Wednesday, 27 May 2015

ISIS: Why Obama fiddles

Yes more depressing news from the Middle East with the ISIS conquest of Ramadi in Iraq and of Palmyra in Syria. As Ramadi was falling, the US administration, with remarkable good timing, released the happy news that they had just killed a high-up ISIS financier during a night raid.

On the face of it this is a pretty naked, and pretty weak, PR bid – the fall of a major city is hardly made up for by dragging a senior administrator out of his bed and shooting him while still in his pyjamas. But when you look beneath the surface, it’s much, much worse than all that.

Here, briefly, are four possible reasons for why the Obama administration is fiddling while the Middle East burns. They get progressively more worrying.

1. Ideological shift

The Obama administration has inherited from its predecessor a preoccupation with special forces troops as a magic wand. As I argued previously, the magic was particularly potent for the Bush administration, which saw such troops as the ideological vanguard of a new, smaller military (and, ultimately, a new, smaller state). Obama has surely noticed too that this sort of derring-do plays well with a public that worships the military, and especially its elite units. Compare the aftermath of the Bin Laden killing, in which the feat of shooting an unarmed old man in the face was laughably talked up into a latter-day Iwo Jima.

2. Obama is a vacillator

Obama is a chronic vacillator (or unfailingly prudent, to be more generous), and will only commit to pinprick actions like this, fearing the consequences of confronting ISIS head-on.

3. The situation is intractable

There are simply no good moves to make. A previous administration largely created the mess in Iraq, but while this makes it America’s duty to put it right (‘you break it, you own it), Obama still can’t do anything because yet another toxic Bush legacy has been to sully full-scale humanitarian intervention for the foreseeable future. Moreover, there are no good guys to fight alongside in Syria, and why should fighting in Iraq do any good this time around when it failed last time? In the absence of any proper solution, then, something morale-boosting and faintly useful like a daring night raid will have to do – it’s at least a strike against ISIS in a propaganda war that the bad guys are winning.

4. The situation might be solvable, but the US is incapable

By far the worst possibility is that the world’s leading democratic nation is incapable of confronting a rampant, malevolent power which threatens to ruin Middle Eastern civilization. Instead the US is limited to morale-boosting but peripheral actions like the killing of pyjama-wearing ISIS supremo Abu Sayyaf.

According to this terrifying interpretation, the modern US is structurally unable, or ill-suited, to winning wars.

Consider this: special operations like the one that so rudely awoke Mr Sayyaf were largely pioneered by the British during the Second World War. ‘Set Europe ablaze!’ Churchill so memorably commanded, but while actions like the St Nazaire raid continue to capture the imagination, and understandably so, we have largely lost sight of the fact that unconventional warfare was employed as a workaround, to compensate for the weakness at the time of Britain’s conventional capabilities. The commando raids on occupied Europe’s shores were an interim, morale-boosting means of attack until the Allies could get on with the real business of launching a conventional reinvasion.

Is a similar thing happening in the modern day? Has the US military, for a long time suspicious of unconventional warfare, embraced it now because of the crippling limitations of its conventional forces?

As I understand it, the US military historically scorned unconventional warfare on the basis that you play to your strengths – when you have more conventional firepower than any other nation, why faff around with other stuff? Hence the Powell doctrine of ‘overwhelming force’, and ‘shock and awe’ – America’s advantage over its enemies is its firepower, so it stands to reason that conflicts can be won by escalating them until that advantage proves decisive.

You only need to watch the war-porn footage from Afghanistan available on YouTube (a guilty pleasure, I admit) to see this. A Taliban gunman has a fighting chance engaging a NATO infantryman, but has no answer to the massive airpower that NATO will throw at him in response to his ill-advised pot-shots. Escalation, then, is a reasonable means of advancing any conflict to the point at which the enemy can no longer meaningfully retaliate.

However, as the US has found out during three costly and traumatic failures, there are enormous problems with this – problems which, I argue, render the US paralysed. First, escalation as a matter of principle inevitably leads to conflicts becoming big, high-intensity, expensive affairs, in which chaotic unforeseen consequences are likely and compromise with the enemy improbable.

Second, a strategy of open-ended escalation only works if it might at some point prove decisive – the Taliban gunman and the armoured divisions of Soviet Russia would ultimately have been blown away, but if your enemy is the Viet Cong, or the Taliban, or Al Qaida in Iraq / ISIS, then they won’t stick around the battlefield to receive the decisive blow. Instead, as indeed happened, US forces fruitlessly keep escalating, incurring all the attendant problems (high intensity, massive expense, chaos), without the reward of decisive victory.

True, ultimately the US could have gone completely bonkers and vapourized the Viet Cong, the Taliban etc. but it doesn’t matter. This entire way of war is far, far in excess of what the American public, i.e. the military’s paymasters, will tolerate. The US public dislikes open-ended engagements overseas, is partly still isolationist, and above all wants to bring their boys home – and yet the US military is wedded to tactics that will inevitably result in expensive, bloody, open-ended wars. Even though the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan conflicts demonstrate that at some point the President will have to bow to political pressure and pull the plug on them.

There’s no good in saying ‘we should have won, but victory was prevented by the politicians’, as was said after Vietnam and also after the First World War (except it was said in German). Armies must fight within their means, and those means are determined by politics and economics – generals might as well complain ‘we should have won, but victory was prevented by the lack of money and soldiers and equipment.’ War is, after all, the pursuit of politics by other means.

So there it is: the US is unable to carry out a conventional attack on ISIS because the military is so cut off from the political supply lines it relies on for funding and legitimacy, any attack would end in abandonment and failure. The basic American war-waging model is unworkable, and so Obama must settle for fruitless propaganda coups.

To be generous, the US military is a blameless victim of its size: big armies will fight big wars. To be less generous, one wonders if a lack of creativity and imaginativeness has led to the assumption that a big heavy military can only fight big heavy wars – what about small smart ones?

This is awfully depressing if true. The strong America of the Bush years was terrible, but it didn’t have to be, whereas a weak America could only be a much worse thing for the world. The criminal and unforgivable stupidity of invading Iraq caused this situation, and the US and UK must put it right. Ash Carter is right of course: Iraqi troops will not fight hard for a state that was artificially created, from the top down, by self-interested occupying forces. But it was obvious from the very start that the post-Saddam state would be artificial and lacking legitimacy.

Iraq has become something of a Frankenstein's monster – he was driven to misery and ultimately self-destruction by the tormenting knowledge that he didn't exist in his own right, but merely as the object of his creator's will. Nobody can bear living in the knowledge that they are a merely artificial thing, and the Iraqi people seemingly don't want give their lives to prolong the existence of an artificial state created for the benefit of foreign powers. America and Britain created this monster, now they have to do something about it.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Decline of the left, part 3: Moral hazards

In the previous post in this series I argued that the modern left has lost its way: creeping insecurity is leading it to rely on false certainties and self-righteous bigotry, neither of which is healthy. So far I’ve been largely asserting my case, which rather confounds my founding premise that a good cause must be supported by a good argument. So in this post I’m going to have to work a bit harder to show that modern-left arguments are indeed badly put together, and in the process propose a better sort of argumentation that might underpin our values.

In which the Author responds to his Criticks

First, however, a response to some of the feedback I have received so far, and more importantly thanks to all who have given that feedback.

It seems fair to say that so far I have not properly identified the phenomenon of the ‘modern left’ that I am talking about. Much of what I describe represents a general incivility in political debate that is found on left and right wings, especially online. Moreover my term ‘modern left’ is misleading as it implies that I am talking about ‘the left of the modern day’, when my target is really a section of the left that has departed from the better traditions of the left and indeed of democratic political discourse (hence ‘modern’ left). I accept I need to do more to delineate this section of the left – pointing at Owen Jones and Laurie Penny won’t really cut it. My preferred term is ‘shrill left’ but it has unpleasant misogynistic overtones.

Nevertheless, I’m confident it would be quite easy to delineate and identify this section of the left. I’m confident too that people intuitively recognize the constituency of commentators and Facebook-botherers I am talking about, and regard them as forming a coherent, identifiable group. The remaining posts in the series will focus on identity politics, and perhaps I will be able to make a case for identity politics as the identifying peculiarity, or quiddity, of what I call the ‘modern left’. 

As an aside, I’d say too that the reaction of many left-wingers to the Labour defeat in GE2015 vindicates much that I have been saying.

My reasoning for picking on the badness of the left and not the right isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be. One reason is that the modern left moralizes so vociferously that its arguments attract challenge more than those of others; and the extraordinary intolerance of those preaching tolerance is a contradiction worthy of everyone’s attention (contradictions are always interesting and worth thinking about). 

Perhaps too the left shouldn’t just be measured against the standards it demands of others, but also against standards that should be intrinsic to left-wing beliefs – the modern left disappoints because, frankly, we expect more of the left wing than we do of the right, expect it to be more upright, more intellectually and morally conscientious in pursuing its lofty, society-changing goals. 

However perhaps my expectation of better things from the left is really just the tell-tale remnant of faith in someone who used to be left-wing but is now utterly jaded. In which case, this series of blog posts is really just a grumpy farewell to a political ideology that has disappointed me utterly.

That sounds about right, frankly. Label me a proud agnostic.

Some other critiques that people have pointed out, or led me to: using a quasi- (or perhaps pseudo-) philosophical form of reasoning to critique political commentary might be a category error, the wrong tool for the job entirely (as will perhaps become increasingly clear in the remaining posts in the series). I’ve bet the farm on my first premise (‘no good cause can be well served by a bad argument’) being valid, and justified it by saying that we can only find common cause with other people by convincing them through argument – the alternative is to coerce them and that would do unacceptable harm to our individual freedom of conscience. 

However maybe this places an unrealistic, fundamentalist emphasis on freedom of conscience – in creating common cause in the real world (through political parties e.g.) we inevitably have to accept certain compromises of individual conscience. For instance, if party solidarity is the way to achieve electoral and parliamentary success, and thereby to implement our values, then implementing our dearest values will probably involve sacrificing some of our other values in the name of achieving party solidarity and common cause. To insist otherwise is to be unworldly and unpragmatic – we’d never get anything done.

So perhaps I am overly harsh on the hyperbole of the modern left. Solidarity and gestures of solidarity, perhaps tribalism, are important in politics, whereas I privilege rationality above all. I would probably do well to remember that the most important political contribution we make as citizens isn’t an argument, it isn’t even linguistic, it’s simply a crude mark in a box symbolizing that we side with one party not another.

As much as I identify with the adversarial nature of British politics (and law), it could be argued that I misunderstand it: democratic politics is about representing people and their interests. Once we break that bond and put ideas before people, we soon degenerate into ideological callousness (as so many before us). The testing of political positions cannot be a process of hyper-rational analysis of ideas, as this will lead only to the rule of philosopher kings. Instead, therefore, a political idea should at some level be understood as belonging to or representing a constituency of people and their interests; as there can be no divorced arbiter holding the balance, the idea can only be tested by seeing how it weighs up against other political ideas that represent other constituencies of people and their interests.

In other words, even sensible, moderate conceptions of the democratic process must inevitably commit us to a certain degree of tribalism. I don't think this scuppers my arguments, but (as will become increasingly clear) it is clear that I need to respond in different ways to moral and political arguments.

Normal service will resume very shortly, and I’ll go back to hammering away at the Guardianistas. But first – I'm still not sure that the above negates what I am trying to do with this series of blog posts. Comforting as tribal feeling and group solidarity are, we would all resist the charge that our political ideas are unreasonable or arbitrary – a politician would find it near impossible to defend a policy that he or she had to acknowledge as tribally correct but unreasonable. Tribalism is inevitable and probably important, but probably not sufficient, and certainly no substitute for reasoning. Moreover there is no way of arriving at a clear sense of what our beliefs are, or even what our best interests are, without a process of weighing one benefit against another, testing one value against another. Tribalism won’t help us do this, only reasoning (and I will argue below that it is a form of reasoning the modern left is particularly bad at, possibly because of a preference for tribalism instead). 

If reasoning must form part of politics, but only a part, maybe I could say that this series serves the purpose of a cordoned-off testing ground, isolated from the other legitimate aspects of politics, to allow the rigorous testing-to-destruction of the ideas of the modern left. See what you think.

Test case no. 2: the presumption of discrimination

When inequality exists in our society, should we assume as a matter of course that it exists because of discrimination and bias? This seems to be the position of many, and not just those of the modern left. 

I’m talking about, for instance, ‘institutional bias’ against ethnic minorities at University of Oxford; the extraordinary brouhaha over not enough black actors getting Oscars in 2015, the so-called 'whitewash'; performance discrepancies in the civil service; discrimination in the tech sector; and the under-representation of black and ethnic minorities in backroom roles in football.

In all of these articles, it is assumed that disparities must be the result of discriminatory exclusion (though I should cite also this one, a very conscientious and reasonable article that is hard to fault). There seem to be any number of similarly plausible explanations why, for instance, so few black or ethnic minority actors won Oscars in 2015 – not all of these explanations concern exclusion, and they are sufficiently plausible and sufficiently numerous for a jump to this conclusion to be premature and unwise.

It is certainly the case that sexism, racism, homophobia exist in the UK; and almost certainly the case that these prejudices cause some of the inequalities that affect our society. But ultimately our society is a big, complex thing and we don’t know exactly why it is as it is – certainly we don’t have anything like strong enough grounds to state from the off that, as a rule, inequalities between groups must be the result of prejudicial discrimination, and therefore we don’t need to investigate further to rule out other causes. This would itself be a prejudice and, as I’ve said already, we simply do not have sufficient knowledge to afford the certainty of prejudice.

Now of all the possible explanations, it would also be wrong to explain away inequality by saying that groups occupy high or low positions in society deservedly, because of the intrinsic merits of their members. This is merely a supposition, supported by no evidence and lots of prejudice.

However, is the well-meaning prejudice, the one that automatically assumes discrimination as the cause of inequality, really any better than the jaundiced prejudice that is possibly motivated by racism or sexism?

Better the presumption of discrimination, one might think, than the bigot’s presumption that such disparities can only be the result of intrinsic differences between groups. Agreed – as long as we are happy to use kneejerk assumptions and shoddy thinking just as bigots do. But the problem with bigots isn’t just that they have bad, nasty intentions – they also use shoddy thinking, misperceive the world, and fall short of what we could call reasonable behaviour. So we have to think better than the bigots, as well as have better intentions, and that entails avoiding automatic assumptions. Belief that the goodness of one’s intentions obviates any need for good argument leads directly to the self-righteous but empty smarm of Owen Jones.

And indeed, no good cause can be well served by a bad argument.

There’s a more specific reason why the assumption of discrimination is a very bad idea: in many instances it rewards our efforts to improve society with undeserved self-recrimination.

Consider: to fight discrimination we must believe that fighting discrimination is the right thing to do, because it alleviates inequality – we must aspire to do it, and we must actually do it. If, however, we must prejudge every remaining instance of inequality as being the result of our society’s badness, of its racism and sexism, then we must also have an automatic belief in our badness, our biasedness, in our failure. Not just the failure of our well-meant attempt to do right, but our moral failure. We end up condemned to a cynically contradictory double-think: moral principle motivates us to fight the good fight against discrimination; at the same time, however, we are committed to a belief that any discrimination is proof of our intrinsic bias, and the worthlessness of our efforts to combat discrimination. If our moral worth in fighting against discrimination is instantly negatable, because of a principled assumption of our own bias and badness, then how can we motivate ourselves to do the right thing? How can it be reasonable to dedicate ourselves to a fight when we are committed to the belief we will lose it?

This is an unsustainable contradiction – educated, enlightened societies (if we are such) cannot force themselves to endure an irrational contradiction without something giving way. If inequality persists and this contradiction, this antinomy, continues indefinitely, then somewhere, at some point, a gasket will surely blow. Most likely, we’ll lose patience with the fight against discrimination – which would be self-defeating.

Now of course, a society that imposes on its members an unquestioning belief in their own culpability can keep on going and even thrive. The Roman Catholic Church has a long history of doing just this, and it also provides an example of how to get people to live with persistent irrationality and contradiction, The problem is, it’s a poisonous process, it requires a big stick, and the modern left believes (rightly) that we ought to aspire to better than this. 

We know too that arbitrary self-recrimination is never a good prophylactic against the sin one is trying to prevent: it creates a moral hazard in which good actions are dis-incentivized because they are never rewarded with anything but more punishment and bad feeling.

And in the midst of this fruitless self-punishment, the actual problem of inequality and what causes it goes unresolved.

Now admittedly I’m basing all of this on two assumptions – first, on the assumption that things will continue as they are, with inequality persisting and discrimination automatically held responsible. It might transpire that some day discrimination will end and with it inequality. On the other hand, however, what if, at some point in the future, we had successfully taken every reasonable step to stamp out discrimination and bias, but inequality persisted? Would this be evidence enough to justifying abandoning our a priori belief that inequality must be caused by discrimination? It would surely be grounds for holding, at the least, that our fixation on discrimination as the cause of the problem of inequality was preventing us from thinking more openly and widely about how to solve that problem. If that moment is hypothetically conceivable, we should ask if it is conceivable in the here and now – does inequality continue to blight our society because we dogmatically blind to the range of factors that might cause it?

Second, my 'unsustainable contradiction' would only come about if the people aspiring to fight discrimination blamed themselves for the failure of their fight. Maybe I am making a false assumption – it might be that the anti-racists and anti-sexists would absolve themselves for society’s continuing iniquity, and blame others. In fact, would it not be highly likely that the modern leftist would fight the good fight against discrimination and then blame others (Mail-readers, probably) when the failure of her struggle resulted in society’s persisting racism and sexism? As already noted, the modern leftist tends to be someone who celebrates what is good in himself, and tirelessly denounces what is bad in others. Even if this outcome is the greater likelihood, it’s hardly a better eventuality than the unsustainable contradiction, and there’s small choice between rotten apples.

Finally, let’s go back to the beginning – why not admit that the question of why our society is unequal is an open one, too difficult to be addressed with foregone conclusions? Why should we be so afraid of uncertainty? A defining characteristic of the modern left, it seems to me, is a discomfort with any sort of uncertainty or ambiguity concerning race and gender – to the extent that refuge in an unreasoned, unthinking sense of certainty is preferred to the unpredictable dangers of reasoning one’s way through uncertainty. This is how the bigot and the religious zealot defend their moral values, but increasingly the left too. Why? Why leave our moral foundations hopelessly vulnerable to the charge of arbitrariness?

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Why there has to be an EU referendum

The exit polls are in. Whatever arguments there are against another Tory government, their offer of a referendum on UK membership of the EU is not one of them. Here's why I think we need that referendum.

We get to vote for representatives in the European parliament, and therefore have a say in the European laws that our country must follow. Is this enough? No – accountability and participation are not enough. Government of any sort must be made legitimate by consent to be governed in the first place – we can't have an unwanted government structure imposed on us, and then reasonably say it is legitimized because we get to say which party gets to form that unwanted government. 

It seems to me that many EU supporters conceive EU government as legitimized by the moral authority of the European mission (togetherness, solidarity, peace) and by its necessity (if we don't do it, we will lapse back into conflict). But I fail to see that these outweigh the fundamental legitimacy of government by consent – and moreover in politics is any moral mission, or any claimed necessity, valid unless also backed by popular agreement?

It is unclear at the moment that, in Britain at least, the EU definitely has popular consent to govern – a considerable number of people seem to think that it doesn't. This lack of clarity affects our political discourse – Europe is so controversial, so undecided, that two of our major parties cannot discuss it without threatening their unity. This is bad – we need united parties to carry out the manifestos that parties are elected on. Doubly bad – it cannot be acceptable that major political parties are unable to discuss a matter of great constitutional importance. 

So the country needs to work out if Europe has consent to govern, and the deadlock between and within the political parties needs to be resolved. If our representatives cannot reach any consensus, the question must be referred to the nation in a referendum. Any PM advocating continued EU membership who backed by a mandate from the majority of the population could face down any anti-EU dissent.

The main argument against a referendum is, as far as I can see, is that the populace might make the wrong choice. This is no argument at all. If we fear or don't like the prospect of convincing the electorate of the best course of action, then let's not bother with democratic politics. We can't have the current level of EU involvement in UK life without a referendum legitimizing it. But we can have it if we can convince the populace that this is the right course of action for the country. If we think EU membership is the best thing for the UK, let's back ourselves and convince the country to vote that way in a referendum.