Syria: the West makes the usual mistake

I got wound up by this whilst reading news on my phone while sitting in a boring meeting. So I’ll vent here.

The usual scheme of things that we see so often is that bad things happen (the Assad regime in Syria); it goes on and on and people wring their hands, or ignore it, and anyway whilst bad the people are useful anti-commies or somesuch; and then it gets bad enough that the locals start revolting. At this point, its very much a “which way are you going to jump” issue for everyone in the country. Do they throw in their lot with a pile of untested rebels? Or do they sit on the fence quietly? Or do they take this as a chance to ingratiate themselves with the regime by demonstrating loyalty? If you’re such a person, what the international “community” is going to do matters a lot. If you expect the “community” to intervene actively on the side of Justice and Freedom, to vigourously hunt down war criminals and prosecute them and confiscate their assets, then you have a strong incentive to jump onto the rebel side. But if you expect the West to be a useless shower like usual you have an incentive to hang on in and loot the country for as long as possible, meanwhile doing your best to be as nasty as possible and polarise the fight in order to commit people onto your side, by making it impossible for them to live under a changed regime. After not very long it becomes clear that attempting to talk about regime change is a waste of time, and so the people on the rebel side that come to the forefront are those with the least to lose, those most deeply committed to violence – in short, we do our best to marginalise those who we’re pretending to favour. And pretty well inevitably this is a chance for the Al-Quaeda types to step in; at which point the idiots who argue for nothing but talks chirp up brightly with “see! We told you so! Violence just encourages Al Quaeda”. Whereas its really the do-nothing-but-talk people who are recruiting for Al Quaeda. And don’t get me started on the Russian govt, whose role in this is so utterly stinkingly amorally sadistic.

[Update: the NYT says that Syria is starting to break apart. The other classic mistake the West usually makes is to try to enforce territorial integrity of artificial borders. Iraq is a case in point – the obvious thing it to allow Kurdistan to break away. But that would make the Turks Really Very Sad. We shouldn’t listen to them -W]

[Further update, 2014/01/11: when I last looked, things were not looking rosy. And Syria has disappeared from the news, which suggests the long-drawn-out grinding to destruction continues. So I’ll add two further thoughts:

1. Hobbes says (somewhere, though this is from memory) that citizens are allowed to rebel, but only if they succeed. Or something like that. Which naturally you can’t know in advance. But the point is that civil war is such an evil that almost anything else is better. And also that the legitimacy of the Civil Sword depends on it being in power; if its not in power – if it doesn’t provide the protections that we gave up our freedoms for – then the obligation to submit vanishes. In a sense, its self-defining. I think, at this point, Hobbes would like say that his conditions were not met; that the good people of Syria should not have rebelled.

2. An opinion piece in a paper suggesting that the West made almost the opposite mistake to what I’m suggesting: that it encouraged the rebels with fake words promising fake help. And instead, it should have made clear that we’re useless. Though I would have thought experience would have said that much louder.]

[2015/07/11: The Economist agrees with me.]


* Boris in 2015
* The former president talked early and often about Syria, but wasted six years and countless lives with hand-wringing dithering – NYT from 2017.

UN urges US to cut ethanol production

Says the FT:

The UN has called for an immediate suspension of government-mandated US ethanol production, adding to pressure on Barack Obama to address the food-versus-fuel debate in the run-up to presidential elections. Most US ethanol is made from corn. The dispute over ethanol promotion pits states such as Iowa that benefit from higher corn prices – and in some cases are swing states in the election – against livestock-raising states such as Texas that are helped by lower corn prices. The UN intervention will be seized upon by state governors, lawmakers and the meat and livestock industry, who have expressed alarm at surging prices for corn. Members of the Group of 20 leading economies – including France, India and China – have already expressed concern about the US ethanol policy. The US is poised to divert around 40 per cent of its corn into ethanol because of the Congress-enacted mandate despite “huge damage” to the crop because of the worst drought in at least half a century, José Graziano da Silva, director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, warned.

The biofuels stuff has always been dubious or stupid, though you can make a case that the Brazilian version is worthwhile. The US corn-ethanol programme is and always has been insane (when looked at from a fuel perspective, or a food perspective, or a value-for-money perspective, or any sane perspective) or pork (when looked at from a political perspective). But there is now a whole subsidy-sucking industry built around this pork, so don’t expect it to die without squeals. In fact its probably powerful enough not to die at all.


* Latest Drought Science Alarming for US – EW.
* Heatwaves blamed on global warming – Nature, on Hansen.
* Atmospheric CO2 forces abrupt vegetation shifts locally, but not globally

Oh dear

There is a Wikileaks fiasco going about. Der Spiegel has what looks like a plausible story. If you read the Wikileaks version after that, the latter looks rather incomplete and self-serving. The Grauniad also says “not us guv” which isn’t quite true: if they hadn’t been dumb enough to publish the password, all would have been well. But assuming DS has this right, fundamentally this is a Wikileaks foul up.

h/t Bruce (not Steve) Schneier.

[Update: no-one has dented the DS story as far as I can see. So I think that, as told, this remains fundamentally a WL foul up. However (whilst I think the Grauniad were correct to believe that the password they’d got was now irrelevant) they (a) should not have published it, just on general sanity grounds (b) they should not have published it because they could not be confident that they hadn’t ended up with a backup of the file themselves, somewhere]

Stone the crows

Well, the riots. And whilst Harry Hutton, as usual, talks a great deal of sense, the sense of surprise remains. The beak makes some good early points; initial reports were very vague; but it now looks like only the police fired. Which really doesn’t help. Part of the recent phone hacking stuff has been yet more erosion of trust in the police. Mind you, according to wiki, the family were implausibly pretending that Duggan was unarmed, which didn’t help either. And also, contrary to early impressions I’d got, I can see no evidence that the police ever claimed he shot at them.


Time will tell what the actual problem was, that lead to so many people being prepared to go out rioting and looting – in effect, to break the social compact that says we don’t live in a police state, peace is largely self-enforced, and you’re better off not breaking the law. My own pet theory, which I’m sure others have put forward but I can’t for the moment find it, is that we’ve failed to buy off the underclass. Or, put another way, that we’ve also broken the social contract, the bit that says that as society as a whole gets richer, so does everyone. And this despite the fabled cuts to reduce the deficit having not really yet started to bite.

In the unlikely event of actual facts arriving, I might update this post.

Note: to avoid potential confusion: “stone the crows” is a conventualised English expression of surprise. It is not an injunction or instruction, which indeed would make no sense since “crow” is not a nickname for the police (or for a rioter).


* Guardian music blog
* Government Austerity and Political Instability

We did it

Well, the yanks did. Or maybe not, it really isn’t clear. But what *is* clear is that initial reports that Linda Norgrove was killed by the Taliban were at best unreliable and probably made up. Apparently Cameroon still insists that the reports were “in good faith” which I think is code for “inexplicably wrong but we don’t want to criticise the US in public”. And indeed the entire rescue may have been pointless. That nice Mr Obama says he’ll find out what happened, though.

Foaming at the mouth with me

So much to rant about, so little time. Where to start?

How about with that fool Broon, who is now reduced to “it was the wrong sort of recession”. Not quite literally, but very very close (for those not blessed with residence in the Sceptered Isle, “The wrong sort of X” is now a saying, begun by our much-beloved British Rail a few winters back when after a very thin snowfall brought all the trains to a standstill (again) they earned derision for saying that it was “the wrong sort of snow”). So what happened? It was on R4 this morning, Broon appearing for an interview. The obvious question: “you said, mutliple times, that you and your government had abolished boom and bust. so, how come we got a boom and then a bust?” Broon’s answer: “Ah, when I said that, what I meant was that I’d abolished inflation, and therefore inflationary boom and bust. Sorry I forgot to mention that before” (actually he didn’t add that last bit or anything like it, of course).

Next up are the trigger-happy Yanks, as exemplified by this horrific video as posted by CM. And they wonder why people don’t like them: what could possibly be wrong with giggling when you think the arriving tank has run over someone? Unless I missed it, this didn’t show up in the UK press much: the only Grauniad ref I can find is under meeja because two Reuters journalists died in the incident, and because it raises FOI issues. No, I’m wrong: there is some brief BBC converage (they have put a twee little banner over the video: “warning: this contains some disturbing images”). The US military say everything is all just fine oh and by the way we’ve lost our copy of the video.

And (rather small beer by comparison) Monbiot thinks that cliamte scientists are like paedophiles (I exaggerate just a little for effect, you understand). But its still hopeless stuff, even if mt likes it. The best defence of Monbiot I can think of is that he is just using this incident to push his pet point of view with no great interest in reality, which is sad.

Exploding underpants to be banned

DSCN5974-eagle-close Apparently, exploding underpants are to be banned on planes from now on. Security experts say that they never expected anyone to try this, but now that someone has they will look there too. They are considering banning exploding vests as well, but won’t bother until someone actually tries it.

[Sorry – couldn’t find the “war is pants” pic. This will have to do. Or you could take a more relaxed view -W]

[Speaking of underpants – don’t forget Felix -W]