An age of protest.

datePosted on 12:50, November 13th, 2019 by Pablo

It seems fair to say that we currently live in a problematic political moment in world history. Democracies are in decline and dictatorships are on the rise. Primordial, sectarian and post-modern divisions have re-emerged, are on the rise or have been accentuated by political evolutions of the moment such as the growth of nationalist-populist movements and the emergence of demagogic leaders uninterested in the constraints of law or civility. Wars continue and are threatened, insurgencies and irredentism remain, crime proliferates in both the physical world and cyberspace and natural disasters and other climatic catastrophes have become more severe and more frequent.

One of the interesting aspects to this “world in turmoil” scenario is the global surge in social protests. Be it peaceful sit-ins, land occupations, silent vigils, government building sieges, street and road blockades, pot-banging and laser-pointing mass demonstrations or riots and collective violence, the moment is rife with protest.

There are some significant differences in the nature of the protests. Contrary to previous eras in which they tended to be ideologically uniform or of certain type (say, student and worker anti-capitalist demonstrations), the current protest movement is heterogeneous in orientation, not just in the tactics used but in the motivations underpinning them. In this essay I shall try to offer a taxonomy of protest according to the nature of their demands.

Much of what is facilitating the current protest wave is global telecommunications technologies. In previous decades people may have read about, heard about or seen protests at home or in far-off places, but unless they were directly involved their impressions came through the filter of state and corporate media and were not communicated with the immediacy of real-time coverage in most instances. Those doing the protests were not appealing to global audiences and usually did not have the means to do so in any event. Coverage of mass collective action was by and large “top down” in nature: it was covered “from above” by journalists who worked for status quo (often state controlled) media outlets at home or parachuted in from abroad with little knowledge of or access to the local, non-elite collective mindset behind the protests.

Today the rise of individual telecommunications technologies such as hand-held devices, social media platforms and constant on-line live streaming, set against a corporate media backdrop of 24/7 news coverage, allows for the direct and immediate transmission of participant perspectives in real time. The coverage is no longer one sided and top down but multi-sided and “bottom up,” something that not only provides counter-narratives to offical discourse but in fact offers a mosaic landscape of perspective and opinion on any given event. When it comes to mass collective action, the perspectives offered are myriad.

The rise of personalised communication also allows for better and immediate domestic and transnational linkages between activists as well as provide learning exercises for protestors on opposite sides of the globe. Protestors can see what tactics work and what does not work in specific situations and contexts elsewhere. Whereas security forces have crowd control and riot training to rely on (often provided by foreign security partners), heretofore it was difficult for protest groups to learn from the experiences of others far away, especially in real time. Now that is not the case, and lessons can be learned from any part of the world.

The nature of contemporary protests can be broadly categorised as follows: protests against economic conditions and policy; protests against central government control; protests against elitism, authoritarianism and corruption (which often go hand-in-hand); protests against “others” (for example, anti-immigrant and rightwing extremist protests in the US and Europe); protests over denied rights or recognition (such as the pro-abortion and anti-femicide demonstrations in Argentina, which did not attract other causes (such as LGBTTQQIAAP rights) in a way that changed the nature of the original message); or mixtures of the above.

The literature on mass collective action often centres on what are known as “grievance versus greed” demands. One side of the continuum involves pure grievance demands, that is, demands for redress born of structural, societal or institutional inequalities. On the other side are demands born of the desire to preserve a self identified right, entitlement or privilege. In spite of the connotations associated with this specific choice of words, greed demands are not necessarily selfish nor are grievance based protests always virtuous. For example, greed demands can involve respect for or return to basic civil liberties as universal human rights or demands for the preservation of democracy, such as in the case of Hong Kong. Conversely, grievances can often be selfish in nature. Thus, although the pro-Brexit demonstrations are construed as demands that politicians heed the will of the people, the underlying motivation is defensive and protective of a peculiarly defined form of nationalism. A particularity of the modern era is that although most of the protests are portrayed as grievance-based, a considerable amount are in fact greed-based and not always virtuous, as in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacy marches and anti-immigrant demonstrations in Europe.

Protests against economic policies and conditions have recently been seen in Chile, France, Ecuador and Iraq. Protests against centralised government control have been seen in Catalonia, Indian Kashmir and Hong Kong. Protests against authoritarianism, elitism and corruption have been seen in Lebanon, Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Iran and Nicaragua. Protests against elitism are seen in the UK (over Brexit), and against state repression in Greece. “Othering” protests have occurred in the US, Italy, Hungary, Greece and South Africa, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of contemporary protests are not strictly economic (structural) in nature, but instead concentrate on superstructural factors such as the behaviour of government, restrictions on voice and representation and/or the vainglorious impunity of socioeconomic elites.

Often, such as in Chile, the protests begin as one thing and morph into another (starting out as protests against economic policy and conditions and then adding in protests against heavy handed state repression). The more new actors join the original protestors, the more likely the protests themselves will adopt a heterogenous or hybrid nature. That also extends to the tactics employed: while some protesters will choose passive resistance and civil disobedience as the preferred course of direct action, others will choose more confrontational tactics. The precise mix of this militant-moderate balance is determined by the prior history of protest and State repression in a given society (see below). The idea is to clear space for a peaceful resolution to the dispute with authorities, something that may require the use of confrontation tactics in order for authorities to accede to moderate demands. Remember: in spite of the language used, the protests in question are not part of or precursors to revolutionary movements, properly defined. They are, in fact, reformist movements seeking to improve upon but not destroy the status quo ante.

In recent times the emergence of leaderless resistance has made more difficult the adoption of a coherent approach to direct action in which moderate and militant tactics are used as part of a unified strategy (or praxis) when confronting political authorities. This is an agent-principal problem before it is a tactical problem because there is no core negotiating cadre for the protest movement that can coordinate the mix of moderate and militant actions and speak to the authorities with a unified voice and grassroots support. Under such conditions it is often difficult to achieve compromises on contentious issues, thereby extending the period of crisis which, if left unresolved by peaceful means, can lead to either a pre-revolutionary moment or a turn towards hard authoritarianism. That again depends on the society, issues and history in question.

Introduction of new actors into mass protest movements inevitably brings with it the arrival of criminals, provocateurs, third columnists and lumpenproletarians. These seek to use the moment of protest as a window of opportunity for the self-entered goals and use the protest movement as a cloak on their actions. These are most often the perpetrators of the worst violence against people and property and are those who get the most mainstream media coverage for doing so. But they should not be confused with the demographic “core” of the movement, which is not reducible to thugs and miscreants and which has something other than narrowly focused personal self-interest or morbid entertainment as a motivating factor.

The type of violence involved in mass collection action tells a story. Attacks on symbols of authority such as monuments and statues, government buildings or corporate entities general point to the direction of discontent. These can range from graffiti to firebombing, depending on the depth of resentment involved. Ransacking of supermarkets is also a sign of the underlying conditions behind the disorder. Destruction of public transportation does so as well. Attacks on security forces in the streets are a symbol of resistance and often used as a counter-punch to what is perceived as heavy handed police and/or military responses to peaceful protest. In some societies (say, South Korea and Nicaragua) the ability to counter-punch has been honed over years of direct action experience and gives pause to security forces when confronting broad-based social protests.

On the other hand, assaults on civilians uninvolved in security or policy-making, attacks on schools or otherwise neutral entities such as sports clubs, churches or community organisations point to either deep social (often ethno-religious) divisions or the presence of untoward elements hiding within the larger movement. Both protest organisers and authorities need to be cognisant of these differences.

In all cases mass protests are ignited by a spark, or in the academic vernacular, a precipitating event or factor. In Bolivia it was president Morals’s re-election under apparently fraudulent conditions. In Chile it was a subway fare hike. In France it was the rise in fuel prices that sparked the Yellow Vest movement that in turn became a protest about the erosion of public pension programs and and worker’s collective rights. In Ecuador it was also a rise in the price of petrol that set things off. In Hong Kong it was an extradition bill.

One relatively understudied aspect of contemporary protests is the broader cultural milieu in which they occur. All societies have distinctive cultures of protest. In some instance, such as Hong Kong, they are not deeply grounded in direct action or collective mass violence, and therefore are slow to challenge the repressive powers of the State (in the six months of Hong Kong protests three people have been killed). In other countries, such as Chile, there is a rich culture of protest to which contemporary activists and organisers can hark back to. Here the ramping up of direct action on the streets comes more quickly and involves the meting out of non-State violence on property and members of the repressive apparatuses (in Chile 30 people have died and thousands injured in one month of protests). In other countries like Iraq, pre-modern sectarian divisions combine with differences over governance to send protests from peaceful to homicidal in an instant (in Iraq over 250 people were killed and 5,000 injured in one week of protest).

Just like their are different war-fighting styles and cultures, so too are their different protest cultures specific to the societies involved.

The differences in protest culture, in turn, are directly related to cultures of repression historically demonstrated by the State. In places like Hong Kong there has been little in the way of a repressive culture prior to the last decade or so, and therefore the Police response has been cautious and incremental when it comes to street violence (always with an eye towards what the PRC overlords as well as Hong Kong public will consider acceptable). In Chile the legacy of the dictatorship hangs like a dark shadow over the security forces, who themselves have enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from civilian oversight in the years since the transition to democracy (in what can be considered, along with the market-driven macroeconomic policies that favour the dictatorship’s economic supporters, another authoritarian legacy). In places like Egypt the repressive response is predicated on belief in the utility value of disproportionate force: any demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with degrees of (often extra-judicial) lethality so as to serve as a lesson and set an example for others.

It is therefore in the dialectic between social protest and State repressive cultures where the physical-kinetic boundaries of collective mass action are drawn. Some societies are restrained or “polite” and so too are their notions of proper protest. In others, the moment for restraint ends when protests begin.

Underlying different approaches to contemporary protests is the issue of consent and toleration, or more precisely, the threshold of of consent and toleration. Basically popular consent is required for democratic governance to endure and prosper. Consent is given contingently, in the expectation that certain material, social and political thresholds will be met and upheld by those who rule. When the latter fail to meet or uphold their end of the bargain, then consent is withdrawn and social instability begins. Although it is possible for consent to be manipulated by elites, this is a temporary solution to a long-term dilemma, which is how to keep a majority of the subjects content with their lots in life over time?

Contingent mass consent also depends on a threshold of toleration. What will people tolerate in exchange for their consent? The best example is the exchange of political for economic benefits in dictatorships: people give up political rights in order to secure material benefits. But the threshold of toleration is often fragile and unstable, especially when grievances have been festering for a time or demands have repeatedly gone unmet. When that is the case the spark that precipitates the withdrawal of mass contingent consent can be relatively minor (say, defeat by a national football team in a World Cup or the assassination of an innocent by the security forces).

Each society develops its own threshold of contingent consent and toleration. What people will tolerate in Turkey is not the same as what people will tolerate in New Zealand (assuming for the purposes of this argument that Turkey is still a democracy of sorts). In fact, the very basis of consent differ from society to society: what Turks may consider acceptable in terms of material, social and political conditions may not be remotely acceptable to the French. Even outright authoritarians need to be conscious of the threshold of consent and toleration, if not from the masses then certainly from the elites that support them. But that only adds to their governance dilemmas, since pursuit of elite contingent consent can bring with it an intolerable situation for the masses. At that point the cultures of protest and State repression will come into play.

Ultimately, the current age of protest is the product of a global crisis of governance. Belief in the combination of market capitalism and democratic forms of representation as the preferred political-economic combination has eroded significantly. Rapid demographic and technological changes, increased income inequalities and other pathologies associated with the globalisation of production and exchange have undermined the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats under liberal democratic conditions. Authoritarians have increasingly filled the void both in countries that have democratic traditions as well as those that do not. Using the power of the State, they propagate fear-mongering and scapegoating between in- and out-groups in order to consolidate power and stifle opposing views.

The irony is that the turn to authoritarianism may be seen as the solution to the crisis of democratic governance, but it is no panacea for the underlying conditions that produced the current wave of protest and in fact may exacerbate them over the long term if protest demands are repressed rather than addressed. If that is the case, then what is currently is a global move towards reformism “from below” could well become the revolutionary catharsis than recent generations of counter-hegemonic activists failed to deliver.

That alone should be reason enough for contemporary political leaders to study the reasons for and modalities of the current wave of protests. That should be done in an effort not to counter the protests but to reach compromises that, if not satisfying the full spectrum of popular demands, serve as the foundation for an ongoing dialogue that reconstructs the bases of consent and toleration so essential for maintenance of a peaceful social order. It remains to be seen how many will do so.

The rot at the top (2).

datePosted on 16:14, October 15th, 2019 by Pablo

Thanks to a report from the Acting Inspector General of Intelligence and Security following a complaint by Nicky Hager, we have come to find out that the SIS illegally spied on Mr. Hager on behalf of the NZDF after publication of Hager’s 2011 book, Other People’s Wars. The NZDF justified its request by arguing that it was investigating potential espionage, although it turns out that it was actually looking for the NZDF source of leaks to Mr. Hager. This occurred when John Key was the Minister of Intelligence and Security, Warren Tucker was SIS Director and LTG Rhys Jones was Chief of the NZDF . Did the SIS and NZDF go rogue or were these individuals aware of the spying?

It seems hard to believe that none of these people were unaware of what their subordinates were doing. The NZDF request might have been accepted as a tasking under the partner agency agreement whereby the SIS assists other government agencies when and where needed. But for this to happen the Commissioner of Warrants or the Minister of Intelligence and Security would have to have approved the request. So the question is: did this happen? Was the request, while done through proper channels, truthful in its justification or was the warrant signed under false pretences? Or, did the NZDF and SIS agree to monitor Mr. Hager’s phone records without authorisation from above? If so, who authorised that action? Mr. Tucker and LTG Jones? Some mid level managers in the NZDF and SIS?

It should be noted that this unlawful spying occurred before the Police illegally searched Mr. Hager’s home and accessed his bank and phone records after the publication of his 2014 book, Dirty Politics. Here too we have the question of who, exactly, authorised the intrusion: the Minister of Police? The Police Commissioner? Someone below that rank? A friendly Justice of the Peace? Was the illegal Police access–again, supposedly to find the hacker called Rawshark who leaked to Hager a rightwing attack blogger’s emails and social media communications–a follow up or in any way connected to the previous NZDF/SIS investigation? After all, security agencies share information even after investigations are concluded or cases closed, so it is not inconceivable that the SIS file on Hager was forwarded to the Police once they opened their investigation into Rawshark’s identity. Ironically, the Police ended up with the same result as did the SIS when looking for Hager’s sources: nothing.

After the Acting IGIS issued her report, the Director General of Security (head of the SIS), Rebecca Kitteridge, issued an apology to Mr. Hager, seven years after the fact. But apologies are not enough. Punitive sanction must be meted, however retroactively, on those who ordered the spying in both the NZDF and SIS as well as those in cabinet who may have been aware of it. Will that ever happen? It is for the current Labor-led government to decide, which means that it needs to seriously think about yet another official Inquiry.

This may seem tedious and burdensome on the taxpayer, but it is now pretty clear that there is a systematic pattern of abuse of authority in the NZ security community. In the last ten years the Police, GCSB, NZDF and SIS have all been found to have committed unlawful acts against NZ citizens and residents. Little to nothing has been done to address, much less correct these institutional excesses, so the opportunity is ripe for a calling to account from those involved. Once the inquiries into Operation Burnham and Christchurch terrorist attacks are finalised and their reports submitted, that can be used as a starting point for a fuller inquiry into what I have previously labeled the “culture of impunity” that pervades the repressive apparatus of the NZ State.

As things stand and unless an investigation is launched into the mechanics of these unlawful and illegal acts, those who ordered the spying are likely to go unpunished. The maximum penalty for the SIS breaking the law is a $5000 fine for the agency, not any individuals employed in it. Key, Jones and Tucker are all retired and unlikely to receive any a posteriori punishment. So unless there is an investigation and subsequent law changes that hold people strongly (and retroactively) accountable for ordering or facilitating illegal acts committed by security agencies, impunity will endure and the institutional foundations of NZ democracy continue to be corroded from within.

The end of small “d” democracy?

datePosted on 12:11, September 29th, 2019 by Pablo

As a part of the second generation of “transitologists” interested in the causes, processes and consequences of political regime change, I was exposed to a considerable amount of writing on democratic theory and practice. After all, if one is going to study the reasons for democratic collapse, authoritarian rise and fall and the re-emergence, restoration or first appearance of democracy, one should have a pretty good grasp on what democracy is and is not. In recent years the theme amongst third and fourth generation transitologists includes the unfortunate subject of democratic decline, something that is global in nature and has been evident in mature as well as relatively nascent or immature democracies over the last decade or so.

In a book that I wrote about the relationship between the State, organised labour and capitalists in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay in the transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s, I used my understanding of democratic theory to break down what it looks like in practice. I distinguished between procedural democracy, which is the (electoral) means by which incumbents of political decision making positions are selected, and substantive democracy, which are the institutional, social and economic dimensions underpinning the procedural level and which gives it intrinsic merit.

Without going into the type of detail that a 400 page book carries in it, it is at the substantive level where small “d” democracy signs in. Large “D” Democracy basically refers to the procedural and institutional bases of a particular form of elected political representation–rule of law, separation of powers, universal franchise, horizontal and vertical accountability etc. Although there is overlap with the institutional dimension, small “d” democracy refers to societal and material traits that are inculcated in a politically organised collectivity–a polity, in other words–and which have the potential to become self-reproducing. Over time, concepts like equality, fairness, consensus and consent, mutual respect, toleration and compromise move from being ideals or notions about the proper social order to being baseline characteristics of small “d” societies. These values do not just inform collective decision-making at all levels. They imbue individual behaviour with a personal ethos grounded in them.

In short, the substance of democracy is ideological, which determines the values upon which its institutions and procedures are founded.

Entire careers have been made studying the procedural and institutional bases of democratic political systems. Electoral analysis, polling, constitutional law, legislative studies, party politics, executive relations with the judiciary and legislature–all of these fields (and more) have focused on the mechanics, interactions, processes and personalities involved in the formal side of big “D” Democracies. They assume away, ignore or take for granted that their subjects are underpinned by an ideological foundation grounded in collective agreement on behaviour and representation. This misses a fundamental aspect of the social construct known as democracy.

Put another way, focusing on the procedural-institutional aspects of democracy without considering its substantive dimensions is akin to studying a hollow shell.

Consider this: we repeatedly hear about the importance of the “rule of law,” that no person is above the law and that democracies are founded on laws, not people. But a universal law prohibiting people from sleeping on park benches in fact only prohibits some people from doing so. The practical impact of universal laws, to paraphrase Gramsci, descends through a complex tissue of class, racial, ethno-religious, gender and other vulgarisations on its way to becoming enforceable edicts, with the effect being that law enforcement is often non-universal or discriminatory in nature. In order for universal laws to be universal in application, there needs to an underpinning consensus that they be so regardless of circumstance.

That is where the substance of democracy–its ideological foundations translated into everyday social practice–matters. And that is also where the core problem of democracy currently lies.

International polling over the last decade or so shows a steady erosion in support for democracy and, more alarmingly, greater dissatisfaction with democracy amongst younger people. The erosion of support for democracy is linked to the emergence of elected authoritarians like Dutarte, Bolsonaro, Orban and Erdogan, but also in the rise of the Alt-Right and various nationalist populist movements across the globe. The problems of of democracy appear to be both institutional and ideological.

Institutionally, most advanced democracies display signs of sclerosis. Lobbying, corruption, clientelism, patronage, gerry-mandering, vote-buying and voter suppression, rank partisanship and other pathologies have turned the institutional edifice upon which most current political democracies are perched extremely brittle. That has increased public cynicism and distrust about politics and politicians to the point that the disapproval is of the system as a whole, not just a few “bad apples.” That in turn has made contemporary democracies susceptible to manipulation by external actors using disinformation and psychological operations campaigns in order to exploit social cleavages and further sow divisions from within, knowing that these will be reproduced rather than ameliorated by the political class.

The problem is compounded by the elimination of what used to be called civics education in secondary schools. Replaced by non-critical “social studies” programs that fail to address both the structural and ideological bases of democracy, recent generations of students have no real grasp on what democracy entails. Among the worst areas of confusion are the notion of “rights,” especially with regards to the comparative rights of majorities and minorities and the exercise of freedom of speech. This occurs against a backdrop of increased vulgarisation of social discourse at all levels, so what used to pass as informed debate on contentious issues has now descended into shouting matches and ad hominem attacks from the halls of parliament to local board meetings, ratepayer assemblies and a host of community AGMs ( I write this as I am in the process of filling out my local government voting papers and in light of what I have seen and heard about recent “meet the candidate” events).

More broadly, the focus on rights without regard to responsibilities ignores the mutual second best trade-offs that lie at the core of democratic social culture. To recall: in a democracy no one gets everything they want all of the time but everyone gets some of what they want most of the time, with the guarantee of being able to revisit contentious issues at regularly scheduled intervals (politically, in the form of elections and referenda). That is the core of small “d” democracy: acceptance and reproduction of the values of toleration and compromise based on notions of quality and fair play.

That is the crux of the matter. Large “D” Democracy persists in that it has a procedural and institutional facade with much history and to which much attention is paid. But it is substantively corroded from within and without, and worst yet, it lacks the ideological glue that would allow it to continue to survive as a genuine political alternative to various forms of authoritarianism.

Therein lies the the problem. From politicians to institutions to individuals, the small “d” value system that once sustained big “D” Democracy appears to have diminished into a faint echo. What is left within big ‘D” Democracies is partisanship, opportunism and authoritarianism disguised as problem solving, “common sense” and freedom of expression. Rather than civic minded people of virtue interested in public service, big “D” Democratic politics is increasingly populated by charlatans, demagogues, self-interested grifters, con artists and hypocritical reprobates of various stripes.

With politicians acting in bad faith, partisan cleavages deepening, foreign actors (state and non-state) manipulating news and younger generations ignorant of what democratic values are and are not, it should not be surprising that as a cultural norm, small “d” democracy is on the wane.

Even so, there is room for hope. Things like student climate activism, Code Pink direct action campaigns and the spontaneous activities of a wide range of community groups are signs that there is a thirst for small “d” democracy around the world. But that requires returning to the notion of democratic values as a starting point for any discussion about collective action, political participation and interest group representation. It requires confronting undemocratic bullies who lead local government bodies and volunteer organisations as well as those in the halls of parliament. It needs, in other words, a re-appreciation of the basic social value structure that overrides collective and individual egotism and which forges fresh horizontal solidarity ties between groups as well as their vertical ties to political representatives.

That is a matter of education, not politics.

The rot at the top.

datePosted on 11:46, September 20th, 2019 by Pablo

When military leaders cover up and lie to elected civilian authorities, the foundation of democratic civil-military relations is undermined because it is those authorities who are entrusted to hold the military accountable to the public that they mutually serve. But this is only true if civilian political authorities take their responsibilities seriously and accept that when it comes to military operations the policy buck stops with them.

The same is true for intelligence agencies in democracies. While specific operational details remain within the agencies involved, the general policy guidelines for how they conduct those operations, and the responsibility for them, rests with a) the legal framework governing their activities and b) the elected civilian governments that are their overseers at any given point in time. For both the military and intelligence community, this means exchanging corporate or institutional autonomy-that, is, the ability to set internal standards, practices and objectives free from political interference–in return for submission to civilian political authority on broad matters of policy and accountability.

In recent weeks we have discovered, thanks to the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s report on NZ involvement in the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program, that the NZSIS and GCSB received and supplied information that was directly linked to detainees who were subject to torture by the US and other allies in the coalition fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The directors of these agencies at the time claim that their agencies did not know about the program even though they worked hand-in-glove with the CIA in Afghanistan and elsewhere and even though knowledge of the extraordinary rendition/black site program and the use of torture was in the public domain as early as 2004. From what is described in the IGIS report, it appears that NZ intelligence bosses had their own version of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to what the US was up to. As Richard Woods, former NZSIS director general, is quoted as saying in the IGIS report (I paraphrase here), “do you really expect us to ask the US directly about such things and risk our relationships with it?”

When confronted about this discrepancy by the IGIS the former directors maintained the high-ranking government ministers of the day were privy to all of the sensitive information regarding NZ’s intelligence relationships and that as agency directors they had no authority to engage in moral, ethical or legal judgements about what their allies were doing even if these actions violated NZ and international law–all while maintaining that they knew nothing about unmarked airplanes, black sites, torture and suspects being captured (including by the SAS) and then “disappeared” into the covert operations labyrinth.

That broaches the question as to whether former directors Richard Woods and Warren Tucker are simply lying (former GCSB chief Bruce Ferguson was a late arrival to the events under investigation and inherited his situation from Tucker) and prefer to put NZ intelligence relationships with the CIA ahead of their supposed duties to the NZ government and nation as a whole. Or, did the governments of the day, led by Helen Clark and John Key, know about the extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program and authorised and covered up NZ participation in it? It should be noted that Barack Obama ended the extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program shortly after he assumed presidential office in January 2009, so the bulk of NZ’s involvement with it happened under the 5th Labour government.

With regards to the NZDF, thanks to the book “Hit and Run” by Jon Stephenson with Nicky Hager and the ensuing Royal Commission of Inquiry into Operation Burnham (the subject of the book), we now know that the military brass did not inform (at best) or mislead (at worst) senior government officials about the possibility of civilian deaths in that mission until news of it became public (again, mostly thanks to the work of Mr. Stephenson in his series on NZSAS activities in Afghanistan). The NZDF story constantly changed as more was revealed, and the Inquiry has now found out that a critical NZDF document recognising the possibility of civilian deaths was “lost” in a secure safe for three years and that a register of who opened and closed that safe during that time frame somehow went undiscovered until this week. Former ministers in the Key government, which was in office when the mission was conducted, maintain that they were unaware of the existence of anything that would contradict the original NZDF version of events, which claimed that only “terrorists” were killed.

That raises a profoundly disturbing possibility whichever way the truth falls in each case. On the one hand, it would appear that senior NZ intelligence and military officials do not inform and in fact cover up controversial operations that occur under their watch. The civilian authorities to whom they ostensibly answer to in the division of labour that constitutes the foundations of democratic civil-military/intelligence relations are deliberately left in the dark. This suggests a level of arrogance and sense of imperiousness that is inimical to democratic governance because there is no regard for personal or institutional accountability embedded in their decision-making. They simply do as they see fit and lie about it afterwards.

On the other hand, it is possible that military and intelligence officials respect the concept of civilian political authority and inform governments of the day of everything that they are doing, including when things go wrong or unpleasant compromises are made in the interest of national security. This can be considered to be a variant of the “no surprises” policy in which governments are informed apriori of controversial decisions so as to not be caught off-balance when said decisions become news. If that is the case, then political managers shoulder responsibility for the policy decisions under which the NZ intelligence community and NZDF operate, including taking the blame when things go wrong or uncomfortable facts are revealed about what NZ security forces are doing at home and abroad.

However, it appears that in NZ there is not only a variant of “don’t ask, don’t tell” operating in the intelligence community, but it is attached to a civilian political management approach whose operating premise is “don’t want to know.” That is, civilian political authorities display willful ignorance in an effort to maintain plausible deniability when things go wrong or prove politically fraught. That may be expedient over the short term but abdicates responsibility when it comes to civilian oversight of the military and intelligence community, thereby tacitly encouraging military and spy agency impunity during and after (often lethal) operations.

Coverage of the Royal Commission on Inquiry into Operation Burnham has focused on the supposed incompetence of senior NZDF officers when it came to document security and disclosure. “Incompetence” is the most generous interpretation of what was at play here. “Conspiracy based on deliberate and coordinated lies and misrepresentations authorised from the top” is an alternative interpretation. The questions now are: which of these two interpretations seems more plausible and will anyone be held to real account in any event? Surely, if the government of the day was deliberately lied to or mislead by the NZDF and was not complicit in the coverup, then there is criminal liability involved.

The same goes for the intelligence agency chiefs who say they did not know what their subordinates were doing during the years in which the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program was running. If they lied to their political masters about what they knew, then there should be consequences for that even if it has taken time to uncover their deception. If the political authorities at the time knew about NZ intelligence community involvement in the program, that should become a matter of public record even if little can be done in terms of retroactively applying punitive sanctions on their behaviour..

Not to put too fine a cynical point on it, but perhaps there is another hand at play in both instances. The IGIS report on NZ involvement with the CIA extraordinary rendition/black site/torture program speaks at length about managerial misadventure in the NZSIS and GCSB and even “naivety” in the discharge of their duties (when was the last time anyone ever heard the word “naive” associated with spy agencies?). The Inquiry into Operation Burnham has heard about “mistakes” and “oversights” on the part of NZDF senior leaders. It would seem that the common denominator in both is incompetence rather than wilful or deliberate circumvention of ethical norms, legal obligations and constitutional responsibilities.

Could it be that “incompetence” is the ultimate “get out of jail” card for public servants found to have failed in the discharge of their basic obligations and responsibilities?

The coming resource war.

datePosted on 16:11, September 10th, 2019 by Pablo

During my time in the Pentagon I had the privilege of sitting down with military leaders and defence and security officials from a variety of Latin American nations. Sometimes I was present as a subordinate assistant to a senior US defence department official, sometimes as part of a delegation that included people from the State Department and other agencies, and sometimes I was on my own or part of a small team exploring avenues of dialogue or negotiating details of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

One of the more interesting meetings I had was with small group of senior Brazilian military officers led by the then number two officer in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces (which answers to the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, in an arrangement similar to that between the US Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff but with a more vertical hierarchy within it based on officer seniority between service branches). In that meeting I asked the Brazilians what they considered to be the greatest threat to their national security. The answer was astounding: “The pattern of consumption in the North,” said the senior Brazilian officer. Sensing my surprise, he went on to explain that emphasis on economic growth in Northern capitalist societies was causing the rapid depletion of their natural resources along with a host of other environmental problems. He even brought up, at a time when the subject was embryonic, the issue of “global warming,” noting that Brazil was starting to see the subtle impact of climatic shifts in its maritime and terrestrial environments.

I should briefly note, as an aside, that one of the interesting aspects of the Brazilian high command is that many senior officers do advanced post-graduate degrees in France, and tend to focus on public policy and politics. This is a bit different that many countries that send their officers to US or UK War Colleges for professional development and prefer not to have them study politics rather than things like public administration. Like the US, Brazilian officers hold lower-level degrees in “harder” subjects relevant to their military disciplines, but then go on to study at places like the Paris Institute of Political Studies (commonly known as “Sciences Po”). There they receive a distinctly non-US type of political science training, to include the philosophies of people like Althusser, Poulantzas, Foucault, Derrida, Levi, Glucksman, Proust, Aron and others not usually associated with the military enterprise and certainly not part of the standard post-graduate curriculum of US (or NZ) military officers.

With this in mind it should not be surprising that the Brazilians had a slightly different take on what constitutes threats to their national security. But then the general went on. He advanced the notion that eventually Brazil would find itself at war with Northern powers over control of the Amazon. He pointed out that once unchecked economic growth led to the degradation of Northern environments and depletion of natural resources above the equator, the great Northern powers would turn on the Amazon (and elsewhere, like Sub-Saharan Africa) in an attempt to continue their pattern of resource exploitation.

At that point the US admiral sitting next to me turned and said “dang, boy, I have not heard that one before.”

The Brazilian general was not assuaged or convinced by my protestations that the US would never go to war with Brazil over its natural resources. He was not mollified by my attempts to explain that the US would more likely partner with Brazil to preserve its sovereign assets. He told me that although he had no doubt that I was a sincere young fellow and had the ear of the administration that I served, nothing I said would be binding once the next administration arrived and even then, should the US try to negotiate a partnership agreement/treaty with Brazil on control of the Amazon, Brazil would reject it on grounds of foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.

That was in 1994. But the Brazilian view continues to this day.

I write this to provide context to the current discussion of wildfires in Amazonia and the differences between Northern powers and Brazil (or more precisely, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro) when it comes to how to handle the situation now and into the future. Bolsonaro, who calls himself the “Trump of Brazil” and who campaigned as “candidate machete” in rural parts of the country, is a climate change denying homophobe with vulgarian tendencies and unsavoury links to both criminal gangs and extreme right-wing groups, including those operated by paramilitary organisations and and ex-military officers (Bolsonaro is a former Army officer and son of an Amazonian miner). During the campaign and once in office he promised to roll back environmental regulations and those that protected endangered indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, who were already under siege from logging and farming encroachment in their traditional homelands. His promise to bulldoze the Amazon in order to promote economic growth on the way to great power status resonated with nationalists as well as foreign and domestic agricultural and logging conglomerates, who poured both open and dark money into his campaign.

Once Bolsonaro assumed office the practices of clear-cutting and slash-and-burning accelerated dramatically, something that when combined with prolonged drought in Brazil’s north and west contributed to the wildfires that as of yet remain unchecked in many places. Bolsonaro has accused environmentalists of deliberately setting fires to advance their agendas, has rejected some types of international fire-fighting aid (such as from the EU) and has launched into a war of words with the likes of French Prime Minister Macron (including rude comments about the Macron’s wife) in defence of what Bolsonaro claims are assaults on Brazilian sovereignty by foreign powers wishing to gain control over its natural resources.

This is where things get dangerous. The Brazilian military has as one of its national security pillars defence of its natural resources against foreign efforts to seize them in the face of increased environmental destruction. The Bolsonaro government supports clearing large parts of the countryside in the quest for more arable land for commercial purposes and is determined to resist foreign entreaties to reign back the deforestation policy in the interest of global climate sustainability. The scene is then set for armed confrontations between the Brazilian military and any actors (foreign or domestic) that may seek to use direct action to protect the rainforest and pantanal (the southwestern wetlands that extend to the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders). The threats are unlikely to come from state actors over the short-term and certainly not from Brazil’s neighbours, but over the medium to long term the possibility that resource wars might erupt over Brazil’s intransigence cannot be discounted.

In fact, Brazil ultranationalists are already spreading rumours that the unexplored hinterlands are being “infiltrated” by foreign forces, and the Brazilian Army has suspended participation of several Northern militaries in jungle warfare exercises over concerns that it is gives forward intelligence about terrain and Brazilian war-fighting capabilities (the Brazilian Army operates a world-renown jungle warfare school–CIGS– in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. The battalion prayer includes the following phrase: “If we perish defending the Brazilian Amazon, O God, allow us to do so with dignity and deserving of victory. Selva!” (“Jungle!” in Portuguese).

What is worse, significant elements in the Brazilian defence establishment categorically deny that the Amazon is at ecological risk or that it serves as the much vaunted “lungs of the earth.” The vehemence and xenophobic tone of their views is well captured here.

The fact that the Amazonian region is huge and relatively lawless contributes to the Brazilian military’s concern with exercising control over it. Without significant foreign enemies, the Brazilian Navy has placed great emphasis on its riverine capability, while the Army uses the presence of drug, people and weapons smugglers as a justification for conducting counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare exercises in the far reaches of the basin, especially the border regions adjacent to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. Such an extended land border (which also includes Paraguay and Uruguay) makes Brazilian geopolitical strategists acutely focused on staving off intrusions of any nature, so it is not surprising that Brazil has closed its border with Venezuela in order to staunch refugee flows fleeing the Bolivarian kleptocracy that passes for a government in Caracas (it has also closed its borders to Venezuelans trying to enter Brazil from other neighbouring countries).

The combination of a traditional continental geopolitical focus within the Brazilian security establishment, military concern that resource depletion elsewhere will lead to foreign attempts to steal or capture by stealth Amazonian resources, and the presence in presidential office of a demagogic nationalist-populist fixated on untapping those resources for Brazilian gain regardless of environmental consequence may prove explosive down the road should any international moves be made to limit Brazil’s ability to exploit what it considers to be its God-given gift of natural resource endowment.

Or, as that Brazilian general said to me 25 years ago, “the developed world has destroyed its natural resources on the way to becoming modernised industrial societies and now wants to deny Brazil the ability to do the same. We will not let that happen.”

The fallacy of the proximity argument.

datePosted on 12:43, September 3rd, 2019 by Pablo

Longer term readers may remember my complaining that, as a political scientist, it is burdensome to have non-political scientists wanting to engage me about politics. No layperson would think to approach an astrophysicist and lecture him/her on the finer details of quarks and black holes, but everybody with an opinion feels perfectly entitled to tell me exactly why their views are just if not more accurate than mine when it comes to discussing political phenomena. Some go on to mention that I must have gotten my degrees so that I could become a politician, which is like telling a primatologist that he wants to be a chimp (I have used this analogy before so apologies if you have already read or heard it).

One of the most often used lines that I hear is what I call the “proximity argument.” That is the belief that proximity to an event, situation or process gives one special insights into them and therefore entitles one to opine from a position of purportedly superior insight. In vulgar terms it is the “you don’t live here” or “I was there” argument, in which the fact of being proximately familiar with something confers special argumentative rights when discussing it.

In recent weeks I have been following the lead up to October’s general elections in Argentina, including reading the posts from friends in Argentina on social media. Their opinions are deeply divided between Left and Right-oriented folk, with some of their commentary bordering on hysterical. What they all have in common is that they claim to know better what the “objective” situation is because they are living in Argentina at the moment, so observations from the likes of me, regardless of the fact that I have written professionally about Argentine politics for all of may adult life, do not count because I live outside of the country.

I cannot enumerate the times that people in the US, particularly MAGA morons, discount what I have to say about US politics because “you don’t live here anymore.” This despite my years of government service prior to emigration, my research and writing on various aspects of US foreign policy and military affairs and my ongoing connections to people in politics and government in that country. “You gotta be here,” they say.

Closer to home, I repeatedly hear and read people claim that one can not opine about issues involving Maori if one is not Maori. Most recently, I have watched with concern the unhappiness voiced by members of the NZ Muslim community with the way on which the investigations into the March 15 attacks have proceeded, in particular the way in which the Royal Commission of Inquiry has handled their participation in the process. The claim is made that since they were the targets and subjects of the attacks, Muslims should be front and centre in any investigation into the events that led up to March 15.

Conversely, several prominent commentators–Gerry Brownlee, Lianne Dalziel and Russell Brown amongst them–attacked me in personal terms because of my media commentary that Christchurch had a well- documented history of white supremacism prior to the attacks. Beside the hypocrisy that comes naturally to politicians, one can only assume that their reactions are due to their personal connections to that city, which may have led them to the conclusion that I was attacking the city as a whole rather than a well-known extremist element within it. In other words, they could or would not see the very rotten trees in their particular forest, or will not admit to having known about them (Dalziel still insists that there is no white supremacist “problem”).

Putting on my analyst’s hat, I find that proximity arguments of this sort to be problematic. Of course familiarity with something gives particular insight into it and therefore those closest to an event, situation or process need to be heard when seeking remedies or even just objective understanding of the phenomenon. But proximity also brings with it emotion and subjectivity, both of which are anathema to analytic objectivity.

Years ago I published a collection of essays titled “With Distance Comes Perspective.” The book title was taken from the Spanish phrase “hay que tomar distancia” (“take some distance”), which refers to the fact that one must sometimes step back and put some distance on something in order to understand its objective status. That always reminds me of the children’s story about five blind people touching an elephant–each describes a different beast depending on what part of the elephant they are touching–because the emotion and subjectivity conferred by proximity often makes one blind to the larger realities at play, or at least the bigger picture.

I put together that collection because I gained perspective on the US, and international politics in general, from having moved to NZ and gaining literal, figurative and theoretical distance on great power dynamics by adopting the perspective of a very small democratic state. I found that in order to better understand US foreign policy I needed to move away from it after having spent time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

That helps explain why the proximity argument is fallacious. It may be necessary to understanding something but it is not sufficient when trying to explain it. In many cases it obscures objective understanding because it clouds the analysis with emotion and/or the particular (often myopic) perspective of specific participants in or observers of an event. Balanced analysis requires objectivity and objectivity more often than not requires neutral distance from the subject of study. Emotion and subjectivity have no place in the analytic mind.

That does not mean that proximate familiarity is not required. All Ph.D. programs in comparative politics worth their reputations require students to acquire language skills and conduct in-country field research as part of their dissertations, preferably through the use of personal interviews, archival research, documentary collection and observer participation in the broader events and context surrounding their studies. The purpose is for the student to gain cultural familiarity with their case study or studies in order to give depth and contextual understanding to the specific research that they are undertaking. For example, one can never fully understand the nature of Argentine football if one does not understand the class and urban/rural divisions that underpin it, be it from club structure and the stadium songs used by fans to the role of organised crime in club governance and the selection process for the national team. For that to happen, one has to spend time there, both in general and in the stadiums.

For me the dissertation process required repeated trips to Argentina in order to conduct research in the Health and Labour Ministries, interview unionists and health policy makers, and run ideas past others in the research institutes to which I was affiliated at the time (all in Spanish, of course). Being raised in Argentina gave me a distinct advantage when it came to moving around and making connections, but I had to put my political beliefs and personal feelings aside when engaging in research and writing because my dissertation committee were not interested in how I felt but in rather what I objectively observed and the analytic conclusions that I reached from said observations (I left the personal stuff for the dedication page of the finished work).

That is something that I have carried with me over the years and, along with things such as inductive versus deductive reasoning, most-similar versus most-different and large-N versus small-N methodologies, that I tried to impart on students during 25 years of academic service. The idea is to use proximity whenever possible but to use it in a broader context where neutral analytic distance is maintained.

All of which is to say that we must not be fooled by those who use the proximity argument when opining about current events or policy issues. Be it measles, land rights, climate change, gun control, political finance, threat assessments or any other matter of contentious public concern, the false expertise of those who rely on the proximity argument must be balanced with the objective appraisals of those who can address the subject dispassionately and knowledgeably whether or not they have immediate connection to what is being discussed.

I did an interview on the TVNZ Breakfast Show about the situation in Hong Kong. I tried to frame the issue as a collective action problem between two sides with very different end games. The video is here.

Because of time constraints we could not discuss the fact that the Hong Kong protests do not have a unified leadership that could lend coherency to the strategy and connection between tactics and that strategy. It also did not address the fact that the protestors have now moved to challenging the (HK) State’s monopoly over organised violence in the territory, which means that it is posing an existential threat to a core function of that State. Since the Hong Kong State has little more than police and intelligence agencies as its repressive apparatus, that means that further and more serious challenges to this monopoly will be met by a State that has far more coercive power at its disposal–the PRC.

I should have mentioned at some point that the interplay between hard-liners and soft-liners on both sides is crucial to a peaceful settlement. Only if soft-liners prevail on both sides will the solution be peaceful, but in order to have that happen the soft-liners will have to prevail within their respective camps. With hard core nationalists on both sides rejecting any form of compromise as a loss of face and demonstration of weakness, the stage is set for them to prevail. If they do the outcome will be bloody.

The soft-line opposition strategy is based on the fact that the PRC can wait a long time while gauging international reaction to immediate events in Hong Kong, added to the fact that provoking a violent PRC response erases what the Hong Kong hard liners aspire to deliver ( and those goals are indeed aspirational rather than deliverable). It remains to be seen if the principles understand this type of logic.

We also did not discuss the how the moderate-militant approach I mention in the clip has to be part of a larger incremental gains strategy whereby the protestors try to push a “two steps forward, one step back” agenda that sees them roll back various authoritarian initiatives while conceding on short term or relatively minor issues (perhaps including the extradition bill that sparked the current round of protests).

Nor did we discuss the fact that at the time of initial handover from the UK, the PRC was in no position to contest the terms of the agreement, especially those centred on the “One Nation, Two Systems” 50 year compromise. Nearly halfway into that process, it is clear that conditions have changed. Among other things, Hong Kong is no longer the source of GDP and international capital that it was for the PRC in 1997, having been eclipsed by mainland centres of commerce like Shanghai. This makes it less risky for the PRC to impose its will and accelerate the devolution process before the 50 year transition period ends in 2047. That puts it on a collision course with those in Hong Kong who want more rather than less autonomy when that time comes.

Finally, we did not discuss the fact that should push come to shove the protesters are on their own. For all the US bluster and the threats of trade sanctions against the PRC if it uses force to quell the protests, no one is coming to the rescue. Not the UK, not the EU, not NATO, not SEATO, not Taiwan, not blue-helmeted UN troops–nobody will do anything significant in their defence.

That means that there is a limit to what the protestors can achieve by pushing the protest envelope, since there will be no counter to the PRC use of force if and when it comes. Hence the need for the incremental gains approach mentioned above, and even that may be too little to stave off the eventual PRC takeover in 2047.

A question of focus.

datePosted on 10:12, August 1st, 2019 by Pablo

More complaints have been aired about the Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCICh) into the Christchurch terrorist attacks. These have centred on the perception that the RBICh has not paid enough attention to the Muslim community who were the targets of the attacks and the sole victims of them. Even though the Terms of Reference for the RCICh specified that it would establish liaison ties with representatives of the NZ Muslim community, many are unhappy with the way in which those have been put into effect. This is in spite of an initial outreach to the community via the Christchurch Muslim Liasion Group and then formation of a Muslim Community Reference Group (MCRG, via the RCICh’s Head of Community Engagement) that is scheduled to begin work this month.

The main objection appears to be that the Muslim community, as victims of the attacks, are not the central focus of the inquiry and therefore feel marginalised by the process even if organisations like the Islamic Women’s Council of New Zealand (IWCNZ) and Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ), as well as several prominent Muslims, have been consulted. This is a delicate and thorny concern that is difficult to resolve. What follows is an explanation of why that is so.

The terms of reference for the RCICh specify that it must do two things: determine how the killer planned, prepared and executed the attacks; and what state agencies did and did not do in the lead-up to the attacks that enabled or could have prevented them from happening. The relevant sections of the terms of reference are here (sections 2-4 of the Terms of Reference):

Purpose of inquiry and matter of public importance

The matter of public importance that the inquiry is directed to examine is—

(a) what relevant State sector agencies knew about the activities of the individual who has been charged with offences in relation to the 15 March 2019 attack on the Al-Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, before that attack; and
(b) what actions (if any) relevant State sector agencies took in light of that knowledge; and
(c) whether there were any additional measures that relevant State sector agencies could have taken to prevent the attack; and
(d) what additional measures should be taken by relevant State sector agencies to prevent such attacks in the future.
Scope of inquiry

In order to achieve its purpose, the inquiry must inquire into—

(a) the individual’s activities before the attack, including—
(i) relevant information from his time in Australia; and
(ii) his arrival and residence in New Zealand; and
(iii) his travel within New Zealand, and internationally; and
(iv) how he obtained a gun licence, weapons, and ammunition; and
(v) his use of social media and other online media; and
(vi) his connections with others, whether in New Zealand or internationally; and
(b) what relevant State sector agencies knew about this individual and his activities before the attack, what actions (if any) they took in light of that knowledge, and whether there were any additional measures that the agencies could have taken to prevent the attack; and
(c) whether there were any impediments to relevant State sector agencies gathering or sharing information relevant to the attack, or acting on such information, including legislative impediments; and 
(d) whether there was any inappropriate concentration of, or priority setting for, counter-terrorism resources by relevant State sector agencies prior to the attack.
Matters upon which findings are sought

The inquiry must report its findings on the following matters:

(a) whether there was any information provided or otherwise available to relevant State sector agencies that could or should have alerted them to the attack and, if such information was provided or otherwise available, how the agencies responded to any such information, and whether that response was appropriate; and
(b) the interaction amongst relevant State sector agencies, including whether there was any failure in information sharing between the relevant agencies; and
(c) whether relevant State sector agencies failed to anticipate or plan for the attack due to an inappropriate concentration of counter-terrorism resources or priorities on other terrorism threats; and
(d) whether any relevant State sector agency failed to meet required standards or was otherwise at fault, whether in whole or in part; and
(e) any other matters relevant to the purpose of the inquiry, to the extent necessary to provide a complete report.

As readers will observe, there is no specific mention of a Muslim-as-a-community focus, much less a victim-centred one. Instead, attention is on the killer and the State, with recommendations deriving from the above investigation lines focused on how state agencies can work better towards preventing such a thing happening in the future. The role of the MCRG is seen by the RCICh in that light–as witnesses adding to the testimonial trail about events leading up to the attacks.

This clearly is not the reasoning of those who think that the Muslim community should be placed front and centre in the RCICh’s concerns. It was never the intention of the RCICh to make them the centrepiece, and the announcement of the terms of reference and first minute issued by the RCICh noted that the MCRG was an advisory body only, limited in numbers, with members selected by the RCICh and therefore not entirely representative of the community as a whole. At that point people had the option of agreeing to accept invitations or not.

The top-down selection process by which the MCRG was constituted was bound to raise concerns about co-optation, and the unspecified limited number of group members reinforced the notion that the MCRG is going to be used as window dressing on a potential whitewash. On the other hand, given the demographic heterogeneity of NZ’s Muslim population and the political and personal rivalries that go with exercising collective representation for this type of membership, a bottom-up MCRG selection process in which a larger number of Muslim communities are represented would have been too time-consuming to organise and hold given the six month window that the RCICh has in which to prepare and present its report (due December 10).

Because a nation-wide leadership selection process involving all organised Muslim communities cannot happen given the time constraints, as national peak associations it seems reasonable that leaders of FIANZ and IWCNZ would participate in the MCRG. Perhaps recognised leaders of the mosques that were attacked will participate, along with representatives of Muslim regional or city organisations. The importance is that numbers of representatives remain manageable and that internecine rivalries are avoided in the discharge of their responsibilities as members of the MCRG.

I am not privy as to who is in the MCRG but can only hope that they are a representative cross-section of the Islamic community in Aotearoa.

Returning to the issue of focus, it was never contemplated that the RCICh would address issues of victim compensation or other post-event consequences. The main role of the MCRG is to provide testimony about how Muslim community security concerns were managed (some would say ignored) by State agencies (particularly but not limited to the Police and SIS), in the lead-up to March 15. There clearly is much to be said here and the MCRG would be well served to bring forth compelling witness accounts of the impact that the post-9/11 social and political milieu has had on them, both in the security realm as well as elsewhere in NZ society.

I have no doubt that some interesting light can be shed by the MCRG on how NZ security agencies handled complaints about threats to members of the Islamic community and their organisations, and I am willing to bet that the complaints and requests for assistance have been more numerous than what has been publicly acknowledged by NZ authorities and the mass media. I also believe that the Muslim community can speak at considerable length about the disproportionate official scrutiny that they have endured after 9/11 even though no Muslim has been charged, much less convicted of committing an act of ideological-driven violence in NZ before or since (with official scrutiny extending to acts of intimidation, extensive infiltration of mosques and sowing of distrust within targeted groups by the extensive use of informants).

Both of these backstories will be invaluable for the RCICh’s investigation into if and how, whether by acts of omission or commission, State agencies contributed to the multi-dimensional lapses–systemic, institutional and individual–that together constituted the collective “intelligence failure” that enabled the commission of this mass atrocity.

All of this assumes that the Inquiry will be conducted honestly, thoroughly and without a hidden intention to cover-up or whitewash. Some are skeptical that the process will lead to a full and truthful account of what happened. I beg to differ, at least in part. Having spoken to the RCICh myself, I can only say that those involved in conducting the inquiry acknowledge the limitations of their charter but appear committed to finding the truth and understand that their reputations would be poorly served if they were to do otherwise. I hope that I am not proven wrong.

Assuming that the process is honest, the two lines of investigation–of the killer’s actions and of state agencies’ roles in the lead up to the attacks–will establish the chain of causality that led to the murderous victimisation of over 100 people and their families. Once responsibility for what happened is established and lines of accountability (if any) determined within the State sector, then the easier it will be for those representing the victims of the March 15 domestic terrorist attack to demand redress from Crown entities whose negligence, incompetence or prejudice enabled in one way or another the commission of the event. To try and do otherwise within the confines of the RCICh confuses the process because it misplaces its immediate emphasis (which is supposed to be on the perpetrator, accomplices and potential enablers, including agents of the State) and detracts from its primary focus (which is to establish the how’s and why’s that led to the success of the attacks).

In other words, focus on the Muslim community as victims rather than as primary witnesses within the RCICh puts the inquisitorial cart before the horse and clouds the inquiry with concerns best addressed after its conclusion.

I’ve written another column for RNZ considering the second tranche of the government’s gun control reforms, and outlining some concerns about the thinking behind the gun registry.

The point is not to argue in favour of a gun registry, though I generally support one, nor to consider whether the same money might be better spent elsewhere (the evidence there is mixed at best) — these questions are beside the point since the government has already taken the decision to establish a registry, with what they (correctly) regard as a strong mandate of public support following the events of March 15. The column focuses on how the government can best make such a registry work, given that decision.

There have also been some rather opportunistic queries as to my political and ideological affiliations from readers — obviously I don’t resile from anything and my reckons are well known, but let’s make the disclosure completely plain in any event: if you want to assess my views for bias they are documented in tiresome detail in the archives here, and on Twitter.

The real roots of Iranian “brinkmanship.”

datePosted on 12:47, July 21st, 2019 by Pablo

I have been unimpressed with Western corporate media coverage of the tensions involving Iran in the Strait of Hormuz. They repeat the line that Iran is the source of current tensions, that it is a major sponsor of terrorism, that it is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and threatening its neighbours and that it is playing a dangerous game of brinkmanship with its attacks on shipping in the Strait. I disagree with much of this, so allow me to explain why.

A few months back the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Iranian nuclear control agreement (the P5+1 deal involving the US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany). Leaked diplomatic cables show that it did so manly because the Obama administration had signed it, not because it was a “bad deal” (in fact, the Iranians were upholding their end of the bargain and had complied with all international monitoring conditions). After withdrawing from the deal the US imposed a new round of tougher sanctions on Iran, with most of the bite coming from secondary sanctions on non-US based firms and organisations that do business with the Persian giant.

Let us be clear on this. The US unilaterally withdrew from a viable multinational agreement mainly because of presidential hubris, then unilaterally imposed sanctions not only on Iran but others who may wish to continue to commercially engage with it. The US sanctions are not supported by, and in fact are seen as illegitimate by many countries, including China, Russia and most of the countries in the EU. Yet, because the US has great economic weight, it can use the secondary sanctions in order to force international compliance with its edict.

Until recently the sanctions were not enforced by the military of any country other than the US. But on July 4 the Royal Navy stopped and seized an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar, arguing that it was transporting oil to Syria in violation of EU sanctions (the sanctions only apply to aviation fuel and only cover EU members, which Iran is not). The tanker’s proximity to the colony was fortunate in that Britain has limited autonomous power projection capability in the Middle East but does have a naval garrison on the Rock. So the seizure was as much due to opportunity as it was support for principle.

Iran warned that it would retaliate to this act of “piracy” and this past week it did by seizing two tankers, one of which was UK-flagged (the other was briefly detained and released). The owners of the UK-flagged vessel have not be able to contact it since it was boarded by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos.

This follows on Iran recently shooting down a US drone over the Strait and the sabotage of four vesels in a UAE port and two merchant ships in international waters that have been attributed to the IRGC. Needless to say, this appears to demonstrate that indeed, a brinkmanship game is being played. But let us disaggregate a few facts.

The UK was informed of the Iranian tanker’s movements by the US, which asked that it be seized when it made the passage from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. The May government complied even though Trump has repeatedly disparaged her and welcomed her ouster. The Iranians know that Teresa May is a lame duck and that Boris Johnson, her likely successor, simply does not have the stomach for a all-in confrontation with Iran when the Brexit mess is ongoing and the government is effectively paralysed on multiple fronts. To be clear: the UK is facing a crisis of governance and the Iranians know this. So any military counter has to come from somewhere else.

It certainly will not come from Europe, Asia or anywhere but the US. That is the rub. The Iranians know that Trump is a classic bully. All bluster and bravado but a coward at heart. When informed of the Iranian’s seizure he first uttered threats but then put distance between himself and the UK by saying that the US does not receive much oil that transits through the Strait and that other nations need to up their military patrols through it and the Persian Gulf if they want their vessels to be safe.

This signals that Trump does not believe that a US-Iran conflict would be existential or done out of necessity and that he does not see alliance commitments as universally binding. This gives him room to refuse UK requests for military assistance in getting the Iranians to resolve the stand-off on its terms. In doing so he effectively has thrown the UK under the bus as a reward for it doing the US bidding with regard to the Iranian tanker now tied up in Gibraltar. So much for that “special relationship.”

Although chickenhawk John Bolton, Trump’s National Security Advisor, is keen to shed other people’s blood in order to force an Iranian submission, Trump, like Johnson, does not appear to be inclined to do so. Besides his neo-isolationist proclivities, Trump has undoubtably heard from US military authorities that a conflict with Iran would make Afghanistan and Iraq look like a kindergarten party. The US military is stretched as it is, the US public is sick of constant war, a long election year is just beginning and no allies other than Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia are going to be willing to join the US in a fight of its own making.

That is an important point to note. It is clear that for Bolton and other re-cycled neoconservatives like Mike Pompeo, the march to war with Iran is about regime change, not international commerce. US foreign policy elites have never gotten over the Iranian Revolution and the US embassy seizure in 1979, and the US military has since then had a prickly relationship with Iran in its regional sphere influence. US criticism of some of Iran’s more regressive policies as a reason to push for regime change holds little weight given its support for the likes of Saudi Arabia, and regardless of the theocratic nature of the regime Iranian elections are considered by international observers to be among the cleanest in the Middle East (thereby putting the lie to claims that Iran is as authoritarian as other regional autocracies).

The US push for war with Iran is therefore not grounded in concerns about international norms and the specifics of Iranian behaviour but in getting some measure of retribution for what some US elites feel was a great loss of face forty years ago and an ongoing reminder of US powerlessness in specific instances. The trouble for the likes of Bolton and Pompeo is that most world leaders understand their real motivations and so are reluctant to join their war-mongering bandwagon.

The Iranians know this. They know that they have Russia as a military partner and China as an economic lifeline. They know that any military conflict involving them will close the Strait for more than just the duration of hostilities. They not only have one of the largest militaries in the Middle East but they also have proxies like Hezbollah and allies like Syria who will join in what will be a multi-fronted asymmetric war of attrition against the US that will not be confined to the immediate region. They key is for Iran to isolate the US and a few allies in a manoeuvre-based military conflict that avoids short mass-on-mass exchanges and which over time inflicts political and military costs that become unbearable.

Although Bolton may believe in the rhetoric of “effects-based strategy” and therefore assume that any successful kinetic engagement between the US and Iran will be limited, short and intense, the problem with such assumptions is that the adversary may not subscribe to what is taught in US command and general staff colleges. I assume that US military planners understand this.

It is therefore very likely that Iran will get to exchange the British tanker for the ship detained in Gibraltar and that it will be able to continue to make the point that it has the means to disrupt commerce in the sea lanes adjacent to it. The latter is an important tactic for Iran because the price for it ending its maritime disruption campaign is a loosening of the US sanctions regime on it. Unless oil-importing countries step up their own naval protection of ships flagged by or destined for them (which brings with it the possibility of military confrontation with Iran), then they run the risk of economic slowdowns caused by fuel shortages, to say nothing of increased insurance costs and fuel prices as the impasse continues.

In short, it does not appear likely that the US is going to come riding to the rescue of non-US vessels anytime soon and yet will continue to demand that the world bow to its Iranian sanctions regime. Trump and his advisors may see it as a necessary hard choice for US allies but to them it is more likely to be seen as being placed in an untenable position.

Finally, it should be remembered that modern Iran has not engaged in an unprovoked attack on another country. Although it supports and uses irregular military proxies, it is nowhere close to being the sponsor of terrorism that several Sunni Arab petroleum oligarchies are. In spite of its anti-Israel rhetoric (destined for domestic political consumption), it has not fired a shot in anger towards it. Its strategic position in the Middle East is as strong now as it ever was. It has complied with the terms of the nuclear control agreement. It has good commercial relations with a wide variety of countries, including New Zealand. It therefore has no incentive to start a conflict even if it does have a strong incentive to turn the tables on the sanctions regime by demonstrating that imposing costs works in many ways and on more than just the targets of sanctions themselves.

It would be wise for Western leaders to put themselves in Iranian shoes when considering the security dilemma in the Persian Gulf, because if anything the root of the current tensions lies not in Tehran but in Washington, DC.

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