Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Pinpointing the needles amongst the Gulf sandbanks 

So we now have the co-ordinates for the ‘Seized Marines’ incident.

Seems to have taken place awfully close to the boundary line for Iraq-Iran waters. Is this spot conceded by Iran to be Iraqi?

Our former ambassador in Uzbekistan Craig Murray has been commenting firstly here, then here and lately here on the evolving dispute using his professional knowledge of how these things actually work.

Before the spin doctors could get to him, Commodore Lambert said:"There is
absolutely no doubt in my mind that they were in Iraqi territorial waters.
Equally, the Iranians may well claim that they were in their territorial waters.
The extent and definition of territorial waters in this part of the world is very complicated".
That is precisely right. The boundary between Iran and Iraq in the northern Persian Gulf has never been fixed. (Within the Shatt-al-Arab itself a line was fixed, but was to be updated every ten years because the waterway shifts, according to the treaty. As it has not been updated in over twenty years, whether it is still valid is a moot point. But it appears this incident occurred well south of the Shatt anyway.)….. Until a boundary is agreed, you could only be certain that the personnel were in Iraqi territorial waters if they were within twelve miles of the coast and, at the same time, more than twelve miles from any island, spit, bar or sandbank claimed by Iran (or

Turns out Murray was one of the chief UK negotiators at the Law of the Sea Conferences, so he has expert credentials on this kind of dispute. He is uncomplimentary both about the UK and Iran for their handling of these matters.

His thoughts on the Law of the Seas conferences (held in Jamaica) leads him to some surprising byways about Bob Woolmer.

Will be interesting to see how Murray comments on today’s revelations on the GPS readings.

According to Murray, the Iranians may be taking seriously some questionable intelligence that the US intends to attack Iran on 6 April. If they actually believe this possible, (Murray does not believe it) the ‘UK Marines’ incident may be a dreadfully misconceived Iranian attempt to gain political leverage.

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Royal Navy in the shit - sorry Shatt al-Arab 

The detention today by Iran of Royal Navy patrol crews is very serious. It is also however part of a hugely complex boundary situation so with cool heads we may navigate out of it yet.

The problem for Britain with the international boundary between Iraq and Iran along the Shatt al-Arab waterway is that it is part of a complex and unresolved dispute between Iraq and Iran. Britain as a temporary occupying power cannot legally make concessions on behalf of Iraq on this boundary issue. Royal Navy patrols working in what Iraq maps tell them is part of Iraq may well stray into waters which Iran claims as Iranian.

A particular issue is that Iran claims the boundary runs according to the Thalweg principle (that is along the deepwater navigational channel). In the 1975 Algiers accord Iraq conceded this in order to get Iranian support over a Kurdish insurgency in Iraq, then when the Kurds were suppressed for that time, reneged on the deal. The Shatt al-Arab demarcation was a central issue in the Iran-Iraq war and was unresolved by that war.

Mostly the semi-recognised Iraq-Iran frontier runs along the low-water mark of the Iranian bank of the river. I suspect that today’s dispute is in one of the three specific exceptions to that rule, probably close to the exception running from number 1 jetty in Abadan where the frontier follows the Thalweg for four miles downstream before reverting to the Iranian low-water mark.

In general article 4(c) of the 1937 Iraq-Iran frontier treaty should apply, namely that:

4.c) The fact that in the Shatt-al-Arab the boundary line sometimes follows the low-water mark and sometimes the Thalweg or the medium filum aquae does not prejudice in any way the right of user of the two high Contracting Parties (Iraq and Iran) in the whole course of the river.

Iranian ships therefore have the right to navigate though Iraqi waters unmolested.

It is the hell of a legal minefield.

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Booze, Drugs and addictive disputes 

So alcohol may be a more dangerous drug than ecstasy… according to the report in the Lancet.

Drugs policy back in the spotlight then.

Unlike some here I am not entirely happy with the ‘legalise everything’ initiatives on drugs control and de-restrictions on alcohol availability. OK, this may make me a bad Liberal.

But I would be happier if advocates for such policies dealt with issues raised by Griffiths Edwards in his thoughtful books. For example, examine carefully his suggestion that US ‘prohibition’ of alcohol was not the complete social disaster and incubator of organised criminality that modern drugs campaigners automatically assume. Edwards says:

“On the basis of a misreading of history, the attempted prohibition of alcohol is deemed to have been a catastrophe and it is then argued as if by axiom that existing controls over illicit drugs should be got rid of. One could in fact draw a precisely opposite inference for drug controls from the alcohol experience, but either kind of simple reading would be equally facile. The truth is that controls work to the health benefit when actively enforced and publicly supported. The lesson is also that controls will have their downside as well as their desired outcomes”
Edwards (2000) p92

The two Griffith Edwards books I think are central to any realistic drugs debate are:

Edwards (2000) “Alcohol; the world’s favourite drug”

Edwards (2005) “Matters of Substance: Drugs; is legalisation the Right Answer – or the Wrong Question” (For some reason titled in the USA as “Matters of Substance – drugs, and why everyone is a user”)

I hope for (but actually do not expect) an evidence–based national debate on all this, as called for by our own Evan Harris MP.

Griffith Edwards is Commissioning Editor of the ‘Addiction Journal’.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Budgets and the distortions of media Economic Debates 

Today is the annual Big Parade that helps economics get a bad name for the rest of the year. Yes it is ‘the Budget’, and the media’s so-called economics experts will be on show.

One explanation of why the public perception of economics is so bleak is summarised in this quotation from a book published this month.

“What the non-specialist sees of economics is largely the kind of macroeconomic debate covered in the news programs and newspapers, the forecasts about how much the economy will grow, what will happen to inflation or the dollar, whether the financial markets will go up or down. Most of this economics is:
a) of poor quality and spuriously precise, as it is not possible to forecast these things in any detail, and shame on economists for still pretending it is;
b) jargon-ridden and possibly not understood even by the person spouting the jargon on television; and
c) being used for a purpose such as advancing one political party or gaining an investment bank some good PR.

No matter that this isn’t what most economists do, it is what most people mostly see of us. That the public face of economics is usually a dull but pompous middle-aged white man makes matters even worse.”

Coyle (2007) pp 237-238.

Food for thought here, even for LibDems?

By the way Diane Coyle’s book reads almost like a direct response to the economics arguments put forwards in the ‘Dreams of Freedom’ TV programmes – challenging, for example, the programme’s criticisms of games theory, and the view of current economics being ‘Autistic’ and debased by Cold War psychological hang-ups. More on this another time, perhaps.

Diane Coyle (2007) ‘The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters’ Princeton University Press.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Do we have questions on Dreams of Freedom? 

It was the critical look at ‘Yes Minister’ that gave me the biggest jolt in a thoughtful night. The suggestion that it was a deliberate attempt to put across a specific economic and political agenda- that there is no such thing as ‘Public Service’.

‘The Trap – what happened to our dreams of freedom ’ (BBC2 Sunday nights) is adult TV - and the maker Adam Curtis presents clear challenges to us all in the political world.

Core idea – a paranoid view of selfish individualism is perverting our society and threatening our freedoms. We now have a system that assumes that those who operate in public service are motivated by greed alone, and that we all need a system of incentives and targets and surveillance in order to prevent chaos.

We LibDems say we trust the people – the theories examined so critically by Curtis dismiss the idea of altruism and service and more than imply that people such as ourselves are dangerous and destructive zealots.

Later programmes will deal with the Target Culture espoused by New Labour, so it may make congenial viewing for LibDems- but we cannot be complacent, this programme asks us to look at some of our assumptions too. One of the later remarks in the programme apparently is that

The New discipline of behavioral economics has been studying to see if people really do behave as the simplified model suggests. Their studies show that only two groups in society actually behave in a rational self-interested way in all experimental situations. One is economists themselves, and the other is psychopaths.

The Blairwatch website has synopsis of part 1 and part 2 of the programme up on line.
Guardian comment is here.

By the way, for a look at the ‘Public Choice’ school discussed in the programme there is a more positive lay discussion in Todd Buchholz’s book ‘New Ideas From Dead Economists’. And didn’t Bob Marley have something to say about ‘Dreams of Freedom’?

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Abusive relationships and the politics of our times 

Many years ago I did some basic counselling training and learned a few things about personal relationships.

Where one partner in a relationship is emotionally manipulative it is easy for the other partner to fall into the trap of trying to second guess the first. To shape what they say and do in order to provide in advance what the manipulator wants. This classically puts them at the manipulators mercy as they can shift expectations and keep the other off balance.

I have seen this in terms of my own experience and of the experience of friends.

This sucks the manipulated dry. They become lesser people in the relationship and forget to bring their own riches to share in life. Part of the answer is to assert oneself and refuse to be defined by the limits of the other. Not always easy.

Politics is an odd business, of competition and relating. In a way, differing political parties have abusive relationships with each other –in the psychological sense as well as the invective sense. A danger is that parties (just as with individuals) become obsessed with ‘second guessing’ others and so diminish their own ability to bring riches to the public table.

For a largeish but minority party such as ourselves the second-guessing definition trap is a serious danger. A small party can hide in a niche of purity, or dance in a private tango around other peoples expectations.

We cannot, we need to explore and bring together a variety of riches, which combines and contrast with a complex of other public offerings by big players. Other people will have frameworks trying to define us in terms of those others, because it simplifies their own second guessing. This second guessing in part includes trying to fit us into other moulds, which is why ‘coalition talk’ can be so destructive.

In my more reflective political moments I am not too bothered about comparing myself to what Cameron or Brown may be up to, and actually I feel healthier concentrating on what I think can do well rather on what I think others do badly.

The political positions our opponents take will shift all over the place over the next year or so as they each grapple with the post-Blair realities.

We cannot do their guessing for them.

We need to do our own thing so that if, by future electoral chance, we can force our agenda to the table it is our rich agenda not some pre-digested set of scraps.

I do admit that my reflective political moments do not fill all of my political time!

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Paying for University Education 

Steven Tall raised some interesting points a while back on University funding, drawing attention to the contrast between the US and the UK. The clear implication is that we have something to learn

Now the 'New York Review of Books' in an article entitled 'Scandals of Higher Education' looks at some of the questions Steven raised here and takes a cooler vew of what actually happens in the USA.

What do you think?

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Bomb-Proof your horse 

Might there be some useful tips for spin-doctors in this handbook on how to train your horse not to panic when there are loud explosions? And would there be a market amongst FOCUS editors for an UK version of ‘The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: a guide to Field Identification”?

Both of these are genuine book titles. The Bookseller Magazine runs an annual competition for the Oddest Book Title of the Year and the current shortlist (including the shopping carts one) are up for the vote…

The 1989 winner was ‘How to Shit in the Woods; an Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art’ … which surely has some political resonances also…

I think I can live without seeking out "Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality (1986) but perhaps I do need to watch out for 'Highlights in the History of Concrete' (1994) just to see if they have left out my Great-Grandfather, who introduced Reinforced Concrete into British engineering practice...

Hat tip to The Metafilter for the information on this…

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Friday, March 09, 2007

A real raw political memory 

After the coalition-what-coalition uproars from Harrogate, a sobering reflection on the realities of public presentation from Steven Tall. I strongly agree with his comments, and also on his reflections on how political reporting has changed over the years.

I can recall a time when TV covered all three annual ‘Party Events’ in depth, and did so by broadcasting much of the debates live, not cutting off after the main speakers so that journalists could give interpretations of the ‘mood of the conference’. This meant that un-sanitised contributions from the floor sometimes made an impact outside the hall. I was watching coverage (for some reason) of a Tory event forty or more years ago and what one speaker said still colours my political gut feelings today.

It was a debate on world economics policy and an almost cartoonish colonel blimp character literally thumped the dias and bellowed “Damn the Others! Full steam ahead!”

That for me defined Tory thinking, and still does, and I know that when and if the question of inter-party co-operation arises I will need to deal with the deep gut revulsion I still feel at that memory.

Small things can have long term influences, and add up.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Watching PROPER election results come in from NI 

Yes I am a PR geek... Watching the proper PR results come in from NI and musing how it would be if we had a real electoral system in the rest of the UK.... who says the PR counts wouldn't be exciting.

The first results show a strong surge for our Alliance colleages in East Belfast, with Naomi Long elected on the first ballot. Now we shall see how her surplus of 1350 votes transfers, there being alas no further Alliance candidates in that constituency. Alliance first preference vote doubled from last time in East Belfast and up by 50% on a low figure in North Belfast.

The essential Slugger O'Toole site however appears to have crashed under the weight of connections

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