Tuesday, May 27, 2008

# Posted 8:11 AM by Patrick Porter  

AMATEUR HOUR: I just posted this at my other blogsite, and thought it might be of interest to our readers here:

In public and professional debate, the overriding issue in domestic terrorism is ‘why they dun it?’

We can debate motive forever. But we can now make a more modest point with confidence: most budding extremists aren’t very good at it. Clearly there are still scary exceptions and moments where luck, skill and creativity can result in a spectacular attack.

But more common are things like this:

Saeed Ghafoor said he was going to bomb Europe’s largest shopping complex using three cars containing gas canister explosives. But when questioned further, he said Bluewater was in Exeter, the Old Bailey heard. When told it was in Kent, Ghafoor said he had not “finalised” his plans.’

Or this:

Mr Reilly was arrested after the explosion at 1250 BST on Thursday in the Giraffe restaurant in the £230m shopping development, which is one of Exeter’s main attractions. CCTV footage taken from a nearby camera appears to show him emerging from the cafe with blood pouring down his face before his arrest. No-one else was hurt in the explosion at the restaurant, which was busy at the time and is popular with families.

Why? Not knowing a lot about the internal technicalities of terrorism, I’ll suggest three reasons and see if readers want to kick them around.

First, state paranoia. 9/11 and 7/7 got the authorities’ attention. With all the abuses and incompetence and heavy-handedness that came with it, its now a much harder environment to operate it.

Second: its harder than it looks. Mohammed Atta, a highly talented engineering student with a cool focus and meticulous ways, is atypical. Most seem to be flustered, clumsy and indiscrete.

Third: We must be getting decent human intelligence from somewhere. One thing we are learning quickly is that Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators are fast alienating Muslims everywhere. This is known about Iraq, but could it also be happening here? Muslims were among the victims of the 7/7 atrocity. They don’t want to be persecuted at airports or harassed for downloading from the web. But neither do they want to be blown up by co-religionists.

Widening the focus to broader questions of international relations, the modern nation-state still seems fairly resilient. For all the talk of fifth generation warfare, cyberwar and super-empowerment of small groups of radicals, visiting mayhem on the streets and shops and trains of First World states is still difficult to do, takes training, patience and skill that the internet alone can’t teach, and on the rare moment when it does succeed, can backfire.

As Rod Liddle chuckles,

I suppose that many years hence the terrible destruction of the twin towers will still be lodged in our minds, the image of the buildings crumpling, the video of Osama Bin Laden sniggering in his cave. But a similarly iconic image would be of the moron Richard Reid trying desperately to set his training shoe on fire on a plane, having forgotten to bring a lighter. They are either extraordinarily useless or Allah has got it in for them.

The trick for terrorism studies, it seems, is to explain exactly why this is the case, and propose policies and measures to sustain this success of counter-terrorism. In the meantime, the rest of us can empty rooms and bore listeners with talk of root causes, alienation and social decay.
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Saturday, May 24, 2008

# Posted 10:38 AM by Patrick Porter  

GOD IN THE DOCK: I have just read Christopher Hitchens' fierce atheist manifesto, God is not Great: How Religion poisons everything.

Hitch's other works, especially on Orwell, have been great reading and rich, provocative stuff. But though passionate, this one is at times a sloppy polemic.

And it reflects a disturbing tendency amongst some of the 'new atheists' (such as Richard Dawkins), of sounding a little too cocksure, a little too self-congratulatory, and just a touch militant. Ironically, these are things they claim to dislike in godly folk.

I'm not going to challenge Hitchens' overarching theological (or anti-theological) case. Those who want a sophisticated debate between him and various divines and other authority figures can flick over to Youtube.

Instead, I'll just note three factual problems:

the Church of England did not take part in the Crusades, given that it didn't exist during the Crusades(page 17),(unless he means in the sense that the Church of England claims to be the unbroken continuation with the true Catholic faith, but given that Hitchens rejects all beliefs like this, he can't then use it as counsel for the prosecution);

In 1929, when Benito Mussolini signed the official treaty with the Vatican, he had not just 'barely seized power', given that he launched a coup d'etat in 1922 and had consolidated a dictatorship by 1925 (p.235);

the Tamil Tigers, who frequently resorted to suicide bombing and helped refine the technique, may be full of Hindus (p.199), but it is a revolutionary Marxist-Leninist movement, an unmentioned fact that rather spoils Hitchens' claim that suicide bombing is essentially a religious phenomenon.

Most of us make factual errors, being mere mammals. But most of us aren't accusing everyone with a different cosmology of being dangerous, delusional or annoying. If we are to pursue a 'New Enlightenment', as the Hitch calls it, then we are also entitled to hold atheist secularists to the same standards of care with the facts.

In his review of Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion', Terry Eagleton caught something of this contradiction (hat-tip, Rob Saunders!):

The mainstream theology I have just outlined may well not be true; but anyone who holds it is in my view to be respected, whereas Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anytime or anywhere, is worthy of any respect whatsoever. This, one might note, is the opinion of a man deeply averse to dogmatism.
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Friday, May 23, 2008

# Posted 3:00 PM by Patrick Porter  

WHEN TRYING TO STIR UP CLASS ANTAGONISM to win an election, a strategy that is not guaranteed to work, don't taunt your foe with young activists dressed in top hats and tails, or painting your opponent as an overprivileged toff, when one of the activists in fancy dress comes from a public school, and when your own candidate has a six acre property.

New Labour in Britain won successive elections partly because it rose above the divisive rhetoric of class war and the old militancy of the unionised left. Desperate to turn back the momentum building against it, this latest by-election signals the dangers of resurrecting this old, and empty, politics.
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Thursday, May 22, 2008

# Posted 12:23 PM by Patrick Porter  

SO WHO WILL WIN? This election season has had so many false predictions. About a year ago, the argument was how much Hillary would beat Romney or Guliani by.

I had a pet-theory about the resilience of the American political establishment, which seemed to explain why a Gore could pummel a Bill Bradley, a Bush Jr. hammer a McCain, or a Hillary whack an Obama.

Too bad about the last case. On the other hand, Hillary has shown great resilience, and a willingness to say or do just about anything, posing as the earthed woman of the common folk while lending herself millions, portraying Obama who grew up on foodstamps as an aloof elitist.

Obama succeeded in mobilising not only a vast amount of money and active supporters, but attracted support from the elite and establishment echelons of the Democratic Party, in a way making himself part of the establishment.

So where from here? Consider some countervailing trends:

First, the Republicans seem tired. As Dan Schnur notes:

It’s hard to remember what an unknown quantity George W. Bush was to Republican true believers in 1999, what with his lineage, his history of working with Democrats in Texas and his fondness for talking about compassionate conservatism.

But after years of watching congressional Republicans play Wile E. Coyote to Bill Clinton’s Road Runner, the G.O.P. faithful were hungry again. So they took a flyer on the scion of the Bush they had turned away from less than a decade earlier.

As for the Democrats, eight years of power took the edge off their hunger to a point where just enough of them decided that Al Gore wasn’t sufficiently liberal and that the luxury of a vote for Ralph Nader was an indulgence they could afford.

(hat-tip, Mark Meredith!)

The Republicans have been smart enough to pick the one candidate with the ability to stand as a critically independent man who is most certainly not George Bush Junior in new clothes.

But this may not be enough. There seems to be a broad, continual revolt underway against Republican misrule. Even McCain may not be able to distance himself from Bush and Bush's legacy sufficiently to counter this angry force. He also has the hard task of balancing his 'reach across the aisle' moderation with his tendency to coddle elements of the hard-core Christian right at times.

On the other hand, Obama's coalition may be more fragile than we realise. He needs a constituency of blue collar older voters, and he needs the Democrats to mobilise and unite behind him to secure middle America.

There is the obvious problem of some voters just refusing to vote for a black man, as well as the damage that was done when it turned out that the man standing for a post-racial American society had spent too much time with a cleric who spouted toxic bigotry and lies. Obama has repudiated this now, and McCain claims he won't use it, but the subject is going to come up.

This election is difficult to predict, not only because of the particular combination of candidates, but because its hard to generalise about American society from a distance.

But at least we might be spared the prospect, as Mitt Romney called it, of Bill Clinton in the White House with nothing to do.
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# Posted 12:12 PM by Patrick Porter  

TALKING HISTORY IN THE GULF: Barak Obama argues that it isn't appeasement to talk. He's absolutely right. Appeasement is a precise policy of purchasing peace for one's own interests and accommodating a dangerous state by sacrificing the interests of another.

So Chamberlain talking with Hitler wasn't appeasement, but abandoning Czechoslovakia in the hope that it would satiate Hitler's territorial desires was.

Obama talking to Tehran wouldn't be appeasement unless he deliberately abandoned an allied country in some fundamental way.

Obama is not an appeaser. For better or worse, he believes in the transforming power of dialogue.

But as K.T. McFarland argues, dialogue, no matter how eloquent, lacks power if there is no pre-existing leverage:

"Strong countries and strong Presidents talk to their adversaries," said Obama. "That's what Kennedy did with Khrushchev. That's what Reagan did with Gorbachev. That's what Nixon did with Mao."

Not so fast. I was in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and I can attest that those Presidents understood the danger of prematurely forcing top-level meetings without sufficient preconditions.

Neither Richard Nixon nor Ronald Reagan would sit down for face-to-face meetings with their counterparts in enemy nations until America hadsome realistic - and playable - bargaining chips. They recognized that negotiating without leverage isn't negotiating, it's begging.

McFarland doesn't in principle oppose talks with Tehran. But he argues that favourable talks are a result of careful prior strategy, the result rather than the cause of prudent statecraft.

However, despite the extraordinary efforts of Petraues and the US-led coalition in the past year, we are still in something of a strategic hell. In the sense that its hard to imagine building up enough leverage to realign the Gulf through talks with Iran without more years of steady progress, in a war we can hardly afford.

So the policy options seem to be: do talks, but with the risk that they are premature and lack leverage, or wait, grit our teeth and hang tight in Iraq, with the hope that this will strengthen America's hand.

My instinct is for the latter, but we haven't got that long. A war of $2 billion a week is hardly sustainable.
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Thursday, May 08, 2008

# Posted 7:27 AM by Taylor Owen  

OPED IN EMBASSY MAG: Dave and I have the following piece in this week's Embassy. It is in part based on research I have done on the US bombing of Cambodia with Ben Kiernan, an overview of which can be read in this Walrus article.

Embassy, May 7th, 2008
Afghanistan Another Iraq? Try Another Cambodia

Of the many complexities to emerge from our mission in Afghanistan, one is particularly troublesome. Almost one-third of the Taliban recently interviewed by a Canadian newspaper claimed that at least one family member had died in aerial bombings in recent years, and many described themselves as fighting to defend Afghan villagers from air strikes by foreign troops.

This should come as no surprise. Last year, the UN reported that over 1,500 civilian were killed in Afghanistan. In the first half 2007, this casualty rate had increased by 50 per cent. The NGO community and NATO remain at odds over who is accountable for a majority of these deaths.

What is indisputable, however, is that air sorties have increased dramatically. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sorties doubled from 6,495 in 2004 to 12,775 in 2007. More critically, aircraft today are 30 times more likely to drop their payloads than in 2004.

Civilian deaths are a moral tragedy. Equally importantly, however, they represent a critical strategic blunder. It has long been known that civilian casualties benefit insurgencies, who recruit fighters with emotional pleas. While an airstrike in a village may kill a senior Taliban, even a single civilian casualty can turn the community against the coalition for a generation.

This presents military commanders with an immensely challenging dilemma: Accept greater casualties in a media environment where any and all are scrutinized, or use counterproductive tactics that will weaken the enemy in the moment, but strengthen him over the long term.

While the choice is almost impossibly difficult, it is not new. Surprisingly, the case of U.S. air strikes in Cambodia offers a chilling parallel.

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 2.7 million tonnes of munitions on Cambodia, making it potentially the most bombed country in history.

While the scale is shocking, the strategic costs were devastating. Over the course of the bombing period, the Khmer Rouge insurgency grew from an impotent force of 5,000 rural fighters to an army of over 200,000, capable of defeating a U.S.-backed government.

Recent research has shown a direct connection between casualties caused by the bombings and the rise of the insurgency.

Because Lon Nol, Cambodia's president at the time, supported the U.S. air war, the bombing of Cambodian villages and the significant civilian casualties it caused provided ideal recruitment rhetoric for the insurgent Khmer Rouge.

As civilian casualties grew, the Khmer Rouge shifted their rhetoric from that of a Maoist agrarian revolution to anti-imperialist populism.

This change in strategy achieved stunning results. As one survivor explained:

"Every time after there had been bombing, they would take the people to see the craters.... Terrified and half-crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told.... It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them."

Compare this to what one Taliban fighter explained to a Globe and Mail researcher: "The non-Muslims are unjust and have killed our people and children by bombing them, and that's why I started jihad against them. They have killed hundreds of our people, and that's why I want to fight against them."

The coalition risks repeating the same mistakes, and like the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago, the Taliban are capitalizing on its misguided tactics.

Amazingly, in Cambodia, American administration knew of the strategic costs of the bombing. The CIA's Directorate of Operations reported during the war that the Khmer Rouge were "using damage caused by B-52 strikes as the main theme of their propaganda." Yet blinded by grandeurs of military might, the sorties continued.

The Khmer Rouge forced the U.S. out of Phnom Penh, took over the country, and the rest is a tragic history.

We know our tactics in Afghanistan have a similar effect. Civilian casualties drive a generation into the hands of an insurgency we are there to oppose.

Initially Canada deployed without Leopard tanks and CF-18s with the goal of prioritizing personal engagement and precision over brute military might. Today, however, our allies' tactics—and increasingly our own—do not adequately reflect strategic costs incurred by civilian causalities. In addition, Canada has not allied itself with other NATO members—particularly the British—to reign in the coalition's counterproductive use of aerial bombings.

Cambodia offers a powerful example of aerial warfare run amok. What is Canada doing to ensure we don't relive the failures of the past?
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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

# Posted 8:06 AM by Taylor Owen  


...or maybe it's just a flesh wound...

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

# Posted 6:21 AM by Patrick Porter  

THE CITY THAT BURNS: Hitler, it seems, had visions of destroying New York, unleashing firestorms with suicide missions.

And this as early as 1937. Previously, I had thought this had come much later:

As Germany’s defeat loomed during the final months of World War II, Adolf Hitler increasingly lapsed into delusional fits of fantasy. Albert Speer, in his prison writings, recounts an episode in which a maniacal Hitler “pictured for himself and for us the destruction of New York in a hurricane of fire.” The Nazi fuehrer described skyscrapers turning into “gigantic burning torches, collapsing upon one another, the glow of the exploding city illuminating the dark sky.”

I don’t know whether it exists, but there should be a study of the different ways the destruction of New York has been imagined by its haters.

It figures in Ian Baruma and Avishai Margalit’s Occidentalism, which shows that the city was loathed as the embodiment of debauched materialism and cosmopolitanism, and Judaic conspiracy.

Sayyid Qutb, intellectual father of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and heavily influential on Al Qaeda, went to New York in 1948, and saw it this way.

After 9/11, Bin Laden bragged that ‘Those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights, and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke.’

The Twin Towers, of course were likened by some evangelist visionaries as analogues to the Tower of Babel.

There is an undertone of this, a secularized version, in some of the wilder wings of environmentalism and their reactionary nostalgia for a utopian pre-industrial past, where vast tidal waves are unleashed on New York by Mother Earth as payback for the vandalism of the planet.

It also crops up in more petty ways. When New York suffered an electricity blackout in 2003, a snide Oxford man of the far left told me he was glad, because consumerist New Yorkers could feel the pain of Iraqis. New York wasn’t the first city I imagined being a stranger to collective suffering. (And there’s that violent hate of consumerism again).

So there you go. Nazis, jihadists, eco-warriors, evangelists and the far left can all find something in the metropolis to hate, one of the more ironic signs of its greatness.
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