Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Brown Moses' credibility - and a conversation about chemical weapons

Brown Moses is under attack for having failed to reveal a conversation with Matthew Van Dyke.  In this conversation, Van Dyke says the following (verbatim extracts):

don't rule out the possibility that the rebels do have a small quantity of chemical weapons.  I've had information for a few months on this

I have a source that has been reliable in the past, who gave me information about the rebels having acquired a small quantity a few months ago, and I know what building they came out of.   and I know some things about the building, having been to the site, that give the information some additional credibility.

I think it was a small quantity, judging by where they were stored but by small quantity, I mean possibly hundreds of shells of some type.  I do not know.   The source didn't have that level of detail.

It is said that the failure to report this conversation damages Brown Moses' credibility.  It does not.  Whether or not Brown Moses should have reported the conversation for some other reason, his credibility is not at issue.

What is Brown Moses credible about?  He is not a reporter.  He is not a witness.  He looks at thousands of reports, and analyses them.  His credibility stems from the caution with which he comes to conclusions and the meticulous care with which he evaluates the testimony - in a number of media - of others.

What is involved in the process of evaluation?  It involves discarding many hundreds of reports as unreliable or irrelevant.   In his analyses, of course, he does not repeat the vast majority of these unreliable reports:  only in rare cases, where a report is thought by others to have credibility, might he report them, to offer reasons why this is not the case.

Where chemical weapons are involved, most of the reports discarded by Brown Moses, and most of the reports he discredits, have attributed the use of chemical weapons to the Assad regime.  In some cases it now seems that these reports may have been correct: subsequent information has made them more plausible.  So it is hardly the case that his sorting of reports has exhibited anti-Assad bias.

The conversation with Matt Van Dyke fits into this pattern.  I myself have seen many reports - a tiny fraction of what Brown Moses has examined - where all sorts of things are called chemical weapons which are anything but.  There are, for example, kits which test for chemical weapons.  There are also cases where riot gas, phosphorous shells and other munitions have been called chemical weapons, but which are not considered chemical weapons by specialists, and which could not be implicated in the notorious Sarin attacks whose examination is associated with Brown Moses' work.  ('Chemical weapons' is typical of the broad, inaccurate descriptions ubiquitous in Syria reports.  Any fighter plane may be called a 'MIG'; armored personal carriers and self-propelled guns are called 'tanks'; any large surface-to-surface missile becomes a SCUD.)

Consider, in this context, the conversation with Matt Van Dyke.   First, he has not seen any chemical weapons, nor does he claim to have seen them.   He claims to have been 'given information' that the rebels have them.  The information is said to come from 'a source that has been reliable in the past'.  But about what?  Presumably this someone is not a chemical weapons specialist, but simply someone who has talked to Van Dyke in the past, about other events.  Considering that the mis-characterization of munitions as 'chemical weapons' has been more the rule than the exception, this matters.

But wait!  Van Dyke does not say that his source claims to have seen any weapons.  He has been 'given information'.  This could mean that his source has seen them, but also that he talked to someone who has seen them or, for all we know, talked to someone who talked to someone who has seen them.  All we know for sure is that someone is said to have seen them - possibly the reliable source, possibly not.

Now what of Van Dyke himself?  Is he a credible, authoritative source?  I personally might trust him, but the answer is that he can't be judged either credible nor not credible.   He has made short documentary films and also characterizes himself as a freelance journalist.  But his reporting experience is very limited and he has never been subject to the sort of professional scrutiny that career journalists normally undergo.   So despite my own tendency to believe him, he cannot be considered an established credible source in journalistic terms.  He's not, let's say, Ben Wedeman of CNN.   (I won't even consider the question of how Brown_Moses was supposed to know he really was speaking to Matt Van Dyke, not a malicious impostor.)

What's the upshot?  We have one of hundreds of reports of 'chemical weapons', an expression we know is habitually used to describe munitions that are not, in fact, chemical weapons.  The source of this report is an un-named party who quite possibly is recounting what he heard from another un-named party.  The person who reports this report is Matthew Van Dyke, a nice guy but whose credibility has not been established.  We might also wonder how the munitions were identified as munitions actually loaded with a chemical agent, as opposed to munitions capable of containing such an agent, or its precursors.  Did someone have a sniff?

That's not all.  In the conversation, Brown Moses undertakes not to reveal that this report comes from Matthew Van Dyke.  So Brown Moses would have to report that an un-named and not authoritative source claimed that an unnamed source, claimed to be credible, either claimed that he had seen chemical weapons, or claimed that someone else claimed to have seen them - in some undefined sense of 'chemical weapons' and even of 'seen'.

What sort of weight would Brown Moses' report itself carry?  Would this take its place among the eyewitness testimony, the on-the-ground reports of UN chemical weapons specialists, the videos minutely analysed by munitions and by many media specialists?  To answer yes would not, I think, be credible.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Authoritarian liberalism: an option for Egypt?

Some suggest that a preoccupation with democracy can raise unrealistic expectations concerning the Middle East.  Before you have democracy, it's claimed, you must have constitutionalism and the rule of law.  It's said that this was the pattern in 18th and 19th Century Europe, where this sort of 'liberalism' preceded democracy.  This thesis fails because it does not account for significantly different social and political conditions.

The defining document of liberal authoritarianism is Kant's short essay, "What is Enlightenment?"(1784). In it he says:

...a ruler who is himself enlightened and has no fear of phantoms, yet who
likewise has at hand a well-disciplined and numerous army to guarantee public
security, may say what no republic would dare to say: Argue as much as you like
and about whatever you like, but obey!

Arguably there have been such rulers.  Kant had King Frederick II of Prussia in mind.  Napoleon is another example.  But in most of the modern world such figures, or their oligarchical counterparts, are not a live option.  That's because the nature of dissent and the threats to public order have changed fundamentally.

To see this it is necessary to glance at European history, where there was some variation in the relation between dissent, public order, liberalism and democracy.

Of England, where political dissent was far more mature than on the continent, it is not correct to say that liberal authoritarianism preceded democracy.  The development of the two went hand in hand.  It is true that in the 18th Century, England may have seemed liberal because it allowed more dissent in matters of faith, and afforded the Philosophes some refuge when their philosophical writings prompted repression in France and elsewhere.  And England did develop something resembling the rule of law somewhat before most of continental Europe.  But it also moved towards democracy much earlier, starting at least with the Puritan Revolution of the 17th Century and proceeding with the definitive overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1688, followed by the First and Second Reform Bills of 1832 and 1834, followed by periodic expansions of the suffrage.

Though today we would not count English institutions as democratic until the institution of truly universal suffrage in 1928, from the 17th Century on a steadily less restrictive notion of popular sovereignty was strongly established in English political institutions, roughly concurrent with the rise of liberal ideas.  The increasingly democratic character of British popular sovereignty is, over the decades, tangible and unmistakable.  So the example of England cannot support any constitutionalism-before-democracy thesis.

France and Germany are a different matter, because in both countries constitutionalism and the rule of law did indeed precede democracy.  But these countries experienced a much slower and less threatening development of political dissent.  That turns out to have crucial implications for the idea that constitutionalism and the rule of law can be established before democratic institutions.

In France and Germany significant and effective political dissent was, for a long time, aristocratic or at least not populist.  Even the French Revolution began as an aristocratic revolt, and lower-class resistance quickly dissipated when the Revolution was appropriated by the upper middle classes.  After a few years the main popular unrest was among the peasantry who supported, and took guidance from, the remnants of the Church and nobility.  For Napoleon, dissent was virtually no concern at all.  By the 1820s in France, revolts were conspiratorial affairs involving students and other members of the more comfortable classes, producing very manageable political changes.  Never again did peacetime French politics threaten to produce anything like far-reaching social upheaval.  So France could afford liberalism quite early on, and developed democracy later.  In Germany, and before it in Prussia, dissent was never a serious problem, so liberal constitutionalism could precede democracy by quite a distance.

Does this historical record hold any lessons for a country like, say, Egypt?  Could there be an authoritarian but constitutional government that imposed the rule of law before developing democracy?  It's hard to see how the European example affords any support for this idea.

In the Middle East, the problem of what Kant calls 'public security' was solved a long time ago.  Because political violence was unknown in his Prussia, Kant is referring primarily to criminal activity, which in 18th Century Europe existed at levels inconceivable in the contemporary Middle East:  the portly philosopher David Hume thought it natural to take a sword when going out of his house.  So this aspect of the rule of law, once considered the most important, is well established in Middle Eastern countries.  Notably missing is anything like the rule of law when dealing with what 18th Century European governments didn't need to deal with - popular political dissent.  And that makes all the difference when considering whether liberal constitutionalism can be imposed before democratic institutions are established.

In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, there is massive, resilient, well-organized popular discontent, posing a serious threat to the state.  Rulers do not fail to develop constitutionalism and the rule of law, or the liberal's coveted civil liberties, because they're stupid or myopic.  They need repression to keep that massive popular opposition in line.  This is where the lessons from Europe lose relevance.

The comparative docility of the masses in 18th Century France and Germany, followed by the dominance of relatively genteel middle class 'revolutionaries' later, gave governments breathing room in which liberalism and constitutionalism could grow.  And so it is today.  Europeans and North Americans can say more or less what they like because their dissent never poses a threat to the state:  indeed contemporary anti-terror measures show how quickly liberalism gives way when governments imagine such a threat.

The undemocratic rulers of 18th and 19th Century Europe allowed dissent and a measure of civil rights because they faced only manageable political dissent.  The undemocratic governments of the Middle East understandably fear that civil liberties could strengthen already powerful popular movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.  That's why the authority of even liberally-inclined elites can be maintained only through bloody repression, designed to ward off even bloodier catastrophe like the Algerian and Syrian conflicts.  In these circumstances, undemocratic regimes simply cannot afford to institute real civil liberties.  Constitutionalism and the rule of law will not and cannot precede democracy, because only democracy has a chance of tempering the truly explosive, deeply popular political dissent that the European authoritarians never encountered.