The Brussels bombings thus appeared to me as something of a déjà vu. It was disheartening to see both official campaigns of the Brexit discussion jump to use the human tragedy as a debating foil, but it was also sadly unsurprising – the stock of arguments is so low and the positions so incoherent by now, among all three of the main campaigning groups, that they are reduced to weaponising any event which comes along at all in a desperate attempt to batter the other side to death before 23 June. Having run out of custard pies to throw at each other, the clowns have resorted to lobbing shit, bricks and broken glass, turning a circus into an awkward farce for all spectators, funny and understandable only as a satire of itself.
In searching for something to write about in order to get back in the saddle, I happened across Petraeus’ intervention into the Brexit debate. The points which the “esteemed” generalissimo raises are infantile, yet the prestige of the offices which the man has occupied will serve to make sure that his wholly inadequate take (provided that the piece was written by him, not Downing St.) is listened to. While I could, and will to some extent (I don’t like letting cheap shots pass by), go on about his personal failings in both military and marital affairs, it is more important to tackle the underlying absurdity and inconsistency of Petraeus’ argument. Besides, if I write too much about his past, he might try to romance me – not my object in responding to him.
First of all, the purpose and timing of Petraeus’ intervention must be explained. Far from a genuine, heartfelt interest in the future of Uncle Sam’s nearest and dearest partner, I would argue that Petraeus (or, much more likely, Washington or Whitehall) is engaging in fig-leafery. Fig-leafery is a political manoeuvre in damage limitation. It effectively gives the defendant a soundbite to say in defence of an indefensible position which his politics force him to endorse, hence diffusing difficult interviews and making sure that politicians put under the glaring lights always have something to say when the positions are clearly illogical.
The clearest example of fig-leafery in modern political times is the mansion tax of Ed Miliband’s 2015 election campaign. All analyses of the tax were damning, yet again and again, when ill-fated Ed was sent out to address the media, the words ‘mansion’ and ‘tax’, only predicted to raise £1.5-2 billion by Labour and far less by everyone else, were used to justify colossal spending increases that were obviously going to require debt financing or much higher taxes.
Andrew Neil: ‘Your party say that they will raise spending on the NHS and Education without raising the deficit, yet have not outlined how you would do this. How could you afford to increase spending without borrowing money?’
Ed Miliband: ‘Err, yes, Andrew, we have said that because we genuinely believe it. For too long, the poorest and most vulnerable in society have not had the same opportunities as the well-off – we must create an environment where the successful have something to strive for but the weak have nothing to fear [rehearsed sentence, having been tested positively at a seminar of C-2 class voters strapped in to heart-rate monitors – emphasise words ‘vulnerable’ and ‘strive’ for maximum effect]. If you elect me as prime minister, we will make square circles. We will pay for the modest increases to the health and education budgets, and end the deficit at the same time, by applying a mansion tax to the most well-off who can afford to give that little bit extra [insert charismatic gesture here – lean forward in seat, cant body slightly towards camera, hint of smile on lower left lip, extend hand with fingers outstretched to convey a sense of openness and ease through body language, nod head ever so slightly to create confident, affirmative impression].’
The whole aim of this type of exchange is to conserve support from those pre-disposed towards your views through preventing the undermining of their opinions by opposition attacks, which are neutralised with a fig-leaf fact and some bluff confidence – a procedure which Ed Miliband was singularly bad at fulfilling. While the emptiness of this rhetoric and clear logical inconsistencies are not going to win many votes, the fact that Ed is able to answer the question fluently, while massaging the incoherency of the whole exchange with a policy which will raise a bit of money, means that voters pre-disposed to vote for Labour for other existing reasons will see the attack as having been answered, and will prevent the interview garnering negative headlines as a ‘car-crash’. Of course, this only works if you are somewhat charismatic and believable; the reason that the Mansion Tax is such a clear example is that Labour 2015 were neither.
This is but one example from an election which was characterised by the scant disregard for fiscal logic and the commonweal. It was the Green party which took fig-leafery to its logical extremes, promising to create world peace on the back of a 1% rise in the foreign aid budget to justify stinging cuts to the armed forces. Doubtless a few eyebrows were raised in Tehran and Moscow at this suggestion - if a single person in those places has even heard of the Green Party.
Cameron is again practising fig-leafery, copiously, in the EU referendum campaign. His entire deal with the European parliament is a convoluted fig-leaf, designed to give him something to say on immigration and sovereignty when challenged by the not-so-intrusive establishment media to justify a logically indefensible position (that he successfully negotiated with the EU to secure a new relationship with Britain, and that this new relationship is worth voting remain for, a contrast with the old relationship, which was unacceptable).
|A bit of a crap cartoon to illustrate my point, as well as slightly irrelevant because it emphasises Tory splits - but the only one drawn connecting Cameron, Fig-Leaf and EU so it will have to do|
But then again, the entire remain argument is derived from prestige, simply because Cameron’s narrative is so fundamentally weak. At this point, the Remain campaign’s economic and security arguments are left totally exposed by Flexcit and logic respectively, meaning that the prestige given by the media to individuals who make claims regarding the debate is all that the Remain campaign has to offer regarding the real arguments (not the straw men offered by Vote.Leave and Leave.EU/Grassroots Out), typified by the communiques of the Confederation of British Industry.
The CBI might as well stand for ‘Central Bullshit Institute’ – the meaning of the actual title is irrelevant; it is far more important that they have an acronym, CBI, which can be plastered around the media liberally and given semi-official status on matters of the economy just because they have the financial backing to commission a series of appallingly flawed studies and have a couple of boozy lunches in a nice London venue several times a year.
The duplicity and deceit of these organisations concerning the Brexit debate is demonstrated thoroughly in their publications and website. If, in going that extra step beyond the investigative journalists who are meant to cotton on to this kind of stuff, one were to actually analyse the calculations behind the proffered headline percentage, the one which tells us how far our economy is going to crash if we leave the EU, the lack of any useful application for such studies is evident. All CBI studies so far conflate the single market with the EU – a gross misrepresentation which should consign the CBI to ignominy, given that the EFTA option retaining access to the EEA (the single market) is the most likely option for the government to take in the event of a leave vote. The CBI's most recently commissioned 'independent' report from PwC (whose Chairman has exhibited overt Europhile sentiments) goes out of its way not to consider EFTA, being wholly limited to a WTO option and an FTA option - yet this report was hugely feted on its release by the official Remain campaign and the CBI as something bordering on definitive.
CBI/PwC: “Even in the best case [leaving] would cause a serious shock to the UK economy” https://t.co/rs8yQzmmNg pic.twitter.com/63i5yfHcqY— Stronger In (@StrongerIn) 21 March 2016
Not content at this most obvious inadequacy, the studies choose unqualified control variables – for example, projecting far into the future on GDP growth estimates (despite the fact that these are notoriously unreliable beyond the next year and generally very optimistic anyway – at no point in history has an IMF GDP projection predicted a market crash before it has actually materialised) or holding the market/export shares of various European countries at the same level over the next few decades, an inexplicable and totally unfounded assertion to make given that these figures are in a constant state of flux stemming from a huge array of factors – e.g. exchange rates, business cycles, interest rates, etc.
If a genuine, rather than politically-motivated, study of the UK’s exit from the common market were to be commissioned, it would run into the tens of thousands of pages, consider every industry – including all future trajectories and how the a Brexit would affect them respectively – and the international legal framework in full, taking into account all feasible options and alternatives (which in turn would require substantial analysis of global trends in detail), and would probably take years to complete – notwithstanding the fact that if the UK were to retain access to the EEA through EFTA, the most likely outcome, such research would be obsolete anyway. The brevity and lack of research base in CBI reports is damning. Likewise, the corresponding reports of the Leave campaigns use huge sets of control variables which in reality are far from controllable to arrive at opposite conclusions. All such exercises are intrinsically pointless if you were actually looking to establish the truth, not influence public opinion.
These CBI et al. studies should be ridiculed as academic failings, and their authors’ careers ended, yet a dose of centrally conferred prestige from the government, picked up by the media (which never bothers with analysis) and all is well – the debate audiences are wowed and pub bores can solemnly tell their confreres exactly what will happen if the country votes for Brexit, despite the fact that what has been said is total, unmitigated rubbish, cooked up in a couple of months without the resources, intellectual or otherwise (the correct statistics on which to base such research do not actually exist and may never, far less a synergistic analysis of these with a rapidly changing international legal framework acting on an unpredictable timescale), to make a fair assessment of what would actually happen. For any such attempt to have the slightest use, all opportunity costs must be thoroughly investigated over a long term basis (meaning decades, not Q4 2016, another failing of the government’s economic argument to remain).
Anyway, back to the task at hand. I may as well go through the article chronologically.
|Dangerous, but really as threatening as Hitler?|
The article begins by claiming that the threat of Islamic extremism is on the same level as those of Nazism and Communism. Another fifty years of inept American foreign policy and it might well be, but at present this assertion should be confined to those who read the Daily Mail, not those with access to White House briefing material. While I would be the last person to want to bail out of a plane into ISISland, implying that the threats which the organisations poses to Britain are equivalent to that of the amassed might of the Wehrmacht, complete with thousands of tanks, planes and pairs of well-tailored Hugo Boss trousers just across the channel, or the several thousand Soviet nuclear warheads which could potentially have been used to put Britain under the North Sea, is patently ridiculous.
What we are dealing with is nothing more than an underdeveloped rogue state. Not a particularly nice one, but still a pretty small rogue state – the US, or even Turkish, military could plough through ISIS in weeks if the political will existed and foreign elements stopped exploiting the situation for their own gain (as all actors tend to do in the Middle East). That they film beheadings and promulgate terrorism seems to panic us a lot more, for some obscure reason, than those other international actors who don’t film beheadings but still fund terrorism. Even the videos of atrocities committed against the defenceless are hardly worse than those which come out of the Latin American drug cartels, whose machinations are arguably a much larger threat to American citizens, being the proximate cause of almost all drug crime in North America. In the words of one American commentator, Europe faces something akin to a guerilla insurgency – important and requiring physical action, but not a Third World War or The Rapture. To borrow another analogy made about Belgium, we are talking about The Wire, not Homeland.
The claim that the bombings which happened in Brussels last week were the actions of ISIS (as in the implementation of a centrally ordained policy planned and funded from Raqqa, akin to the command structure which our government itself uses to conduct its global operations), which Petraeus claims by implication, is also dubious and flagrantly designed to play upon public imagination (in America, 57% of people are now scared of simply being in airports according to one poll). While having some connections with the terror group in the Middle East in the form of cell-members who fought there, and maybe a loose set of instructions telling members to launch attacks in Europe, all of the evidence points to a primarily local enterprise, centred on certain ethnically North African communities in France and Belgium – although, as with almost all major armed criminality in Europe, there will undoubtedly be Balkan links. Far more than any border controls or the military defeat of ISIS in Syria, the language/ethnic barrier is probably Britain’s safest defence against the Franco-Belgium terrorist cells which carried out Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan attack and the Brussels bombings – French-speaking North African second-generation immigrants are far more likely to be present in France than in Britain, unsurprisingly.
While Britain has a problem with certain second-generation Pakistani radical extremists (and various other Middle-Eastern groups), they have not forged links with French radical communities. At least, there is no evidence to say that either set has strong network connections with the other which could lead to the transmission and coordination of terrorism on a truly international basis. The problems, while stemming from the same extremist Islamism and the example of ISIS in the Middle East, seem to be separate and distinct, organised and planned in Europe. But then again, talk of huge overarching global conspiracies sells more newspapers than analysis centring on the rather pathetic megalomaniac ambitions of the local village fundamentalist who has decided to seek martyrdom and been trained in Syria, with the help of some similarly marginalised oddballs and criminal elements - nothing has changed since the 1890s, the period of my dissertation research, in this regard. Terrorism in Europe stemming from fundamentalist Islamism is not personified by ISIS in Syria, but rather factors closer to home. The war on terror in Britain is very much a local affair, with parallels rather than direct connections to similar 'wars' happening throughout Europe.
There follows a paragraph which is simply praise for British troops on the battlefield – this serves as nothing more than a justification of Petraeus’ somewhat tenuous connection to counter-terrorism in Europe through his role commanding in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as an attempt at making a British audience more receptive (I think that he was not specific enough to achieve this; the vague praise that he bestows could just as well have been given to the Montenegrin military or even his pet cat for all the distinct recognition British troops receive here). Petraeus’ CIA role was doubtless more relevant to the issues at hand – what a shame that he was fired in disgrace for dangerous incompetence in the handling of state secrets, a fact which the Remain campaign doubtless do not want remembered.
Petraeus then moves forward into the role of the special relationship in an increasingly uncertain world. Notwithstanding that most of the problems cited were caused or exacerbated by Western incompetence, Petraeus totally overlooks the logical inconsistency which this paragraph brings to his argument. By stressing the cooperation with which America and Britain have operated, he demonstrates that countries do not have to be in a political union to fight terrorism. In fact, the only stated benefit of remaining in the EU from this vantage point is a vague sense of ‘togetherness’ – which does not itself intrinsically infiltrate any fundamentalist networks, assassinate any jihadi leaders or help in the reconquest of Syrian territory. The vague sense of unity gained from remaining a member of the EU is frankly going to contribute nothing to the West’s fight against radical Islam and Putin.
The level of esteem with which America holds this ‘togetherness’, supposedly of such fundamental importance that we should forfeit our democratic rights just to partake in its warmth, is demonstrated by the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. While not an ardent fan of the tin foil hat myself, it is quite clear that this was largely caused by the West (see Frontline Ukraine by Richard Sakwa) – initially at least, before uncle Vlad decided to use the opportunity to annex the Crimea and solidify Russian influence in the Donbass. The EU spent huge sums of money financing the opposition parties and organising pro-European protests in Kiev. The phrase ‘fuck the EU,’ while an admirable sentiment, demonstrates that the ‘togetherness’ espoused by Petraeus is in practice skin-deep, the incriminating phrase having been uttered by Victoria Nuland (US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs) in leaked talks with the American ambassador to Ukraine regarding the US involvement in the coup. In this aspect of foreign policy, cited by Petraeaus as a reason for remaining, the USA did not treat the EU as ‘one of the most important institutions that girds Western security,’ but rather an annoying hanger-on. This must have grated sorely with the many European politicians/sociopaths who have ambitions at raising the EU to superpower status.
Any assertion of Western unity, or even moral vindication, is unmerited in any of the circumstances given to us by Petraeus. ISIS is largely a result of American negligence in Iraq (having let the Shi'ite faction of the Baghdad government, set up by the coalition, oust the Sunni faction, breaking the consensus which had previously bound the northern Sunni tribes - also providing so little support to the Shi'ite-led government that it has now largely turned to Iran for patronage), as well as the war in Syria, which the USA helped promulgate, and the initial invasion in 2003. When the civil war got going and various elements began using chemicals on each other, thus breaching Obama’s red line, American inactivity (possibly brought about by Obama’s desire to appease domestic political feeling) effectively outsourced intervention to more assertive powers – Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, etc.
Once ISIS, honed to professionalism by the counter-insurgency in Iraq, announced their arrival to the wider Western public with the capture of Mosul, US/coalition policy, far from being a shield and breastplate standing ready to protect hearth and home, was a total shambles incapable of any action at all – other than the dropping of weapons in the middle of the desert for an all but non-existent opposition group in an attempt to look busy, and of course sending John Kerry on a customary tour of capitals to tell the Russians very firmly to ‘stop it,’ in between his pre-scheduled cycling races.
Libya has proved a similar mess. It is largely unclear why we got involved in the first place – although Hillary’s emails shed some speculative light on this. Sidney Blumenthal, something of a freelance intelligence hawk with strong links to the Clintons, told the possibly future president that the enforced regime change was a result of a desire on the part of France to enforce France’s currency monopoly on West Africa, a legacy of colonial times (Gaddafi had been threatening to set up a precious metal/oil backed currency through which to trade rather than the Euro-pegged West African Franc). Whether or not this is true, the blunt fact is that the West destroyed the country as an entity, resulting in the anarchy which now exists between Egypt and Tunisia now – Britain spent ten times as much bombing the place as we allocated to rebuild it afterwards.
While I am not arguing for the West to roll over and let in a new era of Chinese dominance, it would be hard not to argue that the policies of America and the rest of the West over the last two decades have been an abject failure, in both their ends and means. And while George Orwell was largely right when he did not actually say that ‘we sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who wish to do us harm,’ the current format of application has caused the rough men to kick a hornet’s nest of dormant Islamic radicalism while removing the only people capable of containing the threat, those who allegedly wished to visit harm on us but who had frankly shown little inclination to actually do so until we visited much greater harm on them in our desperate campaign to kill any dictator with suspicious-looking facial hair after 9/11.
To use such policies to beguile British voters into choosing to remain a part of the EU is both untruthful, painting a world which has magically become less stable while ignoring the West’s role in causing that instability, and frankly pretty stupid, in line with most American political thinking recently – why the hell would we vote to remain a part of this unmitigated, largely self-induced (or American-induced) mess, even if it was connected to our EU membership, which it is clearly not? While realistically we probably would not opt to leave the American sphere of influence after a potential Brexit, it is hardly a reason to vote 'remain'.
If the West is under attack, as Petraeus asserts, then it is as much of our own making as it is a result of external forces. Regardless, we do not have to form a political union governing all aspects of life from fishing to trade policy to have allies, as Petraeus implies. While Machiavellian self-interest is not always the best foreign policy because it can be rather short-termist and tends to ignore the development of external factors, self-flagellation, the currently preferred modus operandi of Western grand strategy, is clearly moronic – to equate any alternative with isolationism, as Petraeus does, is fundamentally dishonest.
Leaving the EU probably will not ease the terrorist threat, but it will not increase that threat either – terrorism in the UK is all but unconnected with the EU. In the areas which do concern the EU, such as the trafficking of weapons from the Balkans and the flow of potential extremists back from the Middle East through Schengen, European intelligence agencies either know so little as to be of no apparent help or can be cooperated with outside the auspices of the EU. Intelligence is an area where the UK easily out-performs the EU, having one of the few genuinely world-class agencies in Western Europe (MI6). It is in everyone’s interests to pull together in intelligence gathering regardless of political status – the EU’s more than Britain’s.
So the end result of all of that is that Petraeus is either cataclysmically dim or uninformed (both extremely plausible options given his record as chief spreader of liberty, democracy and the rule of law in both Afghanistan and Iraq) or Cameron, with Obama’s blessing, has asked him to write this piece, hence signifying a tragic decline in position to his becoming a chief spreader of bullshit for the Remain campaign. If the latter, I would sincerely ask him to fuck off. This is our referendum and our future as a country at stake. We do not need sleazy middle-aged Stephen Hawking lookalikes from countries far across the ocean to tell us how to vote just because once upon a time they occupied senior positions in several ill-fated lethal escapades which the UK was co-opted into joining through Blair’s incompetence (totally coincidentally, we also do not need Stephen Hawking himself to tell us how to vote – scientific cooperation and funding can continue after Brexit).