Monthly Archives: January 2013

The In Amenas Crisis

The In Amenas hostage crisis appears to be over, and now we can await the deluge of analysis and retelling as we scramble to fully understand the events that took place. There’s not much for me to say on the details yet, as all I fully know is that it happened and has ended. The news delivered to me the same information as it did to you.

Members of a relatively recent terrorist group, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, attacked an Algerian gas facility, taking a number of foreign and domestic hostages, arguably in response to French intervention in Mali. The hostage situation ended after several days with the Algerian military storming the facility and killing the terrorists to the cost of a number of hostages’ lives.

Actually, the news, by which I mean the myriad news organisations who attempted to cover this crisis, told us a lot more than that. What I just offered was a broad but reliable summary of what we can say almost definitely took place. What the ‘news’ gave us was a torturous bed of quicksand, an ever changing barrage of suggestions and figures that utterly betrayed the sensitivities of a fluid, ongoing situation.

I cannot stand this aspect of modern news media culture. They were all in such a goddamned hurry to report every fractional change, or put forward any suggested account of the numbers of terrorists, hostages or survivors, that about two days ago I was beginning to feel dizzyingly unwell. It is not the job of the news to vomit out the first scrap of information on the gamble it might be right, and that they might have been the first network to get it right.

Coverage of the In Amenas crisis was frankly appalling in this regard. I’m already a fairly seasoned interpreter of the news and I didn’t have clue, even to the point that I decided to fully check out of the affair until someone could offer a definitive impression of reality. I think today we can reasonably well state that it has drawn to a conclusion, although I still wouldn’t say it’s fully understood yet.

Not one of the many resources I look to for decent information to fuel my own writing was able to resist the temptation to bandy about unconfirmed information. Thank heavens I didn’t actually know anyone who was involved in the crisis, as by now I would think they are all emotionally run ragged. This is a major problem for the modern news machine.

Just because we have the ability to report on these events in real time, and with total coverage, does not mean we should. And even if we can’t resist the urge to indulge in our unprecedented capabilities, we should still remember the overarching rules of good journalism. I am thus far, being frank, only a blogger, and yet I still seemed able not to react to this crisis as if I was myself also in crisis. Publishing every figure, comment or interpretation before one can reliably do so, is just bad journalism.

It’s rather counter-intuitive. You would think being able to inject a legion of reporters almost directly into any situation would aid the reporting of accurate news. Instead we end up with a clusterf@#k. If any paid journalists are reading this, I make a genuine plea – I’m happy to wait an extra few hours if it means I can be told the correct thing once. The news should not be an informational roller-coaster.

There is more than enough going on in the world to talk about, even during a high-profile thing like In Amenas. Perhaps if the news was completely liberated from concerns of viewership and was instead judged on its ability to impart the highest quality interpretation of unimpeachable facts, we would be much better off.

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Simon Jenkins on Europe

Well thanks a lot Simon. Usually I like to frame my own arguments around issues, or in the least offer a substantive alternate take, yet on the matter of Britain and the EU all you’ve left me is the potential for verbatim regurgitation. Frankly I find it quite inconsiderate that you would assume such a totally rational perspective on the matter, as I’ve come to expect even a little articulate contrarianism upon which to cognitively chew.

If you’ll excuse me I’ll address the reader now.

At most I find two points to pick up on, and these are simple notes not remotely approaching disagreement. The horror. The first is in regard to what Jenkins calls Cameron’s “vacillations” and to be sure, the Prime Minister has dithered and dallied and gone back and forth with the best of them. However, the question of Europe has been politically toxic for the Conservative party almost since the question existed and I’ve therefore been rather forgiving of the man.

The last six months of coalition revealed quite emphatically that the old Tory party is still alive and kicking, grouchily awakening from the temporary hush caused by Cameron’s astute push towards moderation, if only in image. It’s not a question of only satisfying both his party and the Lib Dems, but almost more importantly, both his vision for the Tories and what they really are. The PM’s balancing act has been revealed and though we can certainly say he was overcautious, he was so with the best intentions.

I would be livid to see the Tories consumed in yet another European-fuelled bloodbath and, admitting to a few hair-raising moments, I might actually go so far as to say I admire him for keeping the wolves at bay. There’s every possibility I’m being overly optimistic but what I ultimately see is a PM who wants to resolve the big question the right way, once. That is despite, or perhaps to spite, the existing impression that the coalition couldn’t hit a bullseye on the first attempt if their lives depended on it. The proof will be in the results.

As for the other side of the aisle, our darling Labour party, replete with Tweedleband and Tweedleballs, disciples of the Dark Lord Brown and consummate inducers of nausea, they’ve shown their hand. Jenkins draws attention to their sordid apprenticeships under the former Chancellor and how they would have had front row seats to the 2003 version of today’s debate. There were indications then of the direction the EU was heading and god save us all if it wasn’t Brown who saw the realities therein.

Thus, rightly according to Jenkins, “There need be no disagreement.” I can’t say with any certainty that there is. I can’t say with any certainty anything about the Labour party’s front pairing really. Perhaps that their sole purpose in political life at present is to offer endlessly snide criticisms with one hand and absolutely nothing with other, unless they occasionally needed both to dole out such useless contributions?

I’m all for a dash of good old fashioned political enmity but the extent to which Miliband and Balls have pushed it is not something I care for. An opposition’s duty is to offer a meaningful second choice, and is essential to democratic government. Yet even on the issue of Europe they have brought little to the table beyond the usual cynical lambasting of the Tories, and a vague to non-existent representation of their own message.

We deserve better, although on many a day I wouldn’t reserve that comment for Labour alone. Not just our political classes, we deserve better from Jenkins too. I’ll be disappointed not to find something more controversial or out of tune with my own views next time. Perhaps the National Trust chairman will call for our heritage sites to be saturated with wind farms. Yes, he’d love that.

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The Malian Conflict

Ah world. Coming on two years of the Syrian conflict where the West has seen fit to hide behind the bloodied garb of many a dramatically out-gunned baker-turned-freedom fighter, we see a variety of nations, primarily the French, whetting their blades on the desert stones of Mali. Or in the case of France, unleashing murderous hellfire from the skies on droves of unwitting and largely indoctrinated soldiers of misfortune.

I don’t think for a second that more than a small proportion of either Ansar Dine or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa are clerical madmen, bent on a totalitarian future of oppressive sharia law. Most are likely woefully ill-educated young men emanating from the inhospitable parts of their world where nothing better was ever offered to them other than the corrupt promises of a few manipulators.

So stifle that triumphant cry when you read about the next few scores of rebels being incinerated in half a blink of the eye. It’s ultimately just as tragic as the horrors unleashed upon the people of northern Mali under the influence of sharia law in this past year, the circumstances leading to which were equally tragic. This whole thing simply has tragedy written all over it.

Wresting free of nearly a hundred years of French colonialism in 1960, Mali has endured as unsteady a time as most formally colonial African countries. Coups, corruption and the search for a nation state identity, despite the nation state being a wholly unnatural and imposed system in Africa, prevent the kind of polite stability we rather easily criticise them for not possessing. Indeed, how very dare they force us to suppress our own guilt reflex for not fixing the deep problems we laid down.

The present conflict is entirely rooted in Western imposition upon the continent. Ever wondered how a vast and vastly ethnically diverse land ended up having so many neat and geometric borders? That would be the result of so many politicians and cartographers, wanting a pretty picture and clear lines for the new imperial order, paying not a jot of attention to the specific matters of tribal distribution, conflicting cultures and historic regions.

Thus the nomadic Tuareg people end up being the dispossessed and unwelcome feature of these new states where once they mastered there own lives in the huge expanses of the Sahara. And it so happens that a major area of their inhabitance was the historical territory of Azawad, now perhaps more commonly known as more than half of the modern Malian state. There have been multiple rebellions in the past century for a degree of autonomy for these distinct peoples.

The current uprising is the result of the existing domestic sentiment for independence, combined with the fallout of the end of the Gadaffi regime, from which Tuareg fighters returned with arms to their home regions. Certainly by October 2011, these elements had combined to form the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and by March 2012 had made significant gains across northern Mali.

Exactly at what point Ansar Dine splintered from the NMLA, or became an entity in its own right, is unclear. But also in March 2012 they were making separate claims of territorial expansion in the name of imposing sharia law, and were soon joined in this mission by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA). By April these Islamist factions, initially with the NMLA, had driven government forces from northern Mali but shortly after were in open conflict against the NMLA as well. The secular independence movement has taken a back foot.

Enter the French. At this point, it is probably a good thing that they have intervened, as the Islamist factions were becoming rampant and their system of rule could best be described as barbaric. The lurching UN-backed intervention could have come to fruition too late, but let’s not hail the French as selfless defenders of Malian peace and prosperity against some monolithic cloud of tyranny. They carry a responsibility to act and have enough interests in their former colony worth protecting.

Hollande does deserve a mention. Disdain for his economic policies aside, he has been curiously willing to get stuck into the variety of spats that have developed around Africa and the Mediterranean since coming to power. Perhaps after Sarkozy was so quick to jump on the arguably successful Libyan intervention, he doesn’t want to appear hesitant. France under Hollande was one of the first nations to recognise the formal opposition in Syria and we have also seen some dramatic activity by French forces in Somalia.

Swings and roundabouts. But after a decade of highly unsuccessful American bravado it is more than peculiar to see a far smaller European nation unilaterally flaunting its stuff. I suspect that, under Obama, America has been considerably less willing to stick its neck out and the door has been opened for others to be “heroic”. Or rather, others must now deal with the type of mess these smaller nations have typically gone pleading to America to deal with.

Bon chance.

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Mark Mardell on America

Mark Mardell is one of the BBC heavyweights with a grand task – North America editor. Until recently, this was one of a few things I would have called my dream job, something actually worth planning for and working towards in the long term. Having once lived in the dreamy state of California I’ve maintained a great interest in the USA, albeit a very love/hate one. Aside from this, and despite all the doomcrying, for better or worse I think the country still leads the world and warrants attention.

Why only until recently though, did I want the man’s job? The realisation that perhaps the role wasn’t for me came not long after finally committing to my own written efforts here and on the counterpart blogs. If it wasn’t fairly clear, or more likely if you haven’t indulged in all my fine works, I enjoy the liberty of generally unaccountable comment and can afford to be more direct. I’m no where near a position in this sector that requires a lighter touch.

Poor old Mardell. For a few years now I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his contributions, which are highly informed via his elite perspective and of unquestionable quality due to his clear aptitude. Yet during all those years, I was just champing at the bit for him to get a little more feisty. “Come on Mark!!”, I would scream at the TV or computer, “I know you have more to say about the Republicans, or this or that or the other patently absurd issue!”

I could be wrong, Mardell may just have a saintly temperament and a kind soul. More likely though, he’s been suppressing a rage induced stomach ulcer since late-2009 for want of unleashing the rational dogs of war on his Washington associates. Sadly though, he has to respect his duty as the BBC’s man on the hill, he has to sustain relationships, access, necessary friendships of circumstance. It probably wouldn’t do for the regional lead correspondent of the finest broadcast entity on the planet to go around calling John Boehner and Eric Cantor a pair of feckless t@*!s.

The restraint and professionalism needed for his job are more than likely beyond me by half, at least in these rowdy days of my commentating infancy. I want to be able to get a little visceral from time to time, of course without pushing things into soapbox territory, as I think some issues deserve a little more emotional investment in order for more people to grasp their severity. Shucks, it probably also spices up the reading experience a bit.

Every time I read a Mardell article I find myself reading between the lines. Again, I could be way off the truth but I think there’s often more this correspondent wants to say, so I’m going to try and say it for him. With no small amount of audacity I anoint myself the voice of his inner fury and exasperation.

To briefly kick things off, I draw your attention to his latest piece on gun control, from the halls of an Indiana arms market. A sterling example of journalistic discipline if ever there was, he relays the scene and the thoughts of its denizens with even-handed clarity, and somehow manages to portray the debate as one of two sides, each possessing legitimate views and sane dispositions.

Now I daresay there is a great deal of truth to the mysterious and intoxicating allure of firearms, they are sleek, functional symbols of power, which he rightly indicates. I used to thoroughly enjoy wielding a shotgun in the appropriate environment. But what I and any sensible person, thus I include Mardell, should surely be thinking is this – the person who for no defensible reason wants the right to own the most lethal of devices, has no place in civilised society. This culture is, after all other considerations, terrifying and irresponsible and should be dismantled.

You’re quite welcome Mark. More entirely subjective interpretation of your meaning to follow.

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Simon Jenkins on Drones

First, a brief introduction. Simon Jenkins is the sort of high-calibre contributor of well-informed opinion, these days primarily for the Guardian, whose reputation and general quality I aspire to achieve. A sound ambition, but I’m no sycophant, and Jenkins is one of a few prominent columnists whom I enjoy but also frequently take distinct issue with.

The purpose of this third aspect of my blogging enterprise will be to confront those articles that particularly engage me, or elicit my respectful ire. Who these other individuals are will be divulged as and when they enter the crosshairs, but for the moment there’s plenty to work with courtesy of Jenkins alone.

While a few days ago I was driven to fits of incredulity over his assertion that Nick Clegg is secretly a master political operative, I’m far more driven to address his most recent publication on the futility and dangers of the proliferation of drones. Although I take less offence from this offering, it is far more interesting and challenging, and by happy coincidence occurred only hours after an extended conservation on the matter with a friend.

The overarching theme of the article is broadly accurate. The attritional use of drones on an enemy with an extreme ideology is strategically ineffective, and doubly so when failures of the weapon’s much-lauded precision result in the deaths of civilians. A tactical imperative of war may to be to kill the enemy, but Jenkins rightly indicates that this is worthless in a situation where the employed method does just as much to replenish the enemy.

However, his outright rejection of some of the more commonly bandied advantages of drones bears more scrutiny. Some months ago, the Guardian introduced me to the very contemporary philosophical works of Bradley Strawser, who espoused the moral virtues of drones. Your first impression might be that here is a contrarian notoriety-seeker but, having taken some time to read Strawser’s slightly arduous “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles”, I was willing to concede to elements of his controversial, dark logic.

There are definitely problems with his argument, most clearly with his acceptance of the concept of a just war, from which a great deal of his defence is hinged. But if you can still allow for later stages of the argument, there is undeniable resonance with the idea that there is a paramount responsibility for the commanders of warfare to limit, as reasonably as possible, the danger to their armed forces.

Imagine a scenario in which there is a clear military objective, where the destruction of either enemy personnel or assets is implicit and can be equally achieved through two options – a manned or remote mission. To command human forces into a life-threatening situation, being demonstrably unnecessary, in light of the availability of the remote use of drones, is wrong. The argument that there needs to be a human experience of war in order to avoid dehumanising it is moronic. Forcing a person to experience war, being demonstrably unnecessary, is in my mind tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment.

This line of thought brings me to defend Chuck Hagel from a limited attack by Jenkins, for his so-called “enthusiasm” for death-dealing UAV’s. The under-fire nominee for Secretary of Defence has courted the rage of political hawks for his anti-war mentality, which itself is the result of Hagel’s horrendous experience of the Vietnam War. The man who goes to war and comes back with a profound aversion to it, is in my opinion exactly the sort you want for his offered role.

Jenkins also draws criticism to the manner in which Obama supposedly signs-off on “death lists”, which if true clearly does lack even a perfunctory attempt to appear genuinely judicial or in obedience to the conventions of a transparent war. Perhaps he would also criticise me then, if admitting that I can find it difficult to hold to a notion of maintaining an unimpeachable moral slate when effectively confronting an enemy to whom morality is completely meaningless. Not that I’m defending or advocating clear acts of inhumanity. There is a difference between that and being more prone to accept issues like the morally complex one of drones.

Ultimately though, I share Jenkins’ distaste for a picture of the future where drone warfare is prevalent. Not necessarily on moral grounds, but practical grounds, as it seems to me that real warfare needs to carry an existential threat to one side or the other. There needs to be the potential for tangible loss in order for any outcome to be achieved. What happens when one military shoots down all the drones of the other? A gentlemanly admission of loss by the loser? Or the realisation that war isn’t really over until the will is broken by death, destruction and destitution?

Assuming there will be in the future stakes high enough to drive the need for warfare, and there undoubtedly will be, drones could surely only ever be the precursor to greater conflict. Unless the manufacturing of drones became so integral to an economy or society that their mass destruction carried greater meaning than distant material loss, how could it be otherwise? My criticism is mainly that they represent a false hope for the civilising of war.

Down the gauntlet hath been laid Sir Simon!

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American Discourse

Other than last month’s article discussing gun control, I’ve devoted little attention to the USA since the immediate aftermath of Obama’s victory. Turning to other parts of the world and different issues is always a relief after the general election, it being lengthy and deeply exhausting, but a number of things have caught the eye recently. Or one thing, rather, common to several prominent debates in US politics at present.

It started just as I was happily tuning out of the American conversation, knowing what the few months between the incumbent’s November re-election and re-inauguration on 20th January would bring. Budget wrangling and cabinet nomination sparring of the most venomous and tedious of sorts. Looking to the Middle-Eastern and domestic concerns was a welcome change of scenery, as unpleasant as that scenery often was.

Admittedly, there were passing glances back across the Atlantic but no more than to confirm the familiar scenes of impossibly childish bickering between the honest-to-god lawmakers of the most powerful country on the planet. It appeared the Republicans had gone a sorry, insular direction after their loss and ignoring the routes back towards being a functioning or at least adequate opposition, chose to recommit themselves to all things anti-Obama.

There is nothing discernibly new about cross-party feuding in general, especially for one from the UK where it has been formalised into a weekly puppet theatre, which I love, but it was slightly more concerning to witness a new degree of obstinacy. The right wing die-hards perhaps began to absorb their own demented propagandist visions of a second-term for the Democrats, and they seem possessed by a sort of crazed and apocalyptic lack of cooperation. Fiscal cliffs and credibility be damned.

While it is easy to fall into the trap of imagining that the state of things are falling steadily into decline, I’m not prepared to concede I’m merely not looking hard enough at the past for similarly vitriolic examples. I think the George W. Bush years, followed immediately by Obama’s greatly contrasting tenure, has laid out a severe dividing line in the nation that is becoming much more challenging to reach across.

Recent examples of the failures of American political discourse have run to the truly heinous with aid bills for 9/11 responders, war veterans and natural disaster victims somehow becoming sticking points in Congress. True conservatism implies a degree of caution where heavy spending is concerned but that’s not to say it is devoid of compassion. This Republican fixation on forbidding the Democratic government from extracting a single red cent, even for the most patently proper of causes, is obscene and a dereliction of public duty.

No surprise at all then that the budget talks have been so stuttering, and there is equally nothing new about the exaggerated outrage surrounding Secretary of Defence candidate Chuck Hagel. But where I’ve thus far lambasted the Republicans for their role in the stagnant political scene, the case of this long-serving politician and Vietnam veteran goes both ways. There are, of course, deep rumblings from hawks over his Eisenhower-like approach to war and the military, notably his opinion of how to deal with Iran coupled with his evident lack of impractical devotion to Israel.

More curious though is the vocal dissatisfaction from the LGBT lobby, who are distinctly and, I think unfairly, unimpressed with former senator Hagel. Way back when in 1998 he said some ill-advised things about Jim Hormel, then nominee for Ambassador to Luxembourg and homosexual. Hagel also supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” and doesn’t possess a stellar record on voting for LGBT rights but the lobby’s reaction is disappointing. Popular activism site Back2Stonewall calls him an anti-gay bigot while labelling his nomination sickening.

There is simply a remarkable lack of reasoned temperament permeating almost every facet of public debate in the USA right now. From left to right and back again, the starting disposition for nigh on every issue appears to be entrenched and combative, but reaching new extremes of disingenuity. Would that it only ran as far as the matters mentioned up to this point, but it would be painfully naïve to hope it were so.

Sadly, although it would be good to say no one could have predicated the desperately tragic events of Newtown, they extended a pattern of all too often repeated incidents that are beginning to feel predictable. The shooting of school pupils and staff by Adam Lanza further highlighted what can only be called a stunning indictment of the nation’s failure to bring but the slightest degree of rationality to gun controls. There couldn’t conceivably be a silver lining to this sort of thing, but in the very least it seems to have finally triggered another serious approach.

This debate, depending on how determined Joe Biden and his taskforce are, has the potential to be genuine political warfare. The gun lobby is about as potent as it comes and the Second Amendment tends to strike a notably emotional chord. In the current climate, and despite the shame brought down on the defenders of that antiquated “right”, it is hard to imagine this will be a smooth ride. If Texan radio host Alex Jones is a taste of things to come, buckle up. The already tattered state of American discourse will certainly be getting worse before it gets better.

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Modernity and the Church

This last week has brought about the most unexpected of developments, with the Church of England choosing to accept openly gay clergymen in civil partnerships with the provision that they adhere to the laws of celibacy. On one hand this move can be seen as rather progressive indeed, but is still clearly problematic.

The Church of England’s relationship with homosexuality, and more broadly modernity, has at best been a tricky one. This has been no less the case in the past few months where three of the major stumbling blocks of the church have almost invariably been stumbled upon quite publicly.

Their re-entry into the sphere of prominent public debate was prompted last year with the religious question of female bishops and followed later by legal question of homosexual marriage, and neither answers from the church were what a liberal perspective would call victories.

Despite the majority in the vote for female bishops being overwhelming, it was through a quirk of the system that the majority was not overwhelming enough and so the progressive motion was struck down. Maria Miller MP would then later and separately outline the government’s plans to theoretically enable the institution of gay marriage with the only exception applying to the Church of England. While any faith making residence in the United Kingdom was free to prohibit or allow these unions, the Church of England was granted special protection and even had its position ratified in law. It is now illegal for the Church of England to marry a gay couple, versus the important distinction of once simply being disallowed by the church.

There were various reactions to these outcomes, the now former Archbishop Rowan Williams expressing his disappointment over the failure of his personal mission to bring female bishops into the fold, and generally a warm reception for Miller’s proposals, being seen as modernising despite the inherent issues of legally recognising an ecclesiastical standpoint.

The overall picture for the Church of England however was that the more traditional elements were winning the battle for its future, one that would surely be bleak in light of these implicit failures to recognise the direction in which the rest of society was moving.

By adopting special stipulations for homosexual couples, the Church is still making a statement akin to cautious acceptance of an irregular factor. True progress to many is the total acceptance of a group of people who are entitled to the very same treatment and rules as everyone else. Heterosexual clergymen and women have no contract of celibacy attached to their private lives and are able to enjoy the fully fledged definition of traditional marriage.

With Church of England attendance in the United Kingdom very steadily declining, arguably through the establishment’s attachment to what seem draconian values for a broadly modern British society, but especially younger generations to whom issues of sexuality are increasingly irrelevant, the Church of England is faced with a difficult choice of conviction or survival.

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