Bombs, folly and lies

Bombs, folly and lies

Amid all the arguments about whether the UK should be bombing Syria there’s a big and critical question that’s not being asked.

The arguments for joining the bombing campaign are patently feeble; you’d have to be feeble-minded to be persuaded by them. Cameron himself at the beginning of October criticised the Russians by arguing exactly the opposite view about the likely effect of bombing on the fundamentalist lunatics. Hilary Benn also took the opposite stance only a couple of weeks ago.

I haven’t met anyone outside parliament who doesn’t understand this. I’ve seen a few comments on social media supporting the bombing. Their arguments have been pathetic, mostly along the lines of “we have to do something”; yes we do, but it’s not a binary choice between bombing and doing nothing. As I’ll suggest in a minute, this false dichotomy seems to be at the heart of what’s going on.

Not everyone in parliament can be feeble-minded. Some probably are, but not all of them. I’m not sure David Cameron actually believes in anything apart from winning the political game, but I don’t think he’s exactly feeble-minded.

So the big question is this: why if these arguments are as dumb as they clearly are, why when they’ve been ridiculed by military experts and anyone with any serious knowledge of the Syrian situation, is the government pushing this nonsense and launching such murderous action in our name? If they are not feeble-minded, then there must be a cynical calculation that enough of us are, that a majority will accept this bullshit, so the government can get on with its real agenda.

I have no insider knowledge of what that agenda might be. But we have been here before. I was never convinced that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, but to my shame I was ready to believe that Blair’s government must have known something that they could not tell us, that there must be a good reason for this apparently grievous action. It seems now that even the most paranoid conspiracy theorists were much closer to the truth, that the Iraq war was driven mostly by the financial interests of Dick Cheney and his friends (which I’m sure they’d equate, falsely, to energy security for the West), partly by the delusion within the State Department that Saddam’s fall would turn the Middle East into a network of friendly client states for the US. The present consequence of this delusion is Daesh.

Why did Blair go along with this? There are no good reasons. Really, there are none. It may have been the entrenched fear in the Foreign Office, fifty years after the event, that there should never be another Suez, that the UK should never again find itself out of step with the US. It may have been a malingering post-imperial pride. Whatever the reason, we would better have served our US ally by standing against its folly, as France did. That’s worth remembering, when we’re told that one reason for joining the bombing campaign is the need to show solidarity with our allies, including France. There is no question of appeasing Daesh, of being “terrorist sympathisers”. What matters is what will work, and even Cameron can have no illusion that stepping up the bombing via eight Tornado jets will have any helpful effect in destroying Daesh, and in the meantime innocent people will be killed, a hard fact we will hide from through the murderous euphemism of “collateral damage”.

I’m not easily sympathetic to conspiracy theories, but when we’re being asked to swallow an argument so weak, so obviously wrong, we have to ask why.

In particular we have to ask why this feeble argument has been presented as our only option, when there are some pretty obvious alternatives.
It is not controversial to suggest that rather than trying to bomb Daesh into submission, it would be more promising to starve them of resources, at the same time as working single-mindedly to unite Syria’s warring factions against them (bombing, it’s widely acknowledged, will have the opposite effect).

But this could only be done by addressing the tacit support for Daesh in the Gulf States, and maybe Turkey. That would mean upsetting nominal allies, and more importantly, key players in energy supply to the West. None of this has been properly discussed in parliament, and although I’m congenitally disposed to be suspicious of conspiracy theories, it’s hard not to conclude that the real reason for putting everything into a debate about bombing is to bury these harder questions about alternative, more effective action against Daesh, an alternative that would go against other aspects of US-led policy which have been deemed more important than removing Daesh. In a truly grim, murderous way, this bombing is a displacement activity.

Perhaps Cameron and his friends can convince themselves they they are serving deeper national interests by playing these games. The experience in Iraq tells us otherwise. Since 1945 US foreign policy has, with only a few exceptions, been an unmitigated disaster. The British record has hardly been much better.

I don’t know whether the “allied” stance on Syria is in reality being driven by power games about energy security. Perhaps it really is just incompetence and arrogance. (If Iraq is anything to go by it’s both.) But when you’re asked to believe a story which won’t stand five seconds’ scrutiny, you have to ask what’s really going on.

Whatever the truth, we can say with confidence that here is yet another lie woven into the fabric of deceit which shrouds government action, certainly here in the UK, and probably the US too. That fabric makes a mockery of democracy, the value which above all we’re supposed to be upholding and evangelising. Daesh is monstrous, but such certainty is little comfort when we’re apparently led by such knaves or fools, and probably both.

Getting it wrong

Getting it wrong

Why do we get things wrong? Obviously we get things wrong when we have only partial information, or we have to make a judgement about unpredictable forces, and that kind of mistake isn’t particularly interesting. On the other hand it’s apparent that we can often get things wrong because we’re half-blinded by our prejudices or other desires. This happens all the time in our personal lives, and it’s often the stuff of tragedy, but it’s more interesting (or at least important) when it happens on a political or business level, when in some respects leaders should always be trying to think beyond these personal drivers.

I’m curious how an organisation like Microsoft, with huge resources and smart people, could have got it so wrong with Windows 8.

To give credit where it’s due I think Microsoft’s judgement, that using touch screens (on phones and tablets) will have a creeping influence on how we interact with computers, is correct and ahead of the rest of the market.

This much is comprehensible, but the resulting product is not. Microsoft clearly recognised that it would need to offer some semblance of its traditional desktop so as not to alienate its huge (and conservative) business constituency overnight, which makes it all the more surprising that it then seemed determined to force all users at every turn into its new touch friendly (and very immature) “modern UI”. Anyone could have told them that this was a big and unnecessary mistake (and many people did): it would have been a trivial thing to let users choose which environment they wanted, and let them stay there while carefully introducing convergent features.

What’s puzzling is not that Microsoft got the execution so wrong, but that it was incapable of seeing what was obvious. Note that this is not the usual problem of disruptive change and market leadership (highlighted by Clayton Christiansen back in the late 1990s), where the incumbent has too much invested in the status quo to adapt to change. Microsoft was reading the writing on the wall, and understanding what it meant, but as if paralysed by Christiansen’s insight it chose to act as if there was no status quo (and still executed very badly even in those terms). CEO Steve Ballmer has paid the price in his forced early retirement.

On on a different level, how did that usually shrewd political operator David Cameron get the parliamentary vote on a military response to the Syrian crisis so wrong? The Tories apparently blame Ed Milliband’s change of heart, but if Milliband wobbled it was because he was trying to take the public and parliamentary temperature, and when he had done so came down firmly on the side of non-intervention. This wasn’t duplicitous: it was the right political decision. Again what’s surprising is that Cameron hadn’t worked this all out for himself in advance, and so been much more cautious in his rhetoric. As it was he seemed transfixed by his admiration for Tony Blair’s calculated performances on the international stage, ignoring the obvious truth that what Blair did over Iraq has become axiomatic for political duplicity, and a total failure in its avowed aim to protect British security.

Cameron survives for the moment. On a bigger stage Barack Obama has been quietly humiliated by the wilier Vladimir Putin, largely because Putin had the advantage (through no virtue of his own) of being substantially right. Obama gave himself a problem he did not need to have, and Cameron went along with it. Again, what’s interesting about this particular crisis is not that the situation was hard to read. Everything was pretty obvious. The blinding factor seems to have been the self-image of some of the actors involved.

Leaders in any walk of life are fallible: this is hardly news. But it’s become worth saying because we seem to have settled on a view that leaders are distinguished from ordinary folk by their ability to read situations with unusual insight, and make the big bets successfully. This might be true of some very exceptional individuals, though even here we need to consider how much of a part luck or circumstance played (Churchill was the man of the wartime hour but a pretty hopeless peacetime politician). Indeed it is hard to name a great peacetime leader in British politics in the last hundred years. The two people with the sweeping self-belief to change the political climate were Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and in both cases their legacy is of unmitigated wrongheadedness.

It seems more likely that the best leaders are not like near-omniscient demigods: they are good team builders, who have learnt how to listen and empower others.

These things are valuable skills, but they are not so uncommon. The damaging cult of the Great Leader in Western business and politics has been embedded by the emergence of a self-serving leadership caste, who tell us that their unique talents require unprecedented financial rewards. This seems part of the same blinding self-image that urged otherwise intelligent people, from Ballmer to Obama, to close their eyes and ears to what sat plainly in front of them and caused them to lead badly (though in a truly grim irony, Ballmer’s resignation, a tacit admission of serious failure, immediately rewarded him with millions of dollars as Wall St welcomed the news and boosted the Microsoft share price).

Leaders are as important as they have always been, or more accurately leadership is as important as it’s always been, and that distinction matters because it detaches leadership from the cult of the individual. We need people of vision to take us forward, but note the plural: the vision is unlikely to emanate from any one person. We need this detachment of vision from the idea of the visionary, not just for better leadership, but better governance across enterprises and politics.