Saturday, September 09, 2006

War Powers in the War on Terror

RealClearPolitics carries an excellent challenge, by Jonathan Rauch at the Atlantic, to President Bush's use of emergency powers:

"The question history will ask is whether Bush's presidency was as bad as Richard Nixon's or only as bad as Jimmy Carter's ... If the country seriously intends to prevent terrorism, then spying at home, detaining terror suspects, and conducting tough interrogations are practices that the government will need to engage in for many years to come. Instead of making proper legal provisions for those practices, Bush has run the war against jihadism out of his back pocket, as a permanent state of emergency. He engages in legal ad-hockery and trickery, treats Congress as a nuisance rather than a partner, and circumvents outmoded laws and treaties when he should be creating new ones. Of all Bush's failings, his refusal to build durable underpinnings for what promises to be a long struggle is the most surprising, the most gratuitous, and potentially the most damaging, both to the sustainability of the antiterrorism effort and to the constitutional order. "

The idea of using war powers in a war that is open ended has to be concerning. A large part of the sensible case for the defence of Guantanamo and changes in intelligence gathering is that this is not a normal war with normal opposition, hence the inapplicability of Geneva and other war time legality. That must also imply that it will require different legal treatment in terms of war powers.

Refusing to grant Geneva protections to those captured in Afghanistan is not a piece of legal trickery. Geneva protections are reciprocal and conditional rights that are given to those who abide by the rules of war. Armies must be organised, wear uniforms to distinguish them from the civilian population etc. In return for these behaviours, which decrease the civilian cost of war, they are granted quite generous rights in the event of being captured.

Equally, there is no need for the trial of prisoners of war. They will be returned at the end of the conflict. With an open ended war such an arrangement is clearly a recipe for indefinite imprisonment. Were the Geneva protections applied to those in Guantanamo it would not bring them closer to release or trial. As such, the proper solution is some new arrangement. Guantanamo is a questionable arrangement as it does not properly put a timeframe on detention but it is confronting a genuine question.

Here lies the comparison to the war powers. Emergency powers for the President in war time are granted on the understanding that wars have definite points of beginning and end. If these are not in place then such powers are simply an indefinite extension of executive power which they were not intended to constitute.

As such, Guantanamo is a flawed solution to the need for new arrangements to deal with a new kind of war. By contrast, the changing nature of war has simply been ignored in the Bush administration's approach to the use of war powers.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Little People

The Little People street art project by a man named Slinkachu is one of the most brilliant ideas I've seen in a while. Take a look for yourself; it'll make you smile.

Simon Jenkins-rage

Some time ago I was concerned about where the Guardian managed to find people to write articles quite as poorly argued and illogical as fill their pages. However, when they turned a Nobel winning economist into a Chinese Communist Party sap I should have seen the writing on the wall; the Guardian makes them.

Simon Jenkins used to write sensible articles about changing standards in the NHS and the success of the Thatcher reforms. Now he produces this drivel.

"They include movies by Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass, and American and British 9/11 specials from stars such as Harvey Keitel and Kevin Costner called The Millionaire Widows, The Miracle of Staircase B, On Native Soil and numerous variants on twin towers. There are comic strips and videos and where-was-I-then memoirs. The weekend is to be wall-to-wall 9/11. Not glorifying terrorism? You must be joking."

Hmm... the Miracle of Staircase B certainly sounds like it is a fearful cry of anguish doesn't it? Or, perhaps some coverage of 9/11 is actually about commemorating the heroism of those who fought to save innocent lives?

What about the film Pearl Harbour? Released decades after the actual event and yet criticism of the film usually centers on the direness of Ben Affleck's "acting" and not its glorification of Japanese militarism.

"The favourite line from the war on terror's military-industrial complex is that in 2001 Osama bin Laden "changed the rules of the game". (Forgotten is that he attacked the same target in 1993, his only error being one of civil engineering.) "

Simon Jenkins in "thousands of people dying can make people respond differently" scoop.

"George Bush repeated the change thesis again on Wednesday in confirming his secret interrogation camps and excusing the five-year delay in bringing al-Qaida suspects to justice. Tony Blair cites the change with every curb on civil liberty. The "new" terrorism requires a new approach to public safety. The security industry cries amen."

I love that lefty conspiracy nuts (like Simon Jenkins) can combine this particular theory with their fanciful estimates of the collosal financial cost of the war on Iraq. Surely the vast right wing conspiracy would have chosen a conflict with less capacity to endanger the financial stability of their low tax economy if they were to choose an evil right wing revenue generator?

A more intelligent analysis would confirm that something clearly has changed post 9/11 to make Bush move from being focussed primarily on the emerging challenge from China to being focussed upon militant Islam. The question is whether his response is the correct one not whether you can pretend this was all some kind of invention.

"Forty years after Alfred Nobel's invention of dynamite, Russian terrorists tried to pack a plane with the stuff and fly it into the tsar's palace. In 1883 Chicago-financed Fenians exploded bombs on the London underground, leading the Times to wonder if the tube could ever be safe. There has been little change in the preferred weapon of terror, the explosive device, or in the psychopathology of the bomber. The causes remain the same: separatism, and religious nationalism dressed up as holy war."

Okay. So in the first attack no one died (maybe the plotters but I don't know the history here) and in the second probably dozens. This change in "degree" to thousands would seem important.

"What has changed, grotesquely, is the aftershock. Terrorism is 10% bang and 90% an echo effect composed of media hysteria, political overkill and kneejerk executive action, usually retribution against some wider group treated as collectively responsible. This response has become 24-hour, seven-day-a-week amplification by the new politico-media complex, especially shrill where the dead are white people. It is this that puts global terror into the bang. While we take ever more extravagant steps to ward off the bangs, we do the opposite with the terrorist aftershock. We turn up its volume. We seem to wallow in fear."

Isn't Simon Jenkins such a brilliant philosopher king? While all us mortals are being weak and getting scared by people bombing us he's here to remind us that the problem isn't people dying but, rather, us being so damned pathetic about it.

Strange then, that all us pathetic proles with our hysterical media haven't stopped riding the tube or flying. Surely that should have been our first step in manifesting our grotesque fear?
"They drove the Taliban back into the mountains, restoring the latter's credibility in the Arab street and turning al-Qaida into heroes. "
I bet they're loving it. Woo! I'm getting a daisycutter dropped on my head.

Actually, from demonstrations in the less savoury parts of the Muslim world (as opposed to official pronouncements given to the Western media) we can tell that Al Qaeda became heroes to the unstable lunatics who use Islam as cover the moment they hurt America.

After this Jenkins goes on a little circular trot around pretending he wants to censor but not really because he's a good little liberal. This serves to do nothing but show that he does not think about the complexities of the debate over the best way of defending our values but prefers the simplicities of being holier than thou. There are important questions over infringements on liberty such as the suspension of habeas corpus or a free press and whether or not those libertys will be better defended in the long term by being limited or by being defended as an absolute. However, he doesn't address this at all and I've given more than enough time to this column already so I won't either.

Taxing shares and Selling Airbus

Should we be worried about British Aerospace selling its stake in Airbus to its continental partners? Or about the Pacific & Orient being sold to a firm from Dubai?

People rail at the injustice of foreign firms, with government support or protection from takeover, taking advantage of our liberalism and buying up British firms. Whether icons or not this grates at the nerves as something British becomes something French or otherwise foreign. There are also concerns that higher value investment will be channeled to where the investors are although the data does not appear to support this hypothesis. However, even if such a relationship did hold true this would not be a reason to fear corporate sales to foreign owners.

If a company is sold to a foreign owner and its management is reasonably competent it should not be seriously undervalued. If it is being taken over by a foreign company able to do so thanks to state aid then it will often be overvalued. This will mean that money will flow into the UK economy to the value of the company. In turn this money will be reinvested, either directly by the company of by shareholders after a dividend, into strengthening the British ownership of other British companies or allowing them to invest abroad in return.

As such, a problem of insufficient ownership of companies by Britons arises not thanks to the decision to sell or not sell any company but thanks to the collective decision on how much to save and invest and whether to do so in companies or in government debt. It is this which fans of UK PLC remaining in British hands should be worried about as the amounts we save and invest could clearly be higher.

Key is to reduce the taxes which make saving expensive. Thankfully the Conservatives appear to be proposing quite an appropriate measure to achieve this end. They are proposing to do so by scrapping stamp duty on share trading. This is not only a good thing to encourage and support the efforts of those saving and strengthening provision for increasing numbers in retirement but also a great idea in that it is a scrapping of a tax. Every tax scrapped simplifies the tax system and reduces compliance costs.

Friends I have spoken to seem unsure about the politics even if they accept the economic logic of this move. I would point to a few factors which make this a good political move as well as eminently sensible economically as described above:

  1. Legitimate worries about the value of pensions are only going to grow more pressing as more final salary schemes are replaced and the demographic changes facing the UK become more obvious.
  2. It allows for the Conservatives to make the point about Brown undermining the UK's almost uniquely sound pension provision when he entered power with great force as they have a practicable scheme to improve the value of private pensions rather than simply being in a contest to spend more and more taxpayer money on the state pension.
  3. It is a tax cut that people will notice the value of quickly if we win power and are elected. Money given back to share traders (pension funds are the biggest but others as well) will quickly find its way back to the stock market and this will, other factors held equal, lead to a steady rise in the FTSE index over the Conservative time in office. Thanks to the role of expectations in setting stock prices this will happen quickly. Such a rise could create a valuable feel good factor if we are put in the fortunate position of having a new Conservative government.
  4. It would give us something sensible to contribute when a British company is sold abroad rather than trying to balance between attacking Labour and and avoiding ugly econ-nationalism.

A good policy. If backed up by a reduction in corporation tax it would be even better.

Thursday, September 07, 2006


Why is Pakistan important?

Combine the death and protests at the death of a Baluchi warlord, a father absconding with his daughter and its connection to the airline bombing plot and recently Pakistan has been all over the news. There are obvious and less obvious reasons why what happens to Pakistan should concern us.
  1. The Global War on Terror - Pakistan as an ally matters. Its troops are fighting our enemies and its potential as an enemy is vast. As a nuclear power with the ability to raise hell in India and Afghanistanand a sizeable population it would make an unpleasant enemy.
  2. The Domestic War on Terror - Plots to commit terrorist attacks have been stopped thanks to intelligence uncovered in Pakistan. When terrorists flee our shores it is often where they wind up and are extradited from. Were Pakistan to move from being a friend to an enemy this would make the management of the terrorist threat to Britain significantly more challenging.
  3. Immigration - it is common for political parties to behave as if they have far more control than they actually do over immigration numbers. Far more is down to external factors than they would acknowledge. Germany worries about Turkey's entry to the EU because there are many Turkish people in Germany and immigrants tend to go where others of their nationality can be found. Britain faces a similar prospect with instability in Pakistan; an increase in the numbers wanting to come here with genuine claims for asylum which will greatly complicate our immigration decision.
For these reasons Pakistan is the country, more so than Iraq or Iran, which Britons, in particular, should be watching for instability and fracture.

What is happening in Pakistan?

In Pakistan political power is widely dispersed among varying elites with differing priorities. These can be separated, broadly, into landowners, the military, national politicians, Islamists and a rising business elite.

Landowners hold all the cards in terms of power on the ground thanks to holding the allegiance of large bodies of the rural population. For this reason they are crucial to success in the formation and survival of any political system in Pakistan. Any democratic party must have their support to secure votes which are cast along lines of feudal loyalty. Military regimes will tread carefully as they are the key to the 'popular' feeling which any military dictatorship must necessarily fear could overthrow its rule. The main limitation of the power of the landowners is division and a lack of aspiration to lead. They are the body from whom the important supporters of other leaderships are drawn rather than adopting such a leadership role themselves and making Pakistan truly feudal.

The national political class is thoroughly weak and is currently in a vague alliance with the Islamists. Since their replacement by Musharraf as the national leadership they have failed to articulate a coherent alternative as an opposition. The business elite are still somewhat of a nascent force and too few in number to constitute the kind of middle class, interested in stability, which holds so many successful states together.

That leaves the two groups who are, most actively, vying for real power in Pakistan. Islamist groups are still marginal in Pakistan and confined largely to the rural backwaters, however, they are clearly the group most hostile to Western interests and with a steady increase in support are the main challenge to military rule.

The Pakistani military is, by developing country standards, highly professional. This reputation combined with a widespread perception of incompetence on the part of national politicians has led to there being only limited opposition to military rule. The plan appears to be to attempt a similar settlement to that in Turkey where a limited democracy is allowed with the military as a self-appointed guardian of its wellbeing. However, the ability of the military to set this up is highly contingent upon the continued presence of Pervez Musharraf. Should he fall from power or die there is no institutional framework in place for the military to transfer power to a new President. If an attempt at assassinating him succeeds (there have already been attempts) then the military's scheme will quickly be derailed. The military also lost a lot of its credibility as an effective manager through a slow response to the earthquake.

An uncomfortable result of all this is that the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf is the best guard against Pakistan becoming a big problem; a nuclear armed Islamist state. This implies accepting a dictatorship and an abandonment of democratic principle. It is, perhaps, the best realist counterexample to the neoconservative ideal of a foreign policy based around democracy as a panacea.

House Prices

As the BBC reports, house prices are rising solidly. The stagnation that was big news around a year ago was never likely to be prolonged thanks to the strength of demand in a market with inelastic supply. However, I think the importance of this rise is probably overrated. The rise isn't dramatic enough to justify worries about a bubble and already high levels of house prices relative to income will magnify the impact of recent interest rate changes. With the somewhat precarious nature of the rest of the economy's recovery it would seem that another interest rate rise might not be necessary soon although interest rate futures have risen as the market prices 5% interest rates in.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Blair's Succession

The leak of documents suggesting a date to the Sun would appear to be a means to combine satisfying the Brownites that Blair will go with time left for Brown to settle in before the next election with avoiding the precision that might make Blair's last months more about his successor than his own glorious exit.

It would seem unlikely to satisfy either objective as the deadline is not early enough for the Brownites to fight the next set of elections (local and council elections) on their own terms as they would like and have decided they are entitled to. Equally, the speculation over the actual date will probably be all the fiercer for knowing a rough estimate of the date and the Sun's prediction. Blair cannot escape the trap that Dave Cole describes him creating for himself.

The reality, which unfortunately (or fortunately) the Labour party hasn't realised, is that the date is relatively unimportant. It might actually be in Brown's interest to take over significantly closer to the election. Brown's big advantage will be that he can dissociate himself from the gripes that build up with ten years in power and his own mistakes. The greater the period of time between his taking over and the general election the more likely it will be that the gloss will fade from shiny new Prime Minister Brown.

The biggest question that Labourites should be asking is not when Blair will leave but what kind of leadership contest they'll have after. Whether they'll have a contest like Davis-Cameron which leaves the party stronger or a contest like Clarke-Davis which fails to air the important issues and does not feature a shining performance from either candidate. Some have realised what this requires; more than one credible candidate.

The problem with arranging this for the Labour election is the widespread perception that Brown is sure to win. No politician aspiring to high office will risk setting himself up in opposition to Brown in the leadership election unless he thinks he has a chance of winning. Unless some kind of coalition can build very quickly and very effectively around an alternative the Labour party has no chance of an open debate over the leadership and instead simmering resentment on the part of those in the Labour party who want someone else. The other problem with arranging a decent multiple candidate race is that the parliamentary Labour party is so shockingly low on talent that isn't associated with some kind of sleaze or incompetence.


As must now be brutally obvious this blog has been on something of a hiatus. This was enforced by the need to work at my Master's dissertation but now that I need not focus my intellectual energies on the effects of budget deficits to the same degree I can engage with a broader perspective and this blog again. Apologies for my absence but consider me returned.