How swift or certain justice in Syria?

In criminal justice it is well understood that swiftness and certainty of punishment is more important than severity. Our strategy in Syria is giving us the worst of all worlds: swift but unpredictable and severe but counterproductive we are making the world and Syria more dangerous.

While lots of people are scared of another Iraq, the prospect seems to be receding. Cameron is taking a resolution to the UN with wording similar to that in UNSC 1973, authorising all necessary means to protect civilians, but the will to war doesn’t seem so strong as in 2003. Famous last words, as they say.

Instead Cameron, Hollande and Obama are all emphasising that it is necessary, perhaps sufficient, to strike hard and decisively to punish Assad to prevent future chemical weapons attacks. Even if this has little effect on the Syrian civil war itself it will underline the red line around chemical weapons use in this, and other conflicts. The argument is weak and sounds as though it’s been cobbled together in a hope it sounds coherent to justify a policy their gut feels is right.

Hundreds of people were killed last week in Ghouta by chemical weapons. It is too hard to say whether they were deployed with Assad’s direct say so but it looks very likely they were deployed by the government. It could have been a rogue commander or something more cynical ordered by Assad himself. The public still don’t know for certain, the UN have not officially reported, but Obama, Hollande and Cameron seem convinced. They may be party to incontrovertible evidence, but we have not seen it. In fact, from what we’ve seen the case for extraordinary action doesn’t seem strong enough, given the potential downsides.

Ghouta is the most deadly gas attack of the Syrian civil war, but it’s probably not the only one. There have allegedly been ghastly gas attacks going back to at least 2012, some of which may have been perpetrated by rebel forces. If we have seen “just” another gas attack, the red line crossed  must be very wide. Beyond Syria and looking back a few years, we see other, presumably lesser, chemical weapons being deployed without warranting death from above. The argument that Assad requires punishment, hard, certain and now is not very strong as a deterrent. I want him punished too, but not at all costs. White Phosphorus has been deployed by Israel in Gaza and by the US in Iraq. It may be that White Phosphorus is a lesser chemical weapon.

But that just leads us to the question: what’s so special about chemical weapons? They are horrific, but so is war. If we’re drawing arbitrary red lines around weapons of mass destruction, one that surrounds Ghouta, Halabja and Hiroshima isn’t logically more coherent than one which includes Gaza, Faluja and Nagasaki. It’s killing that’s terrible, a red line that includes Tahrir Square and the Pearl Roundabout would be better than one targeting some states targeting some citizens with some classes of weapons.

This is a roundabout way of saying that a limited and punitive intervention won’t work on it’s own terms.

If it punishes Assad enough to tip the balance of power definitely away from him he will become more desperate and may become more brutal in his campaign. He may eschew chemical weapons, but it doesn’t mean civilian casualties won’t escalate.  If it punishes Assad enough other states may look at their chemical weapons stockpiles and think: “what are my chances?” A rational actor would certainly revise their strategy, but they wouldn’t necessarily presume they can never use chemical weapons. Simply that they need to keep the UN further away; or ensure a higher kill rate to minimise witnesses; or keep its usage to small doses to maintain deniability; or to use one class of chemicals but dispose of the sarin; or… and so on.

A rules based international realm is a safer one, predictability and boredom are excellent things for humanity to aspire to. The reaction to the Ghouta massacre shows that our leaders aren’t heartless, but it also shows they aren’t governed by rules. In criminal justice the certainty of punishment matters more than its severity, if the international community want to set a precedent it’s too late. Firing cruise missiles at the bad guy feels like a just, rules based strategy, but it is not.

In criminal justice ensuring that punishment follows swiftly and predictably after a crime is more effective than sporadic but severe punishments. Swift doesn’t necessarily have to mean immediate, just without unnecessary delay. We are getting all of this wrong. The middle of a civil war is not the best time to mete out “precision” justice or “surgical” slaps on the risk. The logic behind the imperative to punish war crimes is a sound one, but the execution has been abysmal and won’t have the desired consequences.

Finally: Chris makes the good point that there are people in a better position to make this call than me, I’ve references this above. I don’t have enough information on what’s happening in Syria, what happened in Ghouta, what might happen if we bomb this or that to come to a truly an informed opinion. Three things make me disbelieve our leaders. One, my anti-authoritarian streak. Two, the paucity and inconsistency of the arguments that have been made, as I’ve described above. Three, I just don’t trust them anymore. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, I, uh, won’t get fooled again.

And another thing: I’m aware the Russians and Iranians and Hezbollah et al are intervening there even if the west is not. I see that as evidence we should not enter a quagmire as much as I see it as evidence we should.

One more thing: I haven’t spoken about mission creep or the temptation of committing ground troops or the potential civilian casualties of any western punishment of Assad, or my favoured alternative; supporting refugees, because this isn’t the place. I suppose I will get to each of those if and when necessary.

 

No, non, nein, όχι: Not good enough

I’ve heard some push back that we shouldn’t blame the Tories for this…

…or this…

…because we are facing a global recession because of this lot…

…Bullshit.

As Britmouse points out – in ever more virulent, desperate appeals to sanity – we have had exactly the recovery you would expect if aggregate demand had been very weak. Under Brown nominal demand grew only 1.3% a year versus a 5% trend growth rate. Under  Cameron and chuckles Osborne nominal demand has grown at a still anaemic 2.8% a year.

The Bank of England is in charge of demand in this country and it has used the Eurozone pursue a disinflationary policy which has seen inflation collapse even more quickly than the Bank expected. The Bank of England could do more, and they underline this fact at their regular meetings, but they are choosing not to do more.

So in a way yes, the weak recovery is a result of the Eurozone, but only because the Bank of England and central government have used the crisis to depress demand growth. Rather than push against the crisis with more expansionary policy the Bank has used these deflationary tailwinds to keep unemployment elevated and prices subdued.

The policy which is producing weak growth is also producing low bond yields. The low interest rates Cameron is paying is a vote of no confidence in his government from the bond market, they don’t believe growth will return for a very, very long time.

Something is rotten in the city, the Bank of England is not democratically accountable, people do not understand its remit well or the damage it is doing in the name of price stability. This is why the London Stock Exchange gets occupied, not Threadneedle street.

Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should officially and unequivocally object, to everything, even good ideas, loudly and often

I don’t think Labour really know that the game has changed. We will have an election in 2015 and there is very little chance of one before that. The move to fixed term parliaments means that Ed Miliband et al find themselves in a totally different position to someone like Cameron circa 2005 or Blair in 1994.

In 2005 Cameron suspected the next election wouldn’t be for five years – and he turned out to be right. But he nearly had to fight an election in 2007 against a newly inaugurated Brown. This is something he had to expect and prepare for from the day he was elected Tory Leader, because we all knew some sort of hand over from Blair to Brown was imminent and that this may have been followed by an election.

This meant that Cameron spent a lot time and effort trying to appear electable, trying to appear “in-touch” by visiting the arctic, liberal by hugging hoodies and as a better heir to Blair than Brown could ever be. All this was essential when Labour could have called an ambush election at any point.

Tean Miliband seems to be employing a similar tactic. Liam Byrne is fighting to appear tough on benefits claimants, Ed Balls is trying to sound more fiscally conservative, even Diane Abbott is doing her best to swiftly cover up her gaffes. The commetariat are also playing along, they want to know if he is too ugly to be prime minister etc. Cameron moved left while Ed is moving right.

All of this is stupid. As Sunny has been documenting, not only is nuance from Labour Wonks confusing the public, those who aren’t confused couldn’t care less anyway. I have a better plan for Ed, to be in operation for the next three years or so, or at least until a year before the election date. Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition should officially and unequivocally object, to everything, even good ideas, loudly and often.

First of all, this is essential to good governance. A noisy opposition ensures that a Government has to advance the strongest arguments for its policies and ensure the sharpest execution for fear of being lambasted. If all Tory mistakes are leapt on with gay abandon then the Tories will make sure they screw up less. Remember the incorrect list of schools Gove released last year? That is what happens when people are not terrified of screwing up.

Even where this policy would be a trap it is good policy. For example, Miliband will gain almost no votes by opposing capping benefits at £26,000, but he won’t lose any votes either because, and this is important, nobody is voting until 2015.

Any damage supporting bad policies or opposing bad policy while in opposition can be shrugged off because the opposition won’t have done anything because they can’t. Wrong calls can be disowned and vote winning stances embraced as manifesto fodder. A manifesto which won’t need to be published until 2015 because, I repeat, that is when the next election will be. Plus, by being the voice of opposition Labour would be able to build an activist base which will be important in getting out the vote and campaigning come election time.

By playing the old game, where an opposition has to be constantly on the alert for an election Labour are strengthening the Tories, and doing damage to people’s lives. They need to shape up and realise the rules have changed.

Cameron’s dreadful case for national pride

This is just wonderfully revealing from Cameron today:

Whatever the obstacles to growth today, we still boast some of the best universities in the world, the most favourable timezone in the world, and the world’s first language.

Hundreds of years ago we conquered and colonised a load of places and they and their trading partners now speak our language. Also, by historical fluke, we just so happen to sit in between populus Asia and wealthy North America.

So this is what national pride has come to. No celebration of the English Pub, the centre of the community, no longing for days of imperial grandeur, no ideological fervour for christ, cricket and capitalism. Nope, something more like this…

A cosy 25 million bedroom nation with excellent local amenities, a large secluded garden and great transport links. Comes complete with lovely views of France and neighbours who will begrudgingly speak your language.