Monday 2 September 2013


The failure of Ed Miliband

The only reason I am writing this post is because of Ed Miliband. His position on Syria is fundamentally misguided. I will handle the arguments against intervention below but I want to handle the abdication of responsibility that Miliband caused. He wrote an article for The Observer after the vote in which he outlined his position. He writes:

First, whereas the temptation for some was to move to judgment before the evidence was in, the country demanded a more reasoned and considered approach... They know that evidence should always precede decision, not decision preceding evidence.

The decision was made based on evidence. The Joint Intelligence Committee came to the conclusion that it was “highly likely” that the regime carried out the chemical weapons attack on August 21. The Chairman of the JIC stated that the conclusion of the JIC was clear: there are “no plausible alternative scenarios to regime responsibility.” British intelligence is not some aberration. As the Prime Minister mentioned in his remarks before the House

in no way does the Opposition motion even begin to point the finger of blame at President Assad. That is at odds with what has been said by NATO, President Obama and every European and regional leader I have spoken to; by the Governments of Australia, Canada, Turkey and India, to name but a few; and by the whole Arab League. It is at odds with the judgment of the independent Joint Intelligence Committee, and I think the Opposition amendment would be the wrong message for this House to send to the world.

We have intercepts and medical reports. We have signals intelligence. The regime was, by its own admission, operating against that area at the time. The regime has chemical weapons – the JIC clearly states that there is no evidence that the opposition do – and so has the means. Then comes the ridiculous question of ‘motivation’ – why would the Syrian regime do something to aggravate the world? One answer has been given: chemical weapons help the regime clear out areas and given that the international reaction to past Syrian action has been lacklustre, why would Assad not do so? But I would suggest we don’t need to engage in this line of questioning that conspiracy theorists would ask.

So, given that we have sufficient evidence – why did Miliband insist on waiting for a UN team which doesn’t have the mandate to determine who was responsible? His answer during the debate:

If the UN weapons inspectors conclude that chemical weapons have been used, in the eyes of this country and of the world that will confer legitimacy on the finding beyond the view of any individual country or any intelligence agency.

The evidence set out above is crystal clear. Facts are facts, legitimacy of which is determined by empirical support. Either raise an issue with the intercepts, blood samples, soil samples and signals intelligence – or don’t demand the need for more evidence (which wouldn’t even help). I would suggest there is no greater legitimacy than “there are no plausible alternatives to regime responsibility.”  To repeat: this UN team only had a mandate to determine use. Ed Miliband accepts that chemical weapons were used. If he holds himself out as having sound judgment then there is no reason for we, the British people, to wait to conclude that chemical weapons were used either.

The second major issue is that Miliband has accused Cameron of “rushing” to war, and of being “reckless and cavalier.”   Again, absolute nonsense. British intelligence concluded that Assad had used chemical weapons all the way back in March. Post-August 21, Cameron was still willing to (i) wait for the UN inspectors to report their findings, (ii) wait the UN Security Council to have a vote for a Chapter VII Resolution and (iii) have Parliament authorise the use of force. Rushing to war? Given that we have ample evidence of regime responsibility, there is no need to wait for the UN inspectors. Given that we know Russia and China will veto a Resolution – does the fact that Cameron is taking these steps really show he is rushing to war?

Here is the reason that Miliband gave for not voting for the government motion during the debate:

I would point to the fact that the Government’s motion does not mention compelling evidence against President Assad, and I will develop later in my remarks the fifth point in our amendment, which is very, very important—the basis on which we judge whether action can be justified in terms of the consequences.

That is the reason Ed Miliband drew Labour MPs away from voting for the government motion: because it does not mention something that we already have. It does not mention something which is obviously required. Leaving that aside, there was still another vote to be given in the government motion so if they did not feel that adequate attention had been given, they could have voted against action.

No. 10 sources state that the government acquiesced (in my view, wrongly) to Miliband’s demand and they still decided against him. I am not going to speculate as to his motives whether they are to show that he is different from Blair or to humiliate Cameron, what is clear is that his actions are unjustified. That his actions were party-political is supported by the fact that his actions are so unsupportable – and the statements he made after the debate. One which I found pretty egregious was this:

The United States is our friend, we do have a special relationship with it, but I don't think the conduct of British foreign policy is about saying we always do what the United States thinks we should do.

This is a re-writing of history – in exactly the same way that Blair was falsely portrayed as Bush’s ‘poodle’ – Cameron was pushing for Obama to act, not the other way around. And that is exactly what happened in Libya. And it was France, with extensive British support that led in Mali. Even now, Obama’s position has been summed up by the New York Times’ Roger Cohen like this:

The failure of non-intervention

Almost every single post I’ve written in the last year on this blog has been aimed at arguing that Western intervention does not cause terrorism – and that is part of the reason why I’ve considered the case against intervention to be fundamentally weak. Erica Chenoweth of The Monkey Cage posted three posts – each containing a study. I want to focus on the one that is most pertinent for the Syrian issue: the Wood, Kathman and Gent (2012) study which finds that ‘military interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40%.’ I do not consider this a blow to my general interventionist position for several reasons.

(i) Disadvantages of the study: Firstly, Wood et al’s sample is huge – it covers ‘armed intervention in intrastate conflicts from 1989 to 2005’ – which is usually great but not in this case. I have no doubt that there are bad interventions – but when you look specifically to Western interventions directed, funded and organised properly, you find different results. As Voeten wrote in response to Erica’s posts:

Conflict situations similarly differ enormously. The correlations are thus average associations between a very heterogeneous “treatment” (interventions) among very heterogeneous units of analysis (cases of civil war/conflict). Think of it as trying to estimate what effect medicine has on your health when we group together patients with different diseases and thus different medicines. We may find a positive effect of “medicine” but we don’t know if this was because all medicines on average improve health or if there are some that work exceptionally well while others leave patients worse off.

And the fact that these studies relate to correlation, not causation is particularly important because it may be the case that the places we intervene happen to be the worst places for civilian casualties. In which case the data that Wood et al present make complete sense – the places intervention happens are those where there is an exponential growth in civilian deaths. Moreover, as Voeten notes, Syria is vastly different from many interventions in the sample in the sense that mass killings occurred before intervention.

(ii) Inconsistency with the bulk of research: Secondly, I have presented several studies show a causal link between military action and reduction in violence. These studies are better not only because they point to causality but they talk about specific interventions, not an amalgamation of several interventions over the years. I wont repeat what I have already said, so see here, here, here and here.

Even if we wanted to ignore the issues mentioned in the point before, it would be no avail because there is clear empirical research contradicting Wood et al’s research. DeMeritt (forthcoming), finds that ‘intervention against the government leads to decrease in death tolls.’ Where costs are imposed on decision makers, Kydd and Straus (2013) find modest benefits of international intervention.

(iii) Normative considerations: There is no way that military intervention by the West can be blamed for the third party intervention of another where that action is free, informed and deliberate. This is a basic point of what we mean by ‘cause’ which I have discussed before and wont repeat.

The question really comes down to this: is Assad more or less likely to use chemical weapons if we do not attack? I would suggest he is more likely to use them. There are no guarantees that he would stop using them – but it would at least hamper his ability to do so. That’s usually what happens when you strike against military command centres. I happen to think that we should go beyond just punishing and deterring Assad for using WMD. That’s not to say I am for arming rebels (it would be ineffective at changing the tide of war as the CIA acknowledges and runs the risk of going to Al Qaeda affiliates who would use it against Syrians) or no-fly zones (they would not protect civilians because most of the combat zones are in civilian population centres unlike Libya where Gadaffi’s men could be targeted - see this report for a better explanation for why such options would fail). 

But I am for securing Syrian WMD so they do not fall into the wrong hands – as the Intelligence and Security Committee said in its annual report, a failure to secure them represents "the most worrying emerging terrorist threat" to the UK. But this is not what the debate in the House of Commons was about – that was directed at a narrow goal of deterring chemical weapons use. To that end, Miliband first imposed conditions which are irrational and then split the vote for intervention unnecessarily.

Update 07/09/2013

We now have good reason to think Ed’s actions were party political – not based on concerns about evidence or ‘rushing to war.’ The Independent reports, with reference to a ‘Labour insider’, why Ed Miliband changed his mind about supporting the government motion which responded to his concerns:

The Shadow Cabinet expected Mr Miliband to trumpet the concessions he won from Mr Cameron and support the Government. But after a summer in which the Tories spent attacking him as “weak”, Mr Miliband decided not to risk a messy split in which many Labour MPs would have defied him by voting against military strikes.

The insider states that ‘[Labour] were relying on the Tory whips to win the vote and the Tories were relying on us to support them.’ What this means is that Ed supported the government motion (why wouldn’t he – it included all his ridiculous demands) but voted against it and proposed his own because he put his own and his party’s interests above concern for Syria, Syrians and chemical weapons proliferation. We can direct some of the responsibility for the Commons failure toward the Tories and Lib Dems who voted against the government’s motion but the overwhelming majority goes to Ed Miliband for unnecessarily splitting the vote.

There is a silver lining to this fact: it wasn’t that Ed was ignorant, it’s that he was conniving. And the reason that’s important is because it should quieten down some of the anti-war pundits who see this as a lasting victory. The government’s motion only required fourteen votes. Without looking at which motion was supported, majorities in all three parties supported, in principle, military action. It has only been 2 years since we intervened in Libya where there was near consensus in Westminster.

This has a further implication: why did Cameron suggest that Parliament ‘had spoken’ in favour of non-intervention? Parliament, by the numbers, remains interventionist. Cameron doesn’t seem to understand the contradiction between the two statements. He stated both of them within seconds of each other during PMQs:

Last week the House of Commons voted clearly, and I have said that I respect the outcome of that vote and will not be bringing back plans for British participation in military action... My only regret from last week is that I do not think it was necessary to divide the House on a vote that could have led to a vote, but he took the decision that it was.

Miliband’s error of judgment and cynical moves has given Cameron the opportunity to make this, his own, error of judgment. Unfortunately, neither seem likely to backtrack. And while the silver lining is that our parliamentarians have not become isolationists, I doubt that we can be taken as seriously by Iran or another nation which we have to put ‘all options on the table with.’

The British people have not turned into Stop the War coalition either. YouGov asked a representative sample of the British people (including me) about seven different situations and what course of action we should take. Those who responded that we should definitely take action or consider taking actions (as opposed to definitely not take action/not consider taking action) were in the majority for all seven situations posed. These situations included

(a) To overthrow a dictator who has used weapons of mass destruction to kill 100,000 of his people
(b) To attack bases used by terrorist groups such as Al Q'aeda
(c) To stop an unfriendly country acquiring nuclear weapons

Why were the British people, then, unsupportive of the attack? The YouGov poll showed that 51% thought the Syrian regime or its forces were responsible for the chemical weapons attack but a significant 43% said ‘don’t know.’ YouGov suggests had ‘voters been convinced of Assad’s guilt, their attitude to military action might well have been different.’ That may be the case, it cannot be said for certain. That is a failure of the government in getting its message across but I would suggest three things. Firstly, that message was muddied by Miliband by implying that the UN team would enrich our understanding in any sense. Secondly, these polls should not dictate policy. I’m a believer in the trustee model of representation – and given that YouGov suggests the result may had been different had they known the correct state of evidence, no parliamentarian should have felt their constituencies would oust them.

Thirdly, even now, we still - in complete contradistinction to the wishes of the Stop the War coalition - support the United States in taking action and we support the following actions:

By huge majorities we want Britain to share intelligence information about Syria (by 70-15%) and to support the US at the United Nations (by 64-16%). By a smaller but still clear margin (48-31%), we would be happy to give access to Britain’s military base in Cyprus to US forces attacking Syria.


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