Degenerate Art: The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood Take on the Nazis

Here we go again.

It seems that Manchester Art Gallery has removed the painting ‘Hylas and the Nymphs’ by John William Waterhouse (not quite a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but what the hell) from public display, in order ‘to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection’.  Clare Gannaway, the  curator responsible, said the aim of the removal was “to provoke debate, not to censor”.

According to the Guardian report, the work was hung in a room titled ‘In Pursuit of Beauty’, ‘… which contains late 19th century paintings showing lots of female flesh’.  Fortunately, Gannaway recognised that “the title was a bad one, as it was male artists pursuing women’s bodies, and paintings that presented the female body as a passive decorative art form or a femme fatale.”

“For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven’t dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we’ve collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly. We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long.”

It might be thought by the uncharitable that such concerns never seem to extend to artistic representation of male pederasts such as those notorious paedophiles Socrates or the Emperor Hadrian (but perhaps removing all those busts of Socrates would be prohibitive on budgetary grounds, never mind Hadrian’s wall).  It might even be noted by such uncharitable spirits that attempts to remove naked women from artistic representation might prove essentially futile, given the enormous presence of aesthetic appreciations of the female body the history of human art.

Don’t worry about this, Clare; others have previously shared your opinion about the need to ‘do something’ about similar degenerate art on ideological grounds and weren’t put off by the scale of the challenge.  They even pioneered your concept of the removal of the art in question becoming an artistic act itself.  Here’s one particularly effective example of scaling-up the project – over 5,000 works of art removed from galleries and public circulation and brought together in 1937 for a special one-off display titled Entartete Kunst.

Related image

‘Like much else in Nazi culture, it allowed ordinary conservative citizens the opportunity to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held but previously been hesitant to reveal’ – Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power.

Sadly, the public at the time found this collection much more appealing than the officially-sponsored and ideologically-sound competing exhibit.  Never mind, there were other contemporary exercises in provocative  conceptual art to explore such ideas, notably the 1935 auto-destructive installation confronting ideologically-unacceptable literature entitled ‘Säuberung’ or ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’.

Take that, you Modernist bolsheviks, Expressionist deviants and Pre-Raphaelite perverts!

Gannaway claims that the Time’s Up and #MeToo campaigns resulting from the Weinstein and associated contemporary Hollywood sexual assault scandals influenced her decision, which is not about censorship.  Her initiative might well be assumed to start a debate about deconstructing artistic expressions of heterosexual male sexuality, aesthetic appreciation and behaviour in contemporary culture related in some way to those scandals.  It might even be suspected by those tenaciously clinging to an uncharitable disposition that the repercussions of the Weinstein scandal had provided an opportunity for some to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held against male representations of female nudity but had previously been hesitant to reveal (to paraphrase Richard Evans on the 1937 Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate art’).

The gendered and ideological appreciation of ‘problem’ art revealed by Gannaway’s actions in creating the starting point for that debate means that resulting discussion will follow the usual tramlines imposed by a censorious feminism sanctioning male interpretations of female nudity and the predictable reaction to it, thereby reversing the intended course of that debate entirely.

It might boost the sale of prints of John William Waterhouse’s work, but in a stroke of particular genius this ‘artistic event’ has extended to banning copies of his relevant work from the gallery shop, so the gallery has been denied the commercial benefit which is usually the sole redeeming feature of such inept promotional exercises in public-issue bandwagon-jumping… err, I of course mean ‘such adept examples of enhancing public impact by leveraging the contemporary relevance of museum holdings’.


The Trumpinator vs International Terrorism (Part 1 of a series of 1,000,000)

Back after a long absence and there’s certainly plenty to sound off about. So let’s ease back into things gently. There was a lot of media speculation last month (June 2017) regarding the prospect of a state visit to the UK by President Donald Trump being aborted as a result of a hostile public reception, and particularly as a consequence of the rejection of the proposed visit by London mayor Sadiq Khan following Trump’s misquotation of Khan’s statements regarding the visibly increased police presence on the streets after the 3 June London Bridge terrorist attack.

The problem for the Trump administration team (who I do sometimes find myself in reluctant sympathy with when I consider that their job consists of making retrospective sense of the midnight social media trolling of an ignorant buffoon and integrating it into the national policy of a global superpower) is that avoiding a state visit looks like submitting to the dictates of terrorists or local dissenters who can easily look like terrorist sympathisers and fellow-travellers to the president.  Hence the planted speculation in the media last month about some kind of visit to the UK being sneaked into his scheduled vist to France in July.

The other factor involved is, of course, Trump’s exploitation of the traditional American perception of the rest of the world as an alien environment, defined by the random fluctuation between oppressive autocracy, moral turpitude and anarchic terrorist violence.  The recent terrorist attacks in London can only have fed into this narrative.  Take, for example, what President Trump may have believed to be a recent recent documentary on the subject; ‘London Has Fallen’ (2016).

London Has Fallen

Clearly anticipating the possible consequences of a presidential visit to London, the prophetic features of this cryptic satire of Trumpism include (spoiler alert!) the traditional Hollywood tropes; smug references to the preferences of the British monarchy for low-brow US popular culture entertainment, and an omnipotent, omniscient and apparently unstoppable middle-eastern terrorist threat facilitated by British treachery until confronted by an omnipotent and omniscient US secret service agent, played by a Scottish actor with lots of guns.

It must be acknowledged that this film has attracted unwarranted criticism for it’s alleged racism.  I would reject that thesis on the basis that the film, like Trump himself, does not restrict itself and exploits a wide-ranging xenophobic nationalist contempt for everything that isn’t American, rather than just racism.  This is particularly visible in the representation of the inevitable British treachery.  Despite the presence of a token SAS soldier on the side of the good guys (the Special Air Service being perhaps the last remaining identifiably British totem acceptably free of potential treachery to the American way of life; virtuous enough as a military elite with sufficient global brand recognition to be admitted to active involvement on the right side yet never quite competent enough to escape the necessity of American leadership), the rest of the British national security apparatus and indeed the whole of British society can be divided into the stupidly befuddled and the openly treacherous.  It’s the sheer number of the second element which is so impressive – the inevitable MI5 ‘mole’ is present and correct, but is joined by a host of unidentified but nonetheless often Caucasian goons.  Indeed, the terrorists field most of the London Metropolitan Police on their side to enthusiastically join in the machine-gunning and explosive attacks.

My personal favourite example was the case of the Coldstream Guards performing the changing of the guard parade ceremony who understandably seize an ideal opportunity for opening automatic weapons fire on the German chancellor and the surrounding crowds of tourists (the subliminal Brexit subtext being another masterful display of the multi-layered and insightful analysis evident throughout the movie).

Guards Open Fire

A Coldstreamer finally hits back at annoying tourists.

Who knew public duties could be so much fun?

Still, based on the evidence of the film, I think the soldiers on parade probably decided to join forces with nihilistic terrorism in anticipation of the bollocking the Company Sergeant Major was going to give them when they came off parade.  Check out the swinging of the arms on the march, where the arm is supposed to be swung straight, brought parallel with the ground, swung in unision, and all done in step.  It’s almost as if they hired a load of cheap actors to do this and didn’t bother to instruct them in close-order drill.  It’s also almost as if they forgot that the Brigade of Guards aren’t just tourist icons and in fact professional soldiers who not only have official duties supporting the police dealing with terrorism for the past two generations (as seen in their deployment in response to the London bridge terror attack), but in addition actually fought on the side of the US in the Global War on Terror.

Coldstram Guards Afghanistan

Exhausted, overloaded and pissed-off. The glamorous and exciting world of the infantry. 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards in Afghanistan, 2009.  Don’t worry, Hollywood will never make a film about them.

Now, I realise such films are the fictional entertainment designed to make money, but the cliches and stereotypes they exploit and reinforce are instructive about popular culture and the populist politics which also exploits those cliches and stereotypes.  Don’t worry, that’s as post-modernist as I intend to go today.

In conclusion, I would say that the next few weeks for the Trump administration have presented themselves with a self-created dilemma; face visible public hostility (and possibly apocalyptic terrorist attack) in a presidential visit to their closest-yet-suspect ally; or cravenly admit moral defeat and slink away from the issue with consequent loss of face?  And for those of you who might believe such concepts to be foreign to the current president, don’t forget he’s already attempted to blame British intelligence services in unsupported claims of bugging, and his video attacking CNN demonstrates his affinity for wrestling one-on-one with pantomime bad guys in ritualised displays of public machismo.

Trump Wrestling

The Trumpinator ready to go mano a mano with the US constitution, the mainstream media, the terrorists, the Limeys and anybody else.

If Britain ever becomes the alien and hostile enviroment riven with chaotic violence, social disintegration and craven appeasement of islamic fundamentalist terrorism peddled by right-wing American popular mythology, the Trump administration is certainly doing it’s bit to foster that perception.  In the long run, suborning your allies into the antagonistic and personalised world view espoused by an ignorant and petulant president is a good way of ensuring that perception generates a lasting reaction.  That reaction won’t be an inadequate anticipation of islamic terrorism as might be suspected by the Trump administration and the lazy Hollywood scriptwriting indistinguishable from policy analysis in the Trump administration.  It will be an rejection of the ‘ugly Americanism’ characterised by Trump which will do more than the unpopular military adventures of the Bush administration to undermine the US position as the acknowledged leader of liberal democratic states across the world.

First CNN, then London, then the World!

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. That Means You, Beyoncé.

Beyonce Superbowl

Beyonce sticks it to The Man.

It may seem bizarre to some, but in fact as an archetypal British stereotype I actually have a deep affinity for some aspects of American sport.  For instance, my typically-British craving for reliable disappointment led to me defecting from cautious support of the Boston Red Sox when they shamelessly won the baseball World Series in 2004 to the Chicago Cubs, whose implaccable and relentless pursuit of an losing streak has long since combined a grim sense of Calvinist doom familiar to any Scot along with the assumption of an epic narrative of nemesis from Greek tragedy.  Then consider the undeniable resonances between cricket and baseball, particularly the long spells of induced boredom which encourage a mantric, zen-like meditative response from the spectators, and I think it can safely be asserted that there are some little-explored but substantive connections between American sport and the cliched British national character.

This, however, does not apply to American football which, to anyone who has experienced a game of rugby, appears to be a fossilised and disarticulated variant of rugby played by overpaid, overweight steroid-addicts swaddled in excessive protective armour pausing every ten seconds of actual gameplay to permit several minutes of inane commentary and longer periods of comically overblown advertising.

I exaggerate to make the point.  Slightly.  Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to escape the commentary on the Superbowl, even when you don’t actually watch it.  Thus I find myself compelled to respond to reports of Beyoncé’s performance of a Black Power-inspired song and dance routine at this year’s Superbowl.  My credentials to conduct this critique are, of course unimpeachable.  As a self-appointed champion of liberal history, my sense of entitlement is boundless.  As a middle-aged bourgeois white male, my authority to comment upon African-American sectional politics is clearly unchallengeable.

Just in case that isn’t enough, I’m not the only bourgeois white dilettante sounding off over the issue.  And, no, I’m not referring to Coldplay’s Chris Martin whingeing about being upstaged by Beyoncé (although I’d like to think he was).  Here’s Barbara Ellen in The Guardian, for example, pre-empting my critique by observing that ‘… sneering at the mode of protest rather than examining what the protest is about is an old method of silencing and cowing.’

Allow me to demonstrate that, in my case at least, sneering at the ‘protest’ is a valid consequence of a comparative analysis of Black Power protests at sporting events.  Let’s take the archetypal example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos making Black Power salutes on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Tommy Smith and John Carlos (with Peter Norman) synergising their marketing across various media platforms, Mexico City Olympics, 1968

I agree with the essential objectives of the Olympic Project for Human Rights which Smith and Carlos protested for (alongside their fellow medallist, Australian Peter Norman), but more importantly I respect the gesture as a valid gesture of political protest, while Beyonce’s performance was nothing of the sort.

Smith and Carlos were directly affected by the issue they were protesting about.  They suffered personal consequences, in terms of missing opportunities for sponsorship or lucrative employment in football teams which would otherwise have followed Olympic sprinting success.  Finally, they earned the right to make it by the remorseless meritocracy involved in winning the world’s most prestigious athletic competition against the best competition in the word.  Standing on that podium as a medallist meant running two hundred metres, at altitude, in a time between nineteen-point-eight and twenty-point-one seconds.  Smith and Carlos did that, thereby succeeding in one of the few arenas where racial prejudice could be openly and undeniably defeated by individual achievement.  They earned the right to protest on the basis of that, never mind anything else.

By contrast, Beyoncé is a rich, talented entertainer whose platform for her performance comes from her celebrity status and whose reward will secured in terms of increased record sales for the song she performed and promoted at the show (possibly doubling sales, according to previous experience of performers at the half-time show).

All of which means that Beyonce’s attempt at gesture politics remains a straightforward exercise in commercial self-promotion, while Smith and Carlos made a genuine, and warranted, political protest.  And When it comes to ‘sneering’ at commercial self-promotion to mass television audiences at American sporting events on that basis, don’t take it from a whitey on the moon like me.  Here’s Gil Scott-Heron, poet and cultural spokesman for Black Power on the subject in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’:

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised

Don’t Mention the Spitfire! Thornberry Did It Once, But She Didn’t Get Away With It.

Or – ‘The Corbynites Shoot Themselves In the Foot With Those Ignorant Historical Parallels.  Again’.

Spitfire Mk I’s from the first production order (indicated by the K-prefixed serials), flown by No. 19 Squadron, the first RAF unit to receive them, in September 1938. These aircraft would not have existed if contemporary Labour party policy opposition to rearmament had been taken seriously, with obvious consequences for the outcome of the Battle of Britain. No pressure there, then.

Commendably enough, Emily Thornberry’s reported comments from this week’s meeting with the PLP (an exercise which is swifly becoming a regular exercise in cynical bear-baiting by the Corbynite vanguard of the revolution at the expense of the PLP) warrant two separate and distinct explorations of their comic value.  The first being the deconstruction of her understanding of deterrence theory (see below).  The second being her reported use of the eventual obsolescence of the Spitfire as a comparable analogy for her assertion of the obsolescence of Trident submarines.

The problem for Emily here is the inevitable parallels this invites from the last time the Labour party was led by myopic ideologues sincerely attempting to make the world conform to their virtual pacificism.  And the obvious parallel to draw is the position of the Labour party in the nineteen-thirties towards the rearmament policies of the National Government of the time which actually produced the Spitfire.

The first prototype Spitfire was ordered in January 1936 and the first production contract for 310 aircraft placed in June 1936.  These aircraft were delivered after substantial production delays by September 1939.  Further orders followed in September 1938 and April 1939 to continue production when the first batch had been completed, but that initial production run provided the first Spitfires in service.  They represented the totality of Spitfires available to the RAF when the Second World War began in September 1939, and a remained a substantial fraction of those available when the Spitfire entered intensive combat service covering the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940 and throughout the Battle of Britain which followed.

The Labour party’s contemporary attitude towards the procurement of the Spitfire can be accurately summarised by the statement of their then-leader George Lansbury during the Fulham by-election in June 1933, when he proposed disbanding the army and the Royal Air Force and inviting the world to do it’s worst.  Labour therefore voted against the annual defence estimates which followed, including the 1935 estimates that funded that first Spitfire contract.  Even after Lansbury’s deposition as party leader in October 1935, his sucessor Atlee maintained a hypocritical mantra that proposed collective security through the League of Nations in place of rearmament while denying Britain the military capacity to achieve that end.  I don’t believe Atlee justified his opposition to rearmament on the obsolescence of fighter aircraft like the Spitfire, but it’s worth remembering that there was a substantial constituency which believed that recent technological advances meant that there was no practicable defence against bomber aircraft in the nineteen-thirties.

Presumably their descendants are saying similar things about drones making Trident submarines obsolete today.

Although Labour moved from oppposing the defence estimates to abstaining from 1937 onwards, and eventually moved into a successful wartime coalition government under Churchill, there can be considerable legitimate doubt that the attitudes and official policies of the Labour Party during the rearmament period would have led to there being sufficient Spitfires – or perhaps even any Spitfires – available when they turned out to be desperately needed not just for the defence of Britain but for the defence of liberal democracy against the imminent triumph of genocidal fascism in 1940.

A German bomber pilot writes – ‘Yes, those Spitfires are obsolete. Please get rid of them in the name of disarmament and peace.’ Meanwhile a bemused British soldier inspects the wreckage of Labour Party defence policy.

Emily might be better advised not to walk into such self-defeating traps created by her comical ignorance of the potential historical consequences of Corbynite ideology.  So perhaps it might perhaps be better not to mention Spitfires next time.

A Lesson in Deterrence Theory for Emily Thornberry from Dr. Strangelove

One of the great joys of the current chaotic position of the Labour party, as the retro-eighties hard left under their charismatic leader Wolfie Smith, err, I mean Jeremy Corbyn struggle to impose the direction of a Leninist vanguard on the recalcitrant reactionary bourgeoisie of the PLP, is the endless stream of comic amusement provided by the spectacle of the Corbynites repetitive collisions with reality.  The latest to make me roar with laughter was the interview with Emily Thornberry on the Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme on Tuesday 9 Feburary.

In the wake of yet another fractious meeting with the PLP, this time over the Corbynite policy of non-renewal of the submarine-launched Trident ICMB nuclear weapons system, Thornberry was exposed to further amusement at the hands of BBC interviewer Nick Robinson.  The issue of unilateral nuclear disarmament is, of course, a major bugbear from the glory days of unelectable Labour in the nineteen eighties, and it was a genuine delight to see Corbyn displaying the leadership skills necessary to ensure this issue blew up in his face and divided the party even further.  The context was set by the appointment of Thornberry to replace Maria Eagle, Corbyn’s choice for shadow defence secretary last year, who at the time of her appointment pointed out her multilateralist position on Trident renewal would conflict with Corbyn’s unilateralism.  The public embarassment the exposure of this conflict generated seems to have prompted Corbyn’s appointment of Thornberry to appease his unilateralist constituency.

The parallel appointment of Ken Livingstone, hard left unilateralist eighties survivor, to participate in the relevant defence review to ditch the inconvenient current Labour policy (decided in 2007) to renew Trident demonstrates the dynamic at work once again.  The appointment and then defenestration of Eagle demonstrates Corbyn’s inability to accomodate a ‘broad church’ approach to reconciling the irreconcilables in the PLP.  The appointment of Livingstone and then the de-emphasis of his role in the defence review demonstrates the fact that obviously-predictable resistance to the installation of cherished hard-left chums to achieve cherished hard-left policy reversals has been unanticipated by the leaders of the vanguard of the proletariat.

So much for Corbyn’s tactical capacity.  Granted, reconciling the rump of ex-Blairite Labour (because that is what the PLP is, no matter how much they wish to deny it) to the Corbynite leadership was always going to be hard.  But even after the prologue of Ed Milliband’s warm-up act, the extent of Corbyn’s ineptness on that score remains genuinely surprising.

However, Thornberry’s radio interview indicates that tactical incapacity is not restricted to The Glorious Leader and remains a problem for Corbyinites in general.  Here’s Thornberry on the utility of nuclear deterrence:

‘If nuclear weapons need to be threatened then they have failed.’

No, Emily: it is the latent threat of retaliatory use of nuclear weapons that makes nuclear deterrence work.  The threat of nuclear weapons is what provides the deterrent effect of Mutually-Assured Destruction.  For somebody claiming to be concerned with an ‘evidence-based’ reassessment of ‘all the options’, the evidence (such as it is) suggests that the threat of using nuclear weapons restrained direct conflict between the superpowers during the cold war, and between nuclear powers after the Cold War.  On that basis, it can be cogently argued that the threat of nuclear weapons has succeeded.

The key point of Thornberry’s argument is to question the ability of Trident submarines to avoid detection and thereby avoid elimination in any ‘first strike’ use of nuclear weapons.  This, if true, would undermine their credibility as a deterrent.  Fortunately, the unchallengeable authority for this assumption appears to be an un-named ‘Young Turk’ who asserts that remotely-piloted underwater drones will soon be able to discover Trident submarines hidden anywhere under the oceans.  I look forward to finding out which conspiracy theory-driven corner of the internet or what drone-promoting corporation that particular analyst originates from.  Quite correctly, her interviewer characterises this as a technological smoke-screen to justify her pre-existing rejection of nuclear weapons on ethical grounds.

Thornberry goes on to say:

‘Everybody says that the whole point about nuclear weapons is that you don’t use them’

No, Emily.  The point is that the threat of nuclear retaliation (i.e. using nuclear weapons) by one side logically inhibits their use by another, thus placing a premium on not beginning an escalation that might trigger their use (i.e. by avoiding war).  An openly-declared refusal to use them renders them useless as a threat, thereby making them useless as a mechanism to prevent war. Thornberry, like most Corbynistas, would be more impressive if she could just comprehend the the rationale of policies that she so sincerely objects to, rather than vainly seeking a tactical approach to allow her to achieve an ideological objective which is self-evidently correct to the selected elite like her but painfully contentious and wrong to those in Labour who retain some connection to the real world.

This wouldn’t be a bad approach if it was successful.  Indeed, never mind the intellectual deceit involved, overcoming wider resistance to achieve otherwise unobtainable but necessary policy objectives would be a measure of the tactical political capability of the politicians involved.  But only if they could pull it off.  In the case of the Corbynites they are just too inept to manage it.

The advantage the Corbynites have is their electoral mandate in the leadership election, which gives them a genuine legitimacy.  Their attempts to reverse policy over nuclear deterrence smack of cack-handed Machiavellian plotting by contrast.  While that is the hallmark of the hard left, they would be better advised building a consensus for policy reversal on nuclear deterrence at the party conference.  Granted, this is uncharacteristic of the hard left.  But so is Corbyn’s electoral mandate, and they need to embrace the unfamiliar concept of maintaining democratic electoral support within the party to legitimate their policies.  That does assume that they have any real interest in implementing their policies, which is not a given.

The handling of the issue so far seems to indicate that the Corbynites suspect this suggestion would provoke a confrontation that they can’t win.  In which case, it might be wondered what the purpose was of a leadership which couldn’t gain a mandate from it’s own party, never mind the wider electorate, to implement it’s policies.

Frankly, I don’t think the Labour party has the residual capacity to challenge the Corbynites.  I might be pleasantly surprised if it did, but as a true Machiavellian aficionado I think the surviving social democrats in Labour have sold the pass so many times by now that their only hope is to cling to the wreckage and let the hard-left have their deathride into electoral oblivion before beginning the task of reconstruction.  If they are even capable of doing so once their main opposition has comprehensively been discredited by the external agency of the British electorate.

Now for a concluding statement from Dr Strangelove, wheelchair-bound maniacal ex-Nazi Cold warrior and our specialist expert commentator, on Thornberry’s complete misunderstanding of deterrence theory:

‘Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear to attack’.

Dr Strangelove

Our man in the White House situation room explains to Jeremy Corbyn, Ken Livingstone and Angela Thornberry why it will be necessary for the Labour leadership cadre to go down a deep mineshaft and remain there for one hundred years.

Electing a unilateralist like Corbyn as party leader and appointing a unilateralist like Thornberry as shadow defence secretary means there is no fear of reprisal, and therefore no ‘fear to attack’.  So let’s not bother with the risible attempts to mask the unilateralism with drones or any other transparent, intelligence-insulting exercise in camoflaging the real intent of the Corbynites. There is no credibility to the strategy of nuclear deterrence under a Labour government with Corbyn and Thornberry in charge, regardless of the outcome of paper exercises like Labour’s current policy review.

That the Corbynist approach to nuclear deterrence can be effortlessly dismissed by a character from Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire on the failings of deterrence theory indicates the high comic value of the current Labour leadership and their politics.  It also gives some added resonance to Thornberry’s statement that ‘… national security is an important issue and shouldn’t be played with’.

Even Dr. Strangelove might approve the irony.

Another Realist Rationale for Intervention in Syria for Slow Learners

A Russian SU-24 shot down in flames by Turkish F-16 fighters after infringing Turkish airspace, 24 November 2015. Any similarities with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party going down in flames over Syria is purely coincidental.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I’ve said little about the situation in Syria as I’ve already outlined my thoughts on the matter two years ago, and nothing has changed to modify them since.  The core problem in rethinking western involvement was demonstrated in the 2013 rejection of military intervention by the British House of Commons.  This featured an unlikely alliance between hard-left anti-Americanists in Labour, right-wing so-called realists in the Conservatives, and sanctimonious opportunism on the part of the Lib Dems and secessional nationalists like the SNP.  The glue in this alliance was the post-Iraq orthodoxy that western military intervention is always futile and counter-productive, and buyer’s remorse that the Iraq intervention was unjustified, illegal and based on a prospectus of lies.

I’ve derived some amusement from the second factor over the past few weeks, as the centrist rump of the Labour party have finally realised the costs of conceding the verdict on Blairism (and, by extension, the Iraq intervention) to a hard left which is now triumphantly in command of the party’s leadership and popular membership.  Still, the Paris attacks have represented a catalyst for a degree of change as public opinion apparently changes as a result of exposure to stark reality of islamic fundamentalist terrorism.  Although any sense of post-Paris consensus on the necessity for using force in defence of western lives will soon evaporate under the predictable resurgence of revisionism which will follow the exercise of western military force (see the errosion of support for post-9/11 military action for a relevant example), it is clear that the old certainties are no longer widely accepted to be so certain.

This brings me back to a baseline appraisal of the utility of western military intervention to secure neoliberal and even realist aims.  So let’s check those examples in the post-Cold War era.

Bosnia in 1993-95 demonstrated the futility of attempting to negotiate a diplomatic settlement (such as the Vance Owen peace plan) when the local Bosnian Serb forces felt free to benefit from continuing aggression, which, let us recall, included the mass-murder of civilians and the forced expulsion of refugees on all sides of the conflict.  Western air strikes were necessary to allow diplomacy in the form of the Dayton accords to succeed, while peacekeeping intervention without the willingness to use lethal force lead to the Srebrenica catastrophe.

Kosovo in 1998-99 represented another case study of the same dynamics, with even bigger refugee problem.  While air strikes were one component of western military intervention, it was clear to the British leadership (i.e. Blair) that the deployment of sufficient western ground forces with a mandate to use force directly were also necessary.  The culmination of Blair’s diplomacy was the utilisation of British willingness and capacity to deploy ground forces to draw the Clinton administration along and thereby achieve a settlement; one which would not have been possible without the deployment of force.

Neither of these cases represents a perfect solution.  To this day the settlements involved in the former Yugoslavia simply preserve the divisons and, in some cases, the bitterness involved in those conflicts.  None of these conflicts have been resolved in any final sense.  But they have been halted.  This means that the most immediate humanitarian crimes (mass-murder and ethnic cleansing) have been stopped, but also that the absence of armed conflict has been achieved.  Such imperfect ceasefires are the necessary precondition for any lasting peace.  And they were only achieveable after the deployment of armed force in pursuit of humanitarian aims.

The Sierra Leone example seems successful enough; is there anybody who really believes that the limb-maiming, child-soldier exploiting, mass-murdering and mass-raping RUF should have been left to devastate Sierra Leone unchallenged, or that Blair did the wrong thing by intervening to end their terrorism and bring their leader to justice?

But if Sierra Leone was a success, then how about Afghanistan and Iraq?  Let’s be clear about this.  By any reasonable standard used by realists, both of these interventions were successful.  In both cases governments hostile to the west, major factors in regional instability, and hosts and backers of proxy attacks on the west have been deposed.  While there are plenty of real shortcomings involved in their replacement governments in terms of corruption, inefficiency and sectarianism, they are no longer direct threats to the west.  In terms of national interest, that’s a genuinely acceptable outcome for realists.  And also for liberals, as both the Iraq and Afghan governments are, however ineptly and incompetantly, our allies in terms of fighting islamic terrorists such as ISIS or the Taliban, and both remain a clear improvement over their predecessors in terms of delivering some semblance of human rights to their population.

This does not mean that either intervention has been handled well.  In Iraq, for example, the outcome has been marred by a catastrophic level of civilian casualties and this was (and remains) a clear problem in Afghanistan as well.  But, as I argue elsewhere in relation to the British military experience in Iraq, most of the civilian casualty toll cannot be attributed to western military forces and in fact is attributable to the forces fighting against them.

In conclusion, western military intervention has a relatively successful record in terms of securing national interest in a way realists (concerned with self national interests and power) and neoliberals (concerned with values and international collaboration) should be able to recognise.  All of these interventions have been constrained by relative factors negatively affecting their outcomes; none have been perfect.  But no military operation will ever be perfect.  Nor will any diplomatic compromise be perfect.  What matters is an objective judgement determining national interest, whether in realist or neoliberal terms.

Which brings us to Syria.  There are a long list of reasons, many of them completely valid, why any western intervention in Syria will fail to achieve the objectives sought.  Some are less valid.  Two of the latter that realists tend to invoke are the apparently-interconnected necessities of accomodating Russian interests and accepting the continuance of the Assad regime as a component of an anti-ISIS coalition.

There’s no question that the Russian intervention, basing Russian aircraft in Syria to attack anti-Assad rebels, has complicated matters.  The shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkish fighters was a predictable consequence which, even now, risks further escalation.  But in realist terms, it may well be useful that after Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by coercion, Putin receives a demonstration that his escalations risk responses, and that other actors have the will and capability to respond in unmistakably hard power terms which may exceed his appetite for brinksmanship.  In this case, the Turks can be seen to be responding to Russian airstrikes on Syrian rebel groups such as the Turkomans (supported by Turkey).  There is a Russian interest in ensuring that the conflict between Turkey and Russian over what are on both sides their backing for proxies, does not escalate uncontrollably.

Nor should the Russian deployment be seen as imposing a veto on western action.  The reality has been that the Russian deployment is limited to the north-west of Syria and, as their recent agreement with the French indicates, agreements over ‘deconfliction’ (avoiding a repeat of the Turkish shoot-down) are possible.  They are even more likely if the evident conviction behind western action is apparent, which, after Paris, seems to be the case.  Putin’s room for manoevre has been limited not only by this, but also the fact that airstrikes alone are unlikely to be decisive.  Absent a massive escalation in the Russian commitment in terms of air and, most of all, military power on the ground, the Assad regime remains unable to defeat the disparate but extensive rebel groups confronting it.

While Putin’s intervention might buy some more time for Assad, it is now clear since the loss of the SU-24 and the Paris attacks, that it can only constrain and not eliminate a more significant western response.  If true, this leaves Putin with problems unresolved by his intervention.

The limited capacity of airstikes alone to defeat insurgents is a  factor which also destroys the ‘Assad is necessary to fight ISIS’ argument.  If Assad was able to defeat ISIS, he would have done so by now.  His regime is either unable or unwilling to do so.  If it lacks the capacity, we have no need to consider it as a necessary partner in that task.  If it lacks the will, this merits some consideration.  Indeed, if the claimed necessity of keeping him on hand to fight ISIS is a major card in his hand when attempting to preserve his regime in the face of western demands to depose him, then it is in Assad’s interest not to fight ISIS at all.  At least until his continuation in power has been accepted.

A reluctance to intervene in Syria is understandable; but as the modification of previous realist objections to intervention after the Paris attacks indicate, the essense of the problem has always been political will.

In this situation, any realist worth their salt will reconsider what British national interests are without cloaking their reluctance in fradulent assertions of the capability and interests of the Assad regime.  I suggest the continuation of the Syrian civil war is against British interest, as is the continuation of the Assad regime.  The reality is that his regime is going to go, either now, or later; it lacks the capacity to defeat internal armed opposition by itself.  What matters is the post-Assad order, and on that basis, and for all their manifest shortcomings, the Iraq and Afghanistan examples offer some basis for proceding with a reasonable expectation of some (albeit limited) success.  But as the Yugoslav experience demonstrates, the necessary diplomacy to achieve this will require military intervention; and not just air strikes, but intervention on the ground in sufficient force to a) defeat the pretence of ISIS to run a state in eastern Syria, and b) shape the consequent political settlement in western interest.  Restricting ourselves to exploiting the Kurds to provide the necessary forces to fight in our interest has limitations on both counts.

Neither of these objectives will be easily achieved.  But nor are they impossible.  Even the attempt would stand a better chance of shaping the outcomes to be better for western interests than the continuing and unchallenged acceptance of a dangerously misguided received wisdom on the (f)utility of western intervention.  Note how well that has served us in Syria thus far; while the deconstruction of it in the post-Paris conext at Jeremy Corbyn’s expense provides some amusement, it has also come at the cost of tolerating the civil war and everything it has produced so far – catastophic levels of refugee movement to Europe, mass-murder, barrel-bombings, chemical attacks on civilians, mass-rape, ethnic cleansing, the invasion and extension of ISIS to northern Iraq, the inspiration of terrorist attacks in Europe and overseas, and another episode of Russian adventurism.

None of which are in British national interest, and all of which should have been addressed by all necessary means in British national policy long before now.

The Liberal Case for Non-Intervention in Syria. Probably. Or Not. Whatever.

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Tim Farron fearlessly defending liberalism on the international stage.

Some issues merit considerable attention.  Some don’t.  Tim Farron is one of the latter.  In his speech to the Lib Dem conference in September, Farron posited the following argument for people with liberal political convictions in other parties to join the Lib Dems under his leadership.

‘If you are a liberal, why don’t you join the liberals?  If you have never been involved in politics before but are dismayed by the blame, division, fantasy or fear you see peddled by others, join us…  Because, now more than ever, being a spectator is not an option.  Action is vital.’

Let me explain why, despite being a classical liberal in almost every sense, I will not be joining Tim Farron.

I prefer my Liberal leaders to understand the possibility that defence of liberal values and national defence may require armed intervention.  Paddy Ashdown understood the necessity of liberal interventionism, notably over the Balkans, even if he disagreed with the Anglo-American intervention in Iraq.

There is always mileage for an opposition party at Westminster in attempting to capture the moral high ground when challenging government policy.  Charles Kennedy did this by exploiting the mainstream canard about the illegality of the Iraq war, although the results of the 2005 general election (which saw the Labour vote decline by 5.5% and the Lib Dems gain 3.7%) indicate that public disapproval of Iraq, and the assumed toxicity of Blair himself, was overstated.  At least Kennedy’s opposition had some level of consistency behind it in comparison to the Conservatives, whose defection to the anti-war camp in the name of political expediency reaped the meagre rewards of a 0.7% increase in the popular vote; little consolation when considering Blair’s return to Downing Street.

Judging by that result, leading the ‘anti-war’ consensus did little for the Lib Dems.  It is tempting to suggest that the high water mark for the contemporary brand of Lib Dem opportunism principled opposition was Norman Baker MP.  Baker’s 2007 book, ‘The Strange Death of David Kelly’ book exploited the miasma of conspiracy theory surrounding the suicide of an Iraq weapons inspector and at least made him some money confirmed by Lib Dem party policy.

How different things are in 2013-15 for Farron over Syria.  Following the model of ageing military generals in fighting the last war all over again, Farron skipped Ashdown’s response to Bosnia and Kosovo.  Faced with the greatest refugee displacement since the Second World War, driven by the ruthless mass-murder of civilians by the Assad regime using chemical weapons to desperately cling to power on the one hand, and the barbaric ethnic cleansing, mass-murder and sexual slavery imposed by ISIL on the other, Farron responded fearlessly to defend Liberal principles:

‘Tonight I did not vote for military action on Syria. There should be no rush to take military action. We must instead continue to exhaust every possible diplomatic option.’

Well, that was 2013.  Before the Paris attacks and before politicians started to perceive that an anti-interventionist stance was not necessarily the ticket to public support that it had been.  After two more years of mass-murder and increasing refugee mass-migration. Now everything is different.  Dimly grasping the fissure in Labour between a traditional PLP and a left-wing non-interventionist constituency exposed as a result of the Paris terrorist attacks, Farron has now revolutionised his position by applying five tests necessary to government policy to justify Lib Dem support for military action against ISIL.  So let’s run through them here.

1.  Military intervention must be legalised.  Fortunately UN Resolution 2249 does this for Farron, despite the fact that this is a non-binding resolution and has only moral, not legal validity.  If you want a UNSCR to do the real thing, say hello to Putin’s veto.

2.A diplomatic settlement in the Vienna talks.  Where Russia can succeed in delaying or halting any attempt to depose Assad.  A no-bomb zone to protect civilians.  Fine; now who enforces it, and stops ISIL/Assad bombing, bombarding or shooting anyone in it?  One thing would – western troops.  Are you willing to do that, Tim?  I thought not.

3. Pressure on Gulf States for increased support in the region and prevent the funding of jihadists.  Fine by me.  But why are they going to listen to you?

4. A Post-Isil plan.  How about a disarmed, democratic Syria with stable liberal institutions which can (eventually) defend individual rights and minority communities, thereby obviating the necessity for others to militarily intervene.  Too liberal for you, Tim?

5. Publish government report on Muslim Brotherhood and investigate funding of extremists here in the UK.  Fine by me.  But why does that have to be attached to any question of intervening in Syria?

All of this comes down to the problem Farron and his constituency have with the use of force for humanitarian intervention in defence of universal liberal values in the post-Iraq era.

The reality has always been that the diplomacy to resolve a conflict like that is contingent upon the military power deployed to faciliate it.  Which is why Ashdown advised Blair that ground troops would be needed in Kosovo in 1998, not just air strikes.  If Farron wants British and international liberal values to be defended in Syria – or anywhere else – he needs to grasp the nettle of understanding what that may involve.  If he wants to embrace cynical realism, bemoaning the inability or unwillingness to intervene, he should say so and thereby spare the rest of us his hypocritical sanctimony in the process.  And just for aficionados of hypocritical sanctimony:

‘Because, now more than ever, being a spectator is not an option.  Action is vital.’ – Tim Farron, Lib Dem conference speech, September 2015.

So much for the rhetoric.  The reality is that, understandably blinded by the post-Iraq narrative of the ‘illegality’ of western intervention, and even complicit in it, Farron has denied himself tactical room to move when the calculus shifted.  This is precisely the similar problem faced by the Corbynite Labour party, although to their credit Labour actually have a constituency capable of making the liberal case for interventionism by the international community in the form of the PLP.  But it does no credit to Farron’s capabilities, and leaves Ashdown’s criticism of his leadership bid with greater resonance.

‘Judgement is not his strong suit’

Which is the main reason why Farron’s loudly-announced attempt to steal centre-ground from the Labour party is doomed. Elected on a left-of-centre platform to replace a discredited centrist leadership, Farron is, effectively, the Corbyn of the Lib Dems.  I anticipate a demonstration of this when Farron parrots the opposition of ‘realist’ Tory anti-interventionists and regretfully claims the case for military intervention has not yet been made.  But he would be strongly in favour of it if it was.  Honest.

If this prediction is correct, and the related prediction that there will be enough Labour rebels defying Corbyn to grant Cameron parliamentary approval of British participation against ISIL in Syria, it will prove that a coalition of Tories and post-Corbynite Labour party rebels will demonstrate the capacity to outperform the Lib Dems when it comes to the defence of liberal interventionism.