Archive for ‘May, 2010’
Posted on 20:03, May 31st, 2010 by Pablo
The facts are still not completely in and will undoubtedly be the focus of much dispute, but it appears that while it was in international waters Israeli forces stormed the “freedom flotilla” headed to Gaza with humanitarian aid and several hundred pro-Palestinian activists, including Turkish parlamentarians, a holocaust survivor and a nobel laureate. The Israelis claim that their commandos were attacked with clubs and knives as they rappelled onto the lead vessel, and that soldiers opened fire when one of the commandos had his weapon seized by an activist. Estimates are that around 16 people were killed and 30 wounded. The flotilla is now being towed to Haifa, were the six vessels will be inspected and the surviving activists presumably arrested and deported. Since the flotilla sailed from Turkey and was organised in part by a Turkish-based Islamic charity, the Turkish government has demanded an explanation from Israel as to why it resorted to force.
This is not a good look for Israel and no amount of PR spin is going to undo the image of soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians. I will not be surprised if the Israelis produce weapons caches found on the boats and a number of purported Hamas infiltrators amongst those on board as proof that the flotilla was up to no good, but even if that were a true discovery and not a staged justification, its reputation for callous disregard for the lives of those who even peacefully oppose its policies will be reaffirmed. On the other hand, deliberately attempting to break the three year old blockade after being warned by the Israeli navy to not enter its waters was a foolhardy, if courageous thing to do given Israel’s reputation and track record when it comes to the use of force.
Some might wonder why on earth Israel would do such a thing knowing full well that it will be universally condemned for doing so. The answer is simple. Like North Korea they have a garrison state mentality in which internal political dynamics and an oversized conception of threats far outweigh any concern with external reactions. Israel gave up a long time ago worrying about how its actions will be perceived by the international community. Its major concern is to not appear weak. Whatever their other differences, the Israeli political elite is virtually unanimous in its support for a hard-line defense policy, to include the blockade. It is a mindset that external actors do not share but which is compelling to them. Anything that could appear to be an exploitation of a point of Israeli weakness (such as successfully running the blockade) is seen as an existential threat. Thus killing activists who dared to challenge Israel’s commitment to enforcing the blockade is seen as a fair price to pay for maintaining its image of toughness. What is more, the Israeli government believes that its Arab neighbours as well as others in the international community quietly respect its toughness, which serves as both a deterrent as well as a reaffirmation that it is here to stay, on its own terms.
Since the Palestinians receive little more than rhetorical support from the Sunni Arab world, Israel also knows a hard fact that the North Koreans understood when they torpedoed the South Korean frigate in March: there is nothing anyone can really do about the kilings beyond rhetorical condemnation and meaningless UN sanctions (and it will be interesting to see if Israel receives a UNSC sanction while North Korea does not). Although it may engage in some diplomatic retaliation, Turkey is not going to declare war over this incident. No other state or coalition of states are going to mount a counter-blockade that would invite an Israeli armed response, and economic and trade sanctions, even if they were to be applied, will be happily circumvented by the numerous “quiet” partners Israel has around the world. As an old Latin American phrase puts it, impunity has its own reward.
The point being that what appears outrageous to the outside world makes perfect sense to Israeli decision-makers given their garrison state mentalities. Had the flotilla organisers understood this, perhaps they would have thought twice about challenging the blockade. Had the Turkish government understood this, they would have been better served by dealing with the political wrath at home caused by their denying the flotilla permission to leave port rather than deal with the violent protests now occurring in the aftermath of the commando raid.
One thing is certain: specific differences notwithstanding and adjusting mutatis mutandis for context, ideology and circumstance, Israel is the North Korea of the Middle East. Both have been in a de facto state of (undeclared) war with their closest neighbours since the moment of creation/partition. Both of are driven by extreme security rationales born of the perception of imminent threat, real or imagined. Both have gone both nuclear and ballistic. Both see conspiracy in the far abroad. Both have repeatedly practiced a remarkable disregard for international convention. Both believe that they have the moral high ground. Both use military diplomacy as the leading edge of their approach to regional conflict. Both have hawk and dove political factions (and in society) that are nevertheless united in their stand on the physical integrity of their borders. Both have larger patron states that provide them with physical and diplomatic cover. Both have hard-line zealots in positions of governmental authority. Both will kill innocents to make their point.
In that light Israel’s bellicose (ir)rationality, just like that of the North Koreans, may seem odd to us. It makes perfect sense to them.
Posted on 23:37, May 28th, 2010 by Pablo
Little does it matter, apparently, that the bastion of Wahhabist extremism and medieval authoritarian gender/sexual weirdness has never fully repudiated the 9/11 attacks and offered nothing outside of its borders to combat that scourge even though most of the 9/11 perpetrators were Saudi (if anyone can name a Saudi combat deployment anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia or the US overflight zone in Yemen, you are welcome to correct me). Never mind that its pressure influences US policy vis a vis both Israel and Iran. Never mind that its human rights record is abysmal. Never mind that the Saudi as well as other oil-rich Arab children of the elite get to use NZ as a convenient educational stopping and gathering point on their way to arranged marriages and the material comforts borne of the exploitation of others.
The National government believes that it is all good.
For National, the issue here is that there is serious money to be made off of these Arab aristocrats, and NZ’s claims to moral authority in defense of universal human rights need to take a back seat to monetary self-interest even though the NZ’ers who will have to directly interact on a daily basis with the Saudi students have not been consulted as to the advisability of increasing their numbers. To say nothing of what other countries, even when considering the hypocrisy that is the mainstay of diplomatic rhetoric, will think of this abject bend-over act to a country that pretty much represents the antithesis of so-called NZ values.
Security vetting, anyone?
Some readers may have taken note of the fact that there is an alternative blog awards competition underway, created because the Qantas Media Awards blog category has become a bad joke. In a comment made on my last post about strategic culture, someone from the alternative blog awards organising committee (the so-called NZ Bloggers Union) has urged KP to enter the competition. I want to ask readers whether that is worth doing.
I say this because I am not a fan of awards competitions of any sort outside of sports and military affairs. But that is my prejudice. The criteria for entry is that nominees provide 4 posts from 2009 as material for the judges to consider. The details of the competitition can be found here:
Given the pacifist tendencies of many KP readers, the question in the title of this post may seem unusual and of little importance. Little attention has been paid by most public media, much less the Left-leaning ones, to the issue of strategic culture both in general and with specific reference to Aotearoa. My interest in the subject has been sparked by my current book project, where I try to analyse the post Cold War security politics of three “peripheral” democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal. Among other things that I have discovered as part of the project, it appears that there be no, or at least different conceptualisations of, a unique kiwi strategic culture. Let me elaborate on both the subject and the specifics of this.
Strategic culture refers to the security perspectives, traditions, institutions and behaviour of a country. Although it has often been confused with it, strategic culture is more than just a military war-fighting tradition. It is more than a diplomatic posture. It encompasses the full array of security concerns, from intelligence-gathering techniques and priorities to trade orientation and diplomatic alliances, that make up the larger framework with which policy-making elites perceive the strategic environment in which they operate.
As an example of one dimension of strategic culture, let us look at the core feature with which it is most often confused: war-fighting tradition. Much has been written about different cultural and national “styles” of warfare, be it, among others, Arab, American, Australian, British, Chinese, German, French, Israeli or Russian. Some emphasise mass over maneuver, others prefer tactical flexibility to centralisation of command, and still others prefer deception and stealth across ill-defined fronts rather fixed lines of combat in well-demarcated battle spaces. The array of war-fighting styles also extends to unconventional or guerrilla war-fighting—urban guerrilla warfare is not the same as rural insurgency, nor is the ratio of ideological-psychological work to kinetic operations the same in all contexts. Although there is plenty of overlap in all war-fighting styles, each is a unique adaptation, based on terrain, culture, technology, organisational capacity, leadership characteristics and the ethno-religious and national make-up of the fighting forces involved, as well as the ideologies that justify what they are fighting for.
The question thus begs: does NZ have a distinct war-fighting tradition? If so, what are its characteristics? Whatever the answer, that is only part of the picture.
That is because strategic culture involves geopolitical perspectives and geostrategic orientation, institutional morphology and historical practice. Countries with large land masses and multiple borders see things differently than do island states. Countries with ample resources and robust economies of scale in value-added manufacturing conform their approaches to trade and security differently than resource poor agro-export platforms. Countries with on-going territorial, cultural or political disputes tend to “see” threats differently than those that are not encumbered by such conflicts. Countries governed by authoritarians often perceive things differently than well-established democracies. So do countries with long histories of warfare (internal as well as external) when contrasted against countries with peaceful internal histories and little involvement in foreign wars.
Domestic political dynamics over time, as well as specific histories of military and diplomatic alliances, also impact on the specifics of strategic culture. The number of variables is larger and more varied than this, but the point should be clear: strategic culture is a product of national character molded by historical practice, current political dynamics, institutional framework and geopolitical context.
In highly simplified fashion the equation looks like this: strategic culture—> geopolitical orientation—> geostrategic perspective—> threat environment assessment and contingency planning—> security force orientation—> force composition—> force staffing, training and equipment—> force deployment and operations. This includes intelligence and police services as well as the military, because it includes internal and external security roles. The most important thing to note is that strategic culture is the point of departure for all that follows; absent a strategic culture there is little basis for a coherent strategic vision over time , which in turn impacts negatively on all of the other variables arrayed along this particular chain of causality.
Which brings up the point of this post: does NZ have a distinct strategic culture? One of the things that emerged during my discussions with numerous observers during my visit to NZ in February and March was an unspoken consensus that NZ does not have a strategic culture to call its own. This is in part a product of the apparent ad-hoc approach to policy-making I mentioned in a previous post. But it also appears to be rooted in organisational dysfunction and incompetence as well as a dependence on foreign patrons for strategic guidance. Many of the most informed people I spoke with were openly derisive of the competence and vision of the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS leadership, particularly the civilians that ostensibly provide the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS with policy guidance (the name Mark Burton was mentioned more than once as absolute proof of how ineptitude can still find its way into the upper echelons of security policy-making). Plus, advancement within the security bureaucracies is seen as being tied to toeing both the (incumbent) party line as well as the extant corporate culture, however misinformed or dysfunctional they may be. Thus, even though there are futures forecasting shops in various security agencies, very little is actually forecast that the bosses do not want to hear or read, and most of what is forecast is make-work destined for annual reports rather than designed to serve as a basis for strategic planning over the medium term.
The same accusation has been made of the plethora of security agencies that have emerged since 9/11, which may be in part why the National government has made the decision to convert the External Assessments Bureau into a National Assessments Bureau with oversight authority over the whole lot. But the latter does not indicate a move to develop a defined strategic culture. It is just an attempt to impose some form of managerial rationality on the intelligence-security combine in order to overcome areas of duplication, overlap and turf battles.
There was also the view expressed that when it comes to security, NZ has traditionally looked to Australia, the US and the UK (in the current order) for strategic guidance rather than develop a distinctive strategic culture of its own. This is believed to be a result of NZ dependence on these countries (and others, such as France) for military equipment and training and intelligence flows. But NZ has a distinctive approach to things like nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peace-keeping, so surely that is reflected in a unique perspective on the external security environment and the role that NZ should play in it. Here again, my supposition that NZ has a distinct way of viewing things from a security perspective was contradicted or dismissed by the knowledgeable interlocutors with whom I spoke. Yet I remain unconvinced that their skepticism is fully warranted. Surely there is an appreciation of the need for a uniquely Kiwi approach to strategic affairs?
Which leaves me with my opening question. I know that Chile and Portugal have distinct strategic cultures that informs the way in which they engage the post-Cold War world on security matters. These distinctive strategic cultures give them coherency and predictability when construing threats, organising their security forces and engaging in security planning. Can we say the same thing for NZ?
The Associated Press reports a horde of frogs has forced the closure of a main highway in Greece:
Speculation is rife as to what this omen portends. The direst prediction I’ve come across reckons the frogs could be predicting an earthquake. For reals.
So perhaps Greece has bigger — or at least more elemental — things to worry about than elite capture of the political process, broken public-private sector relations and massive indebtedness. Hopefully not. Those things are bad enough.
Forensic evidence examined by three independent experts confirms what was suspected all along: the 1200-ton South Korean frigate Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo while cruising in South Korean waters near their common maritime border, with the loss of 46 lives. Not only were traces of RDX (a military grade explosive whose chemical signature can identify its source) found in the salvaged wreak. Pieces of the torpedo itself have been recovered, including the propeller assembly and housing. The finger of guilt points heavily in Pyongyang’s direction. A secretive commando unit with direct links to Kim Jung-il, unit 586, is suspected of staging the attack using a mini-submarine as the launching platform (since such platforms would be harder to detect using standard anti-submarine detection methods). The fact that Mr. Kim awarded the commander of Unit 586 with his fourth generals’ star in a ceremony held shortly after the attack is seen by some analysts as proof of its involvement as well as Mr. Kim’s direct authorisation of the attack.
The question is why would the North Koreans do such a thing? Admittedly, they have a track record of unprovoked attacks on South Korean targets, including a 1967 attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 39 sailors, a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 118 people, an attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma in 1983, plus a series of bloody naval skirmishes dating back to 1999, including an incident last year when a North Korean gunboat was heavily damaged, with loss of life, in a confrontation with South Korean naval forces. Some argue that the torpedoing was simply an act of revenge over this last incident, but it appears that there is much more at play than immediately meets the eye.
The North Korean torpedo attack is alarming because the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war. The 1953 armistice is not a peace treaty, so a state of war continues to exist between the two countries in spite of the episodic thawing in relations between them. That serves as both the justification for the attack as well as a major source of concern. Usually a cross-border raid into a sovereign nation’s territorial waters during peace time that results in an unprovoked attack on a military vessel would be construed as an an act of war deserving of commensurate, if not overwhelming response. But since the two countries are already in a state of war, each is free to pursue aggression as it sees fit. That has resulted in a (mostly one-sided) low intensity conflict between the two states for the last 57 years, and is why US forces are stationed in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that constitutes their common land border (US troops in the DMZ serve as a “trip wire” in which an attack on them will trigger the US security guarantee for the South Koreans, meaning direct US military involvement in the response). Thus the North Korean torpedo attack is just a continuation of an on-going limited war rather than an outright declaration of war. Even so, it is an outrageous provocation and therefore runs the risk of escalating into something bigger.
South Korean public outrage demands blood in revenge, yet in practice South Korea has few options at its disposal. North Korea has already declared, with its usual bluster, that any military response will be met with “all-out war.” Although North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South Korea as well as beyond (to include Japan and US bases in Okinawa and the Western Pacific). It also has a Chinese security guarantee to match the American compact with its southern neighbour. That means that a South Korean military response runs the risk of escalation into high intensity conflict that could lead to both security guarantees being invoked, thereby forcing a US-China confrontation. It is not in either power’s interests to see this happen, so pressure is on South Korea to not call North Korea’s bluff and retaliate in kind. Yet, most analysts agree that no response will only embolden the North Koreans and result in further incidents with a greater potential for escalation. Hounded by this dilemma, South Korea has so far limited its response to calling for UN Security Council condemnation of the attack, something that so far has not occurred.
Shadow warriors and covert operations specialists point out that more discrete means of retaliation are available that can make the South Koreans’ point just as effectively. All that is needed is patience and planning in the execution of a discrete mission against a select target. But even this approach needs to factor in the motivations of the North Korean regime in staging the attack, because understanding of its rationale can better inform the response not only of South Korea, but of its allies and the larger international community as well.
It appears that the attack was staged as a result of divisions within the North Korean hierarchy over the issue of leadership succession. It was more than just an “unfortunate incident” resultant from miscommunication or misreading of intent. It is clear that Kim Jung-il is on his last legs after a series of strokes and other ailments. Thus the jockeying for position as heir to the Kim throne is now reaching fever pitch, with hard-liners and soft-liners attempting to out-maneuver each other in the run-up to his death (hard-liners are regime defenders, soft-liners are regime reformers). Some intelligence analysts believe that Mr. Kim authorised the attack in order to to shore up hard-line support for his son, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates. He has no administrative or military command experience as far as is known. This leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of veteran Communist (i.e., formally named the Workers) Party and military authorities whom may have leadership ambitions of their own. Some of these heavyweights may accept a power-sharing arrangement where the Kim dynastic line is continued more or less along the lines presently operative. Others may prefer that the younger Mr. Kim serve as a figurehead while real power is distributed among a broader array of bureaucratic cadres, thereby decentralising policy-making authority (and power) in a slow process of regime reform. Still others may prefer to dispense with the Kims entirely and assume power directly, in coalition or as part of a small cadre, either as part of a reformist or retrenchment project. All of these factions are hard-line in the views of the world, which means that whatever happens democracy and major liberalisation of the regime will not be on the menu.
On the other hand, there are soft-line factions with the DPRK regime. These are drawn from elements in the Communist party and civilian bureaucracy who have had to wrestle with the deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure, living standards and health during the last twenty years. These people are well aware that North Korea is an economic basket case that feeds and arms its military at the expense of its people, who have been subject to famine, starvation, an array of diseases, homelessness and unemployment as they eke out what for all purposes is a Dickensian existence. It is these people who know that there are two North Koreas, one for the elites and one for the masses (as a Stalinist version of the “dual society” thesis that has been used to explain comparative underdevelopment), and it is these people who are most acutely aware of how far behind North Korea has fallen behind its ethnic kin to the South under the vainglorious and rigid Kim dictatorship. It is these people who understand that Kim Jung-il’s death provides an opportunity to open up the regime, if not immediately on the political front, then certainly on the economic front. After all, even after the Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese abandoned communism as the major organising tenet of society, the DPRK dinosaurs cling to it as an insurance policy against threats to their rule. Hence the soft-liners are working to persuade leadership contenders that their support depends on a major opening of the regime, even if still under one party authoritarian aegis. In fact, for the soft-liners, their continued support for one party rule is contingent on economic liberalisation.
That is why the torpedo attack was carried out. It had to do with internal dynamics in the Kim regime rather than the war with South Korea itself, which merely served as an excuse (by hard-liners) to launch the attack. A tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support is to stage a militaristic diversion that rallies the public along nationalistic grounds (some might argue that this happens in democratic regimes as well–witness, say, the US and UK attack on Iraq in 2003). The torpedo attack was a sucker ploy designed to incite a South Korean response that would help consolidate the position of one of the North Korean leadership factions. But therein lies the rub, because history also shows that diversionary attacks staged by dictatorships often end in defeat and regime collapse, either immediately or in time. The Greek colonel’s regime collapsed after its defeat in the 1973 Cyprus War, a war that it started at a time when it was facing rising domestic discontent and increased disunity within the armed ranks. The Argentine junta collapsed in 1982 after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands campaign, a war that it also started in order to divert public attention from pressing economic problems at a time when, again, political in-fighting amongst military and civilian elites was increasing. The fall of Saddam Hussein had its origins in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and even if eventual rather than immediate, the end of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was predictable from that point on.
To this can be added the problem of succession in authoritarian regimes. It is considered the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism, especially in heavily personalised, dynastic or military-dominated regimes (North Korea is all three). Because power is so tightly centralised in such regimes, even where institutionalised under one party aegis, the benefits of leadership are virtually unfettered and unlimited. There are little or no checks and balances or separation of powers in such regimes, so the material and political rewards of leadership are astronomical when compared with even bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Singapore or (now) the PRC. Hence the stakes of the succession game in places like North Korea are extremely high for all contenders, and the competition for leadership succession gets, to put it mildly, quite rough.
All of which is to say that the response to the North Korean attack should be subtle rather than overt. Devoid of a militaristic opportunity to engage in jingoistic stirring of popular fervor, the declining Kim regime will be forced to turn back inwards as the leadership succession issue gets more factionalised and hostile. That will likely lead to more attempts to use the military diversion option, perhaps as a desperate last resort by a losing faction in the internecine battles over leadership in the post Kim Jung-il era. But it is only a matter of time before the DPRK regime enters into terminal crisis, which is why it is best to not answer this latest provocation with force. That time may well come, but first the nature and course of the North Korean leadership succession must become apparent.
In the meantime, then, perhaps it is best for the South Koreans to move in shadows rather than in light when countering North Korean aggression.
Posted on 22:00, May 21st, 2010 by Pablo
It is not our custom here at KP to do anything other than somewhat serious socio-political analysis, but from time to time we break from custom and address lighter topics. Since I am undergoing some post-travel downtime and decompression, I thought that I would write up a few notes about some of the travel experience involved in the Greek trip.
Transportation: We flew Qatar Airways from Changi International to Doha to Athens and back. Changi is the best airport I have ever encountered, with an ease of transit and conveniences that put US and European airports to shame. The long-haul flights to and from Doha were on an Airbus 330. The plane is roomy in the Qatar airlines configuration (we flew economy class), the food is decent and the service prompt, efficient and courteous. The flight attendants were mostly female and wore stylised uniforms that were a mix of office professionalism and traditionalist throw-back (that is, not as functionalist as Western uniforms but nowhere close to the eye candy efforts of the so-called Singaporean Girls who are the cabin crews on SIA). Toilets in economy class were relatively spacious, well-equipped and kept clean by the cabin crew (a major plus given the different cultural approaches to toilets on the part of the wide assortment of nationalities that travel on that airline). The seat back entertainment systems was the best I have ever encountered. I listened to classic jazz for most of the 7 hour trip, plus watched a new release movie and some sports and comedy TV.
The flight from Doha to Athens and back on an A320 were more cattle-car like (3 abreast on either side with two toilets in the back). Food and service were OK but there was a distinct downgrade in the overall experience. The in-flight entertainment was limited to a movie on overhead screens and a limited amount of music (although I did take the opportunity to listen to Arab and Indian pop musak as well as sung versions of Koranic verses, which–I kid you not–are available on channel six of the audio on both flights). I think that the diminished service on th Athens-Doha flights might have to do with the fact that the route appears to be a shuttle of sorts for workers going to and from Doha, whereas the long-haul flight to Singapore is used more by leisure travelers and more upscale busness types. In general, though, the Qatar airline experience in the air was a good one, although it is discomfiting to hear the pilot say that Inshallah (“God willing”) we would arrive at our destination on time. I personally would prefer that the machine and the operator, rather than God, handle the schedule.
There was a less than stellar point during the trips and that was Doha airport. If the Qataris want to emulate the UAE and become a major tourist destination and transport hub, they need to think about that airport. Services are limited, no alcohol is served, security is a joke (consisting mainly of people being made to take off belts while computers and assorted other large packages are sent through the xray machines with nary a glance from disinterested monitors), and although modern in appearance the toilets are medieval in fact (no loo paper, irregular cleaning leading to accumulated evidence of people standing on toilet lids, assorted nasty rubbish littering the stall and pools of black water from washing hoses accumulating in and around the stalls, groups of people using the wash basin areas as socialising points). The terminal is one long concourse with limited internet access zones. Passengers are ferried to and from planes by buses (somewhat like the shuttles at Dulles international), but these buses often stop on the tarmac and wait for anywhere up to 20 minutes before disembarking passengers (which, since there are standing crowds on the buses can be a nightmare for people with small kids and/or physical disabilities). Access to planes is via old-fashioned staircases and there is no evidence of regard for disabled passengers (who presumably get hoisted up on the service access platforms). Thus, while the hub and spoke nature of Qatari Airlines operations makes for efficient on-time arrivals and departures (barring a mechanical at one of the spoke destinations), the overall airport experience was so-so.
I will say that as far as people watching experiences go, the Doha airport was quite fascinating. The full gamut of Arab culture is on display, and the fact that Qatar airways has direct flights to places such as Kabul and Kathmandu makes for a variegated passenger demographic to say the least.
By contrast, the Athens airport was a bit like being caught in a 1970s time warp (even though it was opened just before the 2004 Olympics). Flat, spartan, also using buses from the terminal to the plane, it was clean, efficient but somewhat lackluster in comparison to, say, Auckland or Sydney. It was not terrible by any means, but it did not stand out for any reason other than that it has good Metro/train access and a small archeological museum that has a sampling of Greek artifacts dating back to 500BC.
While in Greece we used taxis, the Metro, a suburban commuter train, a tram (to the near-Athens beaches), a rental car, ferries and Olympic Airways. Although Athenian taxi drivers are notorious for being thieves, we encountered the two honest ones coming from and heading to the airport upon arrival and departure. 35 Euros is a fair price to pay (higher from the airport due to airport taxes and higher if one calls a taxi in advance). Taxi drivers will often refuse fares for a variety of reasons, but will almost always take an airport fare because of the money to be made (the airport is 25 K outside of town and the meter rate is 10 cents per 1/10K, so an operating meter looks like a slot machine on speed). They also have a habit of trying to add passengers to already existing fares, a custom we declined to indulge.
The Metro is pretty efficient and runs from the airport to the port of Pireus (where the ferries are) as well as downtown and the East, West and Northern suburbs. However, while the number 2 and 3 (red and yellow) lines are modern, timely and relatively uncrowded, the number 1 (Green) line, in existence since the 1900s, can be irregular in its service and an absolute sardine can of pushing, shoving, sweating humanity. To that can be added ongoing track works that have closed stations at several points on the route, forcing passengers to use buses between the affected stations. Since our station was one of those so affected, we often opted to walk a kilometer to a number 2 (red) line transfer station rather than waste 20 minutes riding the number 1 (green) line in the other direction in order to catch a downtown train.
The tram was a waste of time. It takes over an hour to reach the end point from downtown Athens, a total of less than 15 kilometers. The tram literally crawls along while still in Athens–heck, we saw people walking faster between stations than we were going! The suburban trains are fast and on schedule albeit graffitied. The best part of the urban mass transit experience is that we could buy a 10 Euro weekly pass that allowed us to travel anywhere on the Metro or tram lines for an unlimited amount of rides–excellent value for money.
Olympic Airways was on-time with good service. We flew over in a 30 seater to Samos and enjoyed the service (we went to and from the airport on that trip by using a combination of the number 1 Metro and suburban train, at a cost for the two of us of 12 Euros each way). On Samos we used a rental car, which was fine except that unannounced road detours into small town side streets quickly saw us trapped in maze of cobblestone alleyways that were too narrow for cars to transit. Let us just say that the rental car was the worst for the wear after that particular trip, but that the all-inclusive insurance we purchased (for a total rental cost of 29 Euros/day) covered the costs of the remedial panel beating. Road signage on Samos was minimal once off the main (two lane) roadways. In Athens street signs on surface streets other than main arteries or highways are small and poorly placed or obscured by vegetation and man-made structures.
The ferries are many, large, fast and slow, and go to every Greek island as well as Italy, Croatia and Turkey. We opted for a fast ferry to Santorini (4.5 hours) with stops in Naxos, Ios (party central, apparently) and Paros. The cost per passenger on the Hellenic Seaways fast ferry was around 75 Euros one-way (we chose business class, which quite frankly at 10 Euros more than regular class was not worth it). Slower ferries cost less but the travel time is much longer–the trip to Santorini would have been 8.5 hours, and a trip to Samos would have been 12.6 hours one-way. We met some Australians who had taken a Blue Star slow ferry to Santorini from Mikonos and it took them 12 hours sitting on an outside deck under a tarp on wooden deck chairs, an experience they chose not to repeat. The ferry we traveled on was comfortable, but we learned not to travel on Sunday afternoons because the entire Athenian middle class apparently ups and leaves for the islands on the weekends, making the return on Sunday evening an experience in maritime mass dynamics. Overall the fast ferry experience was good. We traveled to and from the ferry terminals in Pireus by the number 1 (green) Metro line, which involved one of those Metro-to-bus transfers mentioned earlier. It took about an hour each way with the bus transfer included, and would have only been 30-40 minutes without it.
Living Conditions: Athens is a large sprawling city with 4+ million people in it. We lived in a decaying lower middle class neighborhood with many immigrants (mostly illegal). Although the tourist and downtown areas are kept clean, the near-suburbs such as our (Agios Nikolas) are very dirty and crammed with vehicles parked haphazardly anywhere space can be found (including street corners and footpaths). Due to the dryness of the climate and the Athenian lack of concern with vehicle aesthetics, dust-covered cars are parked everywhere, often in damaged condition. No one seems to mind and their is no enforcement of parking codes (should they exist). The same goes for the illegal street fairs every Saturday. Gypsies (Roma) and assorted other street level entrepeneurs appropriated the streets adjacent to a legal street market in order to sell their (literally) rag-picking wares. One of them was ours (as mentioned in a previous post). Although neighbours complain and the cops periodically roust them the street fairs continue because they serve a market function. The proof of this is that crowds throng to them.
Large rubbish skiffs outside of buildings serve as collection points (rather than individual rubbish collection bins), which normally are collected 2 times a week. However, during times of strikes the collection schedule is disrupted, which meant that on a couple of weeks they were filled to overflowing and beyond. That, coupled with the fact that people disregard the specially designated recycling bins and throw anything into both types of container, led to a couple of weeks where garbage literally filled the streets. On top of that people walk dogs without picking up after them and many males have a penchant for urinating in the streets, so the street atmosphere can get a bit dodgy from an aesthetic, if not hygienic standpoint (to the point that my partner used to wash her shoes or leave them outside of the living area of our apartment). Traffic is chaotic, with few if any rules of the road applying, so crossing streets can be a life or death issue for the unawares or uninitiated.
We had two small supermarkets within 100 meters of the apartment building and a Metro stop 60 meters way. Food and wine was relatively cheap and we splurged on olives, cheese, yogurt and red wine, which are very affordable and of good quality. Most apartment buildings are four to ten story walkups, with most of the pre-1980 buildings having no elevators (ours was built in the 1950s). Tall buildings are either downtown or in suburbs further outside the city centre, and what homes we saw in the near suburbs tended to be semi-detached rather than free-standing. City blocks such as ours are full of small businesses–a locksmith, electronics vendor, fish mongerer, a dairy, a small medical clinic, plus a flower, veggie and bottle shop as well as a small restaurant were located on our block alone (and this may not be the full list).
The climate is wonderful in spring, warm and very dry (that means infernally hot in summer and unusually cold in winter). Temps in late April-mid May ran from 15-30C and we saw just two spatterings of rain while there (4 weeks). Because there is relatively little industry in Athens, air pollution was surprisingly low and confined to vehicle emissions from what we could tell. We had a nice balcony outside our apartment (which itself was a nice small one bedroom that we found on-line), so we enjoyed al fresco breakfast and dinners while watching either blue or starry skies. Much as in Latin America, middle and working class people like to hang caged songbirds on their balconies or windows, so I, as a Latin American-raised bird fancier, found that continued tradition to be both quaint and enjoyable (especially since the songs of canaries and finches helped mitigate the street noise). People on the street were a bit cold but most service staff were quite friendly in spite of our limited Greek communication skills (mine were limited to saying “excuse me” (used mostly on the Metro), ”hi,” “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “thank you very much”). Many people speak English so we never had a real problem communicating. Although perfectly safe by day, we did see a deterioration of the street scene at night, to the point that we saw few females on the street after 10PM (which was proportionate to the number of drunks or shifty-looking males we saw). Greeks tend to be very loud, and we were consequently treated to a variety of arguments and domestic disputes wafting up the and down the apartment blocks. No one seemed to mind and no one intervened.
All in all, although the neighbourhood had clearly seen better days, the overall living experience was quite bearable, if at times a bit gritty.
Two points worth noting, one as a curiosity and the other as a warning. First the curiosity. For some reason Greeks do not throw loo paper down the toilet but instead place it in rubbish bins after use. We heard various explanations for this practice, usually either due to culture or narrow plumbing. Now, I have lived in some very primitive places and was raised in Latin America in the 1960s. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere I have lived have I seen anyone use rubbish bins for toilet paper disposal when there was access to working flush toilets. Nor can I imagine that the modern (post 1948) Greek state would permit the construction of antiquated, prone-to-backup sewage systems. Thus I find it hard to believe that the custom has its justification in plumbing. And yet in airports, hotels, restaurants–pretty much everywhere– we saw signs advising against flushing toilet paper down the loo. I shall spare you the details of the hygienic reasons why this is not a good practice, but suffice it to say that it made using public conveyances something of an ordeal and added a whole other dimension to the street rubbish bin experience. We were told that the Turks have the same custom. Could this be the real Mediterranean Ethos?
Secondly, a warning about street crime in Athens. The economic crisis has its impact at this level. Mostly blamed on immigrants (who I do not think are solely to blame), street-level crime has risen markedly in recent years. While there I had someone attempt to pick my front shirt pocket on a crowded number 1 (green) metro train. Using a jacket draped over his arm as cover for his working hand, the thief was working with a partner, who attempted to distract me when I grabbed the pickpocket’s fingers (he obviously was not a skilled pickpocket). They then both dug their elbows into me from either side (the train was packed) as I spoke loudly to my partner that I was having my pockets picked. Concerned about their possible use of knives in very close quarters, I merely elbowed back until the next station, at which point they got off and blended into the crowd. The point to note is that these type of thieves work the tourist traps served by the Monteseraki and Omonia stations, especially on the number 1 (green) line, which tends to be more crowded and has easier on and off access than the more more modern lines. Plus, as our landlady noted, the thieves have expanded their targets outside of tourists, so particular care must be taken when riding crowded trains (they do not like to operate on the less crowded lines because of the lack of concealment opportunities).
In retrospect I remembered how they had jumped onto the train at the last moment and positioned themselves besides and behind me as the crowd crammed in. I also recall a young woman followed us at the preceding stop (Monteseraki) after we got on as we moved down the carriage as the crowd pressed in, and that she was standing on the other side of the pickpocket as he leaned into me. I now think that she was the spotter for the team and had signaled her partners at the next station (Omonia) as to who the target was. In any event, our response was to practice heightened situational awareness while on trains or in tourist areas, dress more like the locals (conservatively) and travel light with limited cash well concealed.
That is not all. On the morning that we took the ferry to Santorini we decided to walk (at 5AM) down to the next Metro transfer station rather than deal with the out-and-back issues produced by our nearest station’s partial closure due to track work (we had a 7:30 ferry). As we walked in the cool stillness of the early morning on a side street along the tracks we saw ahead two individuals who appeared to be breaking into cars. Since we were both carrying backpacks (which hindered escape) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and opted from a block away to divert back onto a more trafficked and well-lit street. That proved fortuitous, as the individuals we spotted a block away did the same thing upon seeing us, quickly moving to intercept us on the better-lit and traveled street, only to be thwarted by a man who had come out of his apartment and walked alongside us as we made our way down the centre of the street (the street being well-lit but the footpaths not so). As the presumed thugs approached and passed us it was clear that the presence of the other man was an impediment to action. The point being that in a neighbourhood with no tourists we provided a convenient target of opportunity (with our backpacks signaling our vulnerability) to (presumed) street hoods already plying their trade with impunity. Although you had to be there to test the case, for those who might think that I was just paranoid in my reactions, let me just say that I am the type of person who is not shy of walking away from a fight….but I also know when the odds are against me.
All of which is to say that the Athens experience can be very interesting and fulfilling, but that due caution is advised when in the restroom as well as outside of it.
There is more to the story but this sums up the main points in broad strokes. Should readers have other inquiries I am happy to oblige as much as I can.
This talk of not being jealous about tax cuts, and the unstated supposition that the rich are just better reminded me about a couple of posts I wrote a year or so ago about the “money proxy”: the idea of wealth as an easy quantifier for a person’s value. I’ve rehashed the argument here because I think it’s particularly apposite given the forthcoming budget. Paraphrasing myself:
Previously, I had argued that while there’s considerable shared ground between National and Labour (both want economic growth, believe in the state’s role in providing some public services, etc.) the predominant difference between the two in economic terms is in the reflexive positions to which they repair when hard choices need to be made. National believes in supporting ambition, Labour in mitigating harm:
Emphasis added to identify the key symbolic points of the rhetoric around this budget, and highlight the fact that things are playing out exactly as you would expect. These battle lines were drawn long ago, and for all National’s “compassionate conservative” rebranding, there’s really nothing new in their focus here. They faced a clear choice between ambition and harm-mitigation, and chose according to their political identity. They simply don’t have a problem with the money proxy: it’s a measure as good as any other, and a nice clean “objective” one, because it’s determined by a market.
But I do. Following the first excerpt, I wrote:
It’s bad in principle that people are treated (to a greater or lesser extent) as non-people by virtue of their material circumstances. And furthermore, I think it’s a bad decision in plain pragmatic utilitarian terms to attempt to swim against the economic tide and support ambition at the cost of significant harm:
So what we have with the budget, judging by the pre-release hype, is simply a return to form for the National party, and it should be countered by a return to form by the Labour party as well. National are retreating from the middle ground which won them the election and repairing to their reflexive, reptilian-brain adherence to the money proxy as an iron law of society. Labour must reclaim this ground; not that it ever really ceded it, rather permitting an occupation which is now beginning to withdraw.
The underlying calculation is a tradeoff of societal harm against economic growth. Another way of putting it, in more resonant terms, is: how much of society are we prepared to cannibalise, and for what gains, accruing to whom? This is the question around which Labour should orient its response. The words “many” and “few” will fit neatly into it.
Regarding leaky homes, a problem caused by deregulation under the government of which John Banks was a part. Listen to the whole interview with a somewhat exasperated Sean Plunket. It’s worth it to hear Banksie argue that:
Enough to make your head spin.
Posted on 20:35, May 16th, 2010 by Pablo
My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).
At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.
If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent. Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.
Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”
What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.
This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.
That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped. Instead, the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).
Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light. Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).
In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek ”me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power. For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).
To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.
That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.
And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised ”outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.” Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.
And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others. Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.
All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.
Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.
Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.
PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.