Category Archives: Comment
An economically literate chancellor would rise to the challenge set down by the IMF
The International Monetary Fund is not usually known for racy language and dramatic press releases. When IMF chiefs come to national capitals, diplomacy is normally the order of the day. So no one should be surprised that in London this week there was no public repeat of the IMF’s previous comments that George Osborne’s policies are “playing with fire”. But even with more diplomatic language, the IMF’s message was stark and uncompromising. And it echoed the warnings Labour has made over the past three years.
Having originally backed the chancellor’s fiscal plans, the IMF has now declared that they are a “drag on growth” and risk permanent damage to our economy. It warned that Britain is “a long way from a strong and sustainable recovery”, as confirmed by recent lacklustre growth figures that show we now have the slowest recovery for 100 years. And that is why the IMF followed through on what it has threatened to do for almost two years, by finally demanding “near-term support for the economy” with a £10bn boost to infrastructure investment.
In other words, against a backdrop of a flatlining economy and falling living standards, it called for a temporary rise in borrowing this year to kickstart the economy now and help to create jobs and growth for the future – just as Labour is urging right now as part of a more balanced plan that would get the deficit down in the medium term. Of course there also need to be sensible spending cuts and tax rises to get the deficit down. But as this chancellor is finding to his cost, an unbalanced plan that chokes off the recovery and leads to rising long-term unemployment won’t get the deficit down. This failure on growth and jobs is why the government is now set to borrow £245bn more than it planned – not to invest in creating jobs for the future, but simply to pay for the costs of its economic failure.
With thousands of construction workers out of work and interest rates at record lows, there is a growing consensus that investing now in improving our infrastructure – affordable housing, transport, school buildings – would give an immediate boost to the economy, encourage more private sector investment, and give us a long-term return as we strengthen our economy for the future.
This is what Labour would be doing right now – alongside other reforms, including a compulsory jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed to get people off benefit and into paid work. We need a proper British investment bank to increase lending to businesses, radical reform of our banks, and a decarbonisation target set now for 2030 that would give energy companies the certainty they need to invest in Britain.
The IMF has set down a clear challenge. The question is how the chancellor will respond. But the signs are not encouraging. Osborne didn’t stick around to listen to everything the IMF had to say at Wednesday’s press conference in the Treasury. And his aides had already told the newspapers a fortnight ago that, whatever the IMF said, he would ignore it and plough on regardless. After nearly three years of flatlining, the message from ministers is that any growth is better than no growth at all. Of course that’s true. But slow growth is nowhere near good enough. It won’t make up the ground we have lost over the past few years as other countries have raced ahead.
Nor will sluggish growth get long-term unemployment down, boost living standards, recoup lost business investment or generate the tax revenues we need to reduce the deficit. That is why the IMF said that if we do continue bumping along the bottom, we risk doing permanent damage to the economy. Faced by a warning that a strong and sustained recovery is far from secure and that the risks are to the downside, a sensible and economically literate chancellor would heed the IMF’s advice. Instead I fear that Osborne will once again put his own political pride before the national economic interest. If he does, it will fall to the next Labour government to pick up the pieces.
As mayor of Harrisburg, Illinois, I’ve seen the destruction of a tornado and the strength of its survivors. Don’t give up hope
To the citizens of Moore, Oklahoma:
You are in our thoughts and prayers. Seeing the photos of your state reminds me all too much of the tornados that struck my own home of Harrisburg, Illinois, last year. After hiding while the winds tore through everything we owned, we faced the flattened landscape that was once our town. We struggled through the difficult days spent picking through the rubble that was once kitchens and bedrooms, and we mourned the loved ones who did not survive the storm. It’s heartbreaking, and to move forward is a terrible struggle.
But you are not alone. You will find, as we did in the aftermath of the Leap Day tornado outbreak, that your neighboring communities will stand with you, as will the nation as a whole. One of the most enduring memories I have of that dark time is that citizens from across our country reached out and selflessly proved how truly great they are. We received donations, help reconstructing, and plenty of notes. We will do the same for you.
As Americans, this is who we are – we do not let each other fail. Moore will rise again, as it has in the past, and as it will in the near future. Pray daily for the families that lost loved ones and for those injured and that lost everything. Take strength from your neighbors, family, friends and those who come to help. Community leaders, I urge you to speak in positive terms and tones; be as reassuring and encouraging as you can, for your words carry hope for your citizens and can unite them when it seems the storm has swept every support and beam away.
Out of this tragic catastrophe, let us find the common ground that pulls us together across America and around the world. Our mission in Harrisburg is to sustain the spirit of hope and resurrection that came to us after our disaster, and to share it with others, to inspire them. As the mayor here, I have seen the best of people in the worst of times. The event that happened to us, much like what you are enduring today, will not defeat you.
And we will not let that happen. You have already come together for each other in the aftermath of the tornado, and you should keep that spirit of cooperation alive, and carry it into the days, weeks, months and years ahead. You will find that those that have suffered the most will inspire you to do and be your best, and their testimonies will give you strength every day for all your life.
I am sure there are more people who became heroes that day than we can ever learn the stories of. Be assured, God knows who you are, and what you have done. Our common ground for each other is love, and there is not a tornado, hurricane, earthquake or anything else in this world that can shake that bond we have as human beings. May God Bless the people of Moore, Oklahoma, and the United States of America.
Mayor Eric E Gregg
A row over using English in universities has blown up in France, where language is at the heart of the national identity
The front page of Libération, one of France’s leading dailies, was printed entirely in English on Tuesday. “Let’s do it,” ran the banner headline. Sounding like a Nike slogan penned by Cole Porter, it in fact referred to a new bill, which, if passed, would allow some university courses to be taught in English.
Inside the paper (and in French), the editorialists urged their compatriots to “stop behaving like the last representatives of a besieged Gaulish village”. The nod to Asterix – the diminutive comic-strip hero who punches above his weight thanks to his cunning and occasional swigs of magic potion – is highly significant. For decades, France has identified with the plucky denizens of Asterix’s village, the last corner of Gaul to hold out against Roman invasion. This is how the French fancy themselves: besieged but unbowed – a kind of Gallic take on the Blitz spirit.
The reason Uderzo and Goscinny’s books resonated at the time of their publication is that they replayed the myth of French resistance in the context of the cold war. This time around the invaders were no longer German or Roman, but American. Asterix’s first outing (in a long-defunct magazine called Pilote) occurred in 1959, the year Charles de Gaulle became president, and grammarian Max Rat coined the word “franglais“. My contention is that this is not purely coincidental.
France’s identity has long been bound up with its language, more so possibly than anywhere else. This may be due to the fact that French is treated as a top-down affair, policed by the state: an affaire d’état, if you will. Language, for instance, is at the heart of the Organisation Mondiale de la Francophonie, France’s answer to the Commonwealth. The flipside of a state-sponsored language has been a deep-rooted anxiety over linguistic decay and decline. The official custodian of the French tongue – the Académie française – was partly created, back in 1635, to counter pernicious Italian influences.
French nationalism was largely discredited after the second world war, because of the Vichy regime and collaboration. As a result, it often took refuge in cultural – particularly linguistic – concerns. De Gaulle’s inflammatory 1967 speech in Quebec, when he took the linguistic battle into the very heart of enemy territory, speaks volumes. “Long live free Quebec! Long live French Canada! And long live France!” declaimed de Gaulle (en français dans le texte, of course). Quebec was repositioned as a besieged Gaulish village, and French as a symbol of resistance – perhaps even as a surrogate magic potion. For de Gaulle, liberating Quebec meant reversing France’s defeat at the hands of the English in 1763.
My feeling is that France is haunted by its lost American future. Had the US fallen under Gallic domination, French would probably be the world’s lingua franca today. Fears over the decline of French vis-à-vis English are exacerbated by the knowledge that the enemy is also within. Although the linguistic watchdogs regularly come up with alternatives to anglicisms – “mercatique” for “marketing”; “papillon” for “Post-it note” – American expressions are often adopted with far more enthusiasm in France than across the Channel. David Brooks’s portmanteau word bobo (bourgeois bohemian) is more ubiquitous here than in Britain. Even more worrying, perhaps, is the French penchant for unwittingly redefining (“hype” for “hip”) or making up new English expressions (brushing, footing, fooding etc.).
The unregulated flexibility of English probably gives it an extra edge in our ever-shifting digital world. As Susan Sontag once pointed out, French is “a language that tends to break when you bend it”. It is significant that many young French speakers today should suddenly switch to English when writing a mél or courriel (if you’ll pardon my French) to a friend.
So what is all the fuss about right now? The higher education minister, Geneviève Fioraso, wants to amend the 1994 Toubon law so that French universities are allowed to teach a limited number of courses in English (which is already the case in the elite grandes écoles and top private business schools). The main aim of this is to attract foreign students, particularly from rapidly expanding economies such as China, India, or Brazil.
Unfortunately, Fioraso committed an unforgivable faux pas – on a par with Sarkozy’s disparaging comments about the Princess of Cleves – when the idea was first mooted in March. She warned that if teaching in English were not introduced, French research would eventually mean “five Proust specialists sitting around a table”. This led to accusations of philistinism on the part of those who believe that sitting around a table discussing the works of Proust is precisely what being French is all about.
Not surprisingly, reactions have been far more favourable in the scientific community than in literary circles. The Académie française is up in arms over what it sees as “linguistic treason”. Prominent academic and author Antoine Compagnon fears that the measure may lead to dumbing down, since most of these lectures would be spoken in “Globish” rather than the true language of Shakespeare. Bernard Pivot, who used to host a top literary TV programme (and belongs to the Académie), argues that French will become a dead language if it relies on English borrowings to describe the modern world. Claude Hagège, a renowned linguist, concurs, saying that France’s very identity is at stake.
Roland Barthes famously described language as essentially “fascist”, not because it censors but, on the contrary, because it forces us to think and say certain things. The idea that we are spoken by language as much as we speak through it is, I think, an important one here: French offers a different world view from English. Today, the symbol of British sovereignty is an independent currency. In France, it is an independent language, and that is indeed something to be cherished.
It brings its own problems but Swedish media’s refusal to obsess over violent incidents may reduce the chance they will spread
When I saw that riots around Stockholm had made the front page of the Financial Times, I scurried over to the sites of Swedish papers to see in some detail what was happening. It turned out that the dismembered parts of a Thai woman had been found in Lapland, various television stars had been variously unhappy in their love lives, a farmer had caused the evacuation of a police station in the south of the country by handing in 12 sticks of dynamite he’d had lying around the place – oh, and there had been a hundred or so cars burnt out in the satellite towns around Stockholm.
Only the conservative Svenska Dagbladet had led with the news a couple of days ago, when I started watching the coverage. Do these things become less newsworthy after three or four nights, or is it deliberate policy not to encourage copycat rioting?
I can only assume that it’s the latter, coupled with a certain prudishness about violence. Even the most sensationalist of the papers did not reproduce anywhere prominent on their websites the pictures of the English atrocity. For once, I think the Swedish press is showing the English one a good example.
This is not because the problem will cease to exist if we ignore it. In some ways it will actually get worse. We should admit, though, that this kind of nannying provokes a backlash. A lot of the appeal of the nationalist and reactionary Sweden Democrats comes from the sense that the ordinary people of Sweden have been consistently lied to about immigration and its consequences. You need only dip into the Twitter streams hashtagged with the rioting suburbs to see this in action.
So a conspiracy of silence around the problems of areas with high levels of recent immigration will do nothing to solve their long-term problems and may make them much worse. One of the reasons for the particular character of Swedish race relations is that there is a huge amount of housing segregation between suburban settlements which are miles apart and hidden from each other by intervening forest or farmland. Only in Malmö is there anything corresponding geographically to the English “inner cities”. Everywhere else is almost as remote from the main cities as Luton is from London. Research has shown that this kind of isolation is one of the three main predictors of car-burning in any particular areas (the others being youth unemployment and welfare dependence in the parents’ generation).
But that does not mean that a certain dampening of excitement about particular riots is not an excellent idea. For one thing they are hardly unprecedented. There have been sporadic riots by disaffected young men in Sweden ever since the mid-90s. By no means all were ethnic minorities – half of those so far arrested in Stockholm were white. No one has ever been killed in these excitements, although people from minority groups have been killed by racist Swedish gunmen deliberately targeting them in other incidents.
It’s also quite clear that boredom and a wish to be noticed are among the drivers of the disturbances. Dialling down the excitement reduces the chance that they will spread.
Beyond that kind of instrumental approach, I think there is another, moral point, which may be deeply unfashionable. Instead of asking whether these pictures are likely to be bad for potential rioters, we might also ask whether they are going to be bad for the rest of us. What purpose, exactly, does it serve to know what a bloodstained murderer looks like, or even a hooded youth throwing a molotov cocktail?
It will be objected that this kind of decision is paternalistic, and that the pictures of riots will get out anyway. So perhaps the problem is not so much whether these things should be shown at all as whether they should be shown over and over again. It seems an inevitable part of the workings of television news that they should be so. I believe that the apparently endless repetition of the twin towers footage in 2001 (I was travelling in the states at the time, so I saw a lot of television) did a great deal to madden the American people and to promote their disastrous invasion of Iraq.
I have watched the attacker’s statement once. I will not watch it again. The Swedish newspapers, in their conspiracy of ignorance, are acting with a moral purpose. They want to make their country a slightly better place. Our own papers clearly can’t behave that way. But as readers and viewers we can exercise our own self-discipline and refuse to wallow in the gore. When the thing comes up on screen again, just switch it off. There’s nothing new there. Spend the time which you night have spent in pleasurable outrage in hard thought instead about what we, today, can do to make things a little better here.
Condemnation isn’t enough. Muslims must take ownership of the problem in their midst, and the war on terror must be rethought
British society, including its Muslim communities, needs to move beyond the routine condemnation of terrorist attacks and plots – there have been dozens since 9/11. We need instead to address the extreme Islamist ideology that al-Qaida and its sympathisers promote to incite attacks against soldiers and civilians worldwide in both war-torn and peaceful countries. Muslim leaders need to take ownership of the specifically religious aspects of the problem, that is to say the twisted theology that easily brainwashes vulnerable people, some of whom are intelligent university students and graduates.
The key planks of this extremist ideology are: that the west is at war with Islam and Muslims; that Muslims cannot ultimately live in peace with non-Muslims or in “non-Muslim” societies and that Muslims must live in an “Islamic state” that enforces the narrowest and harshest interpretations of sharia law. All these arguments are utterly simplistic and destroyed by any in-depth reading of scripture, history or Islamic jurisprudence. Regrettably, however, these divisive and hate-filled messages are still very common in Muslim discourse, here and abroad.
For example, I was present at City Hall in 2004 when Ken Livingstone, then mayor of London, welcomed Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential cleric with a global audience of tens of millions. In his talk, to my horror, the relatively progressive Qaradawi said that there was no such thing as an Israeli civilian, and that all Israelis were therefore legitimate targets. “Their women are not like our women, since military service is compulsory,” as he put it. His translator did not translate this part, so to this day Livingstone and the BBC and Channel 4 crews present probably do not know what was said.
The sheikh justifies terrorism against Israelis but insists that no other land is a land of war. But it is very easy for al-Qaida to extrapolate from his logic and justify terrorism in the west, where according to them taxpayers, never mind serving soldiers, are complicit in murdering Muslims in western-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This logic was explicitly used by the 7/7 ringleader, as well as dozens of British Muslim terrorists since: “We will attack and kill you until you get out of Muslim lands.” The Woolwich terrorists are only the latest in a long line of deluded young men.
Democracy must be strengthened for extremist thinking to be exposed and defeated, whether it is from Islamist fascists or rightwing fascists. In particular, Muslims must be clear that democracy is fully compatible with Islam, including the right of free societies to choose whether or not to follow religious codes – there must be no compulsion or coercion in matters of religion or faith, as the fundamental Qur’anic principle states.
It should be clear that the war on terror has been very short-sighted and, in many cases, a failure: while al-Qaida has been defeated in Afghanistan, it has established other strongholds in parts of Mali, Yemen, Somalia and Syria. There is no military solution, as exemplified by the drone strikes that kill civilians as well as terrorists, and breed more generations of grievance-filled victims.
There is a responsibility then for all of us to learn lessons: for Muslims to take ownership of the fight against extremist ideology; for all of us to expand the opportunities for democratic participation, and for the US to rethink its counter-productive war on terror.
We need to stop state warmongering as well as militant religious fundamentalism, and concentrate instead on pre-emptive peacemaking. Let these be the lessons of Woolwich.
There is dangerous talk of resurrecting the ‘snooper’s charter’. But illiberal legislation will never deliver security
The shocking violence on the streets of Woolwich fills us with horror and Liberty’s thoughts remain with the loved ones of the man who lost his life in this senseless attack. Acts like these and subsequent ugly reprisals are designed to terrorise and provoke, to draw bright red lines between races, religions, individuals and communities: to instil fear and foment grievances.
As we try to make sense of senselessness we must not let those who seek to sow division and hatred achieve their goal. Barbarity and intolerance, like love and compassion, know no racial or religious boundaries. The intelligent response is a reassertion, not a dereliction, of the values that unite us. Humanity, dignity, equal treatment.
We are still struggling to understand this brutality and, as information trickles in, build up a picture of events. The pressure on political leaders to provide answers is immense, so the prime minister’s calm assertion that he is “not in favour of kneejerk responses” is as courageous as it is heartening. “One of the best ways of defeating terrorism is to go about our normal lives”. He is right.
And he is right to deliver an indirect rebuttal to a small band of politicians whose siren voices are already back on the airwaves. It is deeply distasteful to play politics with fear, yet last night there were already calls for more surveillance and the return of control orders.
The proposal being most pressed is the communications data bill known as the snooper’s charter. The most ambitious surveillance programme in history, it was thankfully dropped from the Queen’s speech last month. The proposal – to require phone companies and internet providers to collect, store and process new data on their customers’ phone and web usage – would have intruded on the intimate online lives of every man, woman and child in the country. Contrary to the spin, it was not about “updating” powers but creating new ones that would have fundamentally re-cast the relationship between the individual and the State.
Suspects can already be put under heavy surveillance and serious criminals would have been able to evade the new measures with pay-as-you-go mobiles or encryption techniques. Simply, you don’t build a bigger haystack to find a needle. Nor would you install cameras and microphones in every bedroom in the land, just in case they become crime scenes one day. As history teaches, intelligence-led, targeted, criminal investigations are the best way to protect our safety and keep our society free.
What unites the securocrat campaigners of varied political stripes is involvement with failed counter terror policies of the past. The shameful and naive internment of foreign nationals failed to prevent homegrown terrorism. The great ID card folly and discriminatory stop and search failed to ever catch a terrorist. Extended pre-charge detention may have salved editorial appetites but it was unnecessary, divisive and counterproductive.
In the difficult days ahead, let us not be divided, terrorised or provoked. Let us instead unite around Britain’s best traditions of empathy, freedom and the rule of law.
Germany cannot carry the euro on its shoulders alone indefinitely. France needs to become a second anchor of growth and stability
There is no magic Keynesian bullet for the eurozone’s woes. But the spectacularly muddle-headed argument nowadays that too much austerity is killing Europe is not surprising. Commentators are consumed by politics, flailing away at any available target, while the “anti-austerity” masses apparently believe that there are easy cyclical solutions to tough structural problems.
The eurozone’s difficulties, I have long argued, stem from European financial and monetary integration having gotten too far ahead of actual political, fiscal, and banking union. This is not a problem with which Keynes was familiar, much less one that he sought to address.
Above all, any realistic strategy for dealing with the eurozone crisis must involve massive write-downs (forgiveness) of peripheral countries’ debt. These countries’ massive combined bank and government debt – the distinction everywhere in Europe has become blurred – makes rapid sustained growth a dream.
This is hardly the first time I have stressed the need for wholesale debt write-downs. Two years ago, in a commentary called “The Euro’s Pig-Headed Masters,” I wrote: “Europe is in constitutional crisis. No one seems to have the power to impose a sensible resolution of its peripheral countries’ debt crisis. Instead of restructuring the manifestly unsustainable debt burdens of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece (the PIGs), politicians and policymakers are pushing for ever-larger bailout packages with ever-less realistic austerity conditions.”
My sometime co-author Carmen Reinhart makes the same point, perhaps even more clearly. In a May 2010 Washington Post editorial (co-authored with Vincent Reinhart), she described “Five Myths About the European Debt Crisis” – among them, “Myth #3: Fiscal austerity will solve Europe’s debt woes.” We have repeated the mantra dozens of times in various settings, as any fair observer would confirm.
In a debt restructuring, the northern eurozone countries (including France) will see hundreds of billions of euros go up in smoke. Northern taxpayers will be forced to inject massive amounts of capital into banks, even if the authorities impose significant losses on banks’ large and wholesale creditors, as well they should. These hundreds of billions of euros are already lost, and the game of pretending otherwise cannot continue indefinitely.
A gentler way to achieve some modest reduction in public and private debt burdens would be to commit to a period of sustained but moderate inflation, as I recommended in December 2008 in a commentary entitled “Inflation is Now the Lesser Evil”. Sustained moderate inflation would help to bring down the real value of real estate more quickly, and potentially make it easier for German wages to rise faster than those in peripheral countries. It would have been a great idea four and a half years ago. It remains a good idea today.
What else needs to happen? The other steps involve economic restructuring at the national level and political integration of the eurozone. In another commentary, “A Centerless Euro Cannot Hold”, I concluded that “without further profound political and economic integration – which may not end up including all current eurozone members – the euro may not make it even to the end of this decade.”
Here, all eyes may be on Germany, but today it is really France that will play the central role in deciding the euro’s fate. Germany cannot carry the euro on its shoulders alone indefinitely. France needs to become a second anchor of growth and stability.
Temporary Keynesian demand measures may help to sustain short-run internal growth, but they will not solve France’s long-run competitiveness problems. At the same time, France and Germany must both come to terms with an approach that leads to far greater political union within a couple of decades. Otherwise, the coming banking union and fiscal transfers will lack the necessary political legitimacy.
As my colleague Jeffrey Frankel has remarked, for more than 20 years, Germany’s elites have insisted that the eurozone will not be a transfer union. But, in the end, ordinary Germans have been proved right, and the elites have been proved wrong. Indeed, if the eurozone is to survive, the northern countries will have to continue to help the periphery with new loans until access to private markets is restored.
So, given that Germany will be picking up many more bills (regardless of whether the eurozone survives), how can it best use the strength of its balance sheet to alleviate Europe’s growth problems? Certainly, Germany must continue to acquiesce in an ever-larger role for the European Central Bank, despite the obvious implicit fiscal risks. There is no safe path forward.
There are a number or schemes floating around for leveraging Germany’s lower borrowing costs to help its partner countries, beyond simply expanding the ECB’s balance sheet. For meaningful burden-sharing to work, however, eurozone leaders must stop dreaming that the single currency can survive another 20 or 30 years without much greater political union.
Debt write-downs and guarantees will inevitably bloat Germany’s government debt, as the authorities are forced to bail out German banks (and probably some neighboring countries’ banks). But the sooner the underlying reality is made transparent and becomes widely recognised, the lower the long-run cost will be.
To my mind, using Germany’s balance sheet to help its neighbours directly is far more likely to work than is the presumed “trickle-down” effect of a German-led fiscal expansion. This, unfortunately, is what has been lost in the debate about Europe of late: however loud and aggressive the anti-austerity movement becomes, there still will be no simple Keynesian cure for the single currency’s debt and growth woes.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013
While nothing can justify the killing of a British soldier, the link to Britain’s vicious occupations abroad cannot be ignored
I am a former soldier. I completed one tour of duty in Afghanistan, refused on legal and moral grounds to serve a second tour, and spent five months in a military prison as a result. When the news about the attack in Woolwich broke, by pure coincidence Ross Caputi was crashing on my sofa. Ross is a soft-spoken ex-US marine turned film-maker who served in Iraq and witnessed the pillaging and irradiation of Falluja. He is also a native of Boston, the scene of a recent homegrown terror attack. Together, we watched the news, and right away we were certain that what we were seeing was informed by the misguided military adventures in which we had taken part.
So at the very outset, and before the rising tide of prejudice and pseudo-patriotism fully encloses us, let us be clear: while nothing can justify the savage killing in Woolwich yesterday of a man since confirmed to have been a serving British soldier, it should not be hard to explain why the murder happened.
These awful events cannot be explained in the almost Texan terms of Colonel Richard Kemp, who served as commander of British forces in Afghanistan in 2001. He tweeted on last night that they were “not about Iraq or Afghanistan”, but were an attack on “our way of life”. Plenty of others are saying the same.
But let’s start by examining what emerged from the mouths of the assailants themselves. In an accent that was pure London, according to one of the courageous women who intervened at the scene, one alleged killer claimed he was “… fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan …”. It is unclear whether it was the same man, or his alleged co-assailant, who said “… bring our [Note: our] troops home so we can all live in peace”.
It should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home. We need to recognise that, given the continued role our government has chosen to play in the US imperial project in the Middle East, we are lucky that these attacks are so few and far between.
It is equally important to point out, however, that rejection of and opposition to the toxic wars that informed yesterday’s attacks is by no means a “Muslim” trait. Vast swaths of the British population also stand in opposition to these wars, including many veterans of the wars like myself and Ross, as well as serving soldiers I speak to who cannot be named here for fear of persecution.
Yet this anti-war view, so widely held and strongly felt, finds no expression in a parliament for whom the merest whiff of boot polish or military jargon causes a fit of “Tommy this, Tommy that …” jingoism. The fact is, there are two majority views in this country: one in the political body that says war, war and more war; and one in the population which says it’s had enough of giving up its sons and daughter abroad and now, again, at home.
For 12 years British Muslims have been set upon, pilloried and alienated by successive governments and by the media for things that they did not do. We must say clearly that the alleged actions of these two men are theirs alone, regardless of being informed by the wars, and we should not descend into yet another round of collective responsibility peddling.
Indeed, if there is collective responsibility for the killings, it belongs to the hawks whose policies have caused bloodbaths – directly, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, and indirectly in places as far apart as Woolwich and Boston, which in turn have created political space for the far right to peddle their hatred, as we saw in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich attack.
What we must do now is straightforward enough. Our own responsibilities are first of all to make sure innocents are not subject to blanket punishment for things that they did not do, and to force our government – safe in their houses – to put an end to Britain’s involvement in the vicious foreign occupations that have again created bloodshed in London.
Drone use and civilian deaths have decreased. However, the White House must set very clear limits on deploying them
For better or for worse, the public face of Barack Obama’s national security strategy is an armed drone. It’s hardly a surprise when one considers that in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, US drones have killed thousands of alleged “terrorists”, but little transparency from the Obama administration has accompanied this ramping up of military engagement.
Instead government officials speak mainly of the drone program’s successes. According to President Obama, the drone campaign has taken dozens of al Qaida members off the battlefield and has done so with minimal civilian deaths. Indeed, current CIA director John Brennan publicly claimed in 2011 that there had not been a “single collateral death” from US drone strikes in the previous year.
Drone critics have a much different take. They are passionate in their conviction that US drones are indiscriminately killing and terrorizing civilians. The Guardian’s own Glenn Greenwald argued recently that no “minimally rational person” can defend “Obama’s drone kills on the ground that they are killing The Terrorists or that civilian deaths are rare”. Conor Friedersdorf, an editor at the Atlantic and a vocal drone critic, wrote last year that liberals should not vote for President Obama’s re-election because of the drone campaign, which he claimed “kills hundreds of innocents, including children,” “terrorizes innocent Pakistanis on an almost daily basis” and “makes their lives into a nightmare worthy of dystopian novels”.
I disagree. Increasingly it appears that arguments like Friedersdorf makes are no longer sustainable (and there’s real question if they ever were). Not only have drone strikes decreased, but so too have the number of civilians killed – and dramatically so.
This conclusion comes not from Obama administration apologists but rather, Chris Woods, whose research has served as the empirical basis for the harshest attacks on the Obama Administration’s drone policy.
Woods heads the covert war program for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which maintains one of three major databases tabulating civilian casualties from US drone strikes. The others are the Long War Journal and the New America Foundation (full disclosure: I used to be a fellow there). While LWJ and NAJ estimate that drone strikes in Pakistan have killed somewhere between 140 and 300 civilians, TBIJ utilizes a far broader classification for civilians killed, resulting in estimates of somewhere between 411-884 civilians killed by drones in Pakistan. The wide range of numbers here speaks to the extraordinary challenge in tabulating civilian death rates.
There is little local reporting done on the ground in northwest Pakistan, which is the epicenter of the US drone program. As a result data collection is reliant on Pakistani news reporting, which is also dependent on Pakistani intelligence, which has a vested interest in playing up the negative consequences of US drones.
When I spoke with Woods last month, he said that a fairly clear pattern has emerged over the past year – far fewer civilians are dying from drones. “For those who are opposed to drone strikes,” says Woods there is historical merit to the charge of significant civilian deaths, “but from a contemporary standpoint the numbers just aren’t there.”
While Woods makes clear that one has to be “cautious” on any estimates of casualties, it’s not just a numeric decline that is being seen, but rather it’s a “proportionate decline”. In other words, the percentage of civilians dying in drone strikes is also falling, which suggests to Woods that US drone operators are showing far greater care in trying to limit collateral damage.
Woods estimates are supported by the aforementioned databases. In Pakistan, New America Foundation claims there have been no civilian deaths this year and only five last year; Long War Journal reported four deaths in 2012 and 11 so far in 2013; and TBIJ reports a range of 7-42 in 2012 and 0-4 in 2013. In addition, the drop in casualty figures is occurring not just in Pakistan but also in Yemen.
These numbers are broadly consistent with what has been an under-reported decline in drone use overall. According to TBIJ, the number of drone strikes went from 128 in 2010 to 48 in 2012 and only 12 have occurred this year. These statistics are broadly consistent with LWJ and NAF’s reporting. In Yemen, while drone attacks picked up in 2012, they have slowed dramatically this year. And in Somalia there has been no strike reported for more than a year.
Ironically, these numbers are in line with the public statements of CIA director Brennan, and even more so with Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, chairman of the Select Intelligence Committee, who claimed in February that the numbers she has received from the Obama administration suggest that the typical number of victims per year from drone attacks is in “the single digits”.
Part of the reason for these low counts is that the Obama administration has sought to minimize the number of civilian casualties through what can best be described as “creative bookkeeping”. The administration counts all military-age males as possible combatants unless they have information (posthumously provided) that proves them innocent. Few have taken the White House’s side on this issue (and for good reason) though some outside researchers concur with the administration’s estimates.
Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University has long maintained that civilian deaths from drones in Pakistan are dramatically overstated. She argues that considering the alternatives of sending in the Pakistani military or using manned aircraft to flush out jihadists, drone strikes are a far more humane method of war-fighting.
So how does one explain this rather important shift in the US drone war?
The reasons appear to be three-fold. First, as technology has improved so too have the capabilities of drone operators to be more precise. Second, there appears to be shift in targeting, particularly away from so-called “signature strikes” that rely more on behavior than specific intelligence to justify kills. Considering the criticism of the program – from both inside and outside the US – it’s difficult to imagine this hasn’t given impetus for Obama administration officials to take even greater caution in how drones are utilized. Or to put it more directly, drone critics are having a constructive impact.
But there’s a third reason: as the war in Afghanistan has begun to wind down the use of drones against militants across the border from Pakistan has declined as well.
For several years now this has been the worst kept secret about drones: namely that they were disproportionately targeting not al Qaida, but rather Pakistan Taliban and Afghan Taliban militants. The latter were being killed because they threatened US troops in Afghanistan; the former as a sort of quid pro quo to Pakistan for their granting of permission to kill AQ operatives. This speaks, however, to one of the more troubling aspects of the current drone program: it’s dubious legality.
The Obama Administration has long argued that its counter-terrorism program in Pakistan targets member of al Qaida or those who pose an “imminent threat” to the United States. That would exclude Taliban militants, no matter how nefarious their intentions might be. But a blockbuster report last month from Jonathan Landay, which oddly received little attention in scandal-besotted Washington, exposed the fact that the Obama administration is simply not being truthful about who its drone program is targeting. Relying on top-secret US intelligence reports, Landay revealed that the lion’s share of drone strikes in Pakistan are against militants and not al Qaida; and that in more than a few occasions, drone operators are not even sure who they are killing.
Quite simply, the drone war is merely an arm of the US war in Afghanistan. This targeting of Taliban foot soldiers in Pakistan is not covered under the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) that was passed by Congress in 2001. As a result the strikes are likely illegal, both under US law but also international law.
Beyond the legal issues there is also the question of transparency. Obama administration officials have still not revealed their targeting procedures. They refuse to acknowledge the use of signature strikes, nor have they released the Justice Department memo that legally justified the killing of a US citizen in Yemen, who had joined al Qaida. The recent decision to move the drone program from the CIA to the US military is a positive step in the right direction and has the potential to offer more clarity about what the US is doing. But this only a first step.
Moreover, the drone program appears to operate in a sort of strategic netherworld in which counter-terrorism operations continue ad infinitum in an unceasing game of Whack-a-Terrorist. Drones are and should be an integral part of any effective counter-terrorism program. There is little doubt that they have played an effective role in reducing al Qaida ranks in Pakistan and putting cells in Yemen on the run (a fact acknowledged by Osama bin Laden). So long as there are jihadist terrorists intent on striking America, a drone capability will likely be necessary.
Yet at the same time it begs the question – how does this end? Considering that the Obama administration has basically defined the battlefield in the war on terror as global it’s hard to see what, if any, limits exist on the use of drones. In fact, the irony of drones being such an effective and precise killing tool is that their use could theoretically continue forever. If they’re not killing civilians, what’s the harm?
Indeed, the focus on security from terrorism has seemed to cloud the vision of policymakers and blinded them to the public image of the US being created by the drone program as well as the recruitment capabilities for al Qaida and others. There has been, as of yet, no serious backlash from the Obama Administration’s promiscuous use of drones. But the optimal word here is “yet.”
As the president delivers a major national security speech, it is incumbent upon him to offer more information about the program, explain how targets are chosen and above all place clear and identifiable limitations on their use – limitations that will continue after he leaves office and that can be codified for international norms guiding the use of drones. In addition, if the administration believes that drones should be used in the fight against militants in Pakistan then it needs to ensure it has clear legal justification to do so – and not rely on a wink and nod to legal niceties.
In the end, it is Obama’s lack of candor on the drone program that has led to so much disinformation has undermined whatever legitimacy the program should theoretically enjoy. It’s not too late for the White House to correct the record and place not just the drone program but it’s larger counter-terrorism efforts in a clear legal and institutional framework. Until then, the questions and accusations will keep coming.