Saturday, January 29, 2005

Climate prediction

Results from give a range of possible global
temperature rise (on doubling of pre-industrial levels of carbon
dioxide) of up to 11 degrees Centigrade (the BBC report is here).

The bad news is that even if the lower end of this predicted range
of temperature rise (i.e. only 2C) takes place, that is still on the
threshold of “dangerous” rates of change.

As one of the 95,000 participants in,
my first reaction was shock. But some early analysis argues there are
flaws in the model: in the Real Climate blog
(29 Jan), Gavin Schmidt
and Stefan Rahmstorf make a case for these.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Blogging from Brazil

We have a joint blog for openDemocracy at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, here.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Dreaming a tsunami

Paul Broks writes (Prospect, Feb 2005) that the night before the tsunami he dreamt of finding himself in a turbulent sea being tossed through the spray by waves as steep and grey as church roofs. For years, he says, he's had an archtypal tusnami nightmare in which he'd be standing on the beach and rolling swell would surge from the horizon, rising up to a sheer wall of water. He would run frantically as the wave overtook him, but in his dream he never survived.

Great waves, Broks writes, are a universal dream theme, "like flying or finding oneself naked in a public place. These dreams resonante with primordial emotion - joy, fear, shame".

Is Broks right? And can these dreams in some sense - even if only as a useful metaphor - be described as part of a collective unconscious? I can't at the time of writing recall dreaming about a tsunami myself, but is it there in some memory that lies below the level of identity?

I liked Broks's book Into the Silent Land (and cited it in an article on seashores here), and think his understanding is mostly good.

Another point in his latest Prospect article is certainly well made. Speaking of followers of Christianity (though it applies just as well to a follower of any of the Abrahaminic triplets) who try to justify the catastrophe he writes: "their surreal logic...[is] beyond indignation".

Joining the humanity

As Michael Howard, leader of Britain's Conservative party, tries to exploit xenophobia by deliberately misrepresenting statistics, a small voice of sanity in a story published in 24 Jan Guardian:

A headteacher is organising counselling for his pupils because they are so distressed by the imminent deportation of a Kurdish asylum seeker.

Pupils at the Mayfield school in Portsmouth are to be given advice and reassurance following the detention of Lorin Sulaiman, 15, who joined the school a year ago unable to speak any English. She has since been placed on the gifted and talented register, and was chosen to represent her year on the school council.

Although Portsmouth has gained a reputation as a hotbed of hostility towards asylum seekers, a campaign is being mounted on the family's behalf.

Derek Trimmer, the headteacher of the 1,306-pupil school, said... the anti-asylum [British National Party] had been active in Portsmouth. "Some of our older students whose views on race were a bit hostile needed counselling because they had very strong feelings about what was happening to Lorin, and had difficulty in bringing their two views together".

(my emphasis)

Being Dr Doolittle

Learning more than most of us typically know about communicating with animals is fundamental to a fully human existence. So an interview with Jim Nollman in the Jan/Feb issue of Resurgence is worth attention. Nollman is a musician who works on interspecies communication (see here).

Many people’s knee jerk reaction will be: New Age nonsense!

There are more than a few fruit cakes into this sort of thing, but it looks as if Nollman is not one of them. His work with wolves (ragas and Miles Davis), butcher-birds ( a twelve tone scale, melodic invention) looks interesting. Most attention grabbing is some of the work with whales:

For three summers we had Tibetan lamas with us [on research trip], who would sing their Buddhist prayers into the water. I have to say the whales seemed to relate to them differently than they every related to the musicians, in that they became quiet. They’d come up to the boat and simply listen, which is something they never did with the musicians.

The Jan/Feb edition of Resurgence magazine is – as usual – much like any other edition of Resurgence though with an exceptionally beautiful cover that reminds me of Palau. Articles by Crispin Tickell, James Lovelock, Stephan Harding and Mary Midgley explore familiar ground, again (Midgley had a better piece in the 25 Dec edition of New Scientist, looking at the historical roots of creationism and its symbiotic relationship with the bogus science of social darwinism).

The Nollman article brought back into my fragmented mind comments by Joseph LeDoux (a neuroscientist at NYU and author of The Synaptic Self) in a 4 Jan article for the NY Times in which ten scientists talked about what they believed but could not prove:

For me, this is an easy question. I believe that animals have feelings and other states of consciousness, but neither I nor anyone else has been able to prove it. We can't even prove that other people are conscious, much less other animals. In the case of other people, though, we at least can have a little confidence since all people have brains with the same basic configurations. But as soon as we turn to other species and start asking questions about feelings and consciousness in general we are in risky territory because the hardware is different.

Because I have reason to think that their feelings might be different than ours, I prefer to study emotional behavior in rats rather than emotional feelings.

There's lots to learn about emotion through rats that can help people with emotional disorders. And there's lots we can learn about feelings from studying humans, especially now that we have powerful function imaging techniques. I'm not a radical behaviorist. I'm just a practical emotionalist.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Coral in Sri Lanka after the tsunami

Interesting preliminary report based on rapid assessment in Sri Lanka posted on the BBC site at about 00.30am this morning (Sri Lanka reefs 'survive tsunami'):

Coral reefs around the coast of Sri Lanka may have suffered much less damage from the Indian Ocean tsunami than was initially feared, early surveys have suggested.

…"We have found some things that reflect the situation on land - and some things that don't," [says] Jerker Tamelander, marine programme co-ordinator of the World Conservation Union in Sri Lanka...

"One thing is that damage is very patchy. It varies a lot, from one area to another, and it varies a lot within a certain area.

"A lot of the mechanical damage seems to have been caused by boats washing over coral reefs, and in turn pushing over large boulders, so there's very site-specific damage - whereas on the broad scale, the mechanical damage is much less."

...Mr Tamelander has completed a survey of reefs of Sri Lanka's south-west coast, conducting a rapid assessment of environmental damage to coral reefs and sea-grass beds.

The area was badly affected on land, with "significant destruction" of terrestrial ecosystems. But in comparison, the underwater coral has not been so badly affected.

He now plans to head to the eastern side of Sri Lanka, where there are coral reefs that survived the 1998 bleaching to a much higher degree.

The force of the tsunami was potentially greater there than in the south-west.

He said that so far, however, he was "pleasantly surprised" by what had been found in Sri Lanka and also the Gulf of Mannar, in India.

"There are reports of several reefs in Thailand that have also withstood the impact very well," he said.

"At the same time, we have as yet unconfirmed or unquantified damage that is quite severe - but this is quite preliminary, and we need broader surveys to say more."

A Doonesbury classic

The 21 Jan daily dose.


A year or two ago in Britain there was widespread concern at the release back into "the community" of convicted paedophiles who had served their time in prison. In some places, mobs were whipped into frenzy by Murdoch's willing executioners. And in one case (in South Wales, I think), a group of upright citizens trashed the offices of a paediatrician, thinking that the "paed-'" suffix denoted that she was a child-molester.

I feel like I imagine that paediatrician to have done after recent attacks on an article I wrote about the tsunami and future threats to humanity. (My article is here. The first attack, with my response visible if you scroll down, is here. The second attack, to which I responded by sending them my response to the first attack, is here).

The bare-faced misrepresentation of the arguments and the lack of willingness to engage with real world complexities is quite striking.

Friday, January 21, 2005

US, Iran and grand strategy

Paul Rogers does a useful job in his column this week in a rapid summary of some major geopolitical issues relating to Iran (Tides of Victory, 20 Jan):

Iran is rapidly forging links with other major global players. In November 2004, Iran concluded a deal worth $70 billion over twenty-five years to export liquefied natural gas to China, a country that will soon be second only to the United States in its demand for imported oil.

More recently, the National Iranian Oil Company concluded an agreement with India worth $40 billion over a similar timescale. This also involves exports of liquefied natural gas, but in addition Indian contractors will be involved in developing two new natural gas fields in Iran and one new oil field.

The heart of the matter here is that a hyperpower must, by definition, prevail in the Old World (Eurasia plus Africa) as well as the New (the Americas). The United States is always – in the longer term – at risk of falling into a secondary role because of its peripheral geographical position with regard to more than five-sixths of humanity.

A basic driver in the coming showdown with Iran, therefore, is the intention to slow the process by which the US is marginalised by China, India and other old world states including Russia.

One of the near term indications of the degree to which this game is already in play may be more apparent when US-Israel launches air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

What air defense measures of Chinese, Russian and other origin will the Iranians have access to? Will they be effective and if so to what degree? (extensive, mountainous terrain will add to the challenges facing US-Israel) . Will the Iranians bring down a stealth bomber or two (as the Serbs did)?

Thursday, January 20, 2005

"Bam reaches out to tsunami survivors"

A 6 Jan piece I wrote on the tsunami (here) cited this story (here) as one of the most remarkable I happened to have come across coming from that catastrophe.

Najmeh Bozorgmehr's article in the Financial Times (published 20:57 on 19 Jan) is also worth a look:

In the main square of the ancient Iranian city, a large placard signed by the “Blossoms of Bam” expresses sympathy with survivors of the tsunamis. Bam's residents have responded to the Indian Ocean disaster by donating 50 tons of dates, their main source of income.

A year to the day before waves devastated coastal communities from Sri Lanka to Somalia, an earthquake levelled much of the 2,000-year-old mud brick citadel and killed about 32,000 of its inhabitants.

“We can go to the graves of our dear ones and cry. How about tsunami survivors? They must suffer even more than us,” says Marzieh, a 21-year-old who lost 70 relatives in the 12-second Bam earthquake...

Out of Baghdad/Saigon

On 19 and 20 Jan news organisations around the world carried pictures of a little Iraqi girl crying her eyes out, smeared in the blood of her just-dead parents. She was one of five brothers and sisters in the back of a car who survived the shooting of their mum and dad by US troops at a checkpoint at Tal Afar yesterday. The whole world is watching (a good chunk of it, anyway).

How much damage to US interests if this sort of thing continues? How much worse would things be in the civil war if or when they leave?

Max Hastings makes a case worth hearing in his 19 Jan article for the Guardian Julia Roberts has a better chance of winning this war. He concludes:

I do not think the US armed forces will achieve their military purposes in Iraq. The American soldiers who have become pessimistic about the campaign they are waging are probably right. But in a long historic view, Microsoft and DreamWorks could achieve a dominance of Baghdad and a power over Iraqi society that eludes George Bush and his armoured legions.

To back this up, Hastings cites Edward Luttwak:

In a recent speech to a British audience, [Luttwak] suggested that the US began to win the Vietnam war the day after its envoy was humiliatingly evacuated from the roof of the Saigon embassy in April 1975.

The military conflict was lost - but, argued Luttwak, the US began to achieve victory culturally and economically. Vietnam may still profess a commitment to communism, but in reality capitalism is taking hold at every level. American values, represented by corporatism and schools of management studies, are gaining sway over Vietnam as surely as they are every other nation possessed of education and aspirations to prosperity.

Luttwak is even more interesting in Iraq: The Logic of Disengagement, which is his contribution to the Jan/Feb edition of Foreign Affairs. The right comparison for Iraq today, says Luttwak, is not Germany or Japan in 1945 or 1946, but Spain in 1808:

On July 6, 1808, King Joseph of Spain presented a constitution that for the first time in Spain's history offered an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the abolition of the remaining feudal privileges of the aristocracy and church. Yet the Spanish peasantry did not rise to demand the immediate implementation of the new constitution. Instead, they obeyed the priests, who summoned them to fight against the ungodly innovations of the foreign invader - for Joseph was the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and had been placed on the Spanish throne by French troops.

Luttwak continues:

The probable consequences of abandoning Iraq are so bleak...that few are willing to contemplate them. That is a mistake. It is precisely because unpredictable mayhem is so predictable that the US might be able to disengage from Iraq at little cost, or perhaps even advantageously.

The argument here is that mayhem in Iraq will do wonders in concentrating the minds of neighbouring countries - Turkey, Iran, Syria Kuwait and Saudi Arabia:

An anarchical Iraq is a far greater danger to those in or near it than to the US. It is time to collect on the difference.

It's tough. But is it love?

The coming war on Chavez

On 19 Jan Juan Cole linked to the Los Angeles Times's report on Condi Rice's confirmation hearing (see here). He was struck by how much tougher the LA Times was than most other news outlets. On Venezuela:

Rice offered blunt criticism of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, saying the United States was "very concerned about a democratically elected leader who governs in an illiberal way, and some of the steps he's taken against the media, against the opposition, I think are really very deeply troubling".

Next week openDemocracy is likely to publish an outstanding report by Ivan Briscoe, recently returned from Venezuela, on the Chavez experiment. Ivan gets to the heart of its strengths and weaknesses, and the historical context.

But (to pick up on external issues regarding Venezuela's place in the world, which Ivan doesn't go into) it looks like the US, by far the largest customer for Venezuelan oil, may not allow the experiment to continue for much longer.

A pretext for intervention could be the protection of America's gallant Colombian ally. The Chavez government is supporting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), and would clearly like to bring down the Colombian government (see "Lula acts to broker end to stand-off over Farc arrest", Andy-Webb-Vidal, Financial Times, 20 Jan).

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Iraqis on their election

openDemocracy will join the rush to have Iraqis comment on the 30 Jan election in their own words. Ahead of that, Maryam Maruf found this report striking:

BAGHDAD, The Iraqi interior minister warned Tuesday, January 18, the country risked sliding into civil war if the Iraqi Sunnis boycott the January 30 polls.

“Failing to take part in the elections is tantamount to treason and will lead to a civil war and the division of the country,” said Iraq’s Interior Minister Falah Naqib, who is also a member of the Iraqi Sunni sect, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.

“All Iraqis should take part in the elections as best they can. It is not crucial that they should vote, the important thing is that everyone participates,” he said.

James Meek has a good piece in the 18 Jan Guardian about British Iraqis and the election (It's like freedom - not available on Guardian web site at time of writing). Nadia el-Douri, a forty year old single mother who is voting from the UK but does not plan to go back to Iraq anytime soon because the situation is so dangerous, tells Meek:

"[The Americans] didn't plan [the invasion] properly. They just jumped in the middle of the fire, without anything to put it out with. Here [in Britain], when the police come to see you, they talk to you first before they break down your door and jump on your head".

Getting around censorship in Iran

On 17 and 19 Jan, the Frontline Club (see here) screened Red Lines and Deadlines, a film about the Tehran newspaper Shargh, which manages to publish critical material and still survive, unlike about one hundred other reformist newspapers and publications which have been closed down in the last year or two.

A lively and insightful film although perhaps it tried to cover too much.

I attended the 17 Jan screening and an interesting point came up the discussion afterwards (the screening was crammed with mostly UK-based Iranians and hard bitten British journalists).

A member of the audience said that since the film had been made, Shargh's editor had written an editorial critical of the campaign to have a national referendum on democracy in Iran.

The web site calling for this ( is, it seems, blocked inside Iran. So Shargh's editor found himself obliged to reproduce the text of it in his newspaper - just to show how bad it was, of course.

In this way, a large number of Iranians who otherwise would have had difficulty seeing the text were able to do so.

[(Not so) strangely, there may be wheels within wheels: reportedly, Shargh's policy board and the foundation that supports it have links to ex-president Rafsanjani.]

Monday, January 17, 2005

Big god, little god

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, 'This is better than we thought! The universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed.' Instead they say, 'No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.'

Carl Sagan --Pale Blue Dot: A Vision Of The Human Future In Space (cited in The Daily Philosophical Quotation, 17 Jan)

Preparing for Iran strikes

The Bush administration has been carrying out secret reconnaissance missions to learn about nuclear, chemical and missile sites in Iran in preparation for possible airstrikes there. (CNN, 16 Jan, 2005 Posted: 9:23 PM EST/02:23 GMT. Seymour Hersch's article is here)

"The tsunami of Iraq"

Dahr Jamail visits a morgue in Baghdad (15 Jan). The photos are very disturbing.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

De Waal: three dangers to peace in Sudan

Alex De Waal sees three dangers to the recent agreement that has ended the 22 year civil war in southern Sudan that has killed over two million people, and caused four million to leave their homes:

1. The deal does not include Darfur...Unless there is rapid progress [there], the north-south deal is in jeopardy.

2. The war in eastern Sudan...All is quiet now, but the tinder is dry.

3. The main challenge is that Sudanese capitalists have grown rich mining rural resources and investing in Khartoum. The capital's economy represents half the country's wealth - an Arab city in a sea of poverty. One way the commerical elite makes money is through mechanised agriculture, which is as socially disruptive as it is ecologically damaging. It was the southward march of tractors, ploughing up smallholder's farms, that drove many Sudanese peasants to join the rebels.

Sudan's peace deal is only a start, Financial Times, 12 Jan.

Another piece on Sudan worth reading is Tim Judah's The Stakes in Darfur (NY Review of Books, 13 Jan)

A classic 'Economist' sentence

"Mr Bush's basic ideas, though clearly a boon for his corporate cronies, are sensible."

(On tort reform, in George Bush's second term, The Economist, 15 Jan)

Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran

Douglas Davis argues in The Spectator (14 Jan) that Iran presents a clear and present danger to Israel and the West which the Europeans, especially, wilfully ignore.

Two thirds of Spectator readers find Davis’s analysis convincing, according to an online poll on their site.

I wish to outline elements of a case against this interpretation, on the grounds that in a game where the stakes are so high, every aspect of a proposed strategy should be severely tested.

Davis, who is London correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, writes:

Israel’s senior intelligence and military officials have already produced a chilling countdown to Iran’s imminent emergence as a nuclear power: by spring 2005 Iran will have acquired a fully independent research and development capability; by 2007 it will have reached the ‘point of no return’, and by 2008 it will have produced its first nuclear weapon.

This may well be true. He also writes:

Israel itself is a veteran of the nuclear club, but its weapons are labeled ‘deterrence-only’ and would not be rolled out unless Israel faced a doomsday scenario.

The first clause here is correct. Israel achieved this capacity as early as the 1950s or early 1960s thanks to French help.

But the second and third clauses bring me to a first caveat for Davis and those who support his argument. The Israeli government and military surely see their nuclear capacity as deterrent, but are they right to assume that the only reason other nations in their neighbourhood would seek to acquire a similar capacity is for a pre-emptive strike? Does the Cold War teach no lessons?

The US wanted to maintain a nuclear monopoly after 1945 but was unable to do so. Some, including the Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay, advocated the early and frequent use of nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union while it had an inferior nuclear capacity. In the event, this view was overridden – and millions of lives saved – in favour of what became the ‘classic’ strategy of mutual deterrence which lasted until the collapse of the USSR.

Davis and others see this comparison as wrong:

...while existing nuclear powers acquired their devastating capability for defence and deterrence, Iran might intend using its nuclear weapons to project its power in the cause of its geopolitical objective — Islamic dominance and, ultimately, a global Islamic state.

The difference, says Davis, is this:

Iran’s political compass is fixed on a symbiosis of ideology and religion, which imbues its decisions with a mystical, transcendental supernaturalism, beyond the experience and understanding of conventional Western political thought and practice.

I disagree with this analysis for the following reasons. The Iranian revolution has lost its ideological steam. The rulers have become [even more] corrupt and sclerotic, fighting a rearguard action to hold on to the good things they have (e.g. personal control of and profit from large swathes of the entire national economy) in the face of enormous changes in Iranian society. They see themselves as surrounded by both internal and external enemies (this is not entirely unreasonable: the US, their sworn enemy has air bases in virtually all the surrounding countries, and large numbers of ground troops in the countries on their eastern and western borders). Cracking down on conspicous domestic dissidents such as Shirin Ebadi (see here) is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Further, even if Iran were to have in place by 2008 a small number of nuclear weapons with the capacity to deliver them (e.g. on the Chinese CSS-2 missiles to which Davis refers), the regime will surely know from its senior military advisors that in any nuclear exchange with Israel – never mind its ally the US – Iran would be hopelessly outgunned and outclassed.

Iran might be able to deliver two or three devices to Israeli population centres, killing hundreds of thousands or perhaps one or two million (a terrible blow, but not an existential threat to Israel). Israel could pre-empt or reply with scores or even hundreds of nuclear weapons, killing scores of millions of people.

For this reason, belligerent language toward Israel is likely to be for domestic purposes - pumping up the Iranian equivalent of rednecks , creating a climate in which it's easier to crack down on domestic opponents.

The Iranian regime wants to survive and it has a return address. For these reasons it is capable of being deterred. It remains a state actor. Confusing it with non-state actors in the "war on terror" is a mistake.

(Non-state actors may well acquire nuclear weapons, and this is a worry, but Shia Iran is not going to be enthusiastic about putting nuclear weapons in the hands of Sunni-Wahabist groups like Al-Qaida, which, as a shepherd in nothern Pakistan put it to me, "want Shia finish".)

It looks likely that the arguments I have made here will be discounted, even if made more forcefully and effectively by others. Davis writes:

The Iranians have learned the lesson of Osirak. Their nuclear facilities are widely dispersed in scores of sites throughout the country — above ground, underground and, most problematically, in civilian population centres. It would be hideously difficult to destroy them all. But nothing less will do.

There it is. Civilian population centres must be attacked. Nothing less will do. And feasibility?

For a military strike to be successful, all Iran’s nuclear installations must be taken out, says [my source at the IAEA] — who notes that Iran’s nuclear production facilities have been duplicated and, in some cases, triplicated.

Does Israel have the capacity to take out Iran's nuclear complexes with a combination of air strikes and sabotage? This is presumably where Israeli and US military minds are concentrated right now.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

The sights and sounds of Titan

The European Space Agency web site has photographs of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan taken by the probe Huygens, which landed there yesterday (see here). There are also sounds recorded during the craft's descent available on the site at the time of writing.

Is this the first time that anyone has heard sounds from outside the Earth’s atmosphere?

(Sound in the cosmos: another dimension to explore. It’s reported that sound waves from the Big Bang are visible by the ripples they have caused in the distribution of matter).

Looking at a strange world kindles dreams. Where do dreams end? In March last year I wrote:

The reported recent discovery of an ancient shoreline on the planet Mars (see here) may be an enduring source of wonder for those who like to contemplate the boundaries that are fundamental to pre-human, human and post-human existence (see, for example, these contributions introducing the shorelines series on openDemocracy – part one, and part two).

Contemplating shorelines on other planets is, for me, both an exhilarating and disturbing experience. The probable absence of life – at least on the great majority of planets within our compass – is awe-inspiring and awful. What would it be like to be on a planet utterly devoid of life?

And what about planets that have seas but no shores – either like Jupiter’s moon Europa, where waters may be locked beneath an endless mantle of ice (see here)
or where oceans naked to the stars rage in storms without end?

The BBC reports (15 Jan) that after the successful landing, Prof David Southwood, Esa’s director of science read from On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer by (the twenty year old?) John Keats:

MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes

He stared at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Salvador after all

If I understand his argument correctly, Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution thinks that the counterinsurgency tactics used by the Americans in El Salvador in the early 1980s cannot translate effectively to Iraq (see my 11 Jan blog The Salvador option). How well taken is the analysis?

I asked Ewa Jasiewicz, an activist who has spent time in Iraq and opposes many US government policies, what she made of Singer's view. She responded at 18:45 on 14 Jan:

I'm not so sure about that analysis. A friend just got back from Basra and said that he barely saw any British troops on the ground but was interviewed by Iraqi special branch within 3 hours of turning up at his hotel.

Don't forget that Iyad Alawi is a CIA favourite and his Iraqi National Accord party is made up of former Baathist intelligence officers. The Baath regime had a vast network of intelligence agents working within 5 seperate but inter-related (some agencies spied on others) agencies -Military, Special, Police, Special Military and I forget the last one but it was a huge apparatus. Some of the agents joined the occupation, to preserve their own interests and save their skins, others joined the resistance.

Iraqi intelligence and Iraqi police have been key in tracking down and arresting Sadr movement activists and having them tortured.

I think the Occupation *has* got strong local forces in support of it. Look at the Iraqi Governing Council. That original 25 party body has been kept in place, politically and militarily by the occupation and those parties are dependent on the occupation for their survival – both physical and economic and political. Its within the interests of the interin GC member parties to co-operate in 'counter terror' measures to stamp out the resistance, and since the beginning they have had intelligence apparatuses of their own and military forces - The Kurdish being the most organised and advanced but also the notorious Badr Brigades of SCIRI.

Republish Hogg and Bull's!

It was only in late December that I got around to reading George Monbiot's 30 Oct piece on English Apples

I thought it one of the best pieces George had written in a while. I wrote to tell him so, and also asked if he had a copy of Hogg and Bull's Herefordshire Pomona, the extraordinary 19th century apple compendium. He replied:

I don't have Hogg and Bull's, but if you've got 10 grand going spare, it would make a very nice birthday present! Do take a look at it (it's in the Bod) if you get a chance. One of our neglected national treasures.

This morning I woke up thinking about apples, and said to Cristina someone should republish Hogg and Bull's at an affordable price. So here is a call to any enlightened publisher out there!

George's piece goes beyond this beginning:

It takes a while to work out what it is about Hogg and Bull’s Herefordshire Pomona. What it is that, two or three minutes after you’ve started lifting the heavy pages, makes you, quite unexpectedly, want to cry. It’s not, or not only, the pictures. The apples and pears painted by a Miss Alice Ellis can almost be rolled off the page and bitten. She added nothing, took nothing away. Where she saw warts, she painted warts, where scabs, scabs. And yet they glow. They are more real than – than any real apple you’ll find in the shops today.

It’s not, or not only, the text. It’s a classic of late Victorian natural history, pedantic and passionate. Here, among quotes from Shakespeare and Homer and Clare, are recipes for orchard manure, dissertations on specific gravity, the cordon-system of growing pears, Roman cooking, the “laws of Vegetable Physiology”, pests, fermentation, soil, grafting. There are chapters on the lives and times of the great fruit growers, transcripts of folk songs and poems, no end of nonsense about the druids and the ancient Britons, unlikely claims about the longevity of habitual cider drinkers.

Then you see it. It’s the names. The names of the fallen. Foxwhelp, Sheep’s Snout, Hogshead, Duck’s Bill, Black Wilding, Brown Cockle, Ramping Taurus, Monstrous Pippin, Burr Knot, Broadtail, Carrion, Hagloe Crab, Eggleton Styre, Norfolk Beefing, Cornish Aromatic, Skyrme’s Kernel, Peasgood’s Nonesuch, Tom Putt, Bitter-scale, Slack-my-girdle, Bastard Rough Coat, Bloody Turk. The list runs into thousands. It is a history of rural England, a poem in pomology, rough and bitter and sad.

(Fallen Fruit, The Guardian, 30 Oct 04. Full text here.)

Dynasty: Jeb in 08

The Lexington column of the Economist (13 Jan) makes the case for Jeb Bush, governor of Florida, as next president of the United States of America (Brother, where art thou?):

The Bush family has always regarded Jeb as the bearer of the family fortunes. He was not only much more hard-working than his elder brother (he started kindergarten a year early and graduated from the University of Texas in two-and-a-half years). He was also much more ambitious; as a child he wanted to become president, while George wanted to be a baseball star.

…Dynasties bring huge benefits as well as potential costs. The Bush brand is worth millions in advertising, and it gives Jeb access to the most powerful fund-raising machine in American politics. The potential costs can be minimised if the other side can also be tarred with the dynastic brush. Hillary Clinton is currently ahead of the field of potential Democratic candidates. If she decides to make a run for the presidency—and Hillary signs are already appearing in Washington—then Jeb can reap all the benefits of his name while incurring few of the costs.

...There is a chance that Jeb will ignore the weakness of his rivals and sit on his hands in 2008 (his friends say he is tortured by the dynasty question). But he is also a man who has devoted his entire life to politics and who has a notoriously competitive relationship with his elder brother. And don't think it will stop with Jeb. His handsome son, George P. Bush, has conspicuously left university to work as a teacher in a run-down school.

How could one possibly refuse?

Friday, January 14, 2005

Three big events in 2005?

Moisés Naím, editor of Foreign Policy, chooses to warn of severe disruption in China in the Jan/Feb edition: is only natural that Beijing is wary of making decisions that might unleash social unrest and escalate into massive political upheaval. After all, if social discontent is rising when the country is the world’s top recipient of foreign direct investment and its economy is growing at 9 percent a year, then protests could explode if its performance ever sags. A sharp spike in unemployment, a drastic cut in social services, or a widespread banking failure wiping out people’s savings could all lead to millions of Chinese taking to the streets in protest. (Three Wise Men).

In the same edition, John J. Mearsheimer goes head to head with Zbigniew Brzezinski on the rise of China. "China cannot rise peacefully" says, predictably, the Chicago man (elsewhere credited with the observation"realism is what happens when you dial 911 [the emergency number] and nobody answers").

According to Foreign Policy, two other possible big events to watch for in 2005 (if I recall correctly: I have mislaid my copy of the magazine) are: a "Christian/Muslim" civil war in Nigeria; and an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilites.

Killer hero

I seldom listen to BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs because, not least, the ever-so-feminine 1950s-style Home Service voice used by Sue Lawley irritates me. But the last two editions have been interesting.

Last week Carlos Acosta told how he made his way out of the poorest part of Havana to be come a principal ballet dancer [at the Royal Ballet?].

This week it was Andy McNab, multimillionaire author of Bravo Two Zero which is about escapades and capture in the "First" (1991) Gulf War.

McNab, who is said to be one of the most highly decorated British soldiers in a hundred years, came across as amoral. On his time in Derry in British military intelligence: "If I'd been born there I would have been IRA. But I wasn't. I was from South London". And that's all there is to it.

Asked if he would kill again if he needed the money, he unhesitatingly said yes.

My first, partly contradictory, reactions: a) how strange to live in a culture that fawns upon highly efficient killers; b) how clear and easy - and weirdly attractive - is the world he portrays himself as living in; c) how clever he is at, among other things, exploiting this (partly-fictional?) persona for gain.

McNab's choice in music not too surprising to me, given we are both roughly same generation (he's five to ten years older?) and both Londoners: Madness, Bowie, The Pogues etc.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Infant mortality row

At 8.25am on 12 Jan Instapundit cited Ed Morrissey’s “fact check” of Nicolas Kristof’s 12 Jan (11 Jan online) column on infant mortality in the US. Morrissey finds Kristof guilty of “obscene” errors. (Morrissey’s post is here. Kristof’s original column is here.)

Morrissey takes issue with Kristof’s comparison of infant mortality rates in the US with those in China and Cuba. For example, 4.5 per thousand in Beijing against 6.5 in New York. Morrissey writes:

Kristof misleads his readers with that comparison. Using the CIA Factbook entry for China -- a source that Kristof uses for Cuba -- we find out that China has an astronomical infant-mortality rate of 25.28, a rate that has not been seen in the US since the 1960s. Perhaps the rate is better in Beijing, but it hardly matters if the rest of the country has that rate. It qualifies as cherry-picking of the worst order on Kristof's part.

Morrissey may have a case. I must say I wondered whether Kristof was right to rely on the Cuban and Chinese statistics. Totalitarian and would-be totalitarian governments don’t necessarily have a good track record in this regard. (Then again, how far should one rely on the CIA Factbook?)

But Morrissey does not address all of Kristof’s argument, and by not doing so may be indulging in some cherry picking himself.

Kristof also compares the US and other rich industrial nations, where records are reliable. And in this comparison Kristof’s case looks strong. Sweden, Japan and Iceland, for example, all have an infant mortality rate less than half of that in the US. Women are 70 percent more likely to die in childbirth in America than in Europe.

It is not only progressives, self-defined, who can be led astray or misuse by statistics from totalitarian regimes. It looks as if advocates of what become the 2003 invasion of Iraq were as keen as Saddam himself to believe the misleading, grossly exaggerated information fed to him by his own subjects about programmes for chemical and biological weapons.

My estimation of Kristof remains generally high.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Looking for positives in Iraq

I am finding it difficult to see threads for optimism in Iraq, not least after Ali Fadhil’s City of Ghosts, an account of a visit to Falluja over the Christmas period (see here).

But the least unconvincing account of how things might not turn out worse that I have seen recently is Robert Malley and Peter Harling's article in the 11 Jan International Herald Tribune:

In Iraq, the United States is engaged in a war it already has lost while losing sight of a struggle in which it still may prevail. Original objectives - a secular, free-market, democratic government close to the United States and a model for the region - are no longer achievable. Worse, their pursuit has become an obstacle to realization of the most important goal: A stable government viewed by its people as a credible embodiment of national interests and able to preserve the country's territorial integrity….

U.S. troops should become less visible while maintaining rapid response capacities. Civilian protection - not the elimination of insurgents - should be the guide. Military benefits of conduct endangering civilians - sweeping attacks against insurgent sanctuaries, for example - should be measured against their lasting political damage.

Even Washington's language must change. It should cease referring to Iraq as a "front" in its war on terrorism while proclaiming that war is better fought overseas than at home - hardly a winning argument for Iraqis. And it should stop describing all insurgents as "anti-Iraqi": Forces hostile to the United States are neither necessarily nor universally hostile to establishing a sovereign state. A primary objective of Iraq's government should be to distinguish between both positions, so that those opposed to a U.S. presence can participate in the state-building enterprise.

Iraqis must recover a sense of national allegiance - which requires the emergence of a convincingly sovereign state. For the United States, this will be a thankless task: satisfying the aspirations of a population now largely hostile to its policies, and encouraging independent institutions whose credibility will depend on their being emancipated from America.

Robert Malley is a former director for Near East and South Asia Affairs at the National Security Council, and nowMiddle East program director at the International Crisis Group. Peter Harling, a consultant with ICG, has spent extensive time in Iraq.

A sure thing

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Salvador option

On 10 January, the Guardian summarised an article in Newsweek which says that the Pentagon is drawing up proposals to send US special forces teams to advise, support and train hand-picked Iraqi [death] squads to target Sunni rebels in Iraq (see here).

This is called the "Salvador option" after the strategy that was secretly employed by the Reagan administration to combat leftist guerilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s.

BBC Radio 4's Newsnight picked up the item towards the end of that same day, and quizzed Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution about this.

Singer argued that El Salvador in the 1980s and Iraq today presented significantly different challenges. In El Salvador there were few Americans visible on the ground, but there was a strong, efficient and effective local ally - the Salvadorian government, its intelligence services and killers. In Iraq this situation was reversed. Singer thereby implied - although I don't recall him as saying - that the Salvador option for Iraq was likely to fail.

In his 5 Jan column for openDemocracy (see here) Paul Rogers notes that elite Iraqi government commando units - some of them presumably being trained for these kinds of activities? - have been one of the targets of recent attacks by insurgents:

"In both instances, the assassination of [Baghdad governor] Ali al-Haidri, and the attack on the commando unit, the insurgents demonstrated their ability to strike at the heart of the Iraqi state".

Singer's profile is here. He wrote an important book on privatising military operations (see here). His interests include children in war and at war.

What's wrong with democracy?

Next week, openDemocracy is likely to publish Open Parties? A Map of 21st Century Democracy by Paul Hilder. This follows an argument for an open political party by George Papandreou, leader of the PASOK, the Greek Socialist Party.

Paul's piece includes a diagramme of democratic options in the 21st century which I really like, and have called the psychedelic daisy of open politics. Groovy.

Among several things that help me realise how little and how superficially I have thought about some of the issues here is Loren Samon's new book What's Wrong With Democracy? - From Athenian Practice to American Worship (see book details here).

Samon, an associate professor of classical studies at Boston University, says his purpose is to present and foster criticism of modern democracy. He emphasises that he means criticism and not simply "debate about" or "discourse concerning" democracy. He writes:

"Once we have reached the point where we not only call our government by a misleading name, but also look to the ancient creator of that name in order to justify or to better understand our misnamed government, the situation has become perverse. But it is also possible that the current situation presents dangers more threatening than merely the semantic cloud surrounding the word democracy. For although Americans now suffer from a kind of national delusion, in which we live in a constitutional representative republic but believe we live in a democracy, we also have come to act, and to expect our political leaders to act, as if our government is a democracy (as traditionally defined) and as if the popular will represents a moral ' good' in society. Like any patient suffering from a psychosis, American society perhaps needs to be put on the analyst's couch and force to confront the realities of its own nature and democracy's sordid past".

Samon's introduction continues:

"Many Athenians, like most [ancient] Greeks, did admire liberty (eleutheria) and equality (isonomia), but they did not conceive of them in the same way moderns do, and neither were these ideals the fundamental or distinctive features of Athens or even Athenian democracy. So far as we can determine, [they] were more or less universal Greek values...[emerging] with the independent, property-owning yeoman farmer and the polis ('city-state') form of regime that dominated Hellas after about 800BC".

And on Athens as model:

"The modern desire to look to Athens for lessons or encouragement for modern thought, government or society must confront this strange paradox: the people that gave rise to and practiced ancient democracy left us almost nothing but criticism of this form of regime...What is more, the actual history of Athens in the period of democractic government is marked by numerous failures, mistakes and misdeeds - most infamously, the execution of Socrates - that would seem to discredit the ubiqituous modern idea that democracy leads to good government".

One of the targets in Samon's introduction is what Mark Mazower calls pick'n'mix history. In an article for the Financial Times (online 9 Jan), Mazower (professor of history at Columbia University) warns against the dangers of selecting an historical analogy that suits political expediency but has unsound analytical foundations:

"How nice it would be if the success and tranquility of the post-1945 Allied occuptions had really offered reliable pointers to Iraq's post-invasion. Yet this parallel, frequiently drawn by think tanks and policy insiders, is little more than wishful thinking. Taking occupation seriously would have meant pondering the French experience in Algeria, the Russians in the Caucasus or the Italians in Ethiopia. History is not a pick'n'mix box, in which you can pick only the sweet ones".

So what use is history?

"As a discipline it is neither predictive, nor a practical guide to action: its lessons are not so specific. Yet it remains an essential tool for scrutinising the easy moralising, the idealogical certainties and expansive claims that batter our ears...Two centuries ago, Friedrich Schlegel, the German critic, suggested that the study of the past gives us 'a calm, firm overview of the present [and] a measure of its greatness or smallness'. "

Sunday, January 09, 2005

India, the tsunami and aid

openDemocracy will publish an article later this week on the politics of the tsunami in India by Antara Dev Sen, the editor of The Little Magazine in Delhi. This will go alongside my bit on the science.

Ahead of the publication of Antara's piece, it's interesting to read the analysis by Edward Luce in the Financial Times, India defends refusal to accept foreign aid (online 5 Jan). Luce observes:

Many assume New Delhi's stance is...tied up with its goal of achieving a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

He reports a Western diplomat as saying:

"India wants to be seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem...It has certainly been part of the solution in countries like Sri Lanka. But if assessments in the future shot that India's refusal of foreign aid has cost Indian lives, then this will not add to its reputation."

On Indian co-operation with the US, the following from Raja Mohan, a security analyst in New Delhi:

"The idea of self-reliance is still the default position of both India's left and right and it does look outdated...What is new is India's happiness to work to this extent with the US military in its backyard. India knows China would try to till any regional gap vacated by the US military".

This last point made clear by extent to which China is going for a deep water navy including a very large submarine fleet and, ultimately challenging US power in the Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

On not being sentimental about abolition

I've been looking forward to reading Adam Hochshild's Bury the Chains Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves for some time, and so was glad to see a review of it in the 9 Jan New York Times together with Though the Heavens May Fall - The Landmark Trial That Led to the End of Human Slavery by Steven M. Wise.

But the reviewer - Marilynne Robinson, who teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and whose most recent novel is ''Gilead'' - does not give either author an easy ride.

Robinson starts with the ringing line "The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe in.''from the famous 1772, trial Somerset v. Steuart, the ''trial that led [eventually] to the end of human slavery.''

But she points out that there was more than a little chicanery along the way, and that while the abolitionists were extraordinary there is no place for self-regard on the part of the English in general or other most other nations.

She also recalls the extrordinary achievement of Haitian former slaves:

"First the British and then the French under Napoleon sent huge forces against the Haitians. The British sent a larger army against Haiti than it had dispatched to fight in the American Revolution. And it buried 60 percent of those soldiers in Haiti. The two greatest powers on earth went up against a population of half-starved, desperate people and were utterly defeated".

By the end of her review, my first impression is that she has made a forceful point in her criticism of at least one of these books and the intellectual climate in which they arise:

"While every good effect of an important precedent must be welcomed, the fact remains that the claim to an exclusive English purity that is the basis for the legal arguments associated with Steuart v. Somerset was and is a denial of history, a part of the great forgetting".

Cebrowski on transforming US military - surprises?

I share what I guess is a widespread assumption that US military and geopolitical strategy keeps most of what it considers to be the most important scientific and technological development to itself and, perhaps, to a few close allies or satelites such as Israel.

So it was striking to read a piece by Arthur Cebrowski in the Financial Times that appears to make the opposite case.

In Transforming America's Military, 4 Jan, Cebrowski (a retired US Navy vice admiral) starts on familiar ground:

Growing disparities between the US and its allies in transforming their respective militaries have fuelled tensions. At the operational level, these revolve around differences in equipment and concepts that could complicate combined operations in future crises. The emerging "American style" of warfare, marked by greater mobility and use of information technology, is increasingly incompatible with the more ponderous, industrial-age militaries of some allies.

And then comes the familiar conundrum of what to do about non-state actor terrorism:

"The notion of containing today's problem until its dynamics implode or simply wind down - the axiom that once guided military diplomacy - cannot work".

But Cebrowski 's prescription for what to do about it looks surprisingly multilateral. Not only, he argues, does the US need to work more closely with traditional allies to solve the problem as defined, but it needs to reach out to non-traditional allies and share technology in depth with them too:

"...the US should consider four collaborative steps with both traditional and potential allies, including Russia and China. First it should broaden joint experimentation. Second, a collaborative, "spiral" development programme should be adopted for similar classes of information technology. Spiral development involves the early use of prototype equipment by troops to test it. Third, the US should dramatically expand its multinational R&D efforts. Finally, personnel exchanges within each of the three areas should be expanded".

This looks like the makings of collaboration with all plauisible major state actors (although India and Brazil are among those he happens not to mention). How far does this go? Who is behind it, and could it really mean?