Thursday, March 16, 2006

Iraq legitimacy and moral responsibility 

So the Prime Minister said that he had been seriously mislead about the justifications for the Iraq invasion, that some absolutely terrible things had been done such as the assault on Fallujah which further undermined the legitimacy of the whole operation and that the security services were keeping him in touch with even more serious developments – there is worse to come.

No you didn’t miss a Blair conversion on the road to Damascus (or Tehran) – this is Prime Minister Howard of Australia. Howard made a speech to some kind of think tank in Australia, the whole text of which went up on his official website. Except that as at the time of writing the entire Australian Prime Ministers website appears to be down so you may find it difficult to access and check out this story..

We do now know that a British diplomat operating in Iraq reported to Blair a few weeks after the actual invasion three years ago and damned the whole affair with this summary;

"No leadership, no strategy, no coordination, no structure and inaccessible to ordinary Iraqis."

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph continues its series of reports which (if they appeared in a paper like the Guardian) would attract massive conservative uproar about anti-Americanism. The latest is an interview with a former SAS trooper Ben Griffin who was deployed in Baghdad and refused to go back for second tour because he thought he was receiving illegal orders.

Griffin says:

"I do believe passionately in democracy and I will speak out about things which I think are morally wrong. I think the war in Iraq is a war of aggression and is morally wrong and, more importantly, we are making the situation in the Middle East more unstable. It's not just wrong, it's a major military disaster. There was no plan for what was to happen after Saddam went, no end-game."

Griffin was allowed to resign from the army and got a glowing testimony. Not so lucky is Flight Ltd Dr. Malcolm Kendall-Smith who today faces the first round of legal proceedings which may lead to his court-martial for refusing to serve in Iraq on the grounds that he received illegal orders. This is the in accordance with the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal of course.

We need to take very great care in discussing the individual decisions of members of the armed forces on this topic. What is clear is that we need to ask our Prime Minister to address the moral issues at stake and not farm off the dilemma to people trying to do their duty under appalling circumstances literally under fire.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Iraq and the ultimate FOCUS editor 

Imagine you are a local community leader - an ordinary citizen say, who works as a parking garage attendant - and get cross because rubbish is being dumped on a local football pitch and you complain to the authorities. Sounds like a hard hitting FOCUS story. So what happens to you?

Well according to the New York Times if your name is Ali Shalal Qaissi and your locality is in Iraq and the people doing the dumping are the US Army you end up in Abu Ghraib prison being interrogated and tortured as a suspect Al Quaida activist, and a picture of you in a hood standing on a stool with electrodes attached to your arms becomes the emblemic image of the whole ‘aberration’ ( to use T. Blair’s charming evasion).

Yes we now know the name and incarceration circumstances of the man in that horrifying picture. Linked report from DailyKos newsblog in the USA.

To be clear – Abu Ghraib remains an atrocity even if every single one of those incarcerated and ‘processed’ there is a fully paid up active terrorist.

Ali Shalal Qaissi now belongs to a torture-awareness group touring Universities in the Arab world. This is his reported message:

“I forgive the people who did these things to us, but I want their help in preventing these sorts of atrocities from continuing.”

So over to us then.

It is now controversial whether the photo is actually of Ali Shalal Qaissi. See New York Times article
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Friday, March 10, 2006

By Design 

So the Great British Design Quest vote closes on Sunday 12th March. Three finalists featured on the BBC pages – Concorde, the Spitfire and the London Underground Map.

Personally I backed one of the rejected shortlist contestants – the WorldWideWeb. It is a design that empowers flexibility and creation of new uses. Rather like what a Liberal Democratic society should be like, a process and an empowerment rather than an end. But what to vote for out of the final three?

Concorde was superbly designed to do something we probably didn’t need to do, really. Amongst the disadvantages was that nobody considered the cost when doing the design, it was all focussed on engineering excellence. So I am not backing this even though I have family connections. (The tailplane was designed by a not-too-distant relative of mine).

The Underground Map has to be my favourite finalist as it is not only weirdly beautiful but also an enabler. But it actually does have a problem, just because it is so good. Nothing comparable exists for Buses in London, or even other rail connections. As a non-Londoner visiting the Smoke, the perfection leads me – and I suspect others – to use the Tube and ignore other transport links, even mentally to shut out the existence of parts of London not covered by a tube line. We need others to be stimulated by this design classic not intimidated. A map needed for our Oyster (groan).

The Spitfire is probably going to win because of its Finest Hour associations.

This is despite the possible depressive effect on the vote of the Robert Burns moment provided by the BBC website to illustrate the fact that the best laid plans (or designs) of mice and men gang aft agley. The picture illustrating the finalists in the main BBC news web page story about the competition is one of a Hawker Hurricane not a Spit (the picture on the actual vote page is OK). Younger voters may just not see what the fuss is about.

But it is a strikingly different looking plane as you can see if you get to the correct picture and does illustrate another aspect of design, namely that unexpected things still happen. To the good, the Spit had the unique characteristic of developing a slight warning shudder in the wings just before stalling in a tight turn which actually allowed pilots to push the plane to its limits with confidence because they had warning if they nearly went too far. That was not included in the design brief. But those wonderful rounded wings were once again produced with engineering love and craftsmanship and were much much more difficult to build than (say) the squarer wings of the Hurricane (or come to that of its opponents). So it was much more difficult to build new Spitfires in volume, something of a disadvantage in a war where numbers are shot down. This is abit of adesign disadvantage.

As ever, in design as in politics, nothing and nobody is perfect. As Vladimir Nabukov said somewhere ‘life spills over the edge of every cup’.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

But why does Iran need nuclear power? 

Well the great uproar about the possible use of Iran's civillian nuclear facilities for weapons development goes up a notch. For now not raising the military mumblings or the questions of national sovereigncy, just asking:

Iran is one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world, and has a scattered population requiring expensive investmenst in any long-distance power transmission grid. What is it doing putting immense chunks of national resources into building civil nuclear reactors?

Just from the opportunity cost comparisons of differing cilvil energy programmes it looks a screwy decision.

The economic case just does not add up at first glance. I suspect national totemism trumps realistic assesment of needs.

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Monday, March 06, 2006

Nuclear or what 

Nuclear power and all that is back in the news, with the publication of the Sustainable Development Commission report. Joe Otten is dismayed by the slightness of some of the arguments deployed and I have to say at first glance I agree.

There is a rather meaty discussion of the differing costs of power generation posted by the blogger known as ‘Jerome a Paris’ on the European Tribune. Jerome works in finance and the power industry and has good links to hard data. His posting is repeated over on Daily Kos which attracted a substantial US-based response.

Amongst his points:

There are several items that influence the cost of electricity:
the initial investment amount, and the discount rate used to amortise it over the life of the power plant;
the fuel costs (for those power plants that need a fuel, like coal, natural gas or uranium);
the operating costs;
the externalities, i.e. the cost imposed on society by the power plant, if not internalised by regulation.

Any comparison between various power sources that does not explicitly states which assumptions are made with regards to fuel costs and discount rate should be considered as dubious.

Jerome goes into considerable detail on the differing impact of various assumptions on assessing the environmental costs of coal-fired, gas-fired, nuclear powered and wind powered electricity generation. As an example of his arguments (backed by figures in the main text)

The sources most sensitive to the discount rate used are, in decreasing order, wind, nuclear, coal and gas. Thus, making the hypothesis of a high financing cost structurally favors gas and coal against nuclear and wind. Conversely, providing cheap financing is most helpful to wind and nuclear.
It is thus not neutral at all to campaign for private ownership of generation assets, as it will always skew investments towards gas-fired and coal-fired plants, unless you have - gasp - specific regulations or -double gasp - subsidies that encourage investments in other sectors like renewables (or nuclear).

These contributions may be helpful to those in the LibDems struggling with the Nuclear Power question.

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Friday, March 03, 2006

Belarus uproar 

Looks like some disturbances in Belarus - according to reports on the Charter 97 website 10,000 people protested in Minsk against the government. This is unheard of.

Story starts:

10,000 Belarusian citizens have gathered today in Svaboda (Freedom) Square in
Minsk to meet the candidate of united democratic forces, Alyaksandr Milinkevich.
Thousands of interior troops, SWAT, riots police officers, have been drawn to
the city. SWAT commander Dzmitry Paulichenka was in charge of the force
operation. He is suspected of abductions and murders of Belarusian
oppositionists and a journalist.

Don't forget to back the LDYS campaign on Belarus, which I hope is able to keep in touch.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

Schroedinger's Party 

So at 1500h Thursday 2 March the box gets opened and we find???

In one way this is a bit like the imaginary ‘Schroedinger’s Cat’ experiment that illustrates the paradoxes in Quantum Theory. Highly oversimplified summary: Put a cat in a box with a phial of poison gas and a clock-activated device to smash the phial. Leave in box for period so that there is a 50 percent chance that the phial is smashed. Under the weird worldview of Quantum Theory while the cat is in the box it is neither alive nor dead – opening the box collapses, the system to one or other of these states, either alive or dead but we don’t know until then. Until the box is opened the cat is in an indeterminate state neither alive nor dead.

Ok it is a bit mind bending but lets play with the metaphor. At present we have a whole range of possible futures for the LibDem Party. The new leader will makes some of these possibilities more real and make others less so. Right up to the point where the result comes in, all of us have been able to work together making hopeful assumptions about the future balance. After the result these assumptions collapse into a definite ‘face’.

Each of us, including those who back the winner, will have to review our positions, and really only then will we begin to understand the consequences of the past months.

We will also lose a protective screen covering the leadership dance earlier this year. Up to now the public have not had a definitive ‘alternative picture’ to Charles Kennedy as public embodiment of the Party. When the new leader comes forwards the public will at last begin to make comparisons and then we will really begin to see whether we will indeed pay a price for his ousting. The joke about it being better not to have a leader during the Dunfermline by-election may just have a thread of truth in it..

It is from this afternoon onwards that we show how mature we are as a party, and indeed how alive we are. Lets hope we can raise to the occasion as well as Susan Kramer did last night on Newsnight .

As a Chris Huhne supporter I am of course aware of his cat-loving tendencies so the Schroedinger metaphor has added meaning for me!

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

What about Afghanistan? 

If we are to make reasoned decisions about our involvement in Afghanistan we need accurate reporting on that country and the events there. Channel 4 News last night put out a right curates egg of a report that illustrates how much care needs to be taken. A serious subject – the re-emergence of the Taliban in the Helmand province, with schools getting torched and a terrifying incident where the Channel 4 camera team was threatened by a Taliban squad which had just burnt down a school.

It is not Channel 4’s fault that the armed goons they met looked like models for the notorious ‘exploding turban’ Danish cartoon or that their general behaviour jarringly recalled the Life Of Brian and the Judaean Liberation Front. But the explanatory comments in the report were sometimes shatteringly misleading.

For example, saying that these people were ‘speaking Arabic’. If that is true it is a momentous discovery. The local language is Pashtun, indeed Helmand province is the area the Pashtun language traditionally originated.

And referring to these characters as ‘Talib’. Now that definitely does not sound like local practice. ‘Talib’ is indeed an Arabic loan word in Pashtun, one of many drawn from Islamic writings. It still does sound a little foreign to a Pashtun speaker. The form ‘Taliban’ takes the foreign root and adds a standard Pashtun plural ending (–an) to make a word that sounds more of local origin. Back when the ‘Taliban’ were in control of Afghanistan people outside the regime would refer to the hordes of foreign hangers- on from Arabia and Pakistan and elsewhere as ‘Talib’ to emphasise their foreign-ness. Only local Pashtuns working for the regime were called ‘Taliban’.

The Ch4 report did mention these former foreign hangers-on but missed an important point The Pashtun Taliban were quite happy to hand over or even hunt down themselves such people, who had often been an arrogant nuisance and breached Pashtunwali (see below). But the locally born Taliban never went away.

We do need to recognise the importance of Pashtun Nationalism in all this. More Pashtun speakers live in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. About 20 percent of the population of Pakistan in fact. Pashtuns have traditionally provided the ruling group in Afghanistan even though they make up less than half the population. Pakistan is enormously involved with Afghanistan and for decades had a policy of building up these links to provide a deep hinterland in case of war with India over Kashmir.

The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is effectively non-existent for Pashtuns, certainly as far as cultural practices go. And Pashtuns live according to a traditional code of values that actually predates Islam – the Pashtunwali.

Pashtunwali places on its adherents an unlimited obligation to offer hospitality, even to those who come in hostility. The exception is anyone who pretends to call on the principles of Pashtunwali but exploits this for their own corrupt ends.

The complications in all this for British troops moving into Helmand are legion. It think it would be helpful to have a sober debate back here, in the party and in Parliament, on what on earth we can hope to do in Afghanistan. Whoever wins the LibDem leadership poll cannot get by with ringing declarations about international law and obligations.

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