Strange Approach to Alliances

Germany Arrests Man Suspected of Spying for US

“We have severely strained relations with one of our most important allies after they found out about our surveillance programme against them, which they continue to investigate.  This is serious – what do we do?  What do we do??

“Why don’t we enlist a spy to learn more about their investigation?”

“Excellent idea!”

The mind boggles.

Review: My 2013 Predictions

Last year I wrote a list of predictions for what I expected to occur across the world stage in 2013.  I’ve been looking through it over the year, pleased with some predictions, while despairing as other world events swept passed my expectations.  Here I’ll review each prediction, one by one, and tally up my score to see whether I should become a professional psychic or not.

UK Predictions

  1. Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    Prince George (‘of Cambridge’) was born on the 22nd July 2013 in good health.  The BBC and other broadcasters had around the clock coverage; he was on virtually every newspaper front page; and we republicans did indeed grumble.
  2. The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
    Economically the coalition government has continued to assault the country with austerity upon austerity.  Just this month, chancellor George Osborne announced another billion pound cuts from government departments.  The economy does seem to be improving, at long last, however Labour leader Ed Miliband is rightfully bringing to attention a ‘cost of living crisis’ (perhaps because he has few other policies worth discussing).
    In terms of party politics, there doesn’t seem to be the separation of identities between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats I’d expected.  The Liberal Democrats have been highlighting their key policies of this government, such as raising the income tax threshold for low earners and pushing free school meals.  Yet, if anything, they’ve seemed to me to be moving further to the right.  When Nick Clegg stood in for David Cameron during a recent Prime Minister’s Questions, he sounded more and more like a Tory with each passing question.

 World Predictions

  1. The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    Correct!  In January, following an Islamic rebel advance upon the south of the country, when it looked as though the capital Bamako itself might be under threat, France began a military campaign against the rebels on 11th January.  In one of the more successful Western interventions of recent times, the rebels were driven out of most major settlements in the north by February and had returned to government control.  Violence is persisting but the government remains in control with the help of French and African Union peacekeepers.  Elections came soon afterwards, during which Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, former Prime Minister from 1994-2000, became the President.
  2. The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    Uh, no.  No.  And no again.  News stories coming out of Syria during 2013 and have been getting more and more depressing, with no prospect of change coming soon.  The Assad regime did not fall; in fact, it looks stronger than at any other point during the course of the war.  In May, Lebanese Shia armed group Hezbollah entered the war on the regime’s side.  Its fighters flooded across the border and helped the government seize control of the strategic city of al-Qusayr and the surrounding countryside.  The rebels have also made gains, however more and more militias have been swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an al-Qaeda linked Islamic fundamentalist organisation which has been making advancements against more moderate rebels in what’s described as a ‘civil war within a civil war’.  The death toll continues to mount: in September France estimated 120,000 people to have died, while the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights currently puts it at 160,000.
    In terms of international support, Western powers have continued to supply non-lethal equipment to the rebels, while in June US President Obama announced military aid would be supplied to the rebels, although it’s unclear how much ever arrived.  Recent developments concerning the rise of Islamists have caused even this aid to be suspended.
    Meanwhile, Russian support of the regime has only strengthened.  This became clear following the increased reports of chemical weapon use across the country.   Both sides blamed each other, of course, but after particularly horrific attacks in the Ghouta area of Damascus the international community seemed to demand action.  It looked as though Western nations – primarily the USA, UK and France – were preparing to launch military strikes against Syria to send a message to Assad.  However, when the UK Parliament voted against action and Obama looked close to defeat in Congress, this never came to be.  At the last minute, Russian President Putin came to the aid of both President Assad and Obama by proposing an operation to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.  Despite difficulties accessing all the chemical weapons depots, some in contested areas of the country, the process of destroying them seems to be going successfully.  This has had the effect of restoring legitimacy to the Syrian regime, which is seen as an equal partner in these negotiations, and the West effectively giving up on Syria.
  3. Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    In hindsight, it’s probably a bad idea to predict anything won’t be dramatic.  Alongside the aforementioned Syria crisis,  he’s had to put up with threats of war from North Korea, the failure of his proposed gun law reform, the shutdown of the US government after political gridlock in Congress, a botched roll-out of his key ‘Obamacare’ policy and, perhaps worst of all for Obama, massive leaks about the level of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of US and international citizens by whistleblower Edward Snowden, which has brought international condemnation and affected relations with countries including Brazil and Germany.  He’s probably very glad for a new start next year.
  4. A war will not start over Iran.
    Correct!  There’s actual much cause for optimism over out future relations with Iran.  Everything seemed to change with the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani in June.  Though far from a radical – he’d never have been allowed to run otherwise – the fact that so many Iranian voters opted for the least conservative candidate has sent a clear message to the ruling elites that they want change.  Perhaps this is why Rouhani has been given something of a free reign to pursue his policies.  He held a phone call with President Obama in September, the first time the presidents of either country have spoken directly since the 1979 revolution which brought the current Iranian regime to power.  Then came a historic agreement in which Iran finally agreed to curb its nuclear activities in return for the easing of sanctions.  There’s much progress to be made, but also reason to be optimistic.
  5. Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    Correct.  Merkel achieved her best ever result in September, gaining 41.5% of the vote and nearly achieving a majority in the Bundestag, ensuring her a third term as chancellor.  After months of difficult talks, her Christian Democratic Union agreed to enter into a ‘grand coalition’ with the opposition Social Democratic Party.  Merkel certainly seems to be bucking the trend of European leaders being brought down by the financial crisis – she’s in a stronger position than ever.
  6. Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    Um.  Not really.  Kind of?  Well, Libya has avoided descending into complete anarchy, but there are still many incidents of armed militias operating outwith the control of the government, the most frightening case being when Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was abducted from a hotel, although he was safely returned.  A timetable for national elections still hasn’t been established, but it’s hoped that Libya can have its first post-revolutionary government by the end of next year.  So really, I suppose, it’s too early to say on this one.
  7. Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    Hahaha, oh, how wrong is it possible to be?  Unfortunately not.  To save me repeating the dramatic events of the 3rd July, you can read the post I wrote about it at the time.  Since the coup, things have only got worse.  Protests have continued from both sides, pulling Egypt down into further instability.  This culminated in a horrific massacre where dozens of protesters were killed by security forces.  The ruling military regime has since strengthened its hold on power, imposing curfews and recently branding the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi’s party, a ‘terrorist organisation’.  The country is appearing more and more to be under the grip of a General new to the scene, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, currently appointed as Deputy Prime Minister.  Elections are expected for next year, which Sisi is widely predicted to run for.  In short, I couldn’t have been more wrong about Egypt.
  8. Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    Well, technically, Berlusconi was elected to the Italian Senate, but if we assume I meant elected as Prime Minister then I got this correct.  Italy’s election this year left no party in a position of power, meaning multiple parties had to come together to form government, including his People of Freedom party.  However, the Prime Minister of this unstable government turned out to be Enrica Letta of the Democratic Party.  Berlusconi himself has been involved in continuing scandal after scandal, being recently convicted of tax-fraud and sentenced to four years in prison (none of which he’ll actually serve due to his age), and barred from political office for six years.  Subsequently, he was expelled from the Italian Senate.  I wouldn’t underestimate Berlusconi, but I can’t imagine his career recovering from this.
  9. The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    Pretty much.  I haven’t been following this in too much detail, but I’m aware of various talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government being on, off, on again, off again, and so on.  Really not much seems to be happening in the run up to NATO’s withdrawal next year.
  10. I expect more crises from North Korea.
    Yup.  There was that strange period last April when North Korea threatened war against South Korea, Japan and the USA which I referred to earlier – I don’t think anyone knows what that was really about.  Needless to say, that came to nothing and North Korea soon quietened down again.  I imagine it was an attempt by Kim Jong-un to create a warlike atmosphere within the country to further entrench his rule – nothing increases loyalty like giving people a common enemy.  Then, even more shockingly, earlier this month Kim had his very own uncle executed as part of a wider purge.  I wrote about it here.  Nothing which has yet threatened to spiral out of control from the perspective of the West, but erratic and worrying behaviour nonetheless.
  11. Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    Pretty much.  I largely covered this earlier.
  12. This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    Unfortunately, Mugabe is still President of his long-suffering nation.  My reasons behind this prediction were Mugabe’s age, having turned 89 this year, and the fact an election was due to be held earlier this year.  However his health seems to be as strong as ever, while the election this year re-elected him in very fraudulent conditions indeed.
  13. There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    I’d consider events in Egypt earlier this year to be a coup, so got that one right.  I think Mali could count as having become more democratic, having achieved mostly free and fair elections after a year of chaos.  I can’t think of any other standout examples, which is a shame, but Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2014 report (due to be published fairly soon) might shine a light on this.
  14. Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    This is really impossible to say.  Again, I await the Freedom in the World 2014 with great interest.  I’m going to take the lack of any particular evidence to the contrary as evidence that Burma at least isn’t backsliding.  Aung San Suu Kyi did recently announced that her National League for Democracy plans to contest the 2015 general election – widely hoped to be Burma’s first free election – even if the constitution isn’t amended to allow her to run for the Presidency.  Which seems to be a good sign.  Hopefully.  I really don’t know.  I think I’ll give myself this one…
  15. Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    Nope – President Chavez of Venezuela died of cancer on the 5th March, later to be succeeded by his Vice-President, Nicolas Maduro, who seems to be carrying on his divisive legacy.
  16. Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    Despite continued advances by Somalian and African Union forces against Al-Shabab, they’re far from having been cleared from the country and still control much territory, particularly in rural areas.  So wrong on that one.
  17. More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    This was unfortunately a pretty safe bet.  As I wrote earlier the death toll in Syria continues to mount; there have been continued protests and unrest in Sudan, though not coming to much; Egypt has had what were tipped to be the ‘largest protests in history’ which deposed President Morsi; April was the deadliest month in Iraq since 2008; Libya’s been having increased issues with militias, as I indicated earlier; and Lebanon has had increased bombings, assassinations and clashes as the Syrian Civil War continues to spill over.
  18. Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    Yes.  She was ousted earlier than I expected, having her position as leader of the Labor party usurped by Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister.  The Labor party was then met with disaster in the September election, losing 17 seats and its tentative majority to Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition, ending 6 years of Labor Party rule.
  19. Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    To be honest, his dictatorship was rather consolidated anyway by the end of 2012, but it certainly hasn’t weakened.  He’s continued pressing forward in policies such as the ‘anti-gay laws’, infringing the rights of LGBT people.  Things have become more interesting in the last month in the run-up to next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi: Putin granted an amnesty to many high-profile political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the remaining two members of Pussy Riot and the ‘Arctic 30’.  Perhaps this is a big to improve Russia’s standing among the international community.  He must have been shaken by two bomb attacks in the last couple of days in Volgograd, which might be part of a continuing campaign by Cechen rebels.  But nevertheless, his authority in Russia seems pretty powerful.
  20. The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    Yeah, I’ll give myself that one.  There have been many discoveries on Mars, including pretty strong evidence that it once had running water.  That’s more interesting than I expected, but I don’t suppose it’s something the majority of people noticed or continue to think about.
  21. Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.
    Yes!  Sorry, that explanation mark makes me sound more enthused about this than I am.  See more here.

Overall, I seem to have actually fared better than I expected, having been more or less correct on 65% of the issues!  Tomorrow I’ll publish my list of predictions for 2014 – watch this space.

Military Action in a Democracy

Recent events in the UK, USA and potentially France regarding military action have raised interesting questions about how militaries operate within democracies.  Last week we saw the surprising defeat of David Cameron’s attempts to gain parliamentary legitimacy for military strikes against the Syrian government – his already watered-down bill being rejected by a majority of 13 votes.  Both Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond have said that military action against Syria is now off the agenda, and that we shan’t be joining the USA in any potential strikes.  Interestingly, the votes weren’t even about the actual strikes, merely the timescale, but the defeat seems to have been interpreted as an altogether rejection of the plans.  Opinions on this particular issue aside, I’m convinced that this result was a victory for the democratic system.  Polls have repeatedly shown that the British public is against any military action, which the parliamentary vote reflected.  We’ve since had President Obama announce that Congress will have a vote on the issue*

What’s remarkable is that, to the best of my knowledge, leaders have nearly always been able to go to war without much opposition from parliament.  Before the First World War Britain was admittedly gripped by jingoistic fervour and the idea that wars had little consequence for us, therefore resulting in conflicts in South Africa and the Crimea going ahead without resistance.  But even after the First World War, we entered the Second World War, the Korean War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War without parliament stopping them.  While it’s important to make the distinction which many seem to be forgetting that David Cameron never intended to go to war over Syria, just launch strikes, parliament effectively blocking military action in such a way still seems unprecedented.  This really is a testament to just how war-weary a nation we’ve become.  I read a brilliant quote recently but unfortunately can’t remember the source, which went something like “Such processes must be alien to the Syrian military system“, which sums up precisely why I feel so privileged to live in a democracy.

The British Prime Minister and the French and American Presidents all have the power to authorise initial military action without parliamentary approval, although, unless events unfolded very favourably indeed, it would be tantamount to political suicide for any of these leaders to bypass the wishes of parliament.  So the interesting question is raised: should parliament have the legal power to authorise military action planned by the government?  There’s a strong democratic argument in favour, in that power is with the elected representatives, not one solitary leader, and that forcing debates through parliament encourages all sides of an issue to be heard and considered.  Then again, if parliament was necessary for military action to be used, we’d be helpless within a crisis without passing emergency legislation.  Take the situation in the USA, where any military action taken would occur at least three weeks after the chemical attacks of Gouta.  That’s not a problem here, where it is wise to gather as much evidence as possible before taking action, but it would be a clear problem in other scenarios.  All things considered, I think the best system might be for the elected leader to continue having the power to make decisions regarding war and peace, but parliament should have the power to block such action before it is taken – and the opportunity to do so.  Effectively, the system we have now except more ground into law.

Somewhat relevant is one of my favourite political theories: the Democratic Peace Theory.  In short, this cites statistical evidence of the fact that democracies are far less likely to wage war with one another than authoritarian states.  This could be due to the accountability of democratic militaries, or the democratic culture of achieving aims through negotiation, or the current link between democracy and globalised trade.  It’s one of the main reasons that Western policymakers are so keen to promote democracy abroad, as the theory suggests that once worldwide democracy is achieved, limited world peace might even be a possibility.  You can look at how peaceful Europe has become since becoming a democratic entity as partial evidence of this.  Anyhow, I’ve interpreted recent parliamentary procedures as more evidence of the theory working.

*Because, you know, when faced with an impossible, complex decision, who better than Congress to solve it?

August 2013: Course of the Syrian Civil War

I’ve been planning since June this year to write a piece summarising developments in and the overall course of the Syrian Civil War.   However, as the conflict seems ever more hopeless and it becomes clearer that I have no authority at all to comment on it, I’ve been putting off writing anything.  Now though, as this shameful failure of international cooperation has returned dramatically to the news, I feel compelled to write something.

Because other journalists and bloggers have discussed the pros and cons of Western military intervention in Syria, I shan’t go into too much detail here but instead will link to these articles at the end.  To summarise: last Wednesday, 21st July, evidence emerged of a horrific massacre in the East of Damascus in which hundreds of civilians were killed, seemingly by chemical weapons.  This led to a flurry of accusations: the Syrian government and rebels blamed each other, of course, while international powers took predictable stances – The USA, UK, France, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf States have accused the government of carrying out the massacre, while Russia and Iran have suggested the rebels might be responsible.  I clearly couldn’t comment, but the government being behind the chemical attack initially seems more likely; while the rebels had the motive of causing a backlash against the government while UN chemical weapon investigators had just entered the country, they very probably lacked the capability to do so.  They occurred during the context of a government offensive into rebel-held areas, which you can make of what you will.  That the rebels were behind it can’t be ruled out either.

The weapons inspectors have since Monday been investigating the site of the attacks – the rebels, it should be noted, agreed far sooner than the government.  US Secretary of State John Kerry accused the government of:

“Refus[ing] to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide”

Since the attacks, there has been a clamour from among certain Western governments to act.  The USA has moved warships into the Mediterranean, while Kerry’s speech appeared to be setting the stage for military intervention of some form.  UK Prime Minister David Cameron appears to share the USA’s view that military action should be taken.  The most likely option will be remote missile strikes against Syrian military targets, as a ‘punishment’ of sorts for the use of chemical weapons, aimed at deterring the Assad regime of using them any further as well as sending a signal to the tyrants of the future that their use will not be tolerated.  Looking at it this way, I hesitantly agree with this strategy – although it seems strange that chemical weapons, as horrific as they are, appear worse to the international community than the shooting of children on streets, bombardment of civilian districts, the imprisoning, torturing and executing of anyone suspected of supporting the opposing side; the list of crimes go on and on.  That said, I’m glad a ‘red line’ can be drawn somewhere.

There certainly isn’t an appetite for military intervention.  The ghost of Iraq is still present in the UK and USA, and while a full military invasion is thankfully not on the table even something as seemingly non-committal as missile strikes are very unpopular, with the UK population twice as likely to oppose them.  There’s a similar hesitancy within parliament.  Parliament has been recalled early from recess for the fourth time this government.  While Cameron has the final word on deploying the British armed forces, it would be seen as very politically dangerous to do so without parliament’s consent.  Labour has said it will not support military action until the UN inspectors have published their report, and it seems the Liberal Democrats could be hesitant also.  Events have been moving and it’s all quite confusing, but I think there will be two votes: one tomorrow on a motion calling for a ‘strong humanitarian response’, and one next week once the report is available on the possibility of military action.  This could have the effect of slowing down momentum for a response but I agree with Labour that we should wait for the UN report before making any decisions.

It’s also worth noting that military action would probably be illegal without UN Security Council backing – almost certain to be blocked by Russia and China.  This is just another example of how flawed and outdated an institution it is, in need of heavy reform.

By Futuretrillionaire [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

So that’s the situation regarding any potential military not-quite-intervention.  On the ground in Syria, the government appears to have been consolidating its position.  While still besieged and embattled – someone earlier on the BBC made the ridiculous argument that Syria today might be in a stronger military position than Iraq in 2003, seeming to forget that the government can’t even control its own claimed territory, let alone go to war with the most powerful alliance in the history of the world – it has been making gains.  Most significantly, Hezbollah entered the fray earlier this year and helped the Syrian army capture the town of al-Qusayr and nearby villages along the Lebanese border, assuring a strategic route for the government between Damascus and its strongholds along the coast.

Small exchanges of territory have since occured, largely in the government’s favour although this week the rebels captured the town of Khanasir to the south of Aleppo which has effectively cut off government forces in and around Aleppo from the rest of the country.  In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, the rebels roughly control the east while the government controls the west.  Losing Aleppo would be a major blow to the Assad regime and perhaps even put the war onto even footing.  Meanwhile, a disturbing ‘civil war within a civil war’ seems to be occurring, as moderate and radical elements of the rebellion turn against each another.  This began when a Free Syrian Army leader was assassinated by rebels linked to al-Qaeda.  Radical Islamist elements – including the expanding al-Nusra Front – appear now to be leading the rebellion and control significant territories to the north and east of the country.  It’s these divisions which have made the West back away from plans to arm the rebels, an option I have also become more wary of.  There have also been clashes between these rebels and Kurdish militias, which has been responsible for a mass exodus of refugees into Iraq.

Gosh, this has been depressing to write.  Again, I really am not qualified to talk about the deteriorating situation in Syria, but I think it’s important we in the West understand what is going on before we make any decisions to involve ourselves.  For the average person, there’s really not a lot we can do to help ease Syria’s suffering.  I’d suggest lobbying MPs and the government but it’s not lack of will holding them back, rather a lack of credible options and divisions within the UN Security Council.  The Red Cross have set up a Syria Appeal for donations to help provide supplies for the growing number of refugees, which seems to be all we can do to improve the situation, unfortunately.

Links:

Good News From the States

I’m very pleased with recent political news I’ve been hearing from the USA (that’s not a sentence I get to write every day!).  There have been two major stories which have left a positive impact:

  1. President Obama reveals plan for action on climate change.
    As anyone following American politics will know, the importance of this announcement cannot be understated.  Climate change is an incredibly contentious issue in the USA, with something like a third or more of Americans denying it is an issue or sometimes that it’s even occurring.  The issue was scarcely mentioned during the 2012 presidential election.  Even if you do deny the human influence upon the climate, it just makes sense to gear an economy in preparation for the point of ‘peak fossil fuels’, where the amount of oil, coal and gas extracted will no longer be enough to meet demand.  That the world one day needs to develop a post-carbon economy is undeniable; the earlier we plan this, the better.
    Obama’s plans are admittedly basic, pledging to cut emissions by only 4% of what they they were in 1990 – five times less than the EU is planning – but the fact this process has begun at all is incredible.  Apparently this reduction would be relative to 33% of the UK’s emissions. It’s a start.  I just hope the Republican-dominated Congress won’t give him too much grief over it.  Despite his dubious record on many issues from drones to state surveillance, Obama is proving himself to be a progressive in many ways – being the first sitting President to endorse the right to same-sex marriage, for instance.  Which brings me to…
  2. Supreme Court Gives Positive Ruling for Same-Sex Marriage
    The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples should receive the same legal rights as any other married couple.  This has invalidated a section of the ridiculous ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ which denied gay married couples the same benefits to tax, healthcare and retirement, among others.  The Supreme Court also ruled that the decision to remove a ban on gay marriage in California cannot be challenged.  This is positive news not only for gay couples but for the nation as a whole.  I’d like to think the country is that bit more tolerant now.

Two bits of great news.  Please don’t let it stop here!  Next I would like to see the nationwide abolition of the death penalty (though it’s gradually creeping in state by state anyway), the closure of Quantanamo Bay and a complete reform of the political system to make it more representative and less of a corporatocracy.  Well… I can dream, can’t I?  An end to slavery would have seemed ridiculous 200 years ago, civil rights laughable 100 years ago and same-sex marriage a joke just 20 years ago.  Anything is possible.

Lincoln (2012) (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg, has proved to be one of those few films I don’t have a huge opinion on.  I went into the cinema, watched it, left, did some minimal research on the topic, but on the whole have been left mostly unchanged for having seen it.  Nevertheless, there are various points I’d like to pick up on.

The film is set across the early months of 1965 as the American Civil War drew to a close, after many years of bloody fighting which had left hundreds of thousands dead.  President Abraham Lincoln, recently re-elected, is not only fighting the Confederates to the south, but is also pushing to pass what would be the Thirteenth Amendment to the USA constitution which would abolish slavery.  As a purely historical film it is impossible to separate the plot from its historical source, though unfortunately I do not have a great enough knowledge of American history to comment in detail on the film’s accuracy.  I’ll presume that, artistic licence aside, it is the product of extensive research.  The film is very detailed in its coverage of the passing of the amendment, and I learned a lot about the circumstances involved.  I had no idea that the amendment was not passed until during the end of the war (as a means of ensuring that a wartime proclamation which had abolished slavery would continue when the war ended), nor the enormous difficulties it took convincing both the Democrats in opposition and Lincoln’s own Republican party to agree to it.

(On a tangent, it’s also interesting to see the Democrats as a more conservative party, dedicated at the time to keeping slavery, even if that was not their long-term ideological aim.  After the war the southern states would consistently vote democrats, which would continue until the second half of the 20th century when the parties’ power bases switched.  The Democrats would eventually provide the USA’s first black president, Barack Obama, in 2008.  It’s fascinating how political parties can change over the years.)

One challenge to creating such an in-depth portrayal of historical events which are predominantly political is that, for viewers who are not experts on the selected period, conveying the narrative to the audience can be challenging.  On this occasion, I think Spielberg has done exceedingly well, although that’s not without flaws.  Quite often, I was left confused over the precise mechanics of American law and the reasons for various actions.  I can’t think of any way this could be rectified without turning the film into a documentary, but it’s a flaw nonetheless.  Another incredulity I had was during the many occasions Democratic representatives were convinced to vote ‘yes’ to adopt the amendment by Lincoln’s… Is ‘henchmen’ too strong a word?  There was a lot of bribery, which is shocking if true, though believable.  However there were many instances were, after simply having a conversation, people would completely change their opinion – particularly when speaking to Lincoln himself.  Perhaps this is to exaggerate his oratory skills and negotiating ability, but I was never quite convinced.  I would also have liked to see more of the Confederate States of America in the South, to add to the realism.  Finally, it was also an odd decision, in a film about Lincoln, to not actually show his assassination, instead it being announced afterwards.  I can see why they might have left it out – it may have ruined the tone of the film’s generally jubilant ending by showing too many details, maybe – but I think including it would have been better.

Where the film excels most is the smaller historical details.  From the intricate design of primitive communications technology – constantly tapping messages in Morse Code – to the design of costumes, the film really felt like it was set in the 19th century.  I was particularly impressed with a shot filmed in front of the White House, a feature often seen today in modern politics, however completely immersed in the surroundings of a 19th century city.  I don’t know whether they actually filmed this scene in front of the White House – or even if that would be possible, perhaps it’s changed too much – but it felt utterly real.

The stand-out feature to Lincoln, as its perfomance at the Oscars would suggest, is the acting.  Daniel Day-Lewis is perfect in his portrayal as Lincoln.  He plays a thoughtful, somewhat quirky, and extremely likeable version of the US President, visually and vocally precisely as I would imagine him to be.  No footage exists of Lincoln, so he had more room to vary his performance, but it stands up to contemporary accounts of the man.  It’s a very balanced performance, unafraid to show both his strengths of diplomacy and strategy to the stresses of his family life.  I watched an interview of Day-Lewis and he is so different in real life.  Hiring a British actor to play Lincoln was always going to be a risky move, but one which has paid off in so many ways; even his accent is flawless.  The entire cast is also worthy of mention – Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Lincoln were particularly impressive.

Overall, Lincoln is a very successful film in terms of achieving its aims; well directed, well acted, and creates a vibrant historical period.  However it is limited in terms of entertainment by the events it must cover, and at times did drag on and lose my interests, even if always to soon regain it.  A good film, but not a great film, and one which has not had a large impact upon me.

Final Rating: 7.5/10

2013 Predictions

Finally, gonna end this busy day with a list of predictions for next year.  I didn’t plan to publish these – I was writing them for my own interest – but decided to give it a shot, in case miraculously they’re all correct, so I can prove I predicted them!  Rather rushed:

  • UK
    • Our next Holy Monarch of Divine Highness to Rule Over Us All Forever blah blah will be born.  Everyone will go nuts and the republican minority will grumble.
    • The coalition will continue on its path, though plans to create individual identities for the parties will become clearer in preparation for its end.
  • Abroad
    • The war in Mali will see some form of conclusion: Northern Mali will return to government control.
    • The Assad regime will fall.  Failing that, the rebels will increasingly control Syria.  I expect them to receive more support from the West and the government to lose Russia’s backing.
    • Obama’s next year as President will not be dramatic.
    • A war will not start over Iran.
    • Angela Merkel will be re-elected in Germany.
    • Libya will finish its transition into democracy on paper with success.
    • Egypt will head down its route of democracy with a very Islamic tint.  Morsi will bring stability to the country – at long last.
    • Berlusconi will not be elected in Italy.
    • The Afghanistan campaign will appear more and more hopeless.  Peace talks with the Taliban will develop.
    • I expect more crises from North Korea.
    • Iran’s economy will continue to plummet under sanctions.  Possibility of something dramatic happening.
    • This is a completely wild one: Robert Mugabe will no longer be in power in Zimbabwe by the year’s end.
    • There will be at least one coup.  And likewise, at least one country considered a dictatorship will become more democratic.
    • Burma will continue down liberalisation and democratisation.
    • Hugo Chavez: difficult to predict.  I’m gonna throw this out there and say his health improves and he’s able to continue as President.
    • Al Shebab will be almost completely pushed out of Somalia.
    • More than two Arab countries will see increased protests and violence.  Potentials: Syria, Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Sudan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon.
    • Julia Gillard will no longer be Prime Minister of Australia.
    • Putin will consolidate his dictatorship in Russia.
    • The Mars Curiosity Rover will make more discoveries which fail to interest the public.
    • Netanyahu will be re-elected in Israel.