September 10, 2017

In search of silphium, the lost herb of the Roman empire

Filed under: Africa, Environment, History, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Zaria Gorvett recounts the story of a Roman-era herb that was at one point literally worth its weight in gold:

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.


A coin of Cyrene depicting the stalk of a Silphium plant. (Source: 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35, via Wikimedia)

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.
With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

March 4, 2016

The US Arms Industry – The Fight for Douaumont I THE GREAT WAR – Week 84

Filed under: Europe, France, Germany, History, Military, USA, WW1 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:44

Published on 3 Mar 2016

The fierce Battle of Verdun continues but as the Germans under Crown prince Wilhelm push harder and harder, the German casualties begin to rise to the same levels as the French. The French Army is only kept alive through the sacred road which brings men to the front without a pause. One French soldier that gets captured around Verdun, is Charles De Gaulle. At the same time, on the almost forgotten Libyan Front South African cavalry saves the day like in the glorious past of the British Army.

November 20, 2015

The Forgotten Front – World War 1 in Libya I THE GREAT WAR – Week 69

Filed under: Europe, History, Military, WW1 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 19 Nov 2015

12 war zones were not enough for this global war and this week an often forgotten theatre of war opens in Libya. Local Arab tribesmen fight against the British in guerrilla war. As if the Italians did not have enough problems at the Isonzo Front where Luigi Cardona is still sending his men into certain death against the Austrian defences. The situation for the Serbs is grim too and on the Western Front the carnage continues unchanged.

September 30, 2014

“…the outcomes of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Libya disprove libertarianism”

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:30

Nick Gillespie responds to a really dumb argument against libertarianism:

As one of the folks (along with Matt Welch, natch), who started the whole “Libertarian Moment” meme way back in 2008, it’s been interesting to see all the ways in which folks on the right and left get into such a lather at the very notion of expanding freedom and choice in many (though sadly not all) aspects of human activity.

Indeed, the brain freeze can get so intense that it turns occasionally smart people into mental defectives.

To wit, Damon Linker’s recent essay in The Week (a great magazine, by the way), which argues that the outcomes of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Libya disprove libertarianism, in particular, the Hayekian principle of “spontaneous order.”

No shit. Linker is being super-cereal here, kids:

    Now it just so happens that within the past decade or so the United States has, in effect, run two experiments — one in Iraq, the other in Libya — to test whether the theory of spontaneous order works out as the libertarian tradition would predict.

    In both cases, spontaneity brought the opposite of order. It produced anarchy and civil war, mass death and human suffering.

You got that? An archetypal effort in what Hayek would call “constructivism,” neocon hawks would call “nation building,” and what virtually all libertarians (well, me anyways) called a “non sequitur” in the war on terror that was doomed to failure from the moment of conception is proof positive that libertarianism is, in Linker’s eyes, “a particularly bad idea” whose “pernicious consequences” are plain to see.

In the sort of junior-high-school rhetorical move to which desperate debaters cling, Linker even plays a variation on the reductio ad Hitlerum in building case:

    Some bad ideas inspire world-historical acts of evil. “The Jews are subhuman parasites that deserve to be exterminated” may be the worst idea ever conceived. Compared with such a grotesquely awful idea, other bad ideas may appear trivial. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them and their pernicious consequences.

    Into this category I would place the extraordinarily influential libertarian idea of “spontaneous order.”

What nuance: Exterminating Jews may be the worst idea…! When a person travels down such a rhetorical path, it’s best to back away quickly, with a wave of the hand and best wishes for the rest of his journey. Who can seriously engage somebody who starts a discussion by saying, “You’re not as bad as the Nazis, I’ll grant you that”…? I’d love to read his review of the recent Teenage Mutant Ninjas movie: “Not as bad as Triumph of the Will, but still a bad film…”

August 6, 2014

Who is to blame for the outbreak of World War One? (Part eight of a series)

Filed under: Africa, Europe, History, Military, WW1 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

We’re getting closer to the end of the series now … you can catch up to the earlier posts here: part one, part two, part three, part four, part five, part six, and part seven. The previous post touched on Russia’s disaster in the far east and the dangerous domestic situation it faced after the war. In this post we discover that Italy could be at least as perfidious as “Perfidious Albion”, and that the Balkans are a hell of a place to wage a war.

Italy tips the first domino … in Africa

In The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark talks about a war I don’t think I’d ever heard of … an Italian campaign against the Ottoman Empire:

At the end of September 1911, only six months after the foundation of Ujedinjenje ili smrt! [“Union or death!” aka The Black Hand], Italy launched an invasion of Libya. This unprovoked attack one one of the integral provinces of the Ottoman Empire triggered a cascade of opportunistic attacks on Ottoman-controlled territory in the Balkans.

Italy’s attack on the Ottoman Empire was literally planned to steal what is now Libya and incorporate it into a new Italian Empire. Although the formal war was over in thirteen months, indigenous Arabs were still fighting back twenty years later. This attack broke the public-but-informal international understandings about leaving the remaining parts of the Ottoman Empire alone to prevent the risk of great power struggles breaking out. Britain and France had gone to war in 1854 to ensure that Russia did not gain access to the straits and thus a warm-water route to the Mediterranean and the coastlines of southern Europe, but the outcome of both the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War and the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War (and the secret Reinsurance Treaty with Germany) meant that Russia’s hands were largely free as long as Constantinople and the straits were not directly attacked. Italy’s attack broke with that understanding, and could be said to have started the most recent (and also most fatal) scramble for territory in the Balkans.

However, Italy did not act completely outside the norm for a would-be great power: they had an understanding with the French government that was formalized in a secret treaty in 1902 — Italy would not oppose French designs on Tunisia in exchange for French acceptance of Italy’s similar hopes for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (modern day Libya). Italy’s attack was only possible because of the anomaly of the British position in Egypt: although still formally part of the Ottoman Empire, day-to-day Egyptian affairs were run by or overseen by British officials. Egypt was militarily occupied, but not a colony of the British Empire, and the country was — in theory — still run by the government of the Khedive. The Ottomans could not move formed bodies of troops through Egypt, and the Ottoman navy did not have the ships to transport them from Anatolia directly to Libya. This gave Italy the opportunity to concentrate against the weaker Ottoman forces.

The otherwise obscure Italo-Turkish War was interesting for several reasons, as the Wikipedia article notes:

Italian airships bomb Ottoman troops in Libya

Italian airships bomb Ottoman troops in Libya (via Wikipedia)

Although minor, the war was a significant precursor of the First World War as it sparked nationalism in the Balkan states. Seeing how easily the Italians had defeated the weakened Ottomans, the members of the Balkan League attacked the Ottoman Empire before the war with Italy had ended.

The Italo-Turkish War saw numerous technological changes, notably the airplane. On October 23, 1911, an Italian pilot, Captain Carlo Piazza, flew over Turkish lines on the world’s first aerial reconnaissance mission, and on November 1, the first ever aerial bomb was dropped by Sottotenente Giulio Gavotti, on Turkish troops in Libya, from an early model of Etrich Taube aircraft. The Turks, lacking anti-aircraft weapons, were the first to shoot down an aeroplane by rifle fire.

It was also in this conflict that the future first president of Turkey and leader of the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, distinguished himself militarily as a young officer during the Battle of Tobruk.

Although Italy ended up with possession of the disputed land, it did not come easily or cheaply:

The invasion of Libya was a costly enterprise for Italy. Instead of the 30 million lire a month judged sufficient at its beginning, it reached a cost of 80 million a month for a much longer period than was originally estimated. The war cost Italy 1.3 billion lire, nearly a billion more than Giovanni Giolitti estimated before the war. This ruined ten years of fiscal prudence.

After the withdrawal of the Ottoman army the Italians could easily extend their occupation of the country, seizing East Tripolitania, Ghadames, the Djebel and Fezzan with Murzuk during 1913. The outbreak of the First World War with the necessity to bring back the troops to Italy, the proclamation of the Jihad by the Ottomans and the uprising of the Libyans in Tripolitania forced the Italians to abandon all occupied territory and to entrench themselves in Tripoli, Derna, and on the coast of Cyrenaica. The Italian control over much of the interior of Libya remained ineffective until the late 1920s, when forces under the Generals Pietro Badoglio and Rodolfo Graziani waged bloody pacification campaigns. Resistance petered out only after the execution of the rebel leader Omar Mukhtar on September 15, 1931. The result of the Italian colonisation for the Libyan population was that by the mid-1930s it had been cut in half due to emigration, famine, and war casualties. The Libyan population in 1950 was at the same level as in 1911, approximately 1.5 million in 1911.

The war ended well — at least geographically speaking — for Italy, having gained title not only to Libya but also to the Dodecanese: a group of twelve large and about 150 small islands in the Aegean Sea. The largest and most economically valuable island was Rhodes, which became a useful base for Italian forces for more than 40 years. The treaty ending the Italo-Turkish War required Italy to vacate the islands, but due to both fuzzy wording and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, Italy managed to retain possession.

The Ottoman tide ebbs

A German map of the Balkans, showing the borders as of 1905 (via Wikiepedia)

A German map of the Balkans, showing the borders as of 1905 (via Wikipedia)

The remaining Ottoman territories in Europe were under constant pressure both from external forces (Austria and Russia) and internal linguistic, religious, and cultural separatist movements. Austria preferred to view the separatists as potential new provinces for the Dual Monarchy, while Russia saw the possibility of new independent Russophile political groupings that might allow indirect Russian access to the Mediterranean, bypassing Constantinople (or, perhaps more realistically, additional bases from which to launch an attack against the straits).

Italy’s attack was the first domino falling. Christopher Clark writes:

The First World War was the Third Balkan War before it became the First World War. How as this possible? Conflicts and crises on the south-eastern periphery, where the Ottoman Empire abutted Christian Europe, were nothing new. The European system had always accommodated them without endangering the peace of the continent as a whole. But the last years before 1914 saw fundamental change. In the autumn of 1911, Italy launched a war of conquest on an African province of the Ottoman Empire, triggering a chain of opportunistic assaults on Ottoman territories across the Balkans. The system of geopolitical balances that had enabled local conflicts to be contained was swept away. In the aftermath of the two Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, Austria-Hungary faced a new and threatening situation on its south-eastern periphery, while the retreat of Ottoman power raised strategic questions that Russian diplomats and policy-makers found it impossible to ignore.

Margaret MacMillan, in The War That Ended Peace:

It was in the Balkans […] that the greatest dangers were to arise: two wars among its nations, one in 1912 and a second in 1913, nearly pulled the great powers in. Diplomacy, bluff and brinksmanship in the end saved the peace but although Europeans could not know it, they had had a dress rehearsal for the summer of 1914. As they say in the theatre, if that last run-through goes well, the opening night will be a disaster.

The First Balkan War of 1912 — A Pan-Slavic triumph

To some, the Balkans were a comic opera assemblage of exotic uniforms, passionate actors, indecipherable languages, a bit of bloodshed, but no real source of international danger or worry. Margaret MacMillan explains that much happened beneath the surface of the above-ground culture: much that portended danger to the entire region and beyond.

To the rest of Europe the Balkan states were something of a joke, the setting for tales of romance such as the Prisoner of Zenda or operettas (Montenegro was the inspiration for the The Merry Widow), but their politics were deadly serious — and frequently deadly with terrorist plots, violence and assassinations. In 1903 King Peter’s unpopular predecessor as King of Serbia and his equally unpopular wife had been thrown from the windows of the palace and their corpses hacked to pieces. […] The growth of national movements had welded peoples together but it had also divided Orthodox from Catholic or Muslim, Albanians from Slaves, and Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Bulgarians or Macedonians from each other. While the peoples of the Balkans had coexisted and intermingled, often for long periods of peace through the centuries, the establishment of national states in the nineteenth century had too often been accompanied by burning of villages, massacres, expulsions of minorities and lasting vendettas.

Politicians who had ridden to power by playing on nationalism and with promises of national glory found they were in the grip of forces they could not always control. Secret societies, modelling themselves on an eclectic mix which included Freemasonry, the underground Carbonari, who had worked for Italian unity, the terrorists who more recently had frightened much of Europe, and old-style banditry, proliferated throughout the Balkans, weaving their way into civilian and military institutions of the states.

In addition to the ethnic, proto-national, cultural, and religious aspects of Balkan conflict, it was also an inter-generational conflict:

The younger generation who were attracted to the secret societies were often more extreme than their elders and frequently at odds with them. “Our fathers, our tyrants,” said a Bosnian radical nationalist, “have created this world on their model and are now forcing us to live in it.” The young members were in love with violence and prepared to destroy even their own traditional values and institutions in order to build the new Greater Serbia, Bulgaria, or Greece. (Even if they had not read Nietzsche, which many of them had, they too had heard that God was dead and that European civilization must be destroyed in order to free humankind.) In the last years before 1914, the authorities in the Balkan states either tolerated or were powerless to control the activities of their own young radicals who carried out assassinations and terrorist attacks on Ottoman or Austrian-Hungarian official as oppressors of the Slavs, on their own leaders whom they judged to be insufficiently devoted to the nationalist cause, or simply on ordinary citizens who happened to be in the wrong religion or the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place.

French map of the territorial changes due to the First Balkan War (via Wikipedia)

French map of the territorial changes due to the First Balkan War (via Wikipedia)

Comic opera states or not, they proved to be more than a match for their Ottoman overlords. Taking advantage of the Italian attack on Libya, Serbia allied with Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro to invade and capture much of the Balkan peninsula, stopping just a few miles outside Constantinople. The First Balkan War triggered vast population shifts, as nearly half a million Muslims fled from the conquered territory to escape religious persecution (and many thousands died through privation, disease, and starvation. Between the actual combat between military forces, forced evacuations, and the early use of genocidal policies, several million people were forced out of their homes and moved at gunpoint to wherever the armed groups wanted them to go. Cultural patterns nearly a millennia old were uprooted and dispersed to suit the tastes of local warlords and jumped-up military leaders.

And there it might have ended, but the unexpectedly successful campaign by the Balkan League left just a few too many loose ends, which almost immediately led to conflict among the victorious allies. Since I’ve already tipped you to the fact that there was more than one Balkan War, you probably won’t be surprised to find that the Second Balkan War happened quite soon after the first one. But that’s a tale for another day.

September 17, 2012

Volokh: When you reward certain kinds of behaviour, you get more of it

Filed under: Liberty, Media, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:52

The context here is the various arms of the US government scrambling to condemn the alleged maker of the alleged film Innocence of Muslims. Eugene Volokh explains that this is actually inviting further demands for “satisfaction” on the part of the offended:

In recent days, I’ve heard various people calling for punishing the maker of Innocence of Muslims, and more broadly for suppressing such speech. During the Terry Jones planned Koran-burning controversy, I heard similar calls. Such expression leads to the deaths of people, including Americans. It worsens our relations with important foreign countries. It’s intended to stir up trouble. And it’s hardly high art, or thoughtful political arguments. It’s not like it’s Satanic Verses, or even South Park or Life of Brian. Why not shut it down, and punish those who engage in it (of course, while keeping Satanic Verses and the like protected)?

I think there are many reasons to resist such calls, but in this post I want to focus on one: I think such suppression would likely lead to more riots and more deaths, not less. Here’s why.

Behavior that gets rewarded, gets repeated. (Relatedly, “once you have paid him the Dane-geld, you never get rid of the Dane.”) Say that the murders in Libya lead us to pass a law banning some kinds of speech that Muslims find offensive or blasphemous, or reinterpreting our First Amendment rules to make it possible to punish such speech under some existing law.

What then will extremist Muslims see? They killed several Americans (maybe itself a plus from their view). In exchange, they’ve gotten America to submit to their will. And on top of that, they’ve gotten back at blasphemers, and deter future blasphemy. A triple victory.

Would this (a) satisfy them that now America is trying to prevent blasphemy, so there’s no reason to kill over the next offensive incident, or (b) make them want more such victories? My money would be on (b).

September 16, 2012

Benghazi was a symptom of a deeper problem

Filed under: Africa, Bureaucracy, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:06

Mark Steyn almost forgets the humour in this week’s column:

So, on a highly symbolic date, mobs storm American diplomatic facilities and drag the corpse of a U.S. ambassador through the streets. Then the president flies to Vegas for a fundraiser. No, no, a novelist would say; that’s too pat, too neat in its symbolic contrast. Make it Cleveland, or Des Moines.

The president is surrounded by delirious fanbois and fangurls screaming “We love you,” too drunk on his celebrity to understand this is the first photo-op in the aftermath of a national humiliation. No, no, a filmmaker would say; too crass, too blunt. Make them sober, middle-aged midwesterners, shocked at first, but then quiet and respectful.

The president is too lazy and cocksure to have learned any prepared remarks or mastered the appropriate tone, notwithstanding that a government that spends more money than any government in the history of the planet has ever spent can surely provide him with both a speechwriting team and a quiet corner on his private wide-bodied jet to consider what might be fitting for the occasion. So instead he sloughs off the words, bloodless and unfelt: “And obviously our hearts are broken…” Yeah, it’s totally obvious.

And he’s even more drunk on his celebrity than the fanbois, so in his slapdashery he winds up comparing the sacrifice of a diplomat lynched by a pack of savages with the enthusiasm of his own campaign bobbysoxers. No, no, says the Broadway director; that’s too crude, too ham-fisted. How about the crowd is cheering and distracted, but he’s the president, he understands the gravity of the hour, and he’s the greatest orator of his generation, so he’s thought about what he’s going to say, and it takes a few moments but his words are so moving that they still the cheers of the fanbois, and at the end there’s complete silence and a few muffled sobs, and even in party-town they understand the sacrifice and loss of their compatriots on the other side of the world.

But no, that would be an utterly fantastical America. In the real America, the president is too busy to attend the security briefing on the morning after a national debacle, but he does have time to do Letterman and appear on a hip-hop radio show hosted by “The Pimp with a Limp.”

September 12, 2012

The real reason for the Cairo and Benghazi attacks

Filed under: Africa, Media, Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 10:44

Tim Cavanaugh on the real as opposed to claimed reason for the attacks on American diplomats in Egypt and Libya:

Mohamed al-Zawahiri, brother of al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, says he called a “peaceful protest” in Cairo as part of the 9/11 anniversary attacks on U.S. embassies that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya dead and the U.S. embassy in Egypt in shambles.

The putative cause of the attack in Cairo was anger over a satirical movie depicting the founder of Islam’s life. The attacks in the adjacent North African countries, both of which last year saw secular autocrats toppled, came on a day commemorating the Zawahiri family’s direct role in coordinated terror attacks that killed more than 3,000 people from more than 60 nations.

[. . .]

But there is no real point in rebutting Zawahiri’s stated claims about a movie. I’m not even sure the movie Innocence of Muslims exists, given that producer Sam Bacile told the Wall Street Journal it had a budget of $5 million, and that doesn’t match up with the production value in Bacile’s trailer. (Bacile’s “100 Jewish donors” seem to be the real victims here.)

The purpose of the attacks in Egypt and Libya was for the Sunni leadership to show it can unleash mob attacks against American diplomatic assets. (There may be some historical exceptions, but it’s more or less axiomatic than mob attacks cannot happen without government approval.) That point has been received by everybody except U.S. State Department employees.

January 22, 2012

“We don’t do kings”

Filed under: Africa, Government, Middle East, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:03

Colby Cosh suggests that the long aversion to monarchy on the part of US policymakers may be hindering their long-term plans around the world:

Monarchies in the Middle East and North Africa have been stable relative to their republican neighbours; the replacement of a monarchy with a republic rarely if ever makes the people better off; and the monarchies in the region tend to be more liberal economically, even if they don’t have particularly liberal political structures.

In the ci-devant monarchies of the Arab and Persian world, nostalgia for overthrown Western-friendly regimes of the past seems fairly common. When the Libyans got rid of Gadhafi last year, for instance, they promptly restored the old flag of the Kingdom of Libya (1951-69), and some of the anti-Gadhafi protesters carried portraits of the deposed late king, Idris. From the vantage point of Canada, constitutional monarchy looks like a pretty good solution to the inherent problems of governing ethnically divided or clan-dominated places. And in most of the chaotic MENA countries, including Libya, there exist legitimist claimants who could be used to bring about constitutional restorations.

The most natural locale for such an experiment would have been Afghanistan, where republican governments have made repeated use of the old monarchical institution of the loya jirga or grand council.

December 26, 2011

Evaluating French aircraft carrier performance in the Libya campaign

Filed under: Africa, Europe, France, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:59

Strategy Page summarizes the efforts of the French aircraft carrier de Gaulle in the recently concluded Libyan operations:

The French nuclear aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, put in an epic performance of sustained combat air operations off Libya this year. From March to August France was one of the major contributors to the effort, flying 25 percent of the air sorties and contributing many of the warships off the coast of Libya. The 4,500 French air sorties put their aircraft in the air for 20,000 hours. About 30 percent of French sorties were flown from the de Gaulle and over half the French strike sorties were flown from the de Gaulle. Most (62 percent) of the carrier sorties were combat missions (usually bombing). The de Gaulle averaged 11.25 sorties per day when it was conducting air operations. The de Gaulle spent 120 flying days off Libya, in one case 63 straight days conducting combat operations. Aircraft operating from the de Gaulle spent 3,600 hours in the air and conducted 2,380 catapult takeoffs and carrier landings.

French warplanes carried out 35 percent of the bombing missions, using 950 smart bombs. These included 15 French made SCALP missiles and 225 Hammer GPS guided bombs. French helicopter gunships flew 90 percent of NATO helicopter attack missions, using 431 HOT missiles and thousands of cannon rounds. French warships fired over 3,000 rounds of 100mm and 76mm naval gun rounds at sea and land targets off the Libyan coast.

December 9, 2011

Praise for Britain’s MI6

Filed under: Britain, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:55

It’s the rough equivalent to the US Central Intelligence Agency, but it rarely gets public attention. Strategy Page has a thumbnail sketch of the organization as it gets a brief mention in the British press for its operations against Libya:

MI6 is less than one tenth the size of the CIA (in manpower) and has a budget that’s even smaller. But the CIA is by no means ten times as effective as MI6. For all its size and resources, the CIA cannot, or often will not, do things that MI6 will. Part of this has to do with MI6s greater experience and need to make do with less. But a lot of it has to do with different styles of operation. Both organizations are in the overseas espionage business, but both go about their business in quite different ways, and with often quite different results.

A large part of the difference can be traced to the fact that MI6 has always had a healthier relationship with its diplomats. CIA agents operating overseas often operate out of the local US embassy. Their cover is a diplomatic passport indicating they work for the State Department. But from the beginning, the diplomats were hostile to this sort of thing (British diplomats were not.) So CIA people were forced to use diplomatic passports indicating they were part of the Foreign Service Reserve instead of just Foreign Service. For those in the know, and that means just about everyone, it was easy to find out who the CIA guys were.

MI6 has a degree of legal cover for its operations that the CIA could only envy. Under the Intelligence Services Act of 1994, MI6 officers have immunity from prosecution for crimes committed outside Great Britain. The Criminal Justice Bill of 1998 makes it illegal for any organization in Great Britain to conspire to commit offenses abroad, but Crown agents have immunity. Which means, in effect, that yes, Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service really is licensed to kill.

[. . .]

Another advantage of MI6 is that they have a number of SAS commandos trained to work with MI6 and are always available for any MI6 needs. This commando organization is called Increment and is used for assassinations, sabotage or other dangerous jobs (like arresting war criminals in the Balkans.) In addition, every station chief has a direct line to SAS headquarters and a good working relationship with the commandos.

August 31, 2011

O’Neill: Winston Smith is working overtime in NATO’s “Ministry of Truth”

Filed under: Africa, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:37

I guess you could say that Brendan O’Neill wasn’t a fan of the NATO intervention in Libya:

Not since Winston Smith found himself in the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, rewriting old newspaper articles on behalf of Big Brother, has there been such an overnight perversion of history as there has been in relation to NATO’s intervention in Libya. Now that the rebels have taken Tripoli, NATO’s bombing campaign is being presented to us as an adroit intervention, which was designed to achieve precisely the glorious scenes we’re watching on our TV screens. In truth, it was an incoherent act of clueless militarism, which is only now being repackaged, in true Minitrue fashion, as an initiative that ‘played an indispensable role in the liberation of Tripoli’.

Normally it takes a few years for history to be rewritten; with Libya it happened in days. No sooner had rebel soldiers arrived at Gaddafi’s compound than the NATO campaign launched in March was being rewritten as a cogent assault. Commentators desperate to resuscitate the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’, and NATO leaders determined to crib some benefits from their Libya venture, took to their lecterns to tell us that their aims had been achieved and they had ‘salvaged the principle of liberal interventionism from the geopolitical dustbin’. In order to sustain these bizarre claims, they’ve had to put the real truth about NATO’s campaign into a memory hole and invent a whole new ‘truth’.

Over the past few days every aspect of NATO’s bombing campaign has been, as Winston Smith might put it, ‘falsified’. Since everybody now seems to have forgotten the events of just five months ago, it is worth reminding ourselves of the true character of NATO’s intervention in Libya. It was incoherent from the get-go, overseen by a continually fraying and deeply divided Western ‘alliance’ and with no serious war aim beyond being seen to bomb an evil dictator. It was cowardly, where all alliance members wanted to appear to be Doing Something while actually doing as little as possible. This was especially true of the US, which stayed firmly on the backseat of the anti-Gaddafi alliance. And it was reckless, revealing that military action detached from strategy, unanchored by end goals, can easily spin out of control.

August 27, 2011

QotD: Consistency

Filed under: Africa, Middle East, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:58

We are all glad that the Gadhafi regime is purportedly on its last legs. When I visited Libya in 2006, tragedy was what I saw—and a friendly population under the yoke of a psychopath. But I don’t think we have had much idea of what we were doing in Libya—a sort of diplomatic pastime secondary to presidential jet-setting and golfing. Moreover, I don’t see any hypocrisy in critiquing our confusion over Libya, as a supporter of the removal of Saddam Hussein. Wanting to use American power and influence to its fullest extent when going to war is preferable to not wanting to use all our power and influence when going to war. The hypocrisy is rather on the Left, which once damned the principle of intervention against an Arab Middle East oil-exporting nation that had not recently attacked us, only to support intervention against an Arab Middle East oil exporting nation that had not recently attacked us. In the Left’s defense, one could argue their consistency is that it’s OK if you have a UN vote, but irrelevant whether you have consent of the U.S. Congress.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was the object of 23 different Congressional authorizations (one should go back and read that October 2002 long list of “whereas”es), had been in hot and cold wars with us since 1991, attacked four neighbors, and in the heart of the ancient caliphate was hosting all sorts of terrorists. In a post-911 climate it made sense to reckon with him. Indeed, I think one of the great untold stories of Iraq was the carnage of Islamic terrorists who by volition promised that Iraq would be the central theater in jihad, flocked there, were killed and wounded in droves, and lost—and vastly weakened their cause. But in contrast, the West was apparently in the middle of a weird charm offensive with Gadhafi (one advanced by bought-and-paid-for American academics, European oil companies, and multicultural elites), and the result by 2010 was that Libya was considered no longer the 1986 Libya that Reagan had bombed.

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Middle East Mess”, Works and Days, 2011-08-24

June 28, 2011

QotD: Combining stupidity, smugness, and the illusion of legal process

Filed under: Africa, Bureaucracy, Law, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:13

Brendan Behan once said there is no situation so bad that it cannot be made worse by the arrival of a policeman. Well today there is no war so bloody that it cannot be made bloodier still by the intervention of the ICC. From the luxurious environs of The Hague, cheered on by liberals who get a cheap political thrill from seeing white lawyers stand up to evil Africans, the ICC has today issued an arrest warrant for Colonel Gaddafi, one of his sons and his security chief. This act of international moral posturing, designed to make the ICC look serious and superior, is likely to intensify the stand-off in Libya.

On one level, the issuing of the arrest warrant just seems barmy. These ICC bigwigs seem so removed from the real and messy world of politics and warfare that they seriously imagine it is possible to bring a war to an end by press-releasing a piece of paper saying: “Wanted for crimes against humanity: Muammar Gaddafi.” They seem to have confused the war in Libya with a nightclub brawl in Camberwell, imagining it is possible to resolve the whole miserable shebang by demanding the arrest of a few of the ringleaders. Once upon a time only spotty sixth-formers in turgid classroom discussions about conflict resolution would say things like “Hey, let’s just arrest the evil dude!” Now such political naiveté has been institutionalised in the ICC.

Yet on another level, the ICC’s game of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, the Enlightened West against the Dark Continent, can have unpredictable, potentially dangerous repercussions. If earlier instances of ICC interference into African conflicts are anything to by, the impact of the lawyerly intervention into Libya is likely to be twofold. Firstly it will further entrench Gaddafi and his forces, convincing them that it would be better go down with all guns blazing than to end up in The Hague alongside Karadzic and various other hated evil figures. And secondly it will remove the political initiative from the rebel forces in the east of the country, sending them the ultimately debilitating message that they would be better off waiting for outside forces to come and rescue them — in this instance, white, wig-wearing moral crusaders from the ICC — than to realise for themselves the liberation of their country.

Brendan O’Neill, “There is no war so bad that it cannot be made worse by the intervention of the ICC “, The Telegraph, 2011-06-28

June 24, 2011

Cato Institute: The President doesn’t take an oath to the UN charter

Filed under: Government, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 11:08

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