(Mostly) Not Empty or Futile – the European Parliament calls for an embargo

With the news that the European Parliament has voted to back an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia following widespread allegations of IHL violations in its war in Yemen, even more pressure is being put, in particular, on the UK’s seemingly untenable military relationship with Riyadh.

The vote was celebrated by groups such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who are obviously long-standing critics of UK arms export policy, and particularly British support for the Saudi war. It seems to point towards a long over-due change in policy.

However, as past experience has shown, it takes a lot to get governments to seriously consider the ethical implications of their arms export licensing decisions. In this post, which I’ve been considering so long I had assumed events would have overtaken me by now (which says it all), I’ll try and assess the likely impact of the vote.

The text adopted on Thursday is long and written in that strange voice that only two years of MUN could adequately have prepared me for. In amongst the expressions of grave concern and the reminders and stressings to all parties in the conflict, this is the key paragraph:

7. Calls on the VP/HR to launch an initiative aimed at imposing an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, given the serious allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen and the fact that the continued licensing of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia would therefore be in breach of Council Common Position 2008/944/CFSP of 8 December 2008

Looking at the actual language here, two things are striking. As imposing an EU-wide arms embargo is not one of the Parliament’s competencies (not 100% certain, but I believe that’s up to the Commission), the action language is very weak – they’re “calling for […]an initiative[…]aimed at” an arms embargo, which sounds like at least two layers of processes. On the other hand, that second clause is strong. There is no hedging around the rights or wrongs of continued sales to the Saudis. Rightly so! The Council Common Position referred to, available here, contains eight criteria by which member states should assess arms export licence applications. By my count, Saudi Arabia definitely doesn’t satisfy Two, Four or Six (it probably passes the rest, tenuously).

This is significant. Weasel words and obfuscation are generally the weapon of choice for governments who want to license arms exports to war criminals – ‘if evidence, clear evidence, is shown of these allegations, we would re-evaluate our positon’. Clear language like this is useful.

Useful, but limited. Again, this resolution has no legal force. Even if it did, it is hard to be optimistic about a change in policy. After all, British arms exports to Saudi Arabia have always been extremely sketchy under British law, even more so since the beginning of the war in Yemen. One of the foreign policy goals of the first Blair government was getting an “ethical arms export criteria” into law – this became the Export Control Act of 2002. The popular phrase used by policy-makers from Robin Cook through to Sajid Javid is that weapons would not be licensed where there “is a clear risk that it could be used for external aggression or internal oppression”. This includes provisions on respect for the laws of armed conflict, adverse effects on peace, security or stability, and breaches of human rights. By any reasonable standard, there is not just a “risk” that British weapons are being used in ways that don’t meet these criteria, it is arguably a matter of fact. So there should have been, at the very least, a pause in exports weeks ago.

It’s kind of spectacular, then, that at the same time as this resolution was being voted on, Prime Minister Cameron appeared at a BAE Systems factory to celebrate their work, particularly in selling to Saudi Arabia! When I was writing my dissertation, I thrived on these anecdotes that showed the futility of it all. From the MP who seemed to suffer a minor breakdown in defence of Saudi Arabia, to the shameless support of a policy that has already caused so much suffering, these are not the actions of a government wary of being forced into a change of policy. The government has continued to license exports to Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the war, including an urgent transfer of precision-guided munitions intended for the RAF.

That’s not to say this was empty or futile. The fact that Riyadh lobbied against the vote suggests they feel affected by it somehow, if only in terms of image. This (slightly fatuous) Vox piece compares the decision to U.S. policy as a critique. These aren’t negligible impacts, but they’re not likely to amount to much, unfortunately.

 

 

if you think this was bleak, try spending two and a half years writing a dissertation on it

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21st of February: I Feel Like Peter

Honestly the worst and most niche possible title there, but whatever. It’s actually a quite good joke that I may have to explain in the footnotes, thus invalidating it. Got to cross London in a bit, so let’s get to it!

Song of the week really wants to be one off Kanye’s new album, but because of his vile releasing decisions*, I don’t think I can get a YouTube link for you. So, off the top of my head, have the lead single off The Strokes’ last (last ever?) album, which I feel like deserved to lead a bigger comeback for them but there you go. It’s very falsetto and a bit manic but very wistful and lovely, remember listening to it a lot on the backroads between Kentish Town and Caledonian Road so there’s a fun little autobiographical fact for you.

The blog has seen a serious drop in traffic recently, which is partly because I haven’t bothered writing it or promoting (OK, mostly because of that). So if you fancy promoting the reading list a little that’d be lovely. Or don’t, whatever, it’s not like I thrive off the clicks. It’s available as a newsletter or at my blog.

  • Giving myself priority, I wrote a thing! As I say, it’s odd to have a regular book review series and then still go back and do standalone book reviews but *shrug*. I spent months reading a WW2 history trilogy and boring my girlfriend with inane facts about tanks to bring you this post.
  • They got Peter Oborne on Newsnight the other week to talk about his recent visit to Aleppo, and whatever the guy’s politics, it was a really interesting segment until they cut it short in favour of “what do these old Tories think Thatcher would have thought of the EU” chat and I was fuming. Anyway, this is his report from Aleppo, at length and fascinating.
  • Think this is a good corrective to the popular memory of the Iraq war – amidst the WMD lies narrative, it’s forgotten that toppling Saddam had been the plan for most of the 1990s
  • Sarah Reed’s story is a deeply upsetting one, and this interview with her mother is very moving but also important. It’s the kind of story that we hear about happening in the States and feel a bit righteous about but it happened in Holloway prison.
  • Thought this was interesting on recovering from sexual assault and how it fits into a continuum of societal violence (sort of hard to do this one justice in a sentence). On a similar note, in the wake of the Adam Johnson case, this was quite sad on “the grown man and the teenager”
  • More David Bowie! This feature on what he had been up to in his final years is good, and this uses him as a springboard (it’s actually the reverse of one but) for some really poignant reflections about ‘forever’
  •  Very nuanced and interesting discussion of whether we could or should wipe mosquitoes out
  • Equally nuanced on India’s heavy use of carbon-based energy. Captures a lot of the difficulties and challenges developing countries face with green energy without denying the issues this raises for climate change policy.
  • Nice little coincidence here, urban planning all over the shop. First, a weirdly serious (without being survivalist lunacy) look at which features of cities make them better places to survive a zombie apocalypse. And using maths to understand sub-optimal traffic patterns – it’s only about half as much of a headache as that sentence sounded, even if you’re as dumb as me when it comes to numbers.
  • So this is where that title joke comes in. As you’re all obviously aware, we’re big Yeezy fans here at fillingthelonghours dot wordpress dot com. So it is with heavy heart that I bring you this piece on his persistent and nasty misogyny and say “yeah I kind of agree”. But the new album is really good! So what do you do? I don’t know. On the other hand, I love this review of Yeezus in retrospective, which is such a good idea for a piece (and also a cynical way to extract content but)
  • I’m very anti-Bake Off but that Tamal lad seems like a nice guy, and he’s got a column at the Guardian (IDK why) and this was pleasant. Still a vile TV series.
  • The Darkness are very good, and I like the idea of them being a pivotal band for this author as a kid.

And there we go! Come back next week to see if I’ve read any books or bothered to write any reviews. Get in touch if you want me to explain the joke in the title (please don’t). And tell your friends. Have a lovely Sunday and a lovely week xxx

* it’s one thing to not make it available on Spotify, but a TIDAL exclusive I can’t even pay money to just have? rude

The Liberation Trilogy – Rick Atkinson

The only way I could have read these books in a worse order was if I had gone fully backwards in time from Hitler’s suicide to the Battle of El Alamein. As it was, thanks to the vagaries of Islington Library stocks and Kindle sales, I went 2-3-1, which was sort of disorientating – the Allies got good at war and then really bad again.

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Richard Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy is really good. Essentially an account of U.S. participation (more on that later) in the war against the Nazis (the Pacific war goes basically unmentioned), it is well-researched and solid military history, but written by a journalist with some grasp of prose. So the whole thing is engaging and entertaining, and quite frequently almost beautifully lyrical. Generally the chapter openings and endings are more poetic, while the middle bits are mostly death and misery. Occasionally it’s both at the same time – there’s one passage in the second book that I immediately copied out to text to a variety of people I wanted to make glum.

The books have a fairly logical separation – it goes War in Africa, War in Italy, War in North-Western Europe. The only issue I have is where he starts the series – because of his focus on the U.S., the war ‘starts’ with Operation Torch, where the Allies landed in Algeria and Morocco. Montgomery and the Eighth Army don’t really appear until they approach Tunisia. Given the pivotal nature of El Alamein, this struck me as odd, although having read two books covering that part of the war this year, I wasn’t too fussed. Once the Allied armies are in the same theatre, Atkinson starts to pay them both the attention they deserve.

This often means extensive coverage of intra-Allied sniping, be it the Americans and the British squabbling, or the French being generally awkward. I think Atkinson gets better at reporting this as the series goes on. In the first book, there’s a prickly tone to how he quotes British criticism of U.S combat performance that is, on the one hand, kind of fair, they were dicks, but equally, sounds slightly petulant. Combined with an occasionally nauseating Band of Brothers-esque “they were boys on their way to becoming men/heroes etc.” tone, the books do toe the line of becoming jingoistic in that infuriating way. This is, I think, exacerbated by, again the U.S. focus. Atkinson acknowledges Soviet contributions, and covers the Big Three’s summits, including the desperate calls for a Second Front, but not much.

This is even more pronounced when it comes to the Axis perspective – where Beevor’s Ardennes gave over whole sections to the Kampfgruppe Peiper and its offensive (admittedly it’s easier to give narrative weight to an attacking army), the Liberation Trilogy dedicates limited space to the men across the battlefield.

Still, this isn’t as bad as three paragraphs of criticism makes it sound.

Possibly because of his journalist background, Atkinson is excellent when he focuses on the personalities of the commanders involved. This is one area where reading the books in order might have helped, as again, the way I read it, Eisenhower was a decent commander, a good one, then a newbie. But there is a real sense of how these men thought, interacted, and behaved, and how that affected the war effort. From the problems caused by inexperienced commanders in Tunisia to the heroics in Normandy, passing through the general “what” that was George S. Patton, there’s a lot going on.

As a frequent complainer about maps (I just really don’t have any sort of spatial logic I think), the maps in this are good – depending on the edition! The Kindle version was perfect, as you could zoom in on maps and all sorts. The first book came as a paperback with tiny margins, which was awful, and the third, paperback, had good maps but with the usual caveat that you have to flick backwards and forwards to find them – effort.

Just generally as a history of the Western front (loosely defined), you could do a lot worse than the Liberation Trilogy. It’s quite long, which means it doesn’t speed through any crucial moments, but you’re not spending three hundred pages reading about a battle, either. It’s not too nerdy (not enough tanks tbh), but it’s not shallow, either.

v.v.g. imo.

14th of February: Bad Day for a Comeback

Look, I know it’s been a while, and I’m sorry. I was super-ill, and then I was out in the countryside, and TBH I lost track of which blog I was supposed to be posting which Sunday. I’m back now, though. Naturally, I’m back on Valentine’s Day and also the much-awaited release of Kanye’s new album day (listening to it now innit). So if you’re reading this today I’m questioning your decisions on a number of levels. That said, thanks for your loyalty and that.

Song of the week* should be off The Life of Pablo really, but it’s exclusive on Tidal (fuming I actually subscribed [for a free trial]) and I haven’t quite absorbed it (good so far imo). So instead, blast from the (my) past. I don’t think Mando Diao ever really made it to the UK, but they were big for me around 17/18. This song has two separate chord changes that still get me and some absolutely nonsense lyrics.

Bonus! The only video on Youtube is from their super-weird MTV Unplugged DVD that I almost bought for a birthday gift until I realised that it was like £25 and no crush is worth that much. Good jackets though.

*I know I don’t normally do one with these posts, I’m not quite sure why I created that precedent

What a Carve Up! ~ Jonathan Coe

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I wavered on this book for about a hundred words in the middle (mostly because I had just bought a war book in a Kindle sale and it was pressing on my mind – more to follow) and then was ultimately gripped through to the end.

An early 1990s satire of the UK’s elites, born into money and taking over the various fields they choose to go into, Coe’s Carve-Up is amusing enough, but I think it might have been a lot funnier when it was written. Reading it now, it feels like the jokes are stale and all of the new absurdities he’s highlighting are just reality as I know it, if not well out-dated. The book is set just before the outbreak of the First Gulf War, and much like in Iain Banks’ work, as a child of the Second Gulf War, I’m always slightly perplexed at the dramatics early 90s authors manage to cram into Desert Storm. Coe also takes aim at bankers (ooooh), the media (aaaaah) and …. art dealers and industrial farmers. The last two aside, it’s very much “any episode of Mock the Week you find on Dave”. The farming chapter is genuinely upsetting, though in the same way “living with vegetarians(vegans for a month)” was, so I was slightly impervious.

The actual plot centres on a slightly damaged author chap, and he’s charming enough, although it took me a fair while to care about him, and then he’s rudely Farewell to Arms-ed. Essentially, he’s hired to write the story of a nasty rich family, the afore-mentioned elites the book takes aim at, and the book jumps around chronologically through his life, their lives, and the lives of others their paths have crossed.

It’s alright if your Dad buys it in a charity shop and gives it to you to read on the train, I guess. That’s the score I’d give it.

Between the World and Me ~ Ta-Nehisi Coates

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It’s very hard to write anything of interest about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World And Me. Partly because the dust has settled on the thinkpiece back-and-forth that met its release, so there’s not so much of a ready-made debate to plug into. Partly because I’m a white English bloke, so there are limits as to what I have to offer in the way of useful commentary.

It’s beautiful and powerful stuff. Much more lyrical than most of his work at The Atlantic, it occasionally seems to try and move you beyond what the simple evocation of horrible facts would do. This is likely down to the framing device – Coates writes the book as a letter to his son. As well as his searing critique of structural racism in the States, there is memoir, and meditations on fatherhood, and more poetry than usual.

While it’s not a long book, I think it’s one that could probably benefit from re-reading, as it’s dense and heavy going. I’ve linked to excerpts in the blog before, I can’t imagine you’ll dislike it if you’ve liked his previous work.

Why The Allies Won ~ Richard Overy

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When will I learn that good books don’t have Niall Ferguson quotes on the cover?

Richard Overy’s Why The Allies Won isn’t bad, to be fair. Presented as a sort of myth-buster, taking an overall view of the Second World War to challenge conventional wisdom on the factors behind Allied victory. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to think it was inevitable, and I think one of the great successes of the book is essentially being a long “Actually…” but in a very valuable way. Popular mono-causal explanations for the outcome of WW2 are challenged with simple historical logic – if Hitler’s bad decisions were what lost the war, why did they bring victory for the first two years? If simple production capacity was what made victory inevitable, why wasn’t the Axis able to capitalise on the period where it had almost all of Europe’s production at its disposal? It occasionally strays into strawman territory, but the explanations he’s challenging are widespread enough that I don’t think he’s ever too unfair.

The main issue, I think, is a general repetitiveness. In part due to a tendency to over-summarise in a very “in the previous part we have seen x, we will now look at y.” kind of way, and in part just because everything he’s talking about is interconnected, there’s a slight tendency to cover similar ground several times in each part. Coupled with a fairly boring writing style, and it just became a bit of a drag.

Nevertheless, I’m quite glad I read it, I think, just because it soothes my general contrarian nature to be able to think “nah mate that’s a widespread misconception based on faulty reasoning” whenever I hear someone being wrong, and this fed that. It was just a bit boring.

And I know, I know, I can hear you, my girlfriend, my parents, and my librarian saying the same thing – “have you considered reading books that aren’t about WW2 you sound like you’re getting sick of them tbh mate”. First off, no. Second, tanks are good*. Third, I’m currently writing a standalone review post of a World War Two book series which was excellent, so there.

On the other hand, I’m now reading a book on the Eastern Front that is honestly sapping my will to live. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

 

*found out Airfix models of tanks are really cheap so that’s a dangerous discovery, especially as Amazon algorithms are now chasing me around the internet with £6 Sherman offers