Archive for ‘January, 2017’

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

From failure, opportunity comes.

datePosted on 17:19, January 24th, 2017 by Pablo

When President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the US signature from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTPA), he signed the death warrant of that multinational trade deal in its present form. The US was the core member of the TPPA and held the dominant negotiating position within it, so the decade-in-the-making, laboriously undertaken and vexing complex compact that was agreed to by the other eleven signatories is now all but null and void.

There are options, however, for the TPPA that may allow it to survive and thrive in light of Trump’s unilateral abrogation.

First, the other eleven member states can put the agreement into hibernation, wait for the 2020 US presidential election and hope that a more trade-oriented president succeeds Trump.

Second, they can hope that the Republican congressional leadership will force Trump to reverse his decision sometime between now and 2020. That would only occur if Trump is weakened by some failure and the GOP sensed that it could re-assert its traditional pro-trade stance at his expense. The Democrats would welcome the move for opportunistic partisan reasons even if some of its leading figures such as Bernie Sanders also oppose the TPPA and applauded Trump’s decision to pull plug on it.

Third, the members could look to themselves and re-draw an agreement that is less US-centric. Many of the provisions insisted on by the US could be reconsidered and even dropped in exchange for increased preferences for the interests of previously junior TPPA partners.

Fourth, the remaining TPPA partners could look to fill the void left by the US with another large market economy. The one that springs immediately to mind is China. That is where things get interesting, and where opportunity may lie.

China is already party to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) that established a regional free trade area that is the largest in terms of population and third largest in term of trade volume and nominal GDP. Some of the ACFTA signatories are also parties to the TPPA (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam). This agreement is considered to be a “true” free trade agreement in the Ricardian sense because it reduces tariffs across 7,881 product categories to zero percent, with the result being that tariffs on ASEAN goods sold to China fell to 0.1 percent and those of China sold in ASEAN to 0.1 percent in the year the agreement went into force (2010)

The non-US TPPA members could opt to negotiate an agreement with ACTFA as one course of action. That may be difficult given that the TPPA is not a “genuine” FTA as much as it is an investor guarantee agreement (IGA) in which market regulations are altered to attract foreign investors and these are protected from legal liability in the event of disputes with the host state. What is not included in the TPPA are across-the-board reductions to zero tariff, and in fact many domestic industries remain protected or subsidised throughout the TPPA membership as part of the horse trading undertaken during negotiations over its central tenets. But it may be possible to reconcile the two trade deals in an effort to create a new super trade bloc on neo-Ricardian grounds.

Another option might be to invite China to the table. It has the second largest market in the world and is continues to grow at a sustained and rapid pace in spite of the vicissitudes of the world economy over the last two decades. It is making the transition from export platform to a mixed domestic mass consumption/value-added export model, and it has previously expressed interest in joining the TPPA. The US blocked consideration of China’s membership because it saw the TPPA as the economic equivalent of the military “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, that is, as a hedge against Chinese economic, diplomatic and military influence in the Western Pacific Rim in what amounts to a new Containment Policy in the Asia-Pacific.

With the US gone, China has an opening and the remaining TPPA members have an opportunity. The TPPA will have to be renegotiated, but it is likely that the non-negotiable provisions insisted by the US will not be supported by the Chinese and can be dropped in the effort to entice their interest. In turn, China might have to accept something less than blanket reductions in uniform tariffs and agree to a tariff reduction regime that is more segmented and scaled in orientation and gradual and incremental in application (i.e. more product or industry specific and phased in over a longer period of time). That is clearly within the realm of possibility, as is Chinese agreement to other TPPA provisions stripped of their US-centric orientation.

China has already signalled its intentions in this regard. President Xi used this year’s Davos Forum to preach the virtues of free trade and global commerce, arguing against protectionism as an impediment to international understanding and exchange. China has proposed the creation of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) along the lines mentioned above with regard to an ACTFA-TPPA merger but with the provision that the US be excluded. There are many details to be ironed out but the groundwork has been laid for that to happen.

What makes the turn to a China-included trade bloc a potentially win-win proposition for remaining TPPA signatories is that the key provisions demanded by the US–changes in market regulations and preferential market entry clauses for US business interests (including changes in patent and copyright protection) and imposition of limited liability clauses in the event US businesses are sued by local governments–were those that were most resisted by domestic audiences in several TPPA member countries. Removing them not only allows the agreement to be free of those constraints but also diffuses a source of domestic opposition in countries where such things matter.

One thing TPPA states should think carefully about, especially small states like New Zealand, is the invitation to negotiate bi-lateral trade deals with the US instead of the TPPA (something just announced by the Trump administration). The historical record shows that large asymmetries in market size favour the larger over the smaller partner in bilateral trade agreements. This is due to economies of scale, market dominance, and economic and geopolitical influence derived from market size advantages. The recent track record of bilateral deals between the US and smaller states reinforces this fact. Australia, South Korea, Chile, Colombia and the Central American nations plus Dominican Republic grouped in the CAFTA scheme all have bilateral FTAs with the US. In all instances the majority benefits accrued to US-based companies and industries and the benefits accrued in the partner states were limited to specific export markets (mostly in primary goods), with little flow-on, trickle down or developmental effects in the broader national economies.

So rather than “jump on a plane” to sign a bilateral deal with the US, as one wag put it, smaller states such as New Zealand need to think hard whether the bilateral alternative with the US is more long-term beneficial than a multilateral agreement, especially when it has shown that under a certain type of administration the US is willing to renege on its commitments even if they are multilateral rather than bilateral in nature. With the Trump administration also set to review and replace the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), it is clear that honoring commitments and maintaining continuity in trade policy is not, even if just for the short term, on the US agenda.

When one widens the lens on what the Trump administration is doing in terms of its threats to withdraw from various bi-and multinational defense agreements unless the partner states “pay more” for US protection, it becomes clear that the US is not, at least for now, a reliable international partner.

The reason is that the new US attitude to trade is part of a larger phenomenon. The neo-isolationist protectionism embedded in the “America First” approach adopted by the Trump administration has ended, however temporarily, over 50 years of bipartisan consensus in the US political elite on the merits of international engagement. Be it in trade, foreign aid or collective defense, the US policy elite, both public and private, have embraced globalisation as a means of projecting US power, influence and values world-wide. That era has come to end for the time being, and so long as Trump is successful in pursing his “America First” strategy it will continue to be so.

That may or may not make America Great Again but it could well have a negative impact on those who seek mutual benefit by engaging with it. They will be asked to do more, pay more and offer more concessions in order to be granted US favour.

In the absence of an alternative, that is an unenviable position to be in. But if alternatives are available, then the current moment in US politics provides a window of opportunity to countries that have found themselves marginalised by Trump’s policy directives. The re-orientation of TPPA is one such opportunity because, if for no other reason, a US return to the TPPA fold in the post-Trump era will see it with much less leverage than it had up until now. Add to that the possibility of increased benefits via a renegotiated deal with the remaining and possibly new partners, and the downside of the US withdrawal seems acceptable.

From a smaller nation perspective, that is a good thing.

War for war’s sake?

datePosted on 13:28, January 17th, 2017 by Pablo

An article in a US magazine about the Senate confirmation hearings of US Secretary of Defense nominee General (ret.) James Mattis struck a chord. The author pointed out that the hearings basically involved patsy questions that were designed to elicit the standard responses about the US having the “greatest” military on earth but (somehow, given that it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined) needed much more money to counter myriad threats. That allowed Senators to push weapons programs being built in their home states such as the F-35 fighter jet and the next generation of nuclear submarines (all of which Mattis said the US needed and the acquisition of which he supported). The sense one gets from the hearings is that it was a stitch up so long as Mattis threw the usual sops to the usual pork barreling crowd.

No questions were asked of Matthis as to why the US goes to war and why, after being constantly embroiled in wars big and small for a quarter century and currently involved publicly in at least eight conflicts (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan), the US has failed to achieve a victory in any of them. What is the point of going to war if the result is inconclusive (Libya), a stalemate (Afghanistan) or a defeat (which Iraq can be considered if one looks at the national and regional situation before and after the US invasion)?  Or is the purpose now simply to feed a military-industrial complex that increasingly occupies a vanguard position in the US economy (even more so than when Dwight Eisenhower warned against the dangers of the complex that led him to coin that phrase)?

It seems that the answer is the latter. But it is worth delving into the backdrop to war-mongering for war and profit’s sake.

There are wars of necessity, wars of opportunity and wars of convenience. Justification for war is usually made on the grounds that they are fought defensively for existential purposes, in the face of grave threats to the nation-state. This is the basis of Laws of War (Jus ad Bellum) arguments. Even so, larger powers may engage (“expeditionary”) wars of offensive opportunity or convenience, most often against smaller or weaker states, if they feel that they can produce an outcome that enhances their international position or achieve a specific goal (political, military or economic). The US invasion of Iraq was a war of opportunity, as the neocons leading the US security apparatus thought that they could redraw the post 9/11 political map of the Middle East by removing Saddam and placing, as it was referred to at the time, a land based aircraft carrier full of US troops in between Iran and Syria that would intimidate both of them. Afghanistan may or may not have been a war of necessity. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan itself did not pose an existential threat to the US, but its aiding and abetting of the 9/11 conspirators, to say nothing of the repercussions of the attacks themselves, advised in favour of a strike against the al-Qaeda safe havens located in that country. Then the conflict morphed into something else. Nation-building, peace enforcement, counter-insurgency, regime support–you name it, but all of these renamed conflict justifications have one common theme: no victory or end in sight.

Russia’s incursions into Georgia and the Ukraine were and are wars of opportunity that have allowed it to reinforce its border buffer areas, something that has been a tenet of Russian geopolitical thought dating back to the Czars. Likewise, Russian involvement in Syria is opportunistically designed to defend the Alawite regime (with or without Assad at its helm), protect Russian interests in Syria (including 100,000 Russian citizens as well as the naval base at Tartus), and increase Russian influence throughout the Middle East in the face of US reluctance to commit significant force in Syria during the Obama administration.

China has claimed that any move to deny it possession of the disputed artificial islands it has built on reefs in the South China Sea will be seen as an existential threat leading to a major regional war. Whether a bluff or not, it is clear that China has used the opportunity provided by US reluctance to confront it early in the island-building process as a means of expanding its littoral claims in accordance with the “three island chain” or “string of pearls” maritime strategy it has long promoted but until recently has not been able to implement (and in which the South China Sea is considered to be Chinese territorial waters within the first or innermost island chain).

Generally speaking, the syllogism upon which wars are fought goes like this: geopolitical position (including diplomatic, economic and security partnerships)–> threat environment–> strategic orientation–> force composition–> weapons acquisition–> tactical orientation–> force deployment–> operational tempo. Depending on the specific nature of this syllogism, nation-states wage wars of an existential, convenience or opportunistic sort. For example, as a small isolated maritime nation New Zealand should, by virtue of the logic embedded in this syllogism, have a naval dominant defensive force structure that emphasis anti-access/area denial capabilities over its littoral waters and sea lines of communication.

However, in practice the NZDF is an Army dominant force with limited blue water naval projection, no air supremacy component and a special operations branch (the SAS) that mainly serves in overseas expeditionary roles that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland. The reason is that force composition is not just product of physical defense needs but also of alliance commitments and international politics, something that has seen the NZDF deployed in foreign combat zones that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland since the end of World War 2.

That returns us to the US and its penchant for continuous war without victory. Regardless of what US politicians say or how “great” its military is, the US is a declining super power transiting from unipolar dominance to great power status in a multipolar world. Yet even when it was the international hegemon it was not clear that it had a full grasp of the need to have strategic coherence before it went to war. For example, for the entire post Cold War period and existing yet to this day, the US claims that it has a “2.5 major regional war” fighting capability (2.5 MRW). That is, it can simultaneously fight two and a half (whatever that means) major regional wars unassisted and prevail in all of them. But the reality is clearly not the case. The US not only cannot fight and prevail in the 2.5 MRW scenario, but it has needed multinational assistance to fight (and still not decisively prevail) in those that it has fought in the last 15 years.

The US makes weapons procurements that are designed to counter a mix of threats without establishing a hierarchy amongst them. The US spends more money on weapons technologies than any other country by a far stretch. In fact, US “defense” spending and the justifications for it are akin to the arguments about the US health system–and the results are similar (high costs tied to corporate manipulation, much technological innovation, excellent high-end delivery systems but less than desired outcomes across the board for the nation as a whole).

US strategic incoherence is rooted in broader disagreements about the thrust of US foreign policy.  Realists, neo-realists, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists compete for foreign policy dominance, yet no single school of thought has prevailed since the mid 1980s (idealists and constructivists had a brief moment in the sun under the first Clinton administration but were soon smothered by the weight of international events). Both the political elite as well as the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies are rendered by divisions amongst these competing theoretical camps, something that has made impossible a coherent approach to the application of armed force in foreign theatres (let it be noted that the US foreign policy and strategic approach has largely been guided by liberal interventionist precepts since the Bush 43 administration, but not to the extent that it has coalesced into a comprehensive theoretical framework for the conduct of US international affairs).

That is the crux of the matter. It is not just, as vulgar Marxists would say, that the military-industrial complex dominates US foreign policy because of its neo-imperialist imperative. There is something to that, but the real bottom line is that without a coherent strategic vision that connects the resort to war to the national, as opposed to corporate interest, then the latter will step into the vacuum and prevail in discussions about national security.

Wrap those discussions in nationalist/patriotic rhetoric festooned with flags and military paraphernalia at everything from car dealerships to football games, add incessant rhetoric about valour and sacrifice defending “freedom,” “democracy” or the US “way of life,” push the uncritical veneration of a “hero” or “warrior” military culture, and you have, in the absence of a genuine strategic rationale for going to war, the trumped up (yes, I did go there) reasons for turning the US into an incessant but ineffectual war machine. Glorification of war as a PR exercise over the course of decades and commercially tied to the minutia of American life is the opiate that feeds public delusion that the US should be the world’s laws enforcement agency and can in fact win any war.

The result is that the US increasingly looks and acts like a jumped up version of the former USSR–a steroid-jacked muscleman with deteriorated internal systems having trouble coping with anger management issues. Yet unlike the USSR, which tested its muscles selectively and avoided constant physical engagement in wars of convenience (and still fell), the US is a muscleman that is always looking for trouble. And trouble it has found.

The strategically incoherent yet endless resort to war in pursuit of profit is one major reason for the US decline. I shall address others in a post to follow.

Darkness at heart.

datePosted on 17:22, January 5th, 2017 by Pablo

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?