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Archive for ‘August, 2012’

Framing marriage equality to win

datePosted on 07:00, August 31st, 2012 by Lew

On Wednesday night Parliament voted 2:1 in favour of marriage equality, as defined by Louisa Wall’s Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, which would permit two people of the same sex to marry. I haven’t been involved in any of the organised aspects of this movement, but I have watched it closely and lent some ad-hoc support to it. Here are some observations on some of the symbolic and framing issues in the campaign for marriage equality, and some discussion of why, and how, it was successful.

Unity and commitment
This campaign had two features that many do not. First, its proponents worked to find common cause with their erstwhile political opponents. This iteration of the debate was sparked by Barack Obama’s “coming out” a few months ago (I wrote about this here.) It has been a bipartisan project; groups and people from across the spectrum worked together. As many National MPs voted for the bill as did Labour MPs (30 each), splitting the National caucus almost in half. The United Future, ACT, māori Party and Mana MPs also voted for the bill. That is a diverse ideological range.

Second, they committed to really making the case, even though they believed it to be self-evident. Too many many good causes fail because, believing them to be oviously right, their originators fail to organise and articulate their “rightness”. This was not so with marriage equality. They employed a broad range of complementary strategies to appeal to different demographics and constituencies. The campaign spoke to queer people, obviously, but it also spoke to straight people; to the families and friends of those who might benefit from it. It spoke to urban liberals and rural conservatives and Māori and Pasifika and other groups. It spoke to atheists, but it did not generally alienate people of faith. It spoke to peoples’ heads, and to their hearts.

These themes — unity and commitment — are central to marriage, and they were central to this campaign for marriage equality.

Naming rights
One of the great battlegrounds in the Culture Wars is over names, and marriage equality won this hands down. This framing was not the incumbent: early battles were waged for “marriage equality” to supplant “gay marriage”/”same-sex marriage” as the preferred term, and it was successful. One example of this was by Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who appeared on the TV show Back Benches and suggested the change in terminology, insisting that “I didn’t just do gay parking or have gay dinner”.* This groundwork was laid long ago — there’s a substantial discourse about this piece of terminology, and all Robertson and others did was articulate it effectively. But that was important to do.

“Marriage equality” frames the cause as being about non-discrimination, a universal civil right nominally guaranteed in law and accepted (again, nominally) by a vast majority of people. It’s also an emotively-neutral term, which in this case worked to exclude stereotypically negative or controversial words — words like “gay” and “(same)-sex” — from the frame. These terms may not be generally offensive, but they do retain some valence as insults and evoke an “ick” factor in some people. Largely for this reason, opponents of marriage equality continue to use “gay marriage” and “same-sex marriage” almost exclusively. (In other contexts these terms, and stronger terms, were used within the campaign to shock or challenge, or were owned & celebrated — I certainly am not suggesting that such terminology be erased from the discourse.)

Note that there’s no discussion of “civil union” as a frame here. This was rejected outright by proponents of marriage equality as being a half-measure, a technocratic institution, and simply not an equal form of marriage.

Hearts and minds
“Marriage equality” is a strong intellectual and symbolic frame with some emotional undertones. Its intellectualism played a key role: it provided a rights-based analysis of the issues, and that rights-based analysis, in turn, provided a platform for a broader, less threatening set of frames.

The rights-based analysis on its own would probably not have won this battle. Intellectual arguments rarely win on their own, particularly when the issues are emotionally-bounded and tied into deep non-intellectual sentiments of culture, history, identity, family, faith and the role of the state, as marriage is. But an emotionally-oriented argument would probably have lacked the necessary rigour to succeed, as well, since the reasoning that marriage ought to be extended to all couples is not self-evident. The “marriage equality” frame appealed strongly to people who were willing and able to articulate the rights-based analysis, to coordinate and disseminate it, and to establish it in the public consciousness. They did so forcefully, with flair and humour, they scored the points and won the policy battle.

This activist community, who mobilised in the social and mainstream media, on the streets and outside the electorate offices, were not themselves the target audience — there aren’t enough of them and they are not widely-enough distributed to strongly influence politicians’ sense of electoral self-preservation. But these actions provided cover for the less-intellectual, but ultimately more emotionally resonant frames — especially “legalise love” — to thrive, and to reach the wider non-activist community and make them care.

“Legalise love” framed marriage equality as being about the recognition of already-existing reality, of acceptance, and diversity, and contemporary family values. Whereas “marriage equality” made a case for what was just, “legalise love” made a case for what was right. Like the best Australian Greens campaign ad the Australian Greens never made, it asked people to think of marriage as being “about love, not laws”; it evoked peoples’ experience of the gay people in their lives — their parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and colleagues — and asked people to identify with gay couples, not in terms of their practices in the bedroom or their sense of fashion, but in terms of the quality of their love. It asked people to consider how hard it would be for their own relationships to have been declared verboten by a state and society that just didn’t get it. These are deep, emotional arguments that strike people in ways that an intellectual policy debate, no matter how clever, cannot.

Another strength of “legalise love” was its breadth. Whereas the intellectual “marriage equality” arguments were focused and direct, arguments about love and the quality of relationships touched on more expansive religious and moral themes. Importantly, the cause was framed as being integral to conventional morality, not a subversion of it, and as modern “love thy neighbour”, “live and let live” Christianity in practice, the bloviations of a handful of self-appointed conservative demagogues notwithstanding. Marriage equality was not framed as a challenge to family values, but as a manifestation of family values; to paraphrase a number of politicians, including London’s Conservative mayor Boris Johnson: marriage is great, let’s have as many as possible. David Farrar made this case well, here.

Double-framing a cause like this — running complementary intellectual and emotional arguments in parallel — is quite hard to do without getting your narratives mixed up and turning incoherent, and too often the weakest aspects of either frame can be exploited by an opponent. But if you can pull it off, it really works. It worked for Obama in 2008 (“hope” and “change”), and it worked in this case. Where the cause came under attack from rational arguments (admittedly this was rare), rational arguments were able to be deployed in defence, and when it came under attack from moral and emotional arguments, those were available as well.

But while the intellectual arguments were effective at laying the groundwork, in my view it was these emotional and moral themes, rather than the logical, rational arguments that underpinned them, that did the heavy lifting of persuasion, of shifting peoples’ consciences, not just their brains. The diverse range of arguments and appeals permitted the campaign to reach a wide demographic range, to reach into faith communities and to appeal to people outside the activist clique. Most importantly, this reach made clear to the MPs whose job it was to vote on the matter that they could, but also that they should vote in favour.

Not done yet
I have used the past tense throughout this as my reference has really only been the campaign so far, but it cannot be emphasised enough that the battle is not won. An unknown but significant number of MPs have voted for marriage equality to go to select committee for further public discussion, but have made no guarantees to support the bill in future. As Jane Clifton argues, there is a coterie of socially-conservative MPs who saw which way the vote was going to go and decided to be on the right side of history as “both a tactful and a time-buying” strategy. There will be attempts to derail this cause, to minimise and distract from it, to dilute and to neuter it. The first of these may have already emerged: Whanganui MP Chester Borrows, perhaps seeking to reprise his role as the great diplomat who proposed the “sensible” compromise position on the Section 59 child discipline repeal, is said to have proposed a compromise position on marriage equality.**

New Zealand’s Parliament passed marriage equality legislation through its first reading, and the lower house of the Tasmanian legislature is set to pass its own. I have not followed that campaign closely, but from what I have seen, many of its framing and symbolic characteristics are similar to those observed here. It is a policy whose time has come, and this is a winning strategy to enact it. Marriage equality holds the high ground; now we must retain it.

L

* Not 100% sure about the phrasing of this, and since TVNZ removed old TVNZ7 episodes from their on demand site, the video is no longer available to check. I’va amended this to match Grant’s recollection. Another twitter user, Jessica Williams points out that it was originally American comedian Liz Feldman.
** I missed this announcement and have been unable to find any detail on Borrows’ proposed compromise but I understand it was announced on Wednesday — if you have details, I would appreciate hearing them.

“Tokens of sovereignty” are state-issued commodities such as stamps, passports and internet domain suffixes. They differ from symbols of sovereignty such as flags in that only nation-states can legally own, sell and trade them. I examine the issues surrounding one such token, known as a “flag of convenience” (FOC), here.

Beefing up in order to leave.

datePosted on 15:07, August 22nd, 2012 by Pablo

In the wake of the most recent NZDF deaths in Bamiyan Province, the Prime Minister has decided to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal of NZDF from the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team to April 2013. After that the PRT will remain in UN and local hands. The original withdrawal date, originally slated for 2014, had been moved up to late 2013 after discussions with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners, but the April date represents a six month advance on that deadline. Even so, the PM says that his government will not “cut and run” on its obligations to ISAF, NATO and the UN (and presumably the Hazara people who are the majority in Bamiyan but who are an oft-oppressed ethnic and religious (Shiia) minority in Pashtun Sunni-dominated Afghanistan). That means that for the next eight months the NZDF will continue its mission regardless of what comes its way in Bamiyan.

The Prime Minister has said that the NZDF troops have adequate equipment with which to defend themselves and that no major increases in troop numbers is needed to fulfill the PRT mission requirements. He and the Chief of Defense Forces have also said that they will increase patrols, including into neighboring Baghlan province, in order to prevent and interdict cross-border incursions by Taliban such as those that have resulted in the deaths of the NZ soldiers this month (I shall leave aside the snide critique by the PM of the Hungarian PRT in Baghlan since its rules of engagement (ROE) never involved long-range patrols and the Hungarian government has never succumbed to the pressure to do so (seeing it for what it is: “mission creep”). Other Hungarian forces as well as those of ISAF partners did and do conduct day and night patrols in Baghlan). The government has gone on to say that the NZDF have been successfully engaged in a “hearts and minds” campaign as part of their patrols in Bamiyan, which is what has prompted the increase in attacks by the Taliban.

There are several aspects to the account that I find interesting. When the original timetable for withdrawal was announced by ISAF, the Taliban commander Mullah Omar and several of his lieutenants publicly stated that they would increase attacks on all coalition members in order to push them out earlier. They well understood that with a timetable fixed and with the Taliban, as an indigenous armed political force, in Afghanistan to stay, an increased tempo of attacks might force some coalition partners to depart earlier than schedule rather than suffer mounting losses. Add in the fact that the democratic policy-making processes of many ISAF coalition members make them very susceptible to public opinion, then a wave of increased attacks leading to increased losses could well move the political calculation with regards to withdrawal towards earlier rather the later. Indeed, some junior coalition partners have already departed.

In the past year, as the predicted attacks in Bamiyan increased, the nature of the PRT mission changed as well. From its primary objective of reconstruction and capacity-building it moved to force protection, indigenous security training and armed patrol. In recent months and in light of the anticipated withdrawal date, the latter functions–force protection, indigenous security training and armed patrol–have taken precedence over the reconstruction aspects of the mission (which are being handed over to civilian authority in any event).

In response, the last two PRT rotations (October 2011-April 2012, April 2012-present) have seen changes in force composition to more infantry troops and less engineers. Among other shifts, explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) specialists have been priority detailed to the mission. Infantry soldiers replaced engineers because the former are the means by which the hearts and minds, force protection and indigenous mentoring campaigns are undertaken, plus reconstruction work is already passing to civilian hands. Field medics are needed in equal or more numbers given their increasing combat requirement sharing space with the original public health orientation of the  PRT.

The armed Hiluxs that were initially used for “light” patrols were replaced by “up-armored” Humvees and then later by the infamous Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs, or as the US prefers to call them “Strykers”). Although reinforced in theater, neither of these type of vehicle have the V shaped hulls that are the best defense against IED blasts. The LAVs also are not suitable for steep narrow tracks or water crossings, so their presence is most effective in and around the capital of Bamiyan (Bamiyan City). Once NZDF patrols pushed further afield the onus of safety fell on the foot soldiers involved, since dismounted tactics are the most effective tools against small dispersed groups of insurgents given the challenging terrain in which the NZDF is forced to operate.

This shift in troop specialization was reasonable given the increasing pace of attacks, which included IED as well as small arms ambushes in growing numbers (besides the ambush in which Lt. Tim O’Donnell was killed in 2010, there have been multiple IED  and small arms attacks on NZDF convoys and patrols during the past 18 months). As independent observers have noted all along, the security situation in Bamiyan, as in the rest of Afghanistan, has deteriorated markedly since the withdrawal date was announced. It is therefore not surprising that the NZDF has come under increasing attack, and although sad, it is not surprising that it has suffered losses as a result. What is even more sad is that in spite of the worsening security situation, until very recently the NZ government insisted that the situation in Bamiyan was relatively stable and safe, perhaps because it feared what the public response would be if it told the truth.

Now confronted with the harsh reality of the situation, the government has announced its plan to extend NZDF patrols in Bamiyan and into Baghlan and to continue the hearts and minds approach to counter-insurgency. It also says that while doing so it will not significantly increase the combat force complement of the Bamiyan PRT nor raise overall troop numbers much above the 149 currently deployed. That seems odd.

The combination of extended patrols and hearts and minds is essentially the core of the inkblot counter-insurgency strategy that US generals David Petreus and Stanley McCrystal used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves stationing troops in villages or in forward outposts alongside local security forces, where they live and work amongst the local population. This gives them an extended armed presence that allows for better collection of local intelligence via the cultivation of personal ties with locals, and is seen as a way of incrementally denying the enemy control of territory in the measure that the various “dots” expand their areas of effective control and begin to merge jurisdictions. On the downside, it also makes the troops involved more vulnerable, particularly to so-called “green on blue” attacks in which local security personnel turn their arms on their foreign mentors (the Taliban have deliberately infiltrated both the Afghan National Army and National Police in order to engage this tactic, with remarkable success).

In order to undertake the inkblot counter-insurgency strategy, both Petreus and McCrystal argued that a “surge” in troops was necessary. That is, more armed “boots on the ground” were required in order to extend the range and scope of operations beyond the fixed bases and daily patrols that characterized the conventional approach to securing the countryside (which was premised on the attrition of enemy fighters resulting in a diminished level of armed conflict). Thus in Iraq and Afghanistan thousands of extra troops were deployed as part of the inkblot surge in order to push the enemy back and secure better conditions for both locals and foreign troops in the months ahead of the withdrawal date. The idea is to not only place the enemy on the defensive in order to give time and space to local forces to more effectively secure their own areas of responsibility, but also to set a more favorable stage for local authorities to negotiate the nature of the post-withdrawal regime. After all, it is better to negotiate from a position of strength than weakness. The inkblot surge is designed to provide the conditions for that to occur.

That is basically what the NZ government is arguing in favor of, but without the surge. In a place like Bamiyan, the stated intent to extend patrols as part of an upgraded hearts and minds campaign would appear to require more than the current number of soldiers. In fact, it would seem that an infantry company (around 130 soldiers) would be the basic minimum amount required to “surge.” The question is whether the NZDF has such a capability ready to deploy even if the government would like that to happen. And even if that is the case–that the government wants to undertake the surge and the NZDF can do so–the follow up question is whether that would be politically palatable to the NZ public. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then what exactly does the government think that the NZDF can do in Bamiyan to decrease the number of attacks on its troops?

At current levels the PRT cannot not cope with a rising wave of attacks. The IED on the NZDF medivac convoy was placed at night less than 15 kilometers from the PRT base in Bamiyan City.The placement of the IED appears to have been done after the medivac patrol headed out to retrieve the ill soldier from a forward post and in anticipation of its return. There were no LAVs on the medivac mission because they were too large and heavy for the dirt road leading to the post, so four Humvees were used.

The PM and CDF say that the IED had 20 kilos of explosives, so a LAV would not have survived the blast either. It is also possible that the triggering device did not act according to plan, resulting in a signal delay that transferred the  IED blast from the first to the last Humvee (and which could well have made impossible a small arms attack once the convoy stopped). Both may be true, but the ability of insurgents to carry, place and detonate  a 20 kilo IED close to the main Kiwi base in Bamiyan on a known route to and from an NZDF forward post without being detected should be a point of discussion in NZDF HQ. After all, mine sweeping is a requisite for mine defusing, and finding one after a fatal attack demonstrates that the NZDF EOD capability in Bamiyan is lagging behind that of the Taliban bomb-makers (one of whom is said to be the target of the previous fatal ambush and who is suspected of participating in the latest attack).

Since the NZDF cannot be everywhere at once, that means that the insurgents have at least partial control of the night very close to the PRT. Moreover, the IED appears to have been detonated by remote control rather than pressure plate, which means that the trigger man had a daylight line of sight on the convoy as it passed the blast zone. What that means, in sum, is that the Taliban operate very close to the PRT itself and can move with some impunity at night even when in close proximity to the very area in which the bulk of NZ troops are stationed. That is troubling.

The PM has given assurances that other country’s special forces will come to the aid of the NZDF if need be. I sure hope so, because the last time I looked other country’s special forces have their hands full in places like Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Be clear on this: the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan is happening in the South and East, not in the Central Northwest where Bamiyan is located. That fighting occupies the full attention of the ISAF forces involved. Even if airborne reinforcements were sent from Kabul (which is about 100 kilometers away from Bamiyan), it may be too late for them to make the difference in any given confrontation.

Expanded combat patrols and increased forward basing mean more chances of contact with the enemy. More contact means more potential casualties. The best way to avoid losses is to have robust forces on the ground close to the point of contact(s) because air cover is not always available in real time, at the moment of engagement. That is why extended patrolling and variations of inkblot approaches to counter-insurgency require more ground troops in theater.

I find it unrealistic and dangerous for anyone to suggest that the NZDF will increase and expand its patrols in the months leading to the April 2013 withdrawal date without increasing the number of troops it will dedicate to that task. Perhaps there is something in the NZ government or NZDF game plan that I am not aware of that will do what even the US could not do, which is to embark on an inkblot counter-insurgency strategy without a troop surge in the six months before departure. That assumes that the NZ government and NZDF hierarchy are fully cognizant of what they are proposing to do, of what they are asking of their soldiers. I also hope that they will take full responsibility for whatever happens in the months ahead given the choices they have made.

In any event the NZDF soldiers in the next (and last) Bamiyan PRT rotation scheduled to begin in October are in for a very challenging six months. Let us hope that their training and resolve sees them through unscathed, and that they all return safely. However, while it is good to hope for the best, I also think that it is prudent for the NZ public to plan for the worst. There are trying days ahead.

 

A White Bread Double Down.

datePosted on 12:12, August 19th, 2012 by Pablo

As is well known, the US is undergoing a demographic transition that will see the majority of the country being non-white in origin by 2030 or thereabouts (for the purposes of this essay I shall use the US definition of “non-white,” which is a person who does not have two caucasian parents. This definition is a throw-back to the bad old days but has managed to remain as a racial standard in census calculations. Interestingly, in Brazil a person is considered white if they have a single drop of white blood regardless of how dark they may look. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why that may be). The US is also a country with more females than males as a percentage of the population. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the country is headed to a majority female, coffee-with–milk colored future in the next two decades.

The trend has motivated political parties to seek and court the new generation of dark skinned voters, be they Latino (of which there are many persuasions that do not exhibit uniform political or social attitudes), Arab (ditto), African (both continental and hyphenated new world such as Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Peruvians), Indians (both native and from the sub-continent) Asians (of all stripes) and other “non-white” populations. Although dark-skinned populations have traditionally occupied the working and lower middle classes, they now span the gamut of socio-economic status. This has meant that what was once the preferred recruiting ground for the Democratic Party and other small leftist-oriented political groups has now been opened up to the Republicans and their smaller conservative counterparts. One can no longer look at individuals of color and automatically assume their voting preferences. This has made the non-white electorate an extremely important swing vote in national and local elections.

I mention this because one would think that the GOP would understand the importance of recognizing these shifts in its election strategy and candidate selection. In 2008 it gave a nod to “hockey moms” by nominating Sarah Palin as its Vice Presidential candidate. The Democrats saw a fierce primary campaign for the presidency eventually won by a man of half-African descent over a white middle aged woman. The mixed race Presidential candidate brought on an older white male Senator as his VP choice, and together they went on to win the 2008 election over the hockey mom and her geriatric white male former war hero-turned Senator presidential running mate.

In this year’s election the Republican primary offered some interesting twists. It included a black man and a white woman along with an assortment of white males of various Christian persuasions (I mention religion because in the US atheists and agnostics stand no chance of being elected if they state so publicly. Even non-religious people like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have to pretend to be pious church-goers, so long as the church in question is a christian denomination. It will be a while before a Jew or Muslim makes it to the White House as either POTUS or VP, Joe Lieberman’s failed 2000 vice presidential nomination notwithstanding).

However, by the end of the GOP primary campaign it was an older white male millionaire ex-governor who emerged as the presidential candidate. He had many options when it came to choosing his running mate. Condi Rice was mentioned. Bobby Jindal (of Indian extraction) was mentioned. Marco Rubio (a Cuban American) was in the mix. But who did Mitt Romney choose? A younger white male congressman who, among other things, professed to be an Ann Rand devotee until the mid-2000s, has never run a business (which the GOP claims is essential for breaking out of the Washington DC mindset) and who is considered the intellectual giant behind the GOP small government, lower taxes, less expenditure philosophy–that is, at least until it emerged that he lobbied for Obama administration stimulus funds to be directed towards his congressional district in Wisconsin.

In effect, what the GOP has opted for as a presidential ticket is a white bread double-down on an increasingly blended ethnic stew: two caucasian males, one Mormon and one Catholic, both from privileged backgrounds, preaching fiscal austerity as the panacea for US ills. Neither has foreign policy experience. Both are “chicken hawks” (pro-military without having served) and have conservative social views (although Romney appears to have a utilitarian approach to his conservatism, in that he is when it suits him to be): anti abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-welfare, anti-undocumented immigrants (I refuse to use the term “illegal alien” that is preferred by right-wing commentators in the US). That also sums up the essence of the GOP ticket: it is defined by what it is against rather than what it is for (which, as I have written in previous posts, is a bad position upon which to base any political platform).

There is more to the picture but it strikes me that this choice of candidates says more about the GOP nostalgia for a lost past rather than a vision for the US future. It does not appear to recognize the changing nature of the US demographic mosaic (which, besides the changing ethnic blend also includes a different social fabric than in the past in the form of a rising population of single parent or blended family households, a fifty percent divorce rate and a slowing overall birth rate. Both Romney and Ryan live in traditional marriages with stay at home caucasian wives and multiple children). It is for that reason that I believe that, regardless of the merits of their macroeconomic arguments (and I see very little merit in them), the GOP presidential ticket will lose in November. Because whatever Obama’s flaws and faults (and there are plenty), he clearly understands that there is no going back to a white bread past that was not so good for grains of a different color.

 

Rudimentary rights-based analysis of the Assange affair

datePosted on 13:55, August 16th, 2012 by Lew

It looks like the British government is going to consider storming the Ecuadorean embassy in London to arrest Julian Assange and extradite him to Sweden to face sexual assault charges allegations. [Thomas Beagle points out he has not been charged, so I’ve amended this throughout. Thanks!]

Without getting into the validity of those allegations, or of the extradition process, I’d like to look at how the schedule of rights breaks down for Assange and the states in question, from weakest to strongest:

1. Julian Assange’s right to avoid extradition for an alleged crime on the grounds that he’s doing good things.
This is no sort of right at all, but it is nevertheless what many of his supporters have claimed.

2. Sweden’s right to request Assange’s extradition to face questioning.
This seems clear-cut, although again, many of his supporters have claimed it is not.

3. The UK’s right to undertake its own judicial process in deciding whether to extradite.
The UK, after an exhaustive process, has decided to extradite.

4. Assange’s right to seek political asylum.
Fearing that he could suffer the death penalty if, following extradition to Sweden, he is further extradited to the USA, Assange seems to have a right under Article 14 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights to seek political asylum. I think this is arguable, because the veracity of his claim to persecution is arguable, but anyway, he has done so.

5. Ecuador’s right to consider and grant asylum requests.
Ecuador has the same rights as any other state to consider and grant such requests, and it appears to have granted (or intends to grant) this one (reports vary).

6. Ecuador’s right to the integrity of its sovereign territory, including its embassies.
This is where I think it gets murky for the British government. They argue that provisions in the Consular Premises Act 1987 permit them to revoke consular or diplomatic status from an embassy if the premises have been misused. This article in the Gazette of the British Law Society suggests that it’s a bit more complicated than first seems. I am no sort of lawyer, but my read, in short, is that a diplomatic premise is inviolable under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (even in case of war or emergency), and that residual diplomatic status could continue for a period of time even after revocation (which would be a fairly major step in itself).

As I say, I’m no expert on such matters, but my view is that the chain of rights I have outlined here is pretty sound. I believe the correct position from a rights perspective is for the British government to concede Assange’s right to claim asylum, and Ecuador’s to grant it if it chooses, despite its misgivings. As terrible as the acts that may or may not have been committed by Julian Assange, it seems evident that he retains the right to seek asylum, that the Ecuadoreans retain the right to grant it, and that the UK is on, at best, shaky ground attempting to arrest Assange once succour has been granted by the Ecuadoreans. While respecting some of what Wikileaks has done, I do not much like Assange, nor do I have much tolerance for the legions of his supporters who have sought to absolve him of responsibility for his alleged sexual assault by recourse to character assassination, intimindation and vilification of his alleged victim.

But there are bigger things at stake here than a criminal, even a celebrity criminal, fleeing justice — how host countries respond to diplomatic gameplaying like this is one of them.

L

Double impunity

datePosted on 23:18, August 15th, 2012 by Lew

Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has been said by the Director of the Office of Human Rights Proceedings, Robert Hesketh, to have breached the privacy of Natasha Fuller by making private information about her public in 2009.

Bennett does not accept Hesketh’s “opinion”; in a letter released by Hesketh she expressly states that “I do not believe I have breached privacy.” Moreover, she goes on to explain that she still considers such a strategy — of releasing private, confidential information about a member of the public to make a political point — to be perfectly legitimate.

And, really, why the hell wouldn’t she? It worked. Not only has she not been found to have done anything wrong, but she has suffered no consequences for those actions. No sort of reprimand has been issued, nor obeisances levied. Hesketh’s “opinion” — with which the minister is free to disagree upon no grounds whatsoever — is not in any way binding, and as such, has exactly as little value as mine. All soft speech and no big stick. It has taken three years and change to get to the point where the massed battalions of our much-vaunted system of civil liberties have been able to issue nothing more robust than a statement that the situation has been resolved “to the satisfaction of all parties”, apparently notwithstanding the stark disagreement between the positions of Hesketh and Bennett.

In a political environment where ministers are required by their leader to employ whatever means they can get away with to achieve their KPIs, we can’t really blame Bennett for doing so. She has proven extremely adept at this sort of machine politics, running decoy lines when other, less-adept, ministers find themselves in trouble — the most recent example of which having also emerged today: that there really was no clamour from employers to drug-test beneficiaries. So we can’s blame Bennett; she’s just following the incentives. Similarly, we can’t blame John Key — after all, his ministers are getting results, and his polling is holding up, so he’s just following the incentives as well. I do not know their mandate, but we may be able to lay a certain amount of blame at the feet of bureaucrats like Robert Hesketh. However, given Bennett’s and Key’s demonstrated ruthlessness, perhaps such a supine position is understandable. Had he caused too much trouble his office might have been gone by lunchtime, or redeployed to some higher-priority task like finding technical justifications for Special Tactics Group action against Kim Dotcom.

But regulatory or statutory means are weak when it comes to punishing ministers for their misdeeds. Since procedural decisions governing what action could and would be taken against a minister in such as case are themselves determined by ministers, the Iron Law comes into play: Unless forced, a Cabinet will never implement measures that might seriously constrain it. The main function of regulatory recourse, then, is not to impose actual, “hard” strictures on members of the executive, but to provide their opponents with opportunities to attack them, either on political or ideological grounds, or on grounds of character or competence. These are “soft” constraints on behaviour, in that they are normative rather than objective, and they rely on tactical factors and on a high degree of competence and tenacity — as well as measures of opportunism and ruthlessness — on the part of opposition politicians. Impunity that arises from hard constraints as I’ve discussed here, and as Pablo has written about previously, is unfortunate but understandable; the lack of soft constraints is less so. Bennett has not suffered any consequences of her actions because she has not been made to suffer them by the only group that might viably do so: the New Zealand Labour Party.* So I return to an argument I’ve made before: the government gets away with all this is because the opposition lets it. In this case, Bennett took a calculated risk and released information in a way that nonpartisan experts consider to be obviously unethical and an abuse of her position. She didn’t even calculate it very hard — she took no official or expert advice before releasing Natasha Fuller’s private information, she just knew she could get away with it. Not only did Paula Bennett enjoy the ordinary sort of impunity that comes from being a minister of the crown, she also knew that she enjoyed the double impunity of being virtually unopposed at the political level.

She had good grounds to know this. The Labour party, even as far back as mid-2009, had been so dysfunctional and so ineffective for so long that it could hardly come as a surprise. How many times, over the past five years, have Labour supporters seen some egregious outrage from the government and thought, “this time — surely even this lot can’t screw things up! If they can’t make the government pay for this, they don’t deserve to win!” I know I have written these sentiments many times, and spoken them aloud countless more.

And yet they keep failing. As long as they keep failing, these outrages will still happen. Even if not for its own sake, Labour owes the people of New Zealand a duty of competence that it is not currently fulfilling.

L

PS: Given this result and Bennett’s refusal to rule out such actions in the future, here’s a handy thing that Anita wrote at the time, expressly forbidding Bennett or anyone else from releasing our, or your, information for such purposes.

* But what of the Greens? I hear you ask. And fair enough — the Greens have in many ways been doing a better job of being a functional opposition than Labour have. But the Greens cannot apply direct zero-sum electoral pressure on National — they cannot hope for parity, and they cannot threaten the Treasury benches. The Greens are important as a source of pressure on Labour, but only Labour can pressure National.

Blog Link: Australia as a different type of BRIC.

datePosted on 09:39, August 15th, 2012 by Pablo

In spite of some serious dysfunctionalities in its party politics and potential problems with its economic growth model (heavily dependent on mineral exports), Australia is well on its way to becoming a regional great power. In this regard it shares macro-characteristics with three of the four “BRICs:” Brazil, India and Russia (the PRC has surpassed regional great power status and is no longer, in my opinion, appropriately categorized with the others). Although Australians may prefer not be grouped with the others for a variety of reasons, I take the notion of “rising middle power” as the starting point for a comparative analysis of Australia as a different type of BRIC.

My kid is more important than your kid.

datePosted on 19:11, August 9th, 2012 by Pablo

John Key will not attend the funerals of the NZDF troopers killed in action in Bamiyan because he has a prior commitment to attend his high school aged son’s baseball tournament in the US. He says that his son has sacrificed a lot for his dad to be PM and he needs to return the favor.

I do not know what to say. Check that: actually, I do.

Is he elevating his son’s supposed sacrifice above that of the dead troopers he sent into a forlorn war? Is he serious or are the funerals a scheduling inconvenience? Does he not comprehend the gravity of the situation to which he has committed other people’s sons, who have died for the cause he supposedly champions (whatever that is)? Can he possibly not understand that his son’s penchant for a US sport may not be, in the large scheme of things, more important than the loss of life of courageous New Zealanders fighting in a hopeless conflict already abandoned by most Western allies?

Sure, Barack Obama and Julia Gillard do not attend every military funeral for their fallen soldiers in Afghanistan. But the military commitment of both countries far exceeds that of New Zealand and has an explicitly combat role. They both acknowledge that death comes with the commitment. John Key denies that New Zealand has a combat role and is still involved in peaceful reconstruction even though the security situation has “worsened.”

This is a disgrace of the first order.

John Key seems to believe that being a CEO is equivalent to being a statesman and prime minister. He seems to think that other peoples deadly sacrifices are just part of doing business. His bottom line needs no genuflections to the niceties of grief or reconsideration of the rationale of deploying NZ’s sons and daughters in conflict zones. It is all about his “big picture”, except of course when he can use an official visit to watch a high school game in an American sport.

He may claim that family matters most. He has already said as if it was somehow better, that the dead soldiers either had little family or were childless. So perhaps he feels he does not have to front to the funerals of soldiers killed in the worst military incident in forty years because his family priorities exceed his official obligations.

I find his attitude to be despicable and proof that he simply does not understand the full scope of the responsibilities and obligations that come with being Prime Minister, beyond whatever he thinks that being CEO of Kiwi, Inc. entails

This is a spit in the face of the NZDF. It is a dishonor to the fallen soldiers. It shows utter contempt for all the families who grieve.

Note to General Rhys-Jones and the rest of the NZDF brass: he just owned you in a very bad way.

 

Some questions about the ambush.

datePosted on 12:46, August 6th, 2012 by Pablo

It may seem insensitive to ask questions about the ambush that killed two and wounded six NZDF troops in Bamiyan, but I do not trust the government or NZDF brass to come clean on what really happened. They have spent too much time lying about the real security situation in Bamiyan and the real nature of what NZDF troops are doing there and elsewhere, such as during the SAS deployment.

The official story is that Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) personnel were ambushed in a village when they went to arrest a suspect, suffered losses, and called for reinforcement from the NZDF. The village is located in a narrow high mountain valley. Four NZDF patrols were in the area and at least two responded, although it took 2 hours for the convoy to slowly climb up to the village. The original story was that after laying down suppressing fire, an NZDF armored vehicle was hit by an “anti-tank rocket,” resulting in one NZDF death, and when the troops dismounted to secure the area another was killed and the others were wounded by  a separate group of insurgents hiding in the surrounding terrain (it is unclear if some of the wounded were injured in the missile attack on the armored vehicle). A subsequent official version states that both soldiers were killed by rifle fire from a distance of 50-100 meters after they dismounted from the armored vehicle. A number of insurgents are claimed to have been killed, and 17 were seen withdrawing from the area carrying their dead and wounded. No enemy bodies were recovered although two insurgents were captured.

My questions are these:

Knowing that the valley was narrow with much high ground cover above the village in question, and given the time it took to reach the scene, why did the reinforcements not dismount, spread out and walk into the fire zone rather than drive all the way in? I say this because a standard guerrilla tactic, which has many variations, is the “sucker ploy” whereby a small ambush is staged on local forces so that the call for reinforcements is made. A second, larger ambush is staged using better cover and heavier weapons on the reinforcements, which in Afghanistan are inevitably foreign. The real target is the reinforcing forces, and faulty intelligence feeds are often used to lure the initial responders to the scene. The idea is to hit the reinforcements hard and disengage as rapidly as possible.

One way of preventing losses to such a sucker ploy is to have infantry dismount away from the point of contact and walk in from a range of 300-500 meters in a spread formation so as to minimize the risk of mass casualties and to provide better coverage of the tactical battle space. This is especially true for theaters in which the enemy uses remotely triggered IEDs as a tactical weapon against armored columns. Such a counter-move is taught as a basic defensive measure in most infantry courses.

One alternative that conventional armies rely on is to have an armored column carrying infantry move in tight on the enemy position, although this is usually an urban rather than rural tactic given tight space constraints and the limited lines of sight involved. It also assumes that the armor in question can withstand small arms fire, to include RPGs, at relatively close range. My question is therefore two-fold: why did the NZDF troops move in so close before dismounting, and what was the “armored” vehicle that was hit (and in fact, was any vehicle hit by “rocket” fire)? If one of the convoy vehicles was hit, what was it? An armored Humvee? An up-armoured Hilux? A LAV? If it was the latter (and I have seen video of NZDF LAVs being used in Bamiyan), what was the nature of the “anti-tank” munition used against it? Or was it hit by an RPG? I say this because one of the biggest flaws of the LAV, should it not be up-armored, is a relatively thin skin which is vulnerable to both RPGs and 50 caliber rounds. That flaw was the focus of much criticism during the debates about the LAV purchase, but the government and NZDF have consistently discounted the apparent vulnerabilities of the platform. Both the Humvee and Hilux, even if armored, are vulnerable to RPGs and large caliber rounds, to say nothing of IEDs.

>>Update: The NZDF have now reported that LAVs were involved and that one soldier was shot while sitting in the roof well position. The other was shot on the ground. There is no updated reports on whether the LAV took incoming small arms or RPG fire. Sanctuary and I discuss the issue of LAV vulnerability to such fire in the first two comments below.<<

Another question is about the report that 17 insurgents were seen leaving the scene, moving towards an area “not under the control of coalition forces” carrying their dead and wounded. First of all, the Taliban do not carry their dead, as that would be suicidal given that it would slow them down and make them vulnerable to pursuing forces or air strikes. Although they do at times carry their wounded, that also slows them down and makes them vulnerable to hot pursuit, particularly if they are climbing away from the battle zone. So why the claim that Taliban dead and wounded were being carried away and why no pursuit?  What does “area not under control of coalition forces” mean? Given that the fire fight was supposedly over in 2-3 minutes according to the NZDF, how were the enemy forces able to escape in full sight of the patrol? Were they fired upon while retreating?

Why was no air cover called in before or after the initial ambush? Since the dead and wounded were evacuated by chopper in a relatively short period of time once the call for help went out, that means that air assets were in the vicinity (there is an airfield at the Bamiyan PRT). Were they otherwise occupied?

From what I gather in the press, this looks like a classic sucker ploy double ambush in which the NZDF was specifically targeted. That no enemy bodies or wounded were recovered, and that no pursuit of the fleeing insurgents was undertaken, suggests that this was a significant tactical victory for the “bad guys” (I presume that no pursuit was launched because the priority was to stabilize the wounded and secure a landing zone for the rescue choppers). It also suggests that there may be some issues with the patrol and response tactics used by the NZDF, particularly if these had been used before and established a pattern of behavior that the Taliban/insurgents could observe and learn from. The patrol in question was in its third month of deployment (the 19th PRT rotation), so questions of experience and local familiarity on the part of the troops involved are fair to raise.

I do not mean to question the actions or valor of the NZDF troops, nor do I claim any superior military expertise. I certainly do not have all of the facts on the ground. I can only speculate on what has been reported by the mainstream press so far. However, I do know a little about irregular warfare and about the tactical nature of that warfare in the Afghan theater. It is for that reason that I ask these questions, which I hope someone in the mainstream press will be courageous enough to ask of the government and NZDF. After all, there is still at least another year to go before the NZDF withdraws from Bamiyan, and whoever conducted this attack is clearly signaling what is in store in the months ahead.

Postscript: In his latest press conference held today Gen. Rhys-Jones stated that the NZDF troops were not specifically targeted, but were fired upon by insurgents protecting a valuable bomb-maker who was the object of the initial NSD search. He claimed that both soldiers killed as well as those that were wounded were dismounted when struck by small arms fire, and that the insurgents engaged in a fighting retreat before air strikes were called in. He asserted that the insurgents “took a battering” even though no bodies are found. This raises more questions even as it answers some of those outlined above. I shall leave it for readers to decide whether to take the General at his good word.

Blog Link: Deconstructing New Zealand Foreign Policy.

datePosted on 17:04, August 1st, 2012 by Pablo

A recent canvass of members of the diplomatic community resident in Wellington had as a common theme the apparent incoherence of contemporary New Zealand foreign policy. That prompted me to attempt to deconstruct the major features of New Zealand foreign policy during the last three decades and to offer some explanations as to why they no longer hold in the measure that they once did. You can find the explanation here.