Archive for ‘April, 2012’

Fortune-cookie strategy and the Labour leadership

datePosted on 23:34, April 27th, 2012 by Lew

Since at least the mid-20th Century it has been fashionable in our culture to adopt postures derived from Asian martial manuals — most notably Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings — in diverse civilian contexts including business, and politics.* There is much to recommend in these texts, but too often they are poorly understood and are reduced to fortune-cookie wisdom, lazy magical thinking of the sort that’s only good enough to bamboozle those who are susceptible to such things. Sun Tzu in particular is a rich mine of sage-sounding aphorisms, and I have indulged in quoting him at times. But it is no get-wise-quick scheme; it’s like a cargo-cult.**

While I have no direct knowledge of the extent to which these ideas hold sway within the New Zealand Labour party, their present strategy bears considerable resemblance to this sort of magical thinking. I’ll cover two specific points brought to light by Claire Trevett’s recent article on the goings-on in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.

Attitude of No Attitude

Attitude is the spirit of awaiting an attack. … I dislike the defensive spirit known as “attitude”. Therefore, in my Way, there is something called “Attitude-No Attitude”. (Musashi, The Wind Book)

This is the most obvious manifestation of magical thinking: that an official posture of David Shearer “staying above the fray” will necessarily confer a non-politician or statesmanlike aura upon him. Of course, such an attitude can have this effect, but whether or not it does in a given situation is not such a simple matter. Such a strategy could have worked for Shearer, given the right people and the right circumstances, but the right people and circumstances were not present. So the result has been a Labour-party-sized hole in the NZ opposition narrative for most of the past four months.

This hole is not entirely of Labour’s own creation — Shearer took the leadership just before the holidays, and the Ports of Auckland lockout took place within the blessed month between Christmas and Wellington Anniversary where most reasonable New Zealanders will hear nothing of politics. Engaging too strongly with the lockout issue risked alienating the very people Shearer was asking to give him a chance. But the period of inaction has lasted well beyond the silly season, and although some of the Labour caucus have been beavering away, people have not noticed. They have been waiting for the leader, and the leader has not been leading.

I can see the logic: “when we zig, people complain we should have zagged; when we zag, it turns out we should have zigged. Let’s hold steady, bide our time, and become at one with the Universe. At least that way we can guarantee there will be no blunders, and the wheels are bound to fall off this Tory bus sooner or later.” But attitude-no attitude is not merely a damage-mitigation strategy. It is effortlessness, not lassitude. It is creating opportunities to strike, not awaiting them. The opportunities have presented themselves — industrial relations, charter schools, Treasury figures, paid parental leave and the veto, others — and the only time Labour has gotten any traction is with regard to ACC (not of their making), and only then by getting sued by a Cabinet minister!

The past four months have been what another lot of military jargon would refer to as “target-rich”, and Labour largely refused to take advantage of it. Either a zig or a zag would have been preferable to an OM.

The Sovereign and the General

Sun Tzu said: In war, the general receives his commands from the sovereign, collects his army and concentrates his forces … There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must be not attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed. (Sun Tzu, Variation in Tactics)

The “above the fray” strategy noted in Trevett’s article suggests an attempt by Nash and Pagani to position David Shearer as a “Sovereign” — someone who issues orders that are interpreted and then executed by his “generals”, in cabinet and the staff (led by Nash and Pagani.***) Conversely, the strategy said to have been argued by Fran Mold seems to be to position Shearer more as a general, leading from the front.

Both can work, and both do work in the present NZ parliamentary context. But again, the problem with this framing is that it is simplistic — the leader of a Labour movement, as Shearer referred to the party upon attaining the leadership, cannot be above and aloof from the movement, he must be down in it; but he must not lose sight of the bigger picture. It is a near-impossible job and he must own it. He must determine the balance between the various roles that best suits his own strengths, and those of his cabinet and advisors. He cannot do all of it, but how it is distributed must be congruent.

This last — congruence — is crucial. Its absence is what makes a strategy cargo-cultish. To be strategically successful, whatever David Shearer does must be authentic to David Shearer and to the political narrative that he has cultivated; it must not be some get-popular-quick scheme thought up by clever bastards in expensive suits, it has to be his. That it has required such effort to maintain Shearer’s studied aloofness is a strong indication that it is not an authentic strategy, but a pose struck for dramatic effect, and therefore worthless. Bouncing from cloud to cloud, as good as the strategy of aping Key might have seemed on paper, has not rung true because David Shearer is not Teflon John.

One of the most important tasks of leadership — and Sun Tzu goes on and on about this as well, but I’ll spare you — is to surround oneself with good people, and people suited to their tasks. It is also crucial that a leader has the strength of will to maintain his own strategic direction, and this is doubly true of Shearer, who was elected leader on the claim that he was beholden to no-one. His performance at these tasks has been very poor. It may be that he was drawing from a shallow pool of talent, it may be that he was continuing the network of patronage, it may simply be that he thought John Pagani was the best guy for the job — but his team failed to match Shearer’s strategy of action to the narrative he has built around his leadership, and ultimately that’s his responsibility.

So what now? It’s beyond me. And so as not to provide further opportunities to take an inauthentic path, I’ll refrain from giving any sort of detailed advice, beyond “find your own damned way, choose good people, and avoid magical thinking”. I continue to note the irony that folks who, for years, have pooh-poohed the need for polish and presentation in politics now insist that Shearer’s inability to talk good is what’s holding him back, and even greater irony that staunch supporters of Phil Goff are now abandoning Shearer for having failed to accomplish in four months what Goff failed to accomplish in three years. I also can’t get too cut up about his alienating the old leftist revolutionary guard.

David Shearer now has an opportunity to refresh some of his underperforming staff, and that at least shows an awareness that Goff’s office did not show until much later in his term. It may yet be that he has to go; it may be that he really has no authentic vision, style or strategy, and even if he has them, if he can’t articulate them then it’s all moot. Things are not good, but there’s still plenty of time to roll him if that’s what’s needed. Patience, though not lassitude, remains a virtue.


* Machiavelli’s The Prince and Clausewitz’s On War are also popular, and justifiably so, though they lack that easy Orientalism of the former two.
** I have seen it persuasively argued that this sort of thing had a central part to play in both the boom and the bust of Wall Street in the 1980s.
*** While it is tempting to suggest that this was part of a Tuckeresque scheme to concentrate power with the senior staff, I think the truth is more depressingly mundane.

Leaving Bamiyan.

datePosted on 09:11, April 24th, 2012 by Pablo

It looks like the NZDF will pull out of Afghanistan next year, one year earlier than originally planned. According to the government the situation is so good in Bamiyan Province that responsibility for security has been turned over to local Afghan forces and the NZDF has downscaled its armed patrols as it concentrates on packing up. The Hazaris who populate Bamiyan are said to be happy with what the NZDF has done with the Provincial Reconstruction Team and will assist the UN and other international organizations in continuing the reconstruction work once the NZDF has left the theater. According to the NZDF and National government, the PRT experience in Bamiyan has been exemplary and is a model for such military-led reconstruction efforts in other future theaters.

But there appears to be wrinkle in this happy picture. Five Afghan translators who worked with the NZDF have unexpectedly approached Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman during a press junket to the PRT (which also saw MSM types like Garth Bray along for the photo op dressed nattily in body armor while posing in front of dusty military hardware and encampments). They did so to request political asylum. The translator’s approach was unexpected, which speaks to the NZDF not being aware of their intentions in advance of the Minister’s visit (which left him at loss for an answer since refugee issues are not part of his portfolio–not that such subtleties matter to Afghans). That suggests a failure in communication between the NZDF and the people it relies on to convey its message in Bamiyan, which is problematic because since one would assume that the relationship between the translators and their patrons would be close and trusting. That the translators kept their concerns a secret until the Minister arrived speaks to underlying differences between them and the NZDF command in Bamiyan.

The translators claim that they will be harmed or killed once the NZDF leaves Bamiyan. Eh? What happened to that much vaunted security situation? If the NZDF did such a good job and was well received by the locals, why would these men fear for their lives? More generally, did the NZ government give any thought to the post-withdrawal security concerns of its closest Afghan interlocutors? Did the NZDF command in Bamiyan flag any such concerns to the government? If the security situation for allied locals in Bamiyan is not as good as has been announced, did the NZDF or NZ government mislead the public as to the truth of the situation?

The translators want special consideration rather than wait for the UN refugee-granting process to take its years-long course (by which time, if their fears are true, they might well be dead). In other words, the translators want to jump the queue because of their extenuating circumstances. That puts the NZ government in a difficult position. If it denies their claim and tells them to get in line like everyone else, they might die as a direct and immediate result of their association with NZ troops. If they get favored treatment then it opens the government to accusations that it responds opportunistically and plays loose with the rules for granting political asylum.

The government has already caused itself a problem. Minister Coleman, caught off-guard by the request on what was supposed to be an easy Anzac Day-related “meet and greet” with the troops, said that NZ has a responsibility to the translators because of their service to the NZDF. That opens a can of worms, because if NZ grants the translators refugee status on special grounds, that sets a precedent for anyone else in Afghanistan who worked with the ISAF coalition to make similar claims based upon fears for their post-withdrawal security. Cooks, cleaners, drivers, translators, lovers–the list of people who could claim persecuted status based on their association with ISAF is bound to be long. NZ offering asylum to these men consequently becomes a thorny diplomatic issue not only with its ISAF coalition partners (who face the possibility of being inundated with similar requests), but also with the Afghan National Government that is supposed to be capable of guaranteeing security once ISAF is gone.

Whatever the decision on the translator’s request, the episode has raised more questions about conditions in Bamiyan than the NZDF appears willing to answer. One thing is certain. No matter what the outcome someone is bound to be left in the lurch, and that includes the NZ MSM types who failed to realize the full significance of what they witnessed when the translators were introduced to Mr. Coleman.



Missile Envy (with postscript).

datePosted on 11:23, April 20th, 2012 by Pablo

So let’s get this straight: North Korea attempts to launch a ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and the international community goes ballistic, claiming it is a serious provocation that has grave consequences for regional and world peace. The UN condemns the launch and humanitarian assistance is suspended in retaliation for it. The North Koreans, who have twice tried to detonate an underground nuclear device with only partial success, fail yet again with their missile test (the booster misfired three minutes into the test flight and fell harmlessly into the Yellow Sea where it undoubtably is the object of foreign salvage efforts). In doing so they confirm that they are a considerable ways off from posing a nuclear-armed ballistic missile threat to anyone. That does not mean that they are not paranoid, bellicose and dangerous, but if that is the criteria by which states are measured than pretty much anytime the US has a Republican president it should be subject to UN sanctions and international boycotts.

A week after the North Koreans embarrassed themselves with that fizzle launch (the best technical term for the mishap that I have read is “projectile dysfunction”), the Indians did it right. They successful tested a ballistic missile with a range of 5000 kilometers that is designed to carry a nuclear warhead. The range of the missile means that it can strike targets in Europe and Central China. It is, in a phrase, a full-fledged Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The Indians, of course, are already a nuclear capable state, having successfully conducted dozens of tests both above and below ground. Like the North Koreans, India shares a “hot” border with a long-term adversary, Pakistan, that is also nuclear-equipped (the North Koreans are confronted by nuclear-armed US troops as well as South Korean conventional forces). It has fought conventional wars with Pakistan and border skirmishes are fairly common. And yet the international community has remained placidly silent about what is a clear message of aggressive intent on the part of the Indians.

Why the hypocrisy? If the international community is really serious about nuclear non-proliferation its should be condemning ALL ballistic missile testing. If that seems unreasonable given that the boosters can also be used to launch satellites, then it is patently unreasonable to froth about the North Korean test and ignore the Indian one (and the latter was not construed as anything but a military application). The hard truth is that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a porous joke that is enforced–and I use that word very loosely– selectively against a few pariah states such as Iran and North Korea but not against others. Nor does it do anything to disarm nuclear-capable states. What reductions in nuclear arsenals have occurred have happened as the result of bilateral negotiations rather than within the framework of the NPT.

I am not a fan of the Kim regime in North Korea. I cannot say I am too enthused about Iran acquiring a nuke. But I understand fully why they attempt to do so. Nuclear weapons are designed to be deterrents, and if that fails to be used as a response to aggression by military superior forces or in the face of imminent conventional defeat. Given their circumstances and the balance of forces in with they operate, North Korea and Iran are eminently rational in their pursuit of that deterrent, as is India even if its threat environment is not as dire (after all, ongoing low-level cross-border clashes with Pakistan cannot be considered to be in the same league as having hostile US carrier task forces and large ground-based contingents just off-shore and across the border) .

That makes the hypocrisy of the international community all the more salient. India is no more and no less rational a state actor than Iran or North Korea. It has interests that it seeks to advance via military capability as well as diplomatic and economic means. Iran and North Korea do not have the diplomatic and economic weight of the Indians–far from it–so they emphasize the military aspect of their defenses. That includes rhetorical broadsides that are designed for domestic consumption and to demonstrate resolve to potential adversaries.

I would think that if the international community was serious about stopping the Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development programs it would start by moving to enact restrictions on all ballistic missile testing that is not clearly designed for satellite launching purposes. It could also work a bit harder, within the NPT, to reduce extant nuclear arsenals in places like India, Pakistan, Israel and the great powers. Readers will undoubtably think “that is never going to happen,” and they would be right. But is that is the case, then it is unreasonable to expect that Iran and North Korea stop their ambitions with regard to producing an indigenous nuclear deterrent. They may not conform to international standards of behavior as defined (mostly) but the West, but they are eminently justified, on realist-deterrence grounds, to pursue that option.

Interestingly, that champion of nuclear non-proliferation, New Zealand, has been silent about the India ICBM test even though it condemned the North Korean launch. I get the feeling that under the current government NZ righteousness with regard to non-proliferation is inversely proportional to the possibilities of securing or maintaining a trade deal with states engaging in such testing. Thus, with regard to India there is silence. With regard to Iran there are meek pleas for “cooperation” with the IAEA. And with regard to North Korea there is a chorus of boos no doubt in part occasioned by the fact that South Korea enjoys a favored bilateral trade status with NZ whereas North Korea does not.

It is said that diplomacy is the art of disguising hypocrisy and self-interest in moral-ethical appeal. When it comes to the issue of nuclear proliferation, it seems that particular costume has worn threadbare thin even in places like NZ.

PS: And sure enough, true to form, Pakistan responded to the Indian test with one of their own. So there you have it: two nuclear armed states sharing a border that have fought conventional wars with each other and which continue to maintain a simmering territorial dispute that has involved the use of unconventional armed proxies sequentially test multi-stage long range boosters that are clearly designed to carry nuclear warheads. One of the countries is a major source of armed violent extremism and a safe haven to militants of various stripes. The international community remains silent.

A Turn to Mean.

datePosted on 14:04, April 12th, 2012 by Pablo

As I watched various labour conflicts over the past few months, then took in accounts of greed-mongering of various types (the wheel-clamping rort being the latest), I set to wondering if things have turned mean in NZ. I tend to think so, and believe a lot of it has to do with National’s presence in government as well as the increasing stratification of NZ society–something National’s policies tend to exacerbate. Some of this collusion is obvious, such as changes to labour laws that strip worker’s of collective rights while enhancing employer prerogatives when hiring and firing (under the banner of so-called “flexibility”). Some is less so, such as in the “look the other way” approach to the conditions that led to the Pike River and Rena disasters and the hands-off government reaction to them. But the trend towards meanness began well before National returned to government in 2008 even if it has gotten worse under it.

It strikes me that the syllogism involved goes something like this: increased employment precariousness born of economic recession in climates of market austerity premised on cost-cutting in both the public and private sectors leads to increased anxiety, then desperation amongst the salaried classes as their life opportunities narrow. In the measure that collective means of defense and redress are also pared down and stripped of legal cover, agency takes precedence over principal to the point that individual rank and file interests are sacrificed in favor of continued union bureaucratic presence (however diminished) in those economic sectors that remain at least partially organized. In the measure that workers realize that their agents have adopted the “iron law of oligarchy” where bureaucratic self-interest and survival becomes the primary objective to which rank and file interests must be subordinated, notions of collective solidarity are abandoned in favor of individual self-interest. Since this is the dominant ethos at play in unorganized sectors of the economy and amongst the managerial and financial elites, the move to survivalist alienation becomes endemic (and indeed pandemic, if we include the fact that immigrants are socialized into the culture of meanness, thereby propagating the “disease” beyond its original culture). The original agents of transmission, in any case, would appear to be the market ideologues who have metastasized into the managerial elites of the present day.

When survivalist alienation becomes endemic, cultural, ethnic, religious and other forms of ascriptive categorization are used to justify the “me first” approach to social intercourse. Until then people may just be bitter. But this is the point when things turn mean.

I could be wrong and this has always been the case in NZ. My impressions are formed since 1997, so perhaps what existed before was indeed a land of milk and honey. But it seems to me, beyond the inter-generational inevitability of the trend towards hyper-individualism there lay a number of accelerants that have made things worse in the last ten years.