 2005) of the impending crisis. However they were ignored by those from within their ivory corporate and government towers. Thus this “out of the blue” argument only applies if we assume that those in charge were snorting so much coke that they simply didn’t hear the warnings.

Another myth is that everything was the fault of Gordon Brown and G.W. Bush. In truth the bulk of the blame has to be laid at the feet of Thatcher and Reagan and their deregulation of markets. Bill Clinton also must take some of the flack for his repeal of the Glass Steagall act.

To draw an analogy, if the warehouse full of oil soaked rags burnt down, its hardly fair to blame the newly appointed nightwatchman Gordon Brown for it, given that it was some else’s decision to fill the warehouse with the rags while bricking up the fire exits and selling off the fire extinguishers. Okay, senior nightwatchman G. W. Bush has to take some blame for letting his frat house friends play all night poker games in the basement, without checking to see they weren’t smoking. But clearly the bulk of the blame has to go past adminstrations and the laissez-faire polices they initiated.

And the scary thing is that it was more luck that anything that meant the measures taken by governments actually worked. The few trillions in bailout money was a fraction of the hundreds of Trillions in at risk assets. In essence governments in the US, UK and Europe successfully managed to bluff the markets by throwing enough money around and hoping the spiff’s would be too busy lining their pockets to bother doing the maths. By contrast, in Iceland, which offered similar guarantees on its deposits, the markets smelt a rat, called their bluff and found the Icelandic’s wanting. So we really did dodge a bullet back then.

And where are the guys who caused this crisis? On their yachts or still in their corporate or government ivory towers! Several have gone into academia, where they are teaching the next generation of business studies students the same old tosh that got us into this crisis in the first place. This is like the nightwatchmen far from being fired being put promoted to head of training! Very few have lost their jobs or fortunes, nevermind gone to prison.

Recently Jon Steward drew attention to the fact that a group of US teachers who faked exam results face jail…while virtually none of those responsible for the biggest economic crisis in history have ever, or will ever see a night in jail.

Perhaps more worrying are the signs that we haven’t learnt the lessons of the crisis. Recent events such as LIBOR, the Forex scandal, the impending bankruptcy of Greece and possibly Italy, all this talk of Brexit and renegotiating the UK’s EU membership all point to the fact that those in power haven’t learnt a thing.

And the very fact we have a Tory majority government suggests the bulk of the electorate have forgotten too. Keep in mind the Tories, were talking about jailing people for benefits fraud, but not a day in jail for traders doing the same. Because the real lesson of the crisis was that beyond a certain tipping point everyone is at risk of being carried along by events beyond their control.

If in theory for example a US investment firm were to come out tomorrow and reveal that they’d done something silly and were now at risk of bankruptcy, or an Italian or Greek bank were to do the same, or a large UK manufacturer were to suddenly realise its business model isn’t viable outside of the EU, well what then? We could be looking at more bailouts, but where’s the money going to come from? Will the public support another round of bailouts? And even if they do, suppose the markets call the government’s bluff and they find said government unable to meet its obligations? We could be looking at a crisis of such proportions it will make the Great Recession look fairly tame.

UKIP’s cult of personality
I’ve been saying for quite a while that UKIP is little more than the cult of the Nigel. Without him UKIP are just a bunch of has-been ex-national front members . And we saw that last week with a “challenge” to his leadership. Well that is too say that several in the party came out with statements which seemed to criticise Farage, but instead they criticized various shadowy figures around him.

This is classic cult behaviour. The all seeing leader can do no wrong, he is infallible and always right about everything, ever! So the faithful instead blame either those outside the cult or his “advisors” for the leader’s mistakes. No doubt they’ll soon be burning his critics in wicker men while chanting “Sumer Is Icumen In”.

Needless to say, I’d be hugely embarrassed to be anyone one of the loon’s who actually voted for them. Although it was handy to know that there’s 3.8 million racists in the country and that this is but 7% of the population.

Coal rollers
Speaking of right wing loons, in the US there’s a fad being brewing called “coal rolling”, where they rig up their SUV’s to emit large clouds of smoke as a sort of two fingered salute to environmentalists. It just goes to show the extremes things have gone to under the tea party antics of America. The reason for opposing action on climate change has little to do with science and everything to do with a wrapped ideology.

And since were talking about it, its not just climate change that’s the worry but air pollution, which has a severe effect on the health of many. Tens of thousands of excess mortalities each year in the US are caused by air pollution. But such is the insanity of the US these days. Its the equivlent of driving around blowing cigarette smoke in people’s faces.

Meanwhile, to those who “don’t believe in climate change”, well Florida is slowly slipping into the Atlantic, an unprecedented strong el-Nino is forecast this year over the Pacific, we have a record breaking drought in California that has left the state desperate for water. And meanwhile if you live in the central US and you built that bunker in the yard to save you from Obama’s death panels….well its been raining so hard bunkers and storm shelters have started to rise out of the ground and float away.

Gun fight at the Waco Corral
A major gun fight erupted between rival biker gangs in Texas this week. I mean we have a country where people can own guns unregulated, including many in criminal biker gangs, what could possibly go wrong with that?a shootout involving several hundred people which left 9 dead!

And before anyone quotes me the 2nd amendment of the US constitution, yes and that was written when guns were muzzle loaded muskets with a fire rate of 1 every few minutes and an accurate range of a few metres (be interesting to see a re-run of this fight involving musket wielding bikers…presumably on penny farthings! “stand and deliver” and all that :))). Now unless we’re proposing to go back to those days one has to acknowledge that gun violence is a serious problem. The idea that adding more guns to the mix will somehow make everyone safer is of course ridiculous and is not born out by the facts.

There are some who say that the solution to migration is the fortress mentality, i.e. bar the door, send them home, turn back the boats. The short comings of this strategy have been laid bare by events in Asia. There the Thai’s, under pressure from their own brand of UKIP bigots, very naively enacted a draconian policy on migrants. However as they discovered when try to implement it on a group of boat people, they weren’t going to cooperate, not least because they were too desperate to do so….I mean why else do you think they were crammed into a small boat in the middle of the ocean? Felt like a scenic cruise?

So to those Katie Hopkins followers in UKIP who want to do the same, you would have to be willing to do some pretty awful things to stop immigration this way. People that suitably desperate aren’t going to turn around simply because you asked nicely, or even if you point guns at them, largely because turning around is probably not an option for them even if they wanted too. The solution is long term measures to help stabilise these countries and stop corrupt regimes abusing their power (perhaps by not being said leaders buddies and helping them launder their ill-gotten gains).

The deadly game
The Beeb sent a journalist into Qatar to investigate the state of venue construction….and the locals arrested him! Yes, that’s the world cup in 2022 for you.

The Beeb were hoping to investigate claims by newspapers, such as the Guardian, which claimed a very high death toll (one or two a day) of migrant workers on these projects. In fact its now possible that 62 workers will die for each match that is ultimately played at the 2022 world cup…not including the players who collapse due to heat stroke!

In short, FIFA’s decision to hold the games here isn’t merely the matter of a few brown envelopes changing hands, its about FIFA selling the soul of football.

Worse than Yugoslavia
I’ve described before how the conflict in Syria threatens to be worse than the Yugoslav civil war. Well the current estimates are that the casualty rates in Syria alone (nevermind Iraq) are up to similar levels, with vastly more people displaced, and the destruction of some of the world’s most historic monuments. With Palmyra now in ISIS sights, its possible that the entire region might slide into an abyss, from which there may not be an easy return.

And keep in mind, that if Iraq and Syria falls, its almost certain to involve the West eventually. There is simply no way the US or its allies could allow the likes of ISIS to end up controlling that much of the world’s oil. An invasion of Iraq, and possibly Syria too, is now a very real possibility.

I’m reminded of a prediction prior to the last Iraq war that the invasion of Iraq would led to “a hundred Bin Laden’s” and that US troops would be occupying the region for generations to come. Well now the Iraqi’s reckon we’re facing a thousand Bin Laden’s. Don’t you hate it when people get these things right, then drastically underestimate how screwed we are!

Je Suis Charlie?

Not really a lot can be said about this that’s not already been said. How exactly these three Jihadi’s thought, that by killing a bunch of cartoonists, they were striking a blow for Islam (rather than providing the French National Front with some excellent PR material), is difficult to fathom.

However, as the widowed partner of the editor has pointed out, this could have been prevented, had the police or authorities taken the matter a bit more seriously. Furthermore, to all the journalists sticking pencils in the air and saying “Je Suis Charlie”, ya and why was Charlie Hebdo singled out for attack? Because the rest of the journalistic community were too chickshit scared to respond to the death threats against Jyllands-Posten and didn’t join them in re-printing the cartoons of Muhammad. So all this pen waving and sloganeering is really just an empty gesture.

To me the obvious response is a show of solitary. Too give the two fingered salute to these Wahabbists. Every media outlet in the Western world should either post the cartoons of Muhammad from 2005, or perhaps the more recent Muhammad cartoons from Charlie Hebdo.

Of course, I suspect the chances of this are pretty low, already several of the UK media outlets have actually mentioned that they weren’t going to publish the cartoons. Like I said, an empty gesture. One is reminded of the bit from Germany during the 1930’s “first they came for the Jews and I said nothing because I wasn’t Jewish, then they came for the trade unionists and I said nothing because I wasn’t a trade unionists….”

And incidentally, to any Muslims who say they are offended by images of Muhammad, well two points. Firstly, its far from clear that publishing images of Muhammad is actually offensive (or even insulting him), there are many from history, published by Arab scholars (why don’t the Jihadi’s work on a time machine so they can go back and blow up these guys? :))) or more recently from Iran. Also, the gist of why Islam discourages images of the prophet, is because this represents Idolatry. In essence, you’re supposed to be praying to Allah, not to Muhammad (who is merely the messenger). And of course murdering journalists (or blowing up mosques, or murdering Muslim women & children, as Isis regularly get up too) while screaming prayers to Muhammad, is about as insulting and anti-Muslim a thing you can do.

In short, Muslim’s have got bigger fish to fry right now than a few cheese munching cartoonists. As I see it, what’s going on in the world right now is that there has effectively been a Schism within Islam between Saudi Wahhabism and the traditional more tolerant brand of Islam practised by most.

And if of course you are a Wahhabist, and you dislike this western concept of “free speech“, perhaps you should consider immigration to Saudi Arabia. You’ll love it there, no offensive cartoons, no women drivers, women all forced to go around practically wearing a tent (even if it means preventing kids from leaving a burning school because they have no veil on), no free speech…although you might want to keep you’re opinions to yourself…and I mean don’t even type them into anything electronic or share them with friends or relatives…unless you want to disappear into some hole in the desert some night. And keep in mind that while the Saudi authorities like to pay others to launch terrorists attacks abroad, they get a bit stropy if any Jihadi’s bring their work home with them.

The lone gunmen
A more worrying line of debate is to ask the question of who is behind this. While I know they police are chasing two of three suspects, the attackers seem a little too well equipped and the attack a little too well planned for what we normally expect from the amateur wannabe jihadi’s. I’m reminded of how it seems eerily similar to the attacks carried out in the cold war by professional terrorists, such as Abu Nidal or Carlos the Jackal, often acting under the pay of various Middle East regimes.

Take the matter of the weapons used. Needless to say, getting ones hands on a AK-47…or a rocket launcher, ain’t exactly easy in the West, this ain’t Texas! Even in the seedier parts of Paris asking for such weapons is going to get you more than a raised eyebrow in response. There are certainly criminals who will sell such weapons (or so my friends from Liverpool tell me ;D). But they generally wouldn’t sell to Jihadi’s, as terrorists will of course inevitably use such weapons in a way all but guaranteed to draw the attention of the authorities, leading to an awful lot of heat being brought down on our villain, the sort of attention underworld types usually try to avoid (just ask Ched Evans!).

Now, I’m sure you throw enough money at some underworld villain, they’d sell you their first born kid and/or grandmother. However that’s my point. The sort of money and resources they’d need to pull this off, suggests someone was picking up the tab or helped smuggle guns into the country. Which suggests we’re dealing with a bit more than our lone gunmen. And the fact that Charlie Hebdo had published a cartoon of the leader of ISIS just a few hours before the attack does perhaps point the blame in a certain direction. although as always, I’d defer judgement until all the facts are in.

But sufficient to say, its very likely that if it turns out that the leadership of an Arab state (or those protected by such a state) were involved in this incident, then this could well represent an act of war, against not just France, but all its NATO allies. In short, I won’t be surprised if the oil price starts creeping up again soon.

Speaking of which…
And least we forget the only reason why the Saudi’s, a corrupt feudal despotism, is in a position to export terrorism, is because of its other great export – oil. Getting the world off oil, through greater energy conservation, improved public transport (96% of UK’s oil is consumed powered transport), encouraging alternative fuelled vehicles and renewables. This would, in the long term, strike a much harder blow against Whabbism than waving pens in the air…or smart bombing the crap out off some impoverished third world state.

How the chickens came home to roost

The worsening situation in Iraq has seen Islamic militants, who have spilled across the border from Syria, taking city after city, laying bare the fractious state of the Iraqi government the Americans left behind them. In last night’s Question Time the panel were asked what should be done? And the response seem to be, there’s nothing we can do!

Give weapons to the Iraqi government? Funnily enough most of the weapons and armoured vehicles the ISIS militants are using look remarkably similar to kit given to the Iraqi army, which they seem to have abandoned as they fled (no doubt ISIS will be selling them on e-bay soon, almost undamaged, only dropped once!). Indeed one could draw a direct parallel between the current Iraqi army and the South Vietnamese army after the Americans withdrew from the country.

Obama seems to favour drone strikes, but one has never won a war for towns and cities with air power alone. Direct intervention in the war with Western troops seems unlikely given the quagmire G. W. Bush and Blair got the world into the last time.

In short what’s happening now is the direct consequences of the Bush/Blair plan of invading Iraq for all of the wrong reasons (oil!) with no clear thought as to what the end game was going to be and inadequate equipment and troop numbers for a long term occupation. Hence while the US was busy guarding the oil ministry, Iraq’s museum’s were looted and violent sectarian gangs took over the streets….and now whole cities!

The worst case scenarios aren’t pretty. The chances of Iraq breaking up, with the Kurds declaring independence, something almost certain to result in a three way war between them, whosever left in charge of Syria and Turkey. There are murmurs from Iran that they might send in troops to quell the uprising. And as noted, this current situation is directly linked to events across the border in Syria. An ethnic conflic within Iraq might now break out (in parallel to events in Syria). And if the Islamists prevail, we could see an Islamists state spanning right across the Middle East.

And while the supporters of Bush and Blair’s folly need to take a fair amount of the blame, so too those who argued against western intervention in Syria. There was a window opportunity at the start of the Syrian uprising where western intervention (and not necessarily direct military action) would have likely toppled the Assad regime, with the minimum of bloodshed. Instead, thanks to Western hesitation and Russian support what had started off as a conflict between more secularist pro-democracy forces and the Assad regime has morphed into a bloody rerun of the Yugoslav civil war, but this time with hard line Islamists now dominating the rebel forces. And those Islamists aren’t afraid to push into neighbouring countries and threaten to destabilise the whole region.

So this rise of ISIS is direct consequence of both the unjustified invasion of Iraq and a failure to take action in Syria. The chickens have indeed come home to roost as far as Western Middle Eastern policy. I seem to recall French President Chirac warning that a war in Iraq would stir up such a hornet’s nest of trouble that it would lead to the US facing off against “a thousand Bin Laden’s“. While he might have been engaging in hyperbole, he’s certainly been proved partially correct.

Viva la Vida

I’ve been reading a book by journalist David Wallechinsky in which he profiles tyrants and dictators both past and present. One can see many common strands of behaviour among tyrants. Suppression of human rights, use of death squads to silence opponents and torture are all too common.

Bizarre behaviour
But another trend he identifies is the tendency to pass bizarre laws. For example, Ne Win, the former dictator of Burma, once ordered all vehicles to start driving on the right one morning (meaning bus passengers must get on and off buses in the middle of the street!). The late dictator of Turkmenistan, Niyazov passed all sorts of strange and bizarre laws, ranging from the banning of lip synching, smoking (only after he had to quit for health reasons), dogs, long hair and ballet.

Gaddafi, never to be outdone in weirdness, once ordered all Libyans to start breeding chickens, even those living in apartments (and presumably making jokes about not counting chickens before they’ve hatched were banned too!).

In another example Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has this strange thing about keeping lions and tigers as pets and has also passed laws that include banning of energy drinks, although murdering and torture of his opponents is still apparently legal.

Meglomania is another all too common trait. Lukashenko of Belorussia insists that he be called “Batka” (dad) by Belorussians. In another example, Niyazov had the month of January renamed after him (and April after his mother, plus September after a book he wrote…which is required reading for anyone joining the civil service!).

In Africa, Obiang Nguema (the dictator of Equatorial Guinea) has claimed to be “in permanent contact with the almighty”. While in Cameron (the country not “call me dave” ;D) under Paul Biya, it is reported that one cannot get a job with the state, even that of a lowly police officer, without “you have to show that you support the president actively, that you love him and his party”.

And of course we have the squandering of public funds. Niyazov (again!) for example had a 12 metre high gold statue of himself erected on a platform that rotated so that it always faced the Sun.

The Kim’s of North Korea have spent billions of their impoverished countries money on a grand capital with numerous gaudy landmarks, vast (largely empty) skyscrapers and vast boulevards (in a country where practically nobody is allowed to drive).

Saudi Arabia under the house of Saud, is considered so institutionally corrupt (regularly topping the poll for Transparency International) most companies doing business in the kingdom have to set aside hundreds of millions in their budget to pay for kickbacks and bribes.

Similarly Karimov, the dictator of Uzbekistan, was lambasted in the wikileaks diplomatic cables for squandering most of his country’s wealth on himself and his family, notably his daughter, described as “the most hated person in the country” by the diplomatic cables.

Suppression of the Media
Dictators also have a habit of suppressing the media and tend not to be terribly happy with those who criticise the regime. For example in Laos, under the communist dictator Sayasone, it is illegal to “propagate information or opinions that weaken the state or slander the state”. Lukashenko once threatened to “wiring the necks” or protestors. A law in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is so broad that merely making a statement such as “don’t be a thinkhead like Mugabe” to a friend on a bus can get you imprisoned.

A good example of the effects of this media manipulation can be seen via the ongoing saga over the missing Malaysian Airliner. There have been some slightly bizarre reactions from the Chinese relatives, with some convinced the airliner is okay or not able to understand why they’ve been searching in the wrong place. Some have threatened to go on hunger strike, as if that is somehow going to magically make the airliner (or more than likely now its wreckage) appear.

Of course the problem here is that the Chinese are used to being lied to by their government or have facts hidden from them, as much for their own protection as to hide the bungling incompetence of the Communist party. While we in the West are well used to seeing politicians running around with they’re hair on fire or standing around in the middle of a crisis looking stupid (G. W. Bush was particularly skilled at this one!), Chinese citizens are not.

Elections – Tyrant style
It is quite common for dictators to try and justify their actions with a veneer of democratic legitimacy by holding highly suspect “elections” or referendums. Such “elections” tend to be passed with results of +90%, e.g. Obiang’s “election” in 2002 saw him get 97.1% of the vote, Niyazov 99.5%, Karimov 90% and Saddam out did them all with 100%.

Such results are usually borne out by the fact that the ego of most dictator’s cannot stand the notion that someone might actually disagree with them. I mean, one suspects that David Cameron is all too aware that a sizeable proportion of the British population regard him as an upper class twit and would sooner eat a ballot paper than vote for him (hence why his tactic is to ignore them and try to bribe the rest of the country with tax cuts while blaming everything bad on Nick Clegg, the EU and immigrants). But dictators cannot tolerate the idea of any form of opposition, failing to realise the total hypocrisy that this reveals of themselves and their regime.

Psychology of the Dictator
But what goes through the mind of a dictator? Why do they do it? In some cases it’s because they are basically evil cruel bastards (Francisco Nguema and Duvalier are good examples of this), with little thought for anyone. Many are clearly vain and insecure egomaniac’s. In other cases they are simply deluded fools surrounded by a bunch of cronies and yes men who won’t dare not tell them the truth.

Nicolae Ceaușescu the late dictator of Romania is a classic case study here. He was apparently oblivious to how much he was universally hated by his people until the 21st of December 1989, when in the midst of a mass propaganda rally, with the Warsaw pact imploding around him, he was booed off the balcony by the crowd (see here). His regime, once one of the most iron fisted of the Soviet bloc effectively ceased to be right there and then. He was captured an executed by partisans a few days later, still largely at a loss as to why he was loathed so much. Similarly the downfall of Erich Honecker’s East Germany is another classic example of a deluded dictator unaware of how is universally loathed, suddenly learning the truth the hard way.

Overthrowing dictators
Unfortunately the overthrow of dictatorships isn’t easy. More than a few have been replaced by a regime not much different from the one before. Perhaps a more relevant question is to ask how to stop dictators achieving power.

In this regard, Wallechinsky considers G. W. Bush (then in power at the time of publication) as a sort of “special case” as Bush demonstrated many of the same tactics of a dictator. Be it a contempt for human rights laws (such as prohibitions on torture), rendition of suspects, secret trials (or imprisonment without trails), starting wars illegally, disputed elections (Florida and all that), manipulation of the media (Foxnews and the swiftboating of John Kerry) and corruption (Cheney’s secret energy committee the minutes of which are still unpublished and the matter of many billions of money for Iraqi reconstruction that just disappeared).

While Bush didn’t become a dictator as such, he shows the dangerous slippery slope which occurs when you allow any leader to ignore or violate those all-important checks and balances. Clearly maintaining these are the best way of protecting people from tyranny.

As for those dictators already in power, well most won’t be there were it not for the support by the West and other major powers. An economic boycott (either an official one or a public unwillingness to shunt said nations products) could also serve to put pressure where it is needed. And also there is the international criminal courts. Seeing the likes of the rogues I’ve mentioned brought to account would certainly act as a firm deterrent to the rest.

Censoring belief’s at LSE

Over at LSE there has been controversy for the censoring of the LSESU (Atheist, Secularist , Humanist) society, apparently due to two of its members wearing a set of “Jesus and Mo” tee-shirts during the Fresher’s fair.

This resulted in security guards and university officials threatened the students with expulsion if they didn’t cover up their shirts. They did this because they claimed they had received complaints over them. Oddly enough however, when the BBC’s Today programme inquired about it the LSE then seemed to be reluctant to say how many it had received or even confirm that there had been any complaints.

Given that we are talking about the university that gave Gaddafi’s son a PhD for a highly plagiarised (and highly paid for) piece of work, one has to worry if the real reason for this action was more about protecting the sensitivities of wealthy Arab donors, rather than student concerns.

However in many respects it represents a very worrying trend for universities. Traditionally universities have adopted a fairly secular approach to these issues. One which pretty much said that the one right nobody has on campus is the right not to be offended.

Indeed to give one example, when I was an undergrad I was a member of a Sci-fi & wargamming society (Sci-fi, Computer Strategy games, Warhammer, AD & D, comic’s, Manga, etc.). Anyway during the Freshers fair some genius in the SU decided to position our stand directly opposite the Christian Society…who had a particular Baptist streak in this uni! :no: So there were our guys wearing Black Sabbath and Judge Dredd tee-shirts, a Manga video going in the back ground and posters of wizards, etc. up directly facing a bunch of stony faced Baptists |-|…

…Oddly enough about a year later we heard rumours that the Christian society had been infiltrating spies into our society as they’d seemingly convinced themselves (by reading one too many Chick pamphlets :crazy:) that we were engaged in some sort of satanic stuff >:-[ (this is the problem with bible literalists, when they hear you’re playing a game where characters have spells, they assume you’re literally trying to learn how to cast spells, the idea that it’s just a game doesn’t compute!).

Either way, in both cases the attitude of the authorities was largely to not get involved and basically “boys will be boys” sort of stuff. I assume there might have been a quiet word had with the committee of each society to maybe tone things down a tad, but certainly nobody came along with security and forced anyone to take down posters, or break up meetings, etc. That would have just been un-academic.

However it would seem that the LSE is taking a very different approach. And the people who should be most worried about this, ironically enough is anyone who is religious. As it suggests the direction that UK universities are now heading is form of secularism that effectively bars any form of religious expression that might offend others. This is what’s played out in universities in countries like Turkey or France or in public schools in America where no form or religious expression is allowed…period! That means no burka’s, no head scarf’s or turbans, no crucifix’s, no prayer rooms, no time off for religious holidays and if you want to run a Atheists or Christian society, do it off campus.

So it is for the sake of protecting religious expression that this action by LSE most be challenged, as much as it is about standing up for freedom of speech.

The Syria debate and the boy who cried wolf

Not really gotten around to pass on my observations this week on Syria, but regardless of what your views are its proving to be a bit of a red line issue.

Firstly the UK parliament voted against taking any action, with the result that within hours the Americans were referring to the French as “America’s Oldest Ally” with apparently the “special relationship” (i.e. Britain’s right to be America’s poodle) at an end. Paddy Ashdown (ex-SAS and the only member of the House of Lords who can kill a man with just his shoe laces |-|) was turned into a manic depressive by the news. On last Monday’s Radio 4 Today programme he even when so far as to question what was the point of the UK army after this vote. Putin was also goading the UK, calling Britain just one little Island (Very insulting! I thought being a small nation of drunks was Ireland’s claim to fame!).

Across the pond in America, we’ve seen the core of the Democratic Party, trying to circle the wagons around the President, with the support of certain military veterans in the Republican party (notably John Mc Cain). Oddly enough the gun totting Tea Party types seem to be against military action, adopting an isolationist posture unseen among Republicans since the attack on Pearl Harbour.

And again, I think what many on the left who oppose military action don’t seem to understand are the long term consequences of failing to take action in Syria.

For example, take the Trident missile system. Something which, for the record, I consider to be a waste of public money for a weapon of questionable military value. However, I can all but you guarantee now, regardless of who wins the next election, Trident will be renewed. Why? Because Syria (the military will argue) has proven that there are regimes who are willing to use WMD’s and its clear international law can no longer be relied upon to restrain them.

Similarly, I suspect once America gets its next election out of the way, missile defence will reappear (while they’ve backed off on deployment since Obama, they are still working on the technology and have been conducting field tests in Israel). And again I can all but guarantee it will be installed in Europe (why? Syria!) over the objections of the Russians (despite the fact it increases European vulnerability to attack in certain scenarios) and against the views of many across the continent.

That PRISM computer system everyone is getting upset about (as in Big Brother is really watching you! hi guys :wave:). Well now the NSA has the perfect excuse to maintain it. Given the Syrians claim that the gas was released by Al-Qaeda, no doubt the spooks will now argue they need to monitor everyone’s e-mail to stop such weapons being smuggled into the West! :no:

What worries the likes of Paddy Ashdown and John Mc Cain is that letting Assad get away with using chemical weapons, is that it risks undoing nearly a century of legislation aimed at eliminating and restricting the use of chemical weapons from combat (and certainly outlawing their use against civilians). While you could argue Syria is a war of choice, their fear is that one day the West will find itself in a war of necessity against a future enemy whom we’ve just given the green light to use chemical weapons again not only our armed forces but also civilians.

The Fourth Protocol

And to the apologists for Assad who cast doubt on whether or not he actually used chemical weapons, they would say it doesn’t matter. Even if that were the case the West should still act. Since the start of the cold war there has been an unoffical rule that if you’re going to maintain an arsenal of WMD’s then that state is responsible for there security and it cannot hand them over to third parties. i.e. if the Israeli’s used a nuclear weapon given to them by the Americans against Iran, the international community would consider that in exactly the same light as they would a nuclear missile strike by the US against Iran…which would almost certainly provoke a retaliatory attack from Iran (or potentially her allies Russia and China) against the US.

And it is important that this principle existed as it ruled out the risk of all sorts of mischief. e.g. next time things kick off in Georgia or Chechnya the Russians could solve it by simply “losing” a chemical weapon or two only for them to go off in a rebel strong hold, upon which Putin goes “opps, sorry about that!”. Or next time the Argentina has a go at the Falklands the British “lose” a nuke only for Buenos Aires to end up glowing in the dark. In short the “aw shucks” defense does not apply when dealing with WMD’s.

And obviously enough it is imperative so long as nations have WMD’s (and again, personally I’d rather we didn’t) that they remain under guard. If indeed these weapons were stolen by the opposition, as the Russians and Syrians claim, then Syria has just admitted to losing control of its stockpile and should thus be required to surrender all such weapons to a neutral third party (Iran? Russia? China?) forthwith.

One of the reasons why many ex-soviet states were very quick to give up the nuclear weapons held on their territory after the cold war was because it was pointed out to them that if any of those weapons went missing, they would be held responsible by the international community. Even in a situation where said weapons were stolen by terrorists. Thus, concluding that they lacked the means (nor the political will or democratic mandate) to safely guard such weapons, they handed them over to NATO (for destruction) or returned them to Russia (despite considerable animosity between many of these states and the Kremlin).

The Good ol’ boys who cried wolf

Of course the problem for the Mc Cain’s, John Kerry’s and Ashdown’s of this world, is they do sound a little bit like the boy who cried wolf. We all remember what was said about Iraq and how they could launch a strike with 45 minutes against the UK. Of course it turned out they had no WMD’s and when the Americans got to Baghdad they send a large force of troops to guard the oil wells and the oil ministry while looters tore the rest of the city apart…including the very sites they claimed WMD’s were at!

This to me is the real legacy of the Iraq war. The chickens are indeed coming home to roost. For by Bush and Blair starting that war they effectively destroyed the credibility of the West and its intelligence services and they spend what political capital the West had left post-cold war, on a pointless war so that Bush could allow the good ol’boys network to loot Iraq’s oil wealth.

Consequently if the west ever wants to be taken seriously again there needs to be restitution. And that means acknowledging the wrongs of the past. In short the US congress should retrospectively impeach G. W. Bush for lying to them and the American public (amongst many other misdeeds that make what Nixon or Clinton got up to seem mild in comparison) and then demand 5 years of back pay off him with interest (and cut off his pension and pull his secret service security). While Tony Blair (who oddly enough is a Middle East peace envoy…which is a bit like putting Nick Griffin in charge of the Notting hill Carnival) should be shipped off the Hague for war crimes.

We need to do something about Syria

A few weeks ago I predicted that Syria was going to become a rerun of the Yugoslavian civil war. How wrong I was, its much worse than that! Now with yet another huge chemical attack, which seems to have been targeted more at refugee’s (and thus whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time) than free-Syrian fighters, the conflict has escalated yet again.

As I’ve highlighted before there are many reasons why the West hasn’t intervened and indeed why Western intervention might not be a good idea. But really, were getting to the stage of least worse options. Anything the west could do no matter how silly (arming rebels, airstrikes, giving Putin a wedgie at next international conference, “retiring” Assad…with a smart bomb as a going away present!), even another screw up like in Iraq, has to be better than the current status quo in Syria.

And its not just Syria that’s at stake here. Allowing the Assad regime to get away with using chemical weapons against civilians is setting a very dangerous precedence. Next time some African dictator has a problem with a couple of protesters or an ethnic minority complaining about they’re “rights” or something, the world is essentially sending the signal to him that he can gas them without worry. This has the potential to roll back and see the defacto overturning of the all important Geneva conventions. That is the slipperiest of slippery slopes we’re tittering on the edge of and will almost certainly not lead to the sort of world any of us want to live in.

I mean if you’re the Tea Party type who owns a gun in case the government turns tyrannical (ya a little plastic musket‘s the perfect thing for stopping a M1 Abrams tank or a F-15 at 30,000 ft), I’d say sell the gun and buy a chemical warfare suit and an NBC system. Similarly we may as well sent Osborne around the Hague and issue all the judges and lawyers there pink slips as its clearly pointless having such a thing if the likes of Assad are going to be let get away with it.

The Crisis in Egypt

Of course it’s difficult to ignore the growing crisis in Egypt. Regardless of what people think of the coup and the removal of Morsi’s government (not saying I support him, actually he strikes me as a sort of Egyptian GW Bush…just with more Koran thumbing but not quite as dumb). But there’s a right way and a wrong way about going about dealing with protestors. Clearly the Egyptian military has chosen the wrong way.

Indeed images of them using the same tactics as the Israeli army (going after stone throwing youths with armoured bulldozers and tanks) is going to play right into the hands of any extremists. And it’s worth remembering that that there are plenty of hot heads in the Muslim Brotherhood who will use this as justification for all manner of things, including terrorist attacks. As President Kennedy once said, those who make peaceful protest and democratic change impossible, make violent revolution inevitable.

And one can practically hear the sniggers in the Kremlin from here. No doubt, the Russians will argue that there is now no real difference between their backing of the Syrian Regime and its fight against “islamists” and the US providing military support to the Egyptian “junta” as it cracks down on “islamists”.

And my response on both counts is the same, an immediate arms embargo on both Egypt and Syria until both sides in both conflicts go back to the negotiating table. And if that doesn’t get the message across, selective sanctions, in particular of oil imports and exports (no oil, no tanks, nor bulldozers on the streets). If the Egyptians (and the Syrians) are to learn how this much fangled “democracy” thing works, that means showing them that behaviour like this has consequences. Then maybe next time the military will think twice.

A coup and a kidnapping

Events in Egypt have resulted in a defacto coup against President Morsi of the Muslim brotherhood. This put the West in a bit of an awkward position, in particular the US (who provides a billion dollars in military aid to the Egyptian army each year).

On the one hand they have been perplexed at the rise of an Islamist organisation into such a position of power. Consider that the inspiration for the people who flew the planes into the twin towers was from Sayyid Qutb, one of the key figures in the evolution of the Muslim brotherhood’s. Indeed Al Queda’s number 2 (Ayman Zawahiri) was also a key member. He would be rotting in prison (or worse) right now, for his involvement in the assassination of President Sadat….if it weren’t for the fact that he was (along with many followers) sent off to Afghanistan to fight the Russians (and hopefully as the regime calculated, get themselves killed!). Now while it has to be said that Morsi has shown himself to be very much a “moderate” by the standards of Islamists. But many religious minorities, notably Egypt’s Coptic Christians would disagree quite strongly with this suggestion!

However, the fact remains that Morsi was democratically elected Egypt’s president. I suspect that if back in the days of G. W. Bush had the US Army pitched up with tanks on the White House lawn, few democrat’s would be applauding. And not least because they realise that supporting a military coup would be political suicide. Indeed, this isn’t even fair. Morsi was democratically elected, while G. W. Bush was put in office via some elaborate ballot stuffing by his brother and a conservative leaning supreme court.

Ultimately this coup is good news for nobody. It could lead to the Muslim Brotherhood doing even better than before potentially with an even more conservative candidate. It also puts back the country’s transition to democracy as well as harming the Egyptian economy (tourists don’t generally go to countries in political turmoil!). And of course some hot heads within the Brotherhood may well decide that democracy isn’t compatible with their belief’s (as many Islamists will argue) and that they should start terrorists attacks.

Kidnapping Evo

Meanwhile in Europe, Evo Morales the Bolivan President was denied access to several European countries airspace, forced to land in Vienna and his plane searched out of fears CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden might be on board. This is a complete violation of the principles of diplomatic immunity. Needless to say President Morales seems to be hoping mad about it as are most of the South American governments.

And I don’t blame him! Think about it, how would the UK react if call-me-Dave‘s plane was forced down and searched by the Argie’s? How would the US react if the Mexicans forced him down? At the very least a strongly worded letter would be sent to the UN, if not a few smart bombs being lobbed in their general direction!

And of course the consequence of this action has been to see Edward Snowden’s asylum application fast tracked, with them now virtually queuing up to grant him asylum.

Diplomatic immunity is an ancient principle going right back to the time of the Pharaoh Rameses the Great. The Europeans riding rough shod over it for the benefit of the US, even thought the NSA had been spying on them also, is a dangerous and entirely counterproductive tactic. Not least as it provides the likes of the Mugabe’s or Kim Jung-un’s of this world a loophole that they’ll go and drive a bus through. Like democracy, protecting this principle vastly outweights the benefits of temporarily suspending it.

Liberating the Syrians

I’ve avoided commenting about the awful situation in Syria, as there’s little positive that can be said about the situation. Again, while the innocent are slaughtered the world watches on and discusses the horror by committee. But unfortunately, the opponents of the present regime are caught in trap set by competing international politics.

Why can’t the West go in like we did with Libya? many ask. Well firstly because that would need a UN resolution, something that isn’t going to be forthcoming due to Chinese and Russian vetoes (more on that later). Also, in order for the west to use airstrikes to topple the regime, they need to have forces on the ground to exploit these strikes and someone to take over afterwards. With Libya, they had the NTC and a number of defecting army units plus many rebel fighters. Many of the embassy staff abroad also defected to the NTC, making it relatively easy and indeed quite legal for Western governments to just recognise the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya, and Gaddafi as essentially the illegitimate usurper. Much of Gaddafi’s supporters where either his cronies, members of his tribe or West African mercenaries.

The situation in Syria could not be more different. Syria is a secular country, with large minority groups of non-Muslims, fully 9% are Christian, as well as many Islamic sects, such as the Druze (who make up a large proportion of the military officers corps) and the Alawi (of whom the Assad’s are members). You may ask how can any Syrian support the Assad regime. Many of these minority groups and the secular middle class do support the regime as they fear the consequences of it falling and a more radically Islamist regime taking over. Recent regime change in other Muslim countries, notably Egypt, have seen massacres of ethnic minorities, Coptic Christians in particular.

So the dilemma for the west is that if the Assad regime falls, the Sunni majority could take revenge on the minorities, including many Christians. Also, there’s the power vacuum. Who will take over? What if radical Islamists take over and found another Iran? One right on the border of Israel.

I would point out the chances of that happen are slim. Furthermore Iran would probably not have an Islamist government today if it weren’t for the oil revenues. Syrian oil output is barely sufficient to meet domestic needs so it will not provide much financial support to such a regime Meaning that after the Islamists wreck the economy it will be voted out of office or overthrown pretty quickly. But even so, naturally Western governments worry what will happen if Islamists take over.

More importantly, taking a step back, who is going to do the overthrowing? Chances are, especially if the West wanted to influence who takes over, troops on the ground would be necessary. As I pointed out before with regards to Libya, its clear NATO military advisors and forward air controllers played a key role in the downfall of Gaddafi. At the very least this or much more would be required again. After the quagmire of Iraq, I think there is little enthusiasm for western soldiers to go into another Muslim country and find themselves refereeing suicide bombing competitions.

But what about Russia? Why do they support a regime as awful as Assad? While “Polonium” Putin is not exactly a fan of human rights, he and Russia’s reputation clearly suffers from association with a murderous regime like the Assad’s.

It all goes back to the cold war. Back then, the Soviets were desperate to undermine America’s links with various oil rich regimes in the region (Iran (till 1979), Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, etc.) by making its own friends in the region. Many regimes from Yemen to Libya were at some point on very friendly terms with the soviets, often accepting large financial loans from the Russians for various projects, and of course buying substantial quantities of soviet weaponry.

However, it was a marriage doomed to failure. Firstly, the soviets were hard core atheists. And I mean, if you thought Richard “no-god-nor-Santa” Dawkins is bad, I don’t believe he’s ever blown up a Cathedral or deported millions of Muslims to Siberia for “political crimes” (sort of puts the current whining about “religion under attack” in prospective). Also, many of these Middle Eastern states were oil exporters, making the Russians, still the world’s largest oil producer, essential a business rival.

Consequently, one by one, every single one of these Middle East regimes eventually broke with Moscow. Some even climbed back into bed with the Americans. The only relationship that has survived to this day was Syria. Hence why the Russians are reluctant to break with the Assad regime.

The Chinese? They are playing superpower catch up and reckon that beggars can’t be choosers and hence they will make friends with and support any regime regardless of human rights abuses. And lets face it the Chinese do enough of torturing in they’re own country to hardly be in a position to lecture others. Of course the flaw in this chinese strategy is that inevitably once Assad’s regime falls, the new rulers of the country will likely punish the Chinese for their support by breaking of contact, nationalising chinese owned businesses, supporting islamist groups within china, etc. This is after all what happened to the US after the Iranian revolution.

Finally, there is Israel. While you might think the Israeli’s would love to see the back of the Assad’s, the truth is they’d prefer the devil they know. While yes the Assad regime have been helping Hezbollah to attack Israel, they have never been as seriously anti-Israeli as the Iranians. Such terrorism and funding of Hezbollah is more aimed at scoring browning points with Islamists, domestic politics and maintaining Syrian influence over Lebanon. Indeed, Hezbollah is these days less of a terrorist group and more of a Jihadi spokesmodel for Syria.

Naturally the Israeli’s fear the consequences of a radically Islamic regime right on their border. Such a regime would probably support terrorism much more seriously, likely leading to a war, possibly one involving ultimately the use of WMD’s, of which the Syrians have an ample stockpile. And of course in the short term, they’d have to deal with millions of Christian refugees streaming across the border into Israel (which election year pressure from America would probably force them into accepting).

Finally, the West is hardly innocent here. The Bush and Blair administration co-operated with the Syrians to torture supposed “terrorist” suspects with its policy of extraordinary rendition. A similar, but less extensive policy was exposed when the Gaddafi regime fell. However, the rumours are that the Syrian side of these renditions make anything that went on in Libya look like the Monty Python Spanish inquisition.

The mistake of the Bush regime was to assume that such potentially damning evidence would remain safe in Syria. And the chances are that if the regime falls, much damaging information, the sort that could earn senior CIA, Pentagon and Whitehall staffers getting a free trip to the Hague, will come out (maybe even Bush and Blair will wind up in the dock!). Of course as some of these just happen to be the very civil servants advising Western governments, one has to suspect that they are probably arguing against intervention as much to save their own hides as due to any of the arguments put in above.

The unfortunate conclusions for the people of Homs are not good. They are caught in a meat grinder of international politics and there is little they can do…other than the obvious, leave their country. An Assad regime that suffers a brain drain of its top talent and international isolation will not remain in place for long. It will not save the lives of anyone tomorrow, but it will eventually topple the regime…and reward dithering regimes abroad with millions of unwanted guests…I’d recommend Russia, China or Israel as good destinations!

But maybe we have to ask about the more fundamental question, is it acceptable that the world’s fiddles while a murderous government massacres its own people ?

We’ve been here many times before, from Rwanda to Bosnia to Burma. Rather than waiting for a UN resolution, should we not instead have a rule allowing for military intervention against any regime that uses it military against civilians? I’m not saying that countries can invade and attack in any situation where violence is used against civilans (otherwise the UK would currently be undergoing French occupation due to the summer riots!). But they are entitled to enforce a no fly zone and conduct some limited airstrikes against military targets, without any need to go to the UN. It is difficult to believe that in 2012 any regime can get away with performing the sort of medieval tyranny the Assad regime is engaged in and not suffer any repercussions.