Archive for January, 2005

Unexpected

From the Torygraph, an interesting report on the latest European Constitution poll. ICM’s survey, the first to be carried out using the actual question to be asked in the referendum, showed 39% in favour and 41% against – radically better figures than any previous poll.

Naturally…

“The ICM findings will fuel the debate over the Government’s proposed wording, amid claims that it has been designed to provoke a “Yes” vote. However, ministers will respond that it has been subject to consultation, agreed by the Tories and Liberal Democrats, and is expected to be endorsed by the independent Electoral Commission, which polices referendums and recommended an almost identical wording last year.

Nick Sparrow, the managing director of ICM Research, said last night: “The referendum question as the Government has announced it does point people towards a ‘Yes’ answer and uses warm words such as ‘approve’.”

Well, the proposed question does actually reflect the constitutional point it is meant to decide. After all, it is proposed to hold a referendum after Parliament has debated the text of the treaty and approved it subject to referendum. So the question (“Should the UK approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?”) is exactly aligned with the facts. But all that would satisfy the isolationists would be something along the lines of “Do YOU want to be LEGALLY RESPONSIBLE IN COURT for EVILLY RIPPING THE MAGNA CARTA UP IN THE INTERNATIONAL EUROCONSPIRACY to DESTROY BRITAIN? WELL DO YOU? If so, please climb up the ladder, put on the blindfold and find the pencil. Then write the random six-figure code in the box provided on ballot part 3, subsection Vii. If on the other hand you want to REMAIN A DECENT PATRIOTIC PERSON and SAVE THE POUND AND THE SCOTTISH REGIMENTS AND THE QUEEN, place the unmarked ballot in the box.”

1. Yes, It Wasn’t Any Worse Than We Thought

Indeed, quite a lot of people voted (latest figure 57% or perhaps somewhat less depending on reports). And there was no bloodbath comparable to (say) the slaughter of pilgrims in Najaf last year…

2. But That Ain’t Saying Much

..but some 44 persons were blown up by suicide bombers, around 100 injured, and that’s before we get to the RAF Hercules, of which more below. It seems to be a rapidly spreading meme that these elections were somehow comparable to the 1994 election in South Africa. We are asked if “liberals” or “the left” would have doubted the democracy of that contest because not enough Afrikaaners voted. This is silly. In South Africa in 1994, you could vote for a candidate whose name, record and policy you knew, in the constituency you lived in. You could drive to the poll if you so wished, because it was not necessary to ban all road traffic for fear of suicide car bombs. You could leave the country if you didn’t want to participate. The lights were on, the telephone network functioned, there was water and there was fuel. Nobody shot down any aeroplanes. Nobody hit the US Embassy with a 107mm artillery rocket on the eve of the vote. And, crucially, the Afrikaaners had sufficient confidence in the new dispensation not to go to war if they lost. Such confidence is absent, hence the war.

3. That Hercules.

Some voices have been moaning about “the left” even mentioning the crash of the RAF C-130. Step forward, Belgravia Dispatch. This is reminiscent of the French journalist who was asked by the US Ambassador in South Vietnam “why he always saw the hole in the doughnut”. His answer, possibly unbeatable, was “Because, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, there is a hole in the doughnut”. It’s just as much news as romantic photos taken at the 5 (count’em!) polling stations in Baghdad where journalists were allowed to be. And, if it was indeed shot down, it is just as significant and important. Here’s why.

It was making the trip from Baghdad to Balad. That’s interesting in itself, because it’s not even as far as Heathrow to Gatwick. And we know that the US Air Force has been hugely increasing the amount of freight and personnel they move inside Iraq by air, because the roads are too dangerous (That’s what the head of Third Air Force said. Not me.) Balad is the biggest US logistic base in Iraq, home of the 13th Corps Support Command, and it is surrounded by a truly gigantic security perimeter to prevent aircraft going there from being shot down. What does this tell us about security North of Baghdad?

If the claim of responsibility by Ansar al-Islam is valid, it also tells us something about the insurgency. They mention using an “anti-tank missile” on the plane. Now, it’s unlikely that this would be an RPG unless they attacked the aircraft during take -off or approach – not enough range. It may mean they are adapting a wire-guided missile to point at planes, which would give them much more range and also a guidance system immune to the defensive aids aboard our aircraft. These systems are intended to confuse heat-seeking and radar-guided weapons, and would have no benefit against a visually aimed and wire-guided weapon. Defensive aids protect against the SA-7 series weapons the insurgents have been using. Extending the security perimeter protects against small arms and RPGs (their next move). They may have adapted again. (Note: it is by no means certain the aircraft was shot down. But the possible causes of such a n accident are limited: basically a catastrophic structural failure (very unlikely), a mid-air collision (ruled out because no other aircraft are missing) – or hostile action.)

4. It’s Possible to Vote for Un-democracy

In the absence of named candidates or any real campaign about policy, what is an election? The electorate seems to have broken just as predicted, along confessional and ethnic lines. Everyone thought the Shia would turn out in hordes and vote for the UIA because it was the party of Shi’ism. Everyone thought the Kurds would vote in droves for the Kurdish parties because they were the Kurdistan bloc. Everyone thought the Sunnis wouldn’t vote. Question: is this an election at all, or a census defining tribal blocks? It will take monumental and unlikely restraint for either the Kurdish or Shia leaders not to draw up the constitution to suit their power interests. In which case (continued movement towards Kurdistan; theocracy) the war will certainly go on.

5. But, of course, it’s possible to vote for democracy

Upshot? Certainly, it’s impressive and good that there has been an election of sorts. And it’s possible that, during the debates of the new assembly and the various regional bodies something like democratic practice will emerge. Democracy is a practice, not a thing. But there is no reason to think that the Iraq problem is much nearer solution. 54 people were killed yesterday, and this with totalitarian levels of security control. What will happen when the travel ban, vehicle ban, etc are relaxed?

Lipstick on a Pig

As seems to be the way of it, as soon as anything seems to get better we find it’s just got worse. You would have thought that it was nothing but good news that the people detained in Belmarsh and Woodhill prisons under the Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act (that’s the one which allowed them to be detained indefinitely, without being told the charges against them) are going to be released, now that Charles Clarke has accepted the House of Lords ruling that their detention was illegal.

But no, they found a way to make it worse. Instead of locking them up, Clarky wants to impose a form of court order similar (here we go) to an Anti-Social Behaviour Order upon them. This would provide powers to forbid them from meeting named people, deny them the use of mobile phones or the internet, or even to place them under house arrest. Just as with the ATCSA, the orders would be issued by the Home Secretary on the basis of evidence that would not be disclosed. Just as with ATCSA, the test would be one of reasonable suspicion. If I’m not very much mistaken that’s not just much weaker than the criminal test (“beyond reasonable doubt”), it’s even weaker than the civil test (“on the balance of probabilities”). Just as with ATCSA, the only review would still be without you or your lawyer being told the charges against you.

The kicker is, though, that the new powers will apply not just to foreigners like ATCSA but to everyone. And they will no longer be restricted to those accused of international terrorism, but to terrorism in general. Now this should worry everyone. After all, if you give people more powers you should never be surprised if they use them. The Terrorism Act 2000, introduced to help fight – ah – terrorists, has since been frequently used to lock up participants in demonstrations. Who knows who might get a “control order” (or should that be banning order under the Suppression of Communism Act imposed on them in the future? This isn’t putting lipstick on the pig. It’s more like dragging the swine away and dyeing its hair blonde (L’Oreal. Because I’m worth it.), smearing unguents into its scratchy skin and polishing its yellow teeth, then taking it to see your friends.

But however hard you try with the make-up, you won’t convince them it’s not a pig. As soon as Tina trots into their dining room, they’ll see her trotters and curly tail. When your porky date knocks over a table and guzzles everything on it, roots for crumbs around your feet with her snout and craps in the corner all the while oinking frenziedly, they won’t believe a word from you. Indeed, to borrow a phrase, there will be nothing you could say now they would ever believe. In the end they will likely throw you out in the street, without your dinner or friends and with a furious peroxide sow to placate. And doing this sort of thing in the streets late at night with your tie under one ear tends to attract cops.

Polls!

Anthony Wells has a very interesting post about the possible sources of surprises in the election campaign over at the Polling Report (a species of advanced headquarters he’s set up for the campaign). Read it, it’s worth while.

Broadly, his argument is that the apparent stability of the polls conceals a considerable potential for shocks, from a wide variety of sources – the end of tactical voting, a surge in the Liberal vote, a breakthrough by small parties, “events”, unexpectedly successful Conservative targeting and more. I have to agree. I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll say it again – there is a considerable lake of freefloating, unfocused discontent out there, and the party who can channel it will win. It wouldn’t take much to get hold of it – the question is what. At the moment it is bubbling around single issues – but those could always be aggregated. Note the talk of an alliance between Fathers4Justice, UKIP and the Countryside Alliance. A truly bizarre coalition, if probably entertaining. Less flamboyantly, there’s the possibility of more Richard Taylor-style protest candidates from the Left (anti-war, or anti-PFI). And there’s always George Galloway, who’s putting his libel winnings into a campaign in Bethnal Green. Wellsy seems to think that Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veryarse..sorry…Veritas might be a serious proposition. I doubt it. (Doesn’t that New York Times profile look twice as batshit crazy now..)

What it boils down to is that we’re looking at a political pool of errors. “Pool of errors” is a navigational term for the situation where, not knowing where you are, you estimate the maximum distance off course in any direction you could be. This gives you the pool of errors, which you know you are in. Although there are some handrails that set the edges (there isn’t going to be a Tory landslide, the marginals don’t favour a Lib Dem win outright, but Blair is surely not *that* popular), the rest is uncertain.

Via Kos, it is reported that wounded US servicemen returned from Iraq are being billed $450 a month for their meals in Walter Reed Army Medical Centre. Now, you can probably think of a few things to snarl about this without my assistance, but things aren’t that great over here.

After all, the Reserve Forces Acts 1985 and 1996 provide that British reservists who are mobilised have a right to be reinstated in their civilian job (or to be compensated). Not only that, but quite detailed arrangements for dispute resolution are set up, including tribunals, appeals and whatnot. There’s only one problem, though, which is that the government has made it a matter of official policy that no public funds will be used to help those reservists whose right to reinstatement is denied. So – you’ve lost your job and have probably spent the last six months on a much lower rate of pay to your civilian salary. But you’re meant to lawyer-up at your own expense. Now, justice delayed, as they say, is justice denied. Some two dozen territorials have already lost their jobs and there may yet be more.

How long before there is an ECHR case about this?

The Dutch armed forces have, it seems, encountered a slightly unusual difficulty in Iraq, where they contribute 1,350 troops to the British-led MND(SE)’s northernmost sector. Simply, the soldiers’ trade union isn’t happy about their T’s and C’s. Yes, you read that correctly – the trade union. It’s called the AFMP and it’s angry that the field-allowance paid out to soldiers on operations isn’t enough. A Dutch soldier in the field gets 39€ a day extra for his pains, plus 27 US dollars a day in expenses.

This has led to a curious consequence of the dollar slide. The figure for expenses was calculated in booming strong-dollar 1996, presumably for the Balkans – but now its value has shrunk quite a bit, to the benefit of the Dutch treasury and the cost of the soldiers. They also aren’t happy about the 39 euros, either, on the principle that it might be fair enough for UN duty in the Balkans but doesn’t reflect the degree of danger in Iraq.

Whatever the upshot turns out to be, it won’t change that much because the Dutch are committed to join the Coalition of Peering at your Watch and Edging towards the Door, having said they will pull out by May. Which means that at some point near the general election, Britain will most probably have to backfill them. Watch out for intense denials of this followed by action.

Over at Eurosavant, this story unleashed a spat in comments with some interesting anti-Dutch stereotypes. (€S seems to have a slight problem with trolls) You can probably imagine (long hair, dope, too good with money etc) what the line taken was. It’s probably worth pointing out, then, that the Dutch forces have quite a good reputation with the British, based on 25 years of doing arduous Arctic exercises together with the Dutch Marines in Northern Norway as part of the NATO Amphibious Task Group. I’ve heard very little of anything from their area, which may either point to my inattention or to a degree of quiet efficiency…rather Dutch, you might say.

Graphs!

Not so long ago I responded to a post on Mark Kleiman’s weblog concerning the “competitiveness leagues” that (usually) rightwing organisations like to prepare. I produced some methodology questions and some questions about content, here. I also proposed to check the performance of one of these against results, and in the end I did.

The one I looked at was the “world competitiveness ranking” published by the Swiss Institute of Management Development, who can be found here. Figures were available for the years 2000-2004, for some 60 countries and regions. Not all of these, however, ran through the whole period or were comparable with the OECD growth stats, in the OECD Economic Outlook No.76. I decided to plot the GDP growth rate on one Y-axis and the ranking on the other, with time on the X-axis. (GDP figures are in real terms, annual percentage change.)

So, how did it turn out? Well, the first point must be that it worked rather better than I expected. The chart for France, for example:graph

Well, that seems clear enough. The chart for the UK isn’t bad either, but it does have some noticeable outliers – 2001′s rise up the ranking is reflected by a corresponding slowdown, and 2002′s fall in the ranking mirrors a noticeable acceleration in growth, although overall it seems quite good. Australia‘s chart is well correlated, too.

It’s not that simple, though: try this chart for the Czech Republic. If there’s a correlation here it’s weak. The charts for Poland, Turkey, Denmark, and Canada, though, are nowhere near as good. In fact they show quite a marked tendency to go in the opposite direction to the growth figures – the curves for Canada, in particular, look like mirror images of each other. Turkey’s ranking fell gradually over the period of the study, but after a sharp recession in 2001 (no doubt due to the currency and political crisis that year) its growth rate soars away. Japan’s is rather hard to read – although the correlation seems very strong, this is only part of the story. The change in Japan’s ranking seems to track the business cycle, but in absolute terms the ranking is very high for an economy producing not very much growth.

Conclusions from this fairly unscientific review? Better than I thought, but falls down pretty badly on quite a few cases. I think I may also compare some of these with the aggregate figures (OECD and world growth rates), as I suspect some of the correlation is with the business cycle.

And will some of you comment on this? I can’t work out why, but people seem to prefer the sarcastic abuse and international gun-running to the economics posts.

Neeka’s Backlog refers to this really unpleasant and deeply weird story from the Moscow News. Apparently some 20 Russian MPs (drawn from the batshit crazy Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky but also the Communists and the “Motherland” group, which some claim is a front for the government) have signed a petition for the prohibition of “all” Jewish organisations on the grounds they were “extremists”.

What is most alarming about this is this par:

“The MPs (representing the Communist faction, the nationalist Motherland party, and the radical Liberal Democrats) and about 500 other people, mostly journalists and editors of nationalist newspapers, called the Jewish religion “anti-Christian and inhumane, which practices extend even to ritual murders”.

Ye gods, ritual murder charges? What year is it? This can only be described as profoundly sick, but everything must be all right, because they took it back:

“A group of deputies from the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, has retracted a demand, sent earlier to the Prosecutor General’s Office, to ban all Jewish organizations in Russia.

One of the deputies who signed the open letter to the prosecutor general published in the Rus Pravoslavnaya newspaper, Aleksandr Krutov, retracted the petition. He added that the prosecution had not started to check the facts stated in the letter, Interfax news agency reported.”

Well, almost all right. What is that line about not starting to check the facts actually meant to mean? That it’s all OK because they didn’t actually start looking for ritual murderers? Or that the prosecution (prosecutor?) really ought to have taken a closer look? (More details.) Ha’aretz has a story here that analyses this curious remark as referring to the fact that the courts prosecute persons accused of spreading anti-Semitism without inquiring into whether their propaganda is true. The likelihood of same may be judged from statements above.

Back in November, a row broke out when the rightwing thinktank MEMRI attempted to sue Juan Cole of Informed Comment for being rude to them. Specifically he accused them of being biased towards the Israeli government in the summaries of Middle Eastern media they give away to opinion-formers in the US. As the row developed, he called attention to the careers in Israeli intelligence of two of its founders.

It will surprise few that in the end they didn’t sue.

Cole today links to this Ha’aretz story, implying that the revived psychological-warfare unit referred to might have had something to do with it, which would be silly if it wasn’t for these key pars:

“In October 1999, Aluf Benn revealed in Haaretz that members of the unit used the Israeli media to emphasize reports initiated by the unit that it managed to place in the Arab press. He reported that the news reports focused on Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in terror activity.

Psychological warfare officers were in touch with Israeli journalists covering the Arab world, gave them translated articles from Arab papers (which were planted by the IDF) and pressed the Israeli reporters to publish the same news here.

That was meant to strengthen the perception of the Iranian threat in Israeli public opinion.”

AP reports from Baghdad that air traffic control diverted both the Royal Jordanian flights to the Iraqi capital yesterday due to the airfield being under mortar fire. Which probably explains why (as pointed out to me) neither the BGIA nor the Airline Transport flights from Sharjah to Baghdad have left for two days. Neither have the corresponding flights ex-Baghdad turned up. When even the crazy-arsed Russian desperados aren’t desperate enough to go there, you know there’s a serious problem.

Although the AP report mentions that RJA were planning to operate as normal today, their online departures board doesn’t show it (which could of course be deliberate). In fact all traces have vanished from their website except for the route map (which tells you that you get 75 frequent flyer points for the Amman-Baghdad trip. And a medal. No, I made that bit up.) One wonders if the decision to close Baghdad Airport over the election might be turning into an exercise in making a virtue of necessity.

You can’t say anyone’s keeping this a secret though. Try the AIP (Aeronautical Information Publication) for Iraq, available here (MSWord document – note 229pp). There’s much in it of interest: for example, although the pages are now footered “General Establishment of Civil Aviation” and there’s a big Iraqi eagle and some Arabic on the front, it still makes it very clear that the control authority for Iraq’s airspace is the US Air Force Regional Air Movements Coordinating Centre. Hardly a surprise, but observant minds will note that the text claims that the people you have to ask are the Iraqi Ministry of Transport, although your slot request form goes to RAMCC and to one of various airfield managers whose email addresses end af.mil. Oh, and who is this “contact” who seems to have a US phone number? (bizarrely, in Yonkers, NY.) Curious. Amusingly, too, the various Iraqi organisations cited don’t have phone numbers or postal addresses yet (although MSWord comments mutely ask “Correct?”). And the whole section on charts is crossed “TEMPORARILY SUSPENDED”, as is the section on weather reporting. Oh, and the section on search and rescue, which incorporates the following gem:

“LOCATION: At all of the Iraqi Governorates What?

Mind you, they must surely be joking about the email address for Basra Airport Ops: basrahairops@hotmail.com No wonder we’ve got problems if the best the RAF in Iraq can do for communications is a Hotmail account. I imagine someone is sweating under a tin roof, scrolling through 56 penis-enlargement ads looking for the weather forecasts….it’s a strange world.





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