LIBYA – BREAKING THE ARMS EMBARGO

Recent revelations from France that the French military has been supplying small arms to the anti Gaddafi rebels has triggered discussion about whether this action breaches the terms of the arms embargo imposed on Libya by Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973.  Supporters of arming the rebels say it does not allegedly because Security Council Resolution 1973 allows “all necessary measures” to protect civilians.  Purportedly “all necessary measures” can extend to arming civilians if this is necessary for their protection.

This line of reasoning is absurd.  The arms embargo is imposed by Security Council Resolution 1970.  This forbids any and all shipments of arms to Libya without distinguishing between the government forces or the rebels.  Security Council Resolution 1973 reaffirms this embargo and contains further provisions for its enforcement.  Neither Resolution 1970 nor Resolution 1973 say that the rebels are excluded from the embargo.  Had this been the intention the Resolutions would have said as much.  To suggest that the expression “all necessary measures” in one part of Resolution 1973 somehow invalidates or qualifies the arms embargo in another part of Resolution 1973, thereby rendering the Resolution self contradictory and void on one of its most important points, is nonsensical.

I would add that both Resolutions 1970 and 1973 end with the expression that the “Security Council remains seized of the matter”.  In other words the Security Council has ownership of the Resolutions. This means that it is for the Security Council and not for the French or the British or anyone else by themselves to decide what steps are “necessary” to protect civilians and whether the arms embargo imposed by the Resolutions should be relaxed or set aside.  If the French, the British or anyone else feel that arming the rebels is “necessary” to protect civilians then according to the text of the Resolutions they have to seek permission to do this from the Security Council, which is the only body that has the power to decide the matter.  If the Security Council decides that such a step is needed then it can relax the arms embargo by amending Resolutions 1970 and 1973.

In other words the French arming of the rebels is simply another in a long list of breaches of the two Resolutions.  It is not even the most flagrant.  The bombing and killing of civilians in Tripoli and elsewhere is. 

An at least equally serious breach of the Resolutions arises from the presence of military or paramilitary personnel in Libya to provide training and advice to the rebels and to provide guidance to NATO’s bombers.  Claims that this does not breach Resolution 1973 because these personnel are supposedly not an “occupation force” again ignores the simple wording of Resolution 1973, which clearly forbids an occupation force “in any form” and “on any part” (ie even the smallest part) of Libyan territory.  This clearly forbids the deployment of so much as a single soldier. To argue otherwise is ridiculous.

In reality any foreign armed presence on the territory of a state without the permission or agreement of the government of that state is an “occupation force” and it is absurd to argue otherwise. As for the claim I have seen, that the soldiers who have been seen in Libya are not an occupation force because they are retired rather than serving soldiers, those who make this claim are obviously unaware that paragraph 9 of Resolution 1970 (expressly reaffirmed by Resolution 1973) also prohibits the entry of mercenaries into Libya and calls on UN Member States to act to prevent the deployment there of mercenaries when they are their own nationals.

The simple reality is that the operation against Libya is now so far in breach of Resolutions 1970 and 1973 that there is no point in trying to relate it to those Resolutions.  In truth the Resolutions were never more than a figleaf for military action, which would surely have happened anyway whether the Resolutions were passed or not.  

PUBLIC SECTOR STRIKE

In disussing the public sector strike today the British newspapers have divided into two camps.  One is a large group of right wing newspapers (the Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and the Sun).  This group unequivocally condemns the strike often in the harshest terms.  The other is a much smaller group of left and centrist newspapers (the Guardian, the Independent and the Mirror), whose editorial pages have to accommodate the fact that many of their readers support the strike.  These too oppose the strike whilst expressing some pallid words of sympathy for the strikers.

It needs to be said clearly that whether the strike succeeds or fails the strikers deserve sympathy and support.  As someone who has worked in the same field in both the public and the private sector I can unequivocally say that workers in the public sector have to work harder for far longer hours and for much lower pay than equivalent workers in the private sector.  This is so despite the fact that the work the great majority of public sector workers do is more difficult and more important for society than most of the work done in the private sector.  This reality has over the last thirty years been clouded by the exponential growth within the public sector of an overpaid and inefficient managerial class.  The point that is rarely made or admitted is that this managerial class is the product of the unending “reforms” of the public sector which since the 1980s have sought to introduce into the public sector the cultural mores and practices of the private sector.  Despite this development my underlying point about the greater necessity and importance of the work the public sector still holds true.  That this is so can be easily illustrated by the fact that though it is difficult to imagine any class or group of private sector workers so indispensable that modern society could not function without them it is absolutely impossible to imagine a modern industrialised society without such public sector workers as teachers, health workers or policemen and women.

Once upon a time this fact was well understood.  In the heyday of British power Victorian public servants were well regarded and well paid.  Victorian civil service salaries were much higher than equivalent salaries today and Victorian civil servants enjoyed lifestyles of a sort that no equivalent civil servant today could even dream of.  Thus William Michael Rossetti, brother of the painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti and of the poetess Christina Rossetti, could maintain a large family in some style by working full time as Senior Assistant Secretary of the Inland Revenue whilst still having the time to be a founder member of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, a member of the Shelley Society, a prolific literary editor and critic and the person who introduced Walt Whitman to a British readership.

Lest anyone suggest that this difference in attitude applied only to the upper tiers of the Victorian civil service, let me say that on the contrary it extended all the way down to the lowliest public sector worker or clerk.  There is simply no comparison between the high regard in which the Victorians held such supposedly lowly officials as police and postal workers and the barely concealed contempt in which they are held today.  The modern practice of scapegoating such workers as the cause of the country’s problems would have struck the Victorians as counterproductive and absurd.

This scapegoating has now reached the point where public sector workers though comparatively low paid and overworked are expected to make the biggest sacrifices in order to get the country out of an economic crisis which they have in no way caused.  This demand goes hand in hand with overblown and ridiculous claims about “gold plated pensions” in the public sector, which are typically made by right wing journalists and commentators whose rates of pay and pensions are many times higher and who can of course be counted on to resist any suggestion that they make sacrifices for example by paying more in taxes.  In the meantime those who are actually responsible for the crisis, the millionaires in the City with their multi million pound bonuses, walk off free.

BRITAIN AND THE WORLD ON THE SLOPES OF AN ECONOMIC VOLCANO

The economic news in Britain goes from bad to worse.  Though interest rates are close to zero house prices are falling and retail sales are collapsing.  Latest GDP figures for what they are worth show an economy that has flatlined.  Given that inflation is said to be 5% real wages are falling and what is even more astonishing given the very low interest rates  disposable income is  also falling.  Meanwhile the Coalition’s hope that job losses in the public sector would be made up by job creation in the private sector are proving delusional.  With house prices and retail sales falling retail chains are closing outlets and are laying off people by the thousand.  I visited Portobello market for a walk today and was horrified at how many of the shops there are boarded up.  A few months ago the government and the media were congratulating themselves on a manufacturing recovery.  That has proved to be a mirage with manufacturing output such as it is is now contracting.  Meanwhile despite all the brave talk of a fiscal consolidation and of spending cuts the budget deficit is actually growing as tax receipts fall and social security spending rises because of the economy’s decline.

All this is extremely dangerous.  The Bank of England has said that it will not raise interest rates whilst the economy remains so weak.  In truth it has no choice.  Given the fall in real wages and in disposable income any rise in interest rates at a time when household budgets are under such strain and house prices are already falling would lead to a foreclosure and repossessions crisis the like of which we have probably never seen.  House prices would go into freefall causing the weak underlying position of the banks to become exposed.  We could in that case easily find ourselves facing a bank run and credit shutdown worse than the one in 2008 and this at a time when the government’s fiscal position and therefore its ability to take palliative action is far weaker than it was in 2008. 

On the other hand keeping interest rates so low at a time of inflation punishes savers and prevents capital accumulation, which is vital for the economy’s long term return to health.  How is the financial system going to recover to the point when it can start to lend if people are being deterred from saving?  As it is the money the Bank of England and other Central Banks have pumped into an unreformed financial system through such devices as quantitative easing has largely vanished into the black hole of speculation in products like derivatives and commodities.  This has provided a temporary boost to the Stock Market and enabled the bankers to pay themselvers their accustomed bonuses but it has done nothing to cure the underlying problems in the economy or in the financial system. 

In addition despite protestations to the contrary there is no doubt that the slack monetary policies and poor fiscal discipline of the world’s Central Banks, first and foremost the US Federal Reserve Board but also the European Central Bank, the Bank of China and the Bank of England, is the cause of the worldwide inflation as confidence in currencies such as the dollar, the euro and the pound has weakened and as the speculation they have encouraged has pushed up prices for commodities like oil and food.  This in turn has led to the decline in disposable income and falling demand that is causing the present problems.

What makes this picture even more alarming is that there are clear signs that things are going wrong everywhere.  Economic news from the US appears to be every bit as bad as it is in Britain with the fiscal position over in the US being actually and significantly worse than it is in Britain.  The problems of the Eurozone are so well known as to require no discussion.  In India inflation is now running at 10% and the economy shows all the signs of severe overheating.  China is reporting industrial production as flat in the first three weeks of June suggesting a severe fall off in global demand whilst its massive fiscal and monetary stimulus has generated inflation within its own economy (currently running at around 6%) and left its financial system exposed to bad debt.

It seems to me that what is happening is that the massive reflationary exercises carried out in the US and China and elsewhere at the end of 2008 and at the beginning of 2009 have now run their course.  They did not fix the underlying problem of the world economy, which is a grotesque excess of debt caused by a banking system that is completely dysfunctional and a trade system that is completely unbalanced.  On the contrary by adding more debt, by creating inflation, by increasing trade imbalances, by weakening the fiscal position of governments and by postponing a proper reform and restructuring of the financial system, they may have made things worse.

The response of policy makers to this gathering crisis is the same everywhere: play for time in the hope that something will turn up.  Thus Greece gets its bailout though everyone acknowledges that it will in the end only make matters worse since Greece has no prospect of repaying its debts.  In Britain and the US the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve Board insist they will keep interest rates low despite the havoc this is causing through the inflation it is generating.  Real action to deal with the underlying problems, such as a genuine nationalisation of the banks accompanied by an orderly cancellation of debts and a review of the system of international trade, continues to be furiously resisted.  Even the most moderate proposals to deal with the real cause of the problems fail because of the resistance they meet.  When the German government sensibly raised the possibility of Greece’s creditors agreeing to a partial debt write off or “hair cut” the response bordered on the hysterical. In the absence of any real action it is difficult to see what it is that will turn up to turn things right but let us hope that whatever it is it turns up soon.

BLAIRITE PLOTTING

This weekend we have witnessed the latest in a seemingly endless succession of Blairite plots to recapture the leadership of the Labour party.  That is how I interpret the flood of leaks and articles published this week whose obvious purpose has been to damage Ed Miliband and to call into question his leadership of the Labour party. 

These Blairite plots extend back to the autumn of 2006, following Blair’s forced announcement of his resignation.  They all have the same objective, which is to make David Miliband the leader of the Labour party.  They exactly parallel the Thatcherite plots within the Conservative party in the decade following Thatcher’s fall in the autumn of 1990.  As is the case with the Labour party now Thatcher’s successors then (John Major and William Hague) had to face a seemingly unending series of plots whose purpose was to make Michael Portillo leader of the Conservative party. 

Both sets of plots share a common characteristic.  On both occasions the plotters have been deluded on the subject of their champions’ public appeal.  Far from being the sure fire election winners their supporters have supposed Michael Portillo and David Miliband are deeply unpopular with most voters.  The irony is that this unpopularity is largely due to the way they have become identified in the public mind with the endless plotting undertaken on their behalf.  In both cases this has meant that when Portillo and David Miliband have faced actual electors they have lost.  Portillo unexpectedly lost his seat in the 1997 general election and came third in the party leadership election of 2001.  David Miliband lost the party leadership election of 2010 because trade union voters, who share the sentiments of most voters, rejected him and voted for his brother.  The plotting carried out on Michael Portillo’s and David Miliband’s behalf has therefore had a paradoxical result.  By making them unpopular it has ensured that neither has become the leader of their respective party.  Instead it has brought their respective careers to a premature end.  Both have been forced into political retirement so that Portillo is now a guest on television programmes and David Miliband is a backbench MP.

The one big difference between Portillo and Miliband is that whilst there is no doubt that Portillo was party to the plots undertaken on his behalf I doubt that this has been the case with David Miliband.  Throughout Gordon Brown’s troubled premiership David Miliband repeatedly refused to support the plots  against Gordon Brown even though these plots had the declared objective of making him leader.  David Miliband also refused invitations to stand against Gordon Brown in the party leadership election of 2007. His statement of support today backing his brother Ed Miliband’s leadership is so unequivocal that I find it impossible to believe that he has been engaged in any of the plotting that I have no doubt has been underway over the last few weeks.  If I am right about this and if David Miliband has been innocent of the plotting carried out on his behalf then the plotters have destroyed his career and he is their victim.  Had there been no plotting to make him leader it is very likely that he would be Labour’s leader now.

The Thatcherite plotting following her fall in 1990 and the Blairite plotting following the announcement of his resignation in 2006 were and are political cul de sacs for their respective parties.  In neither case could such plotting succeed since in both cases it has amounted to an attempt to recreate a political environment (that of Britain in the early 1980s and of Britain in the mid 1990s) which no longer exists.  Such plotting is therefore incapable of generating policies and ideas that are relevant to  Britain’s contemporary problems.  What such plotting does instead is distract attention away from the real issues.  By doing so it impoverishes debate and fabricates divisions over issues that do not exist.

TWO LABOUR NON STORIES

The media this week has been full of news about the Labour party with the Daily Telegraph making play about leaks that supposedly show that Ed Balls and Gordon Brown were plotting to oust Blair in the immediate aftermath of the 2005 election and the Guardian leaking the text of what would have been David Miliband’s speech had he been elected Labour leader.

Neither of these stories is in itself at all significant.  The papers leaked by the Daily Telegraph do not show that there was a plot to depose Blair in 2005.  The year before Blair had said he would resign at some point after the 2005 election.  The papers the Daily Telegraph have leaked show the preparations Brown and his team were making in anticipation of that resignation. There is nothing remotely strange or sinister about this.  One of the paradoxical aspects of the way in which British politics has been reported over the last fifteen or so years is that whilst Brown is invariably represented as plotting against Blair there is in fact no evidence of this at all.  By contrast the plotting by Blair and his followers against Brown is ignored even though it is an acknowledged fact.  There is no evidence of any plot against Blair until the autumn of 2006 (ie shortly before his resignation and after he had already said that he would not lead Labour into the next election) whilst no Prime Minister in modern history has had to face as many plots and attempts to remove him as did Gordon Brown.

As for David Miliband’s speech, this is a double non story in that he lost the Labour leadership election and never delivered the speech.  What the speech shows is why he lost.  It seeks to position Labour to the right and comes perilously close to endorsing the coalition’s deficit reduction plan.  Had Labour pursued this strategy its criticism of the coalition’s economic policy would have been neutered and the coalition’s claim that the financial crisis was Labour’s fault would have been given credence.  Labour supporters in the country would have been further demoralised and Labour’s opposition to the coalition would have been reduced to that mixture of tactical positioning and right wing populism on law and order issues that Blair perfected but which in the end caused the party’s support in the country to drain away.

As for Ed Miliband’s leadership, contrary to what some sections of the media are saying, it is in no danger.  Whilst his impact has hardly been spectacular he has made no obvious mistakes and under him Labour progress has been steady.  Every single Labour leader that I can remember with the sole exception of Tony Blair has been rubbished by the media.  Whilst this causes problems for the Labour party it has not prevented Labour from winning elections in the past and there is no reason why it should so do so now. 

THERE IS NO CRISIS OF THE LEFT

The latest elections in Portugal have produced a further wave of soul searching on the part of some people on the Left who appear to have convinced themselves that they provide further evidence for a supposed pan European drift to the Right.  When the Socialists lose the elections in Spain next year, as they are bound to do, this mood is likely to intensify.

What happened in Portugal a few days ago and what will happen in Spain next year and what happened in Britain last year is not some great existential crisis of the European Left.  Rather it is a totally normal and utterly predictable reaction to an economic crisis.  As is almost  invariably the case in times of crisis voters turn against the party in government.  In Hungary in 2009, in Britain last year, in Portugal this year and in Spain next year the beneficiaries of this swing have been and will be parties on the Right because in every case these countries have had governments of the Left when the crisis has struck.  By contrast when the crisis struck in the US in 2008 and in Greece in 2009 the governments of those countries were governments of the Right so the winners in the elections held in those countries in those years were candidates and parties of the Left.  In US terms Obama is so far to the Left that it is difficult to believe that he would have won if economic conditions had been different. 

In the elections in Germany the Social Democrats who are on the Left paid the penalty for being the junior party in coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats who are on the Right.  As I have repeatedly said in these posts junior partners in coalitions invariably suffer disproportionate damage in electoral terms.  The beneficiaries of the decline of the Social Democrats were not however the parties of the Right but other parties to the Left of the Social Democrats especially the Greens.  Overall there was no marked swing in Germany either to the Left or to the Right though if anything the aggregate vote of the Left marginally increased.  Since the parliamentary elections in Germany the big winners in state elections have been the parties of the Left, whether the Social Democrats in Hamburg, the Greens in some of the western states or  the Links party in some of the former East German states.

Elsewhere right wing governments have won electoral victories in Sweden and Canada largely because these countries have avoided the worst of the economic crisis.  The result in Canada is however misleading since the most striking feature of that election was the substitution of the Liberals as the main opposition party by the Democrats, who  are well to the left of the Liberals.  In other words the Canadian elections witnessed if anything a swing to the Left.  In Ireland the position is more complicated since the two main parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, are both parties of the Right.  Fianna Fail as the governing party when the crisis hit saw its vote collapse.  It has been replaced by a coalition of Fine Gael, which is as I said a party of the Right, and Labour, which is notionally a party of the Left.  The biggest vote winners in the Irish elections were left wing parties to the left of Labour so the swing again was if anything to the Left.  Lastly in Iceland the right wing government there has been voted out and replaced by a government headed by the Social Democrats, who are on the Left.

Further afield both Italy and France have unpopular right wing governments.  In my opinion the decline in popularity of Berlusconi and Sarkozy is due more to the difficult economic conditions in both countries caused by the world financial crisis than any personal unpopularity caused by their colourful lifestyles and the sexual and financial scandals in which they are involved.  Both Berlusconi and Sarkozy are however fortunate in facing weak and divided oppositions that have struggled to mobilise the very substantial opposition to both in the wider electorate.  For this reason I expect Sarkozy for one to win re election next year though the opinion polls at the moment say otherwise and the result is not a foregone conclusion.

To talk of a crisis of the Left in Britain is particularly absurd given that the meltdown in the Labour vote that many expected in 2010 failed to take place and given that the Labour party managed to hold on to a sizeable majority of its seats.  The single most important feature of the 2010 election was not the failure of the Left but the failure of the Right.  Specifically the Conservatives failed to win a majority in conditions in which they should have secured a landslide.  Their vote did increase but only marginally.  Overall a clear majority of  votes were cast for parties that were or which claimed to be on the Left or on the centre Left, something which has been true in Britain in every election since the 1960s.

What the panicky reaction to routine and utterly predictable electoral setbacks shows is not that there is some great existential crisis of the Left or that voters in Europe have turned their backs on the Left.  What it shows is the extent of the Left’s collective loss of nerve.  This is a problem that is far more insidious and dangerous than one or two predictable electoral defeats.  It is a problem that has afflicted the Left since at least as far back as the 1960s and which is getting worse.  It explains why when left wing parties do form governments those governments prove so disappointing and why at a time when the Right’s chosen ideology is in crisis the response of the Left is so ineffective and confused.

FROM BAD TO WORSE IN AFGHANISTAN

There is a fascinating article in the German magazine Der Spiegel that explains much of what is going wrong in Afghanistan.

As part of the NATO contribution the German army sent a contingent of troops to northern Afghanistan.  Ever since the British and Americans have criticised the Germans for their “passive” behaviour, their reluctance to close with the enemy, their point blank refusal to undertake “search and destroy” missions to “root out” the Taliban in the villages in their area and their general policy of live and let live.  This criticism has been accompanied by a series of mocking articles in the British and American press ridiculing the German troops for being cowardly, pampered, overfed and overweight.  In reality the German policy, the diametric opposite of the aggressive tactics pursued by the British in Helmand, has meant that their area of Afghanistan has been largely peaceful.  Relations with the locals have been relaxed and German casualties have been very low.

All that has now changed following the deployment of US Special Forces in the area.  Without the knowledge or consent of the Germans these Forces have engaged in a policy of “kill or capture” targeted at local people identified as Taliban leaders.  In practise as the article in Der Spiegel makes clear, there is a great deal of “kill” and almost no “capture”.  Scores of people have been murdered in this way, some of them doubtless Taliban sympathisers and some possibly not.

The totally predictable consequence of this murderous policy has been to inflame the local people and to turn them against NATO.  The totally predictable consequence of that is that they are now joining the Taliban in large numbers and are turning their guns against NATO.  Since the US Special Forces that carry out these murders rarely stay in the area for very long the target of their attacks are the German troops.  The result is a sudden rise in attacks on the Germans with a sharp increase in the number of Germans who are getting killed.  Meanwhile a formerly peaceful area of the country is descending into chaos and violence and filling up with insurgents.  The article in Der Spiegel was full of alarm at the spread of “hate” and the seemingly “unending flow of insurgents” in an area where there had been little of either.

Some years ago at an earlier stage in this conflict I watched a television documentary that followed a British army unit as it advanced into an “enemy” village.  I was immensely impressed by the calm display of courage by the officer and by the discipline and professionalism of the men under his command.  I was however completely unable to understand the point of the whole exercise.  What did possession of one village more or less matter against the larger aims of the war, whatever those are?  What was the point of putting the lives of the British soldiers at risk and of bringing death and destruction to the village when it was obvious that it would have to be abandoned anyway soon after it was captured?.  There will never be enough troops to occupy every village and hamlet in Afghanistan so the temporary capture of one village was totally without significance. 

There was some attempt to rationalise the policy on the basis that by driving the Taliban out of the village an opportunity would be given to the local people to defend it from the Taliban.  The trouble was that it was absolutely clear to me that the “Taliban” who the British soldiers were fighting in the village were the local people of the village who were defending the village and their homes and families from soldiers they obviously saw as invaders.  Whether they had been “Taliban” in any political or ideological sense before the British attacked their village was a moot point but there was no doubt that following the attack that was what they had become. 

In other words the capture of the village did not represent its “liberation” from the Taliban.  Rather it represented a further stage in the extension of the war.  Not surprisingly given these tactics Helmand, which had been a largely peaceful province before the British came, is now a centre of the insurgency.

Judging from the article in Der Spiegel it seems that the politics of the so called Surge are to extend this mistaken policy to every corner of Afghanistan and to do so moreover in an even more violent and aggressive way.  The article in Der Spiegel shows how this sows the dragon’s teeth.  In pursuit of our elusive victory we take death and destruction to places where before our coming there was none of either.  When the situation becomes critical we will withdraw and it will be the local people who as always will pay the price.