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Brussels Bombs

Belgium may be a boring country, but it still seems extreme for a Belgian politician to say that the country is now living through its darkest days since the end of the Second World War. Can any country really be so lucky that the worst thing that has happened to it in the past seventy years is a couple of bombs that killed 34 people?

That may sound a bit uncharitable, but respect for the innocent people killed by terrorists does not require us to take leave of our senses. What is happening now is the media feeding frenzy that has become almost a statutory requirement after every terrorist attack in the West.

And people do let themselves get wound up by the media-generated panic. Last night at dinner a young man, staying with us overnight in London before taking a morning flight to the United States, openly debated with himself about whether he should cancel his (non-refundable) ticket or not. It was a ticket from London to Chicago that went nowhere near mainland Europe at all.

The airlines are just as prone to panic, cancelling flights into Belgium as if the country had suddenly become a seriously dangerous place. This story will dominate the Belgian media for weeks, and the rest of the Western media for the remainder of this week. Even non-Western media will play it for a day or two. Almost nothing new or useful will be said, and then the frenzy will die down – until next time.

This is a very stupid way of behaving, but you will notice that I am a part of it. No matter what I say about the bombs in Brussels, the fact that I am writing at length about them in a column that appears all over the world contributes to the delusion that they are not only a nasty event but also an important one.

It is the sheer volume of coverage that determines an event’s perceived importance, not what is actually said about it. But if we in the media are compelled to write about an event like the Belgian bombs anyway, what can we truthfully say about it that will not feed the panic?

The first thing, after every terrorist attack, is to stress that the media coverage of the attack is its primary purpose – indeed, almost its only purpose. It’s obvious and it’s trite, but if you don’t actually say it people forget it. Like the health warning on cigarette packets, it should be part of every story on terrorism.

Secondly, we have to put the alleged “threat” of such terrorist attacks into perspective. People rarely do this for themselves, because once events are beyond the range of their daily experience most people cannot distinguish between what is truly dangerous and what is only dramatic and frightening.

It really does help to remind people that terrorism is a statistically insignificant risk – that they are in much greater danger of dying from a fall in the bath than of dying in a terrorist attack – even if that approach conflicts with the journalists’ natural urge to emphasise the importance of whatever they are writing about.

And finally, a little dispassionate analysis quickly deflates the notion that terrorism is “an existential threat” (as British prime minister David Cameron once said). For example, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe have been largely confined to French-speaking countries.

Muslim immigrants in France and Belgium mostly come from Arab countries, and especially from North Africa, where French is the second language. Radical Islamism is much weaker in the rest of the Muslim world, so Germany (whose Muslims are mostly Turkish) and Britain (where they are mostly of South Asian origin) generate fewer Islamist extremists than the francophone countries, and face fewer terrorist attacks.

France’s and Belgium’s Muslim citizens are also less integrated into the wider community. French housing policy has dumped most of the immigrants in high-rise, low-income developments at the edge of the cities, often beyond the end of the metro lines. Unemployed, poorly educated and culturally isolated, their young men are more easily recruited into extremist groups.

The point of this sort of analysis is to cut the problem down to size. There is no terrorist army in Belgium, just a bunch of young men making it up as they go along. For example, the Brussells attacks happened four days after the arrest of Salah Abdeslam, the sole survivor of the gang who carried out the attacks on the Bataclan arena and the Stade de France in Paris last November.

Back in Brussels after failing to use his suicide vest in the Paris attack, Abdeslam was a psychological wreck, and his Islamist colleagues undoubtedly expected that once in police custody he would sing like a canary. So they decided to launch another attack and go to glory before the police kicked in their doors.

Prime Minister Charles Michel issued the usual ritual incantation about Belgians being “determined to defend our freedom,” but Belgium’s freedom is not at risk. Terrorists are not an existential threat. They are a lethal nuisance, but no more than a nuisance.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“And people…time”)

The End of the Venezuelan “Revolution”

The Venezuelan opposition’s victory in Sunday’s election exceeded even their own hopes: they won more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. It may be the beginning of the end for the “Bolivarian revolution” launched by the late hero-leader Hugo Chavez seventeen years ago – but it will also plunge the country into a prolonged period of conflict and crisis.

Credit where credit is due: the election was conducted in an exemplary fashion although the government knew it was going to lose. And even when the scale of the opposition’s victory became clear, President Nicolas Maduro took the high road: “I call on all of our people to recognise these results peacefully, and to re-evaluate many political aspects of the revolution.”

However Maduro, who took over when Chavez died in March 2013, does not intend to preside over the funeral of Venezuelan socialism. When he said “our people”, he meant the Chavistas who still support the “revolution”, and the fact that they were now obviously a minority of the Venezuelan people went unmentioned. As did the fact that it was not actually a revolution at all: Chavez came to power legally and peacefully in the 1998 election.

The real question is whether Maduro and those around him will consent to leave power the same way. His vague rhetoric – “We have lost a battle today but now is when the fight for socialism begins” – is designed to leave that in some doubt. And it may be a real fight, perhaps including violence in the streets, because many Chavistas will feel duty-bound not to let this historic experiment fail.

Excuse the deliberate lapse into antique Marxist-speak, but that’s how they talk, and it illustrates how misleading the revolutionary rhetoric is. Because the Chavista era in Venezuelan history was not an historic experiment at all – not, at least, unless you think that building a welfare state with oil revenues is a revolutionary idea (in which case Saudi Arabia also has a revolutionary ideology).

True, the Chavistas are rather bigger on the notion of equality than the Saudi royal family, but what they were actually doing was not controversial in principle. They sought and won power through democratic means. Like left-wing politicians in early 20th-century European states, they then set about improving the income, health, housing and educational level of the bottom half of society, as they had promised they would.

The work of social uplift went a lot faster in Venezuela because of the oil money. (It has the world’s biggest oil reserves, and only 30 million people.) Chavez accomplished in a decade what took countries like Britain, France and Germany two generations. But by the end of that time the European countries had diversified industrial economies that could pay for a welfare state. All Chavez left his successors was oil.

So long as the oil income held up, Chavismo was invincible. Mismanagement and corruption grew, as they often do when money is plentiful. Arrogance grew too, as it usually does in governments long in power, and protests were increasingly met with physical or legal violence. Still Chavez and his successor Maduro won elections – until the oil price collapsed.

In the past eighteen months the world price for oil has fallen from $140 a barrel to only $40. Venezuela was already facing serious unemployment and very high inflation. Government-imposed price controls were already creating predictable shortages of staple goods like milk, rice, coffee, sugar, corn flour and cooking oil. But when the government’s income collapsed, all those problems went ballistic.

OF COURSE Maduro lost the election. In these circumstances, Chavez himself couldn’t have won it. Even Simon Bolivar couldn’t have won it. So now the challenge that both the Chavistas and the opposition face is how to manage an orderly transition that respects democracy, avoids violence, and preferably also preserves some of the social and educational gains of the past seventeen years.

The sheer scale of the opposition victory makes this tricky, since it has a “super-majority”: more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. In theory, that lets it do radical things like rewrite the constitution. In practice, however, the temptation to do that may not be very great. The opposition’s super-majority is vulnerable as it depends on a single seat (it holds 112 out of 167 seats).

The first order of business of the new National Assembly will be to pass an amnesty law freeing some seventy leading lights of the coalition’s various parties who were jailed on highly questionable grounds – but once freed they will try to reassert their leadership of those parties, which will probably undermine the fragile unity of the coalition.

Nothing the new opposition-dominated legislature does in the short term can change the dire economic situation. Maduro will still control the executive branch, with a presidential mandate that extends into 2019 – unless the opposition forces a recall referendum on his presidency, which it can legally do by next April. The “experiment” is over, but the crisis isn’t.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11. (“The work…oil”; and “The sheer…seats”)

Terrorism: A Relatively Minor Issue

By sheer coincidence, a book I wrote called “Don’t Panic: Islamic State, Terrorism and Today’s Middle East” was published just before the terrorist attacks in Paris. So naturally everybody interviewing me about the book asked me if it is time to panic now. They couldn’t resist it. And of course I replied no, it is not time to panic.

If a train derailed in the Paris Metro, killing 130 people and injuring over 300, the story would dominate the news in France for around 24 hours, 48 hours tops. In other countries it would definitely be only a one-day story: just one more transport accident, in a world where trains collide, planes crash and ships sink from time to time.

But if it’s not an accident – if human beings deliberately caused those deaths – then the media feeding frenzy starts. The story is twenty times as big, and it can dominate the news schedules for a week. Most people in Europe, North America and the Middle East have watched at least several hours of coverage of the Paris events and their aftermath – as long as a feature film – and even in more distant parts of the world it has been the event of the week.

There is nothing puzzling about this phenomenon. It’s perfectly natural for people to be more interested in murder than in mere mechanical malfunctions. But the sheer volume of the coverage makes a terrorist attack feel like a much bigger event than it actually is. Even if you live a very long way from where the real action is.

If you live in Syria, the threat isn’t just terrorism. Islamic State is already a major threat to the many Syrians it hates (Shias, Christians, Druze, and even Sunni Muslims who have worked for the government or fought in the army). If IS gained control of the whole country, the number of Syrian refugees would double or triple.

If you live in Iraq, you are much less at risk, for Islamic State has little hope of expanding into the Shia-dominated parts of the country still under Baghdad’s control, or into the areas under Kurdish control.

If you live in Turkey or other Arab countries – indeed, in any other Muslim country – you may face a serious threat from home-grown extremists, but all they get from IS is encouragement and maybe a bit of training. It’s really a domestic problem.

If you live in France or the United States or China, your only worry is the occasional terrorist attack that may have been encouraged by Islamic State – but the people who carry it out are mostly locals. You deal with that sort of thing just the way you dealt with other terrorist threats in the past: border controls, enhanced security measures at public events, and good intelligence.

If Western air forces want to bomb Islamic State too, by all means do so, but they will be all alone in that job. The Arab states that are allegedly part of President Obama’s “coalition” have all withdrawn their air forces and are bombing Yemen instead. And the Turks are almost exclusively bombing the Kurds (including the Kurds fighting Islamic State), except when they shoot down a Russian plane.

The Russian and “coalition” (mostly American) bombs falling on Islamic State have stopped its expansion, at least for the moment, and the recent air attacks on the tanker-trucks that carry the black-market oil out have certainly cut into its income, but it is not about to fall.

As for “boots on the ground”, forget it. The only people fighting Islamic State on the ground are the Kurds and what’s left of the Syrian army after four years of war. The Syrian army was on the brink of collapse last summer before the Russian bombing campaign saved it, and it still lacks the strength to recapture much territory. Islamic State is going to be around for a while.

Stopping Western air attacks on Islamic State might save some Western cities from terrorist attacks, but even that is not guaranteed. Islamic State is competing with al-Qaeda for support in the Muslim and especially the Arab world, and spectacular acts of terrorism are good recruiting tools. Islamic State also thinks it is following a divinely ordained script, which makes it relatively impervious to normal calculations of strategic advantage.

Does this mean terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic State will continue for months or years no matter what the West does? Probably.

Within living memory Western countries have fought real wars that killed millions of
their citizens, and they didn’t buckle under the strain. The scale of the threat they face now is so much smaller that it is ridiculous to call it a war at all, and yet they flap about like frightened poultry.

If terrorist attacks on the scale of Paris are the greatest threat facing the West, then these are very fortunate countries.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“If you live in Iraq…control” and “If you live in Turkey…problem”)

Waterloo: The Fall of a Superpower

Thursday is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and in the course of the day you are almost bound to hear or read somebody claiming that it “changed history.” It was a very big battle, after all, and it would be a century before Europe saw war on that scale again. But did the events of 18 June 1815 “change history”? Probably not.

The really decisive battle was fought a year and a half before that near Leipzig in Germany: the ‘Battle of the Nations’. Three times more men were involved in that battle than fought at Waterloo. There were many more battles before the Russian, Austrian and Prussian armies entered Paris and Napoleon finally abdicated as Emperor of the French in the spring of 1814, but he never won another battle.

Napoleon was given a mini-kingdom on the island of Elba, off the Italian coast, to keep himself busy. The victors began to put Europe back together after twenty years of almost unbroken war, around 3 million combat deaths, and a comparable number of civilian casualties. And after only ten months, Napoleon escaped from Elba and went back to France for another try.

But it was really already over. The British (the paymasters of the coalition), the Austrians, the Prussians and the Russians were all still mobilised, and their armies started closing in on France. In the ‘Hundred Days’, Napoleon managed to lure many men who had fought for him in past wars back into his new army, but it was pure nostalgia.

He moved fast, hoping to defeat the British army in what is now Belgium before the other allies arrived to reinforce it, and he almost succeeded. The British commander, the Duke of Wellington, said that the battle of Waterloo was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.” In the end, late in the afternoon, the Prussian (German) army showed up and turned the tide. But if Napoleon hadn’t lost at Waterloo, he would have been defeated a little later.

“God is on the side of the heaviest battalions,” said Voltaire, and Napoleon agreed, just substituting “the best artillery” to demonstrate that his military knowledge was fully up to date. But his political knowledge was woefully deficient: God is actually on the side of the biggest economies, especially if they know how to turn their wealth into military power.

Britain had already overtaken France as Europe’s biggest economy (and in those days, that meant the world’s biggest economy). The industrial revolution in Britain was already into its second generation, while France had barely entered the first. Even in sheer numbers of people, a low birth rate meant that France would fall behind Russia, then behind Germany, and eventually even behind Britain in population.

So even if Napoleon could go on winning battles, he couldn’t win the war. In the end he couldn’t even win the battles. He was running out of soldiers, and his enemies had spent a generation at war learning (very expensively) to fight battles just as well as he did. Waterloo only confirmed what everybody with eyes could see already: France was finished as Europe’s superpower.

Then Britain got a century at the top (and after 500 years of Anglo-French wars, it never had to fight France again). The United States is now about 75 years into its term as the reigning superpower – and you are probably assuming that I am now going to speculate who gets the crown next. Wrong on two counts.

First of all, it’s a thorny crown, and nobody in their right mind would want it. The relevant statistic (which hides in plain sight) is that the more powerful a country is, the more wars it fights and the more people it loses. More power doesn’t give you greater security; it just gets you into more trouble.

Secondly, about half the time there is no undisputed top dog. That was the situation for the century 1600-1700, when Spain was in visible decline but France was not yet ready to assume the mantle of sole superpower. It was equally true in 1945-1990, when nuclear weapons (the great equaliser) meant that the United States and the Soviet Union were co-equal superpowers even though the US economy was far bigger than the Soviet one.

And now, with the American superpower allegedly in decline, there is obsessive speculation about when China will step in and take over the role – or might it turn out to be India instead? As though it were still the early 19th century, when France was going down and Britain was taking over. It isn’t.

Military power doesn’t deliver the goods any more. The United States has lost almost every war and mini-war it has fought in the past fifty years (except Grenada and Panama), even though it accounts for around half of the planet’s spending on defence. In the present global strategic environment, decisive victories are about as rare as unicorns.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is probably a good thing. Victory is a much over-rated concept.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“But…nostalgia”; and “God…power”)