Archive for ‘July, 2019’

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

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

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

The real roots of Iranian “brinkmanship.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xenophobia is not always racist.

datePosted on 15:46, July 18th, 2019 by Pablo

I have been reading and listening to the aftermath of Trump’s comments about the four female first term Democratic representatives, all of whom are “people of color.” I found the US coverage interesting both as evidence of partisanship and the deep vein of bigotry that Trump has tapped into in order to advance his political career. But some of the coverage has got me to thinking about how the issue is being framed, specifically whether or not his comments were “racist.”

Here is how I see it: Strictly speaking, the “go back to where you came from” line is xenophobic. It often is underpinned by racism, as in Trump’s case. But it is not the same or reducible to racism because culture, religion, language, dress etc. factor in as well. The primary inference is that the “other” is “foreign.” The distinction is important, especially in a country that has the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol.

Trump’s ignorance of his target’s birth origins does not take away from the underlying anti-foreign message. It appears that in the US xenophobia is more widespread than racism. Trump knows this. That allows him to disavow racism and yet throw bigoted meat to his base because foreigners are “aliens,” the inference being that they are sub-humans who come from crime-infested sh*tholes (his language, not mine). That he speaks of these first generation citizens’ supposed hate for America and loyalty to foreign enemies like al-Qaeda (both demonstrable lies) rather then focus on their racial characteristics is proof that the emphasis is on their foreign “otherness.” Likewise, in calling them socialists and communists Trump and his minions emphasise the “un” American nature of those ideologies and their supposed embrace of them. It is to the xenophobic streak in US society that Trump is speaking to, some of which may be embedded in broader racist sentiment.

As a third generation US citizen descended from Irish Catholic, Italian and Scottish stock, I am well versed in the “go back to where you came from” opinions directed at my grandparents. Then as now it may have overlapped with but was not strictly a matter of racism.

Anyway, as I see it, for all of the nice inscriptions on Lady Liberty, the US has a deeply rooted xenophobic streak that parallels and often overlaps with its history of racism. There are times when one strand overshadows the other, for example during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s when racism took centre stage and xenophobia took a back seat. In today’s context the “acceptable” form of bigotry–besides ongoing homophobia and misogyny–is xenophobia, not racism.

This is what allows the Trump administration to detain thousands of “illegal aliens” (most of the world uses the term “undocumented migrants”) in internment camps. It is what allows it to separate hundreds of “alien” children from their parents and remove them to detention centres far from where their parents are held. The justification for such depravity is not offered on the basis of race but on the basis of birth origin. That, it seems, is more acceptable to many “Americans” who would not accept the wholesale incarceration of African- or Asian-Americans on the sole basis of race.

Oh wait, check that thought. That was only true in other times.

Incidentally, I place qualifier marks around the term “Americans” because “America” refers to continents rather than individual nations, so the appropriation of the word by the US is more a form of linguistic imperialism than an actual descriptor of who is born there.

In any event, I feel that the emphasis on whether Trump’s comments were racist or not obscures and detracts from the fact that xenophobia, stoked by years of endless war against and tensions with foreigners (mostly of color) has made it the preferred form of bigotry wielded by Republicans and those who are fearful of the loss of white dominance in a country where demographic change does not favour them.

Whether or not it will be used as part of a winning electoral strategy by Trump and the Republicans in 2020 remains to be seen. But what it does demonstrably prove is that the historical roots of xenophobic “othering” are being well watered today.

Postscript: Conspicuous by its absence from the MSM coverage is the fact that Trump’s bigotry is, amid all of the rest, gendered at its core. He appears to take particular issue with women who challenge him, especially those who are non-white. He saves the worst of his personal insults for them, and in the case of Rep. Omar he has walked up to the fine line separating protected offensive speech from hate speech. After all, when he falsely claims that someone “hates America,” “is loyal to al-Qaeda,” is a “communist” and even was married to her brother (yes, he did indeed say that), then he is coming perilously close to inciting violence against her. After all, if you condense what he is saying, she is an insolent commie incestuous female who hates America and who therefore does not deserve the common protections afforded “real” citizens.

Yet the media has not focused on these components of his rhetoric as much as they should be. Instead we get the usual analyses that “he is consolidating his base” and “he is trying to tar the Democratic Party with the “four women of the apocalypse” brush”, which if true do not fully capture the evilness of his intent. While I do not think that his offensive views merit impeachment at this point (since in my opinion they do not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours), should anything happen to any one of the so-called “squad,” and should that be the work of a Trump supporter, then I think that there is fair grounds to do so.

Torture works.

datePosted on 15:55, July 1st, 2019 by Pablo

I have been working my way through a 47,000 document tranche of declassified US government communications related to Argentina and the “Dirty War” of 1976-83. I grew up in Argentina in the period leading up to the March 24, 1976 coup d’état that ushered in the so-called “Process of National Reorganisation,” the euphemism that the military junta used to justify its actions. That was the period when I was politically socialised and which has marked my approach to politics ever since.

I also do so because I did human rights work in Argentina in the early 1980s and wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on the Argentine state that required repeated primary source field research in the country throughout that decade. Those trips afforded me the opportunity to complement my human rights work with documentary and interview data that, while tangental to the dissertation, were central to my interest in what happened to people I knew who were caught up in the “Process.” I continued this interest as a sidebar to my academic work and official obligations while serving in and with US government agencies in the late 80s and early to mid 1990s. Even so, I did not have the time or authority to access what has emerged in this tranche of documents.

The documents (known as “cables” in diplomatic parlance) come from the CIA, FBI, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies such as the Commerce Department that had involvement in Argentine issues during that period. The quality of the reporting and analysis is surprisingly good and the tone often brutally frank. Even so, thousands of pages in the declassified tranche are redacted or completely blank, attesting to ongoing sensitivity of some of the subjects being discussed. On a more personal level, the documents reveal the names of people that I knew while growing up, both embassy officials as well as private businessmen, school officials and missionaries (they were all men) who were fathers of kids that I went to school with and who either wrote the cables in question or served as informants to the embassy.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting is the constant references to the Argentine security forces use of murder and torture. Time and time again the cables detail how torture was used to extract information and confessions, often followed by the murder of prisoners. The cables report things such as corpse disposal techniques improving after scores of bodies were discovered in public places with clear signs of torture and execution-style bullet wounds (among others, the “disposal-via-plane” method–where prisoners were sedated, loaded onto Air Force planes and dumped over the South Atlantic away from shore–was perfected after weighed-down bodies surfaced in the River Plate and many others were identified on land even though efforts had been made to destroy any possibility of identification). They note that many of the dead were said to have been killed in armed confrontations with security forces that never happened, and that many of those killed were students, unionists, academics, journalists, politicians and others unconnected to the various guerrilla groups (Montoneros and Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP, primarily) that were operating at the time.

The more I read the more I began to question a long held belief of mine: that torture does not work as an interrogation method, but instead is simply a cruel form of punishment. Readers may remember that, following on earlier academic and policy writing on the subject, I blogged here at KP about how torture does not work. But as I read the horrific descriptions of the methods used by the Argentine inquisitors and what happened as a result, and even though I had interviewed a few torture survivors during my human rights work, it dawned on me that I was wrong. Torture does, in fact, work as a means of extracting time sensitive tactical as well as strategic information from victims. Allow me to explain.

Torture only works in specific circumstances. Where it does not work is in democracies with strong institutions and the rule of law. Take, for example, the US torture program known as “enhanced interrogation.” This was an extension of coercive interrogation techniques that US military counter-intelligence officers developed by adapting a blueprint provided by the Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) programs operated by the US military for personnel at high risk of capture in hostile territory. Those programs emulated the unpleasantness of foreign interrogations (say, by North Vietnamese) so that those going through the SERE programs would have the mental and physical ability to cope without breaking.

After 9/11 the CIA decided to turn SERE on its head and use it as a basis for enhanced interrogation of suspected jihadists. That in turn led to its use by the US military against jihadists and insurgents in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Supervised by psychologists and medical doctors, techniques like water-boarding, exposure to extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, painful binding by ropes, simulated executions and threatened electric shocks (where captives were hooked up by wires to car batteries or wall power outlets), simulated attacks by military working dogs (reportedly suggested by Israeli intelligence because of Arabs’ aversion to dogs) and sexual degradation were used by interrogators to try and extract both real-time and broad picture information from prisoners. The pictures that emerged from the Iraqi prison at Abu Ghraib–where US Army military police went rogue because of the environment created by their commanders–alerted the world to the fact that the US was routinely employing torture as an interrogation method, something that also occurred at detention facilities at Baghram Military Air Base in Kabul and in at the detention centre (Camp X Ray) operated by US Marines at the US Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This stopped when the Obama administration took office.

There were limits to what the US torturers would do. Deaths, rapes and other atrocities did occur but the overall thrust of US torture programs was to avoid such “excesses” and to remain within the broadly defined limits of US military codes of justice and the laws of war. It can be argued whether that in fact happened, but the point is that the US military, the CIA and the US government all wanted to give at least the appearance of norm adherence and legal cover. This forced the interrogators to engage in self-limiting strategies when it came to the treatment of prisoners, even if the boundaries of that self-limitation were broad. They were constrained by both the institutional and legal apparatus under which they operated and perhaps by their internalisation of cultural mores and norms regarding acceptability and limits to what can be done in defence of the State’s interests.

Whatever the reason for the relative self-limitation of the US torturers, the end result is that, rightwing apologist’s bluster to the contrary, limited “actionable” intelligence was obtained via the enhanced interrogation program (this was detailed in the Congressional Report on the matter).

Bottom line? Torture does not work when practiced by agents of modern democratic states with strong institutions and laws and a concern for human rights and civil liberties even when dealing with foreign enemies.

No such thing happened during the “Dirty War.” There were no limits set on what interrogators could do to prisoners other than what their consciences dictated. Moreover, the torturers were required to observe each other’s work, to include murdering people, so as to cement the bonds of group complicity (presumably in the hope of securing group silence in future years). The barbarity unleashed on suspects was medieval, modern and mind-bending in its depravity. The interrogators used flame, electricity, water, blunt, bladed and teethed tools, surgical instruments, pneumatic machines, vices and industrial presses. They removed body parts without anaesthesia for no medical purpose. They made captives perform grossly degrading acts and penetrated them with an assortment objects. They raped and sodomized both men and women alike and used animals to do so as well. They mutilated, tortured and murdered children, spouses, siblings, parents and grandparents in front of prisoners. There was simply nothing they would or could not do in pursuit of a confession and/or information about others. Worse yet, many of these evil beings still walk amongst us, either in exile or still in Argentina in spite of the various trials of officials implicated in the atrocities of the Dirty War.

Beyond the personal tragedies of those victimised, this is the saddest part: The torturer’s methods worked. Time and time again the US cables document Argentine security officials stating that prisoners identified other members of political resistance groups after “hard” interrogations. Time and time again the cables detailed how one by one “terrorist” cells were dismantled thanks to information gleaned from such interrogations. From the time the military took power on March 24, 1976 to the time of the Soccer World Cup held in Argentina in June-July 1978, tens of thousands of people vanished (some into exile) and levels of political violence declined from an average of half a dozen murders a day to near zero. Both urban and rural guerrilla groups were decimated and thousands of people disappeared. By the time the World Cup started under the watchful eyes of the junta and celebrity guests like Henry Kissinger, Argentina was once again at peace, even if it was the peace of the dead.

Two things stand out for me. First, why did the victims give up the names of comrades, friends, acquaintances and family rather than just accept the fact that they were going to die? Surely they must have known that they and the people tortured in front of them would not make it out alive, so why give the torturers what they wanted? All I can think is that while many people broke because of the physical horrors inflicted on them and hoped to escape death in their moment of agony, an equal number broke because they wanted to save the lives of their loved ones even if they knew that they would die and their loved ones or others would likely die anyway. Between desperation and pain, it seems that the captive’s minds searched for futile hope in the midst of darkness.

The second standout point is what made the torturers do what they did? There certainly was both individual and collective psychopathic behaviour involved (such as in the case of the infamous “Angel of Death” Lt. Carlos Astiz, later captured by the British in the first confrontation of the Falklands/Malvinas War), but it also appears that to reach the state of mind that they operated in they had to believe that a) democracy and human rights were useless concepts; b) the rule of law was no longer viable as a social construct; c) ideological enemies were sub-human; d) they were part of a greater good; e) morality was relative and the ends justified the means; f) they were inured to violence given the ongoing and escalating social conflict of the previous decade; g) they had impunity, both present and future; h) their cause was existential (in this case defence of the Catholic, capitalist, heterosexual, patriarchal and white-dominant parameters of Argentine society).

Which is to say, when unconstrained by democratic norms and (at least concern about) the rule of law, torture works. It works because once there is no limit to what torturers can do, their victims have only one–even if futile– hope to save themselves or others, and that is to talk. The democratic “variant” of torture simply cannot enter this realm unless the very values that underpin democratic socialisation are absent in the interrogator.

That explains why I was wrong about the utility of torture. I used to think that torture persisted because it was useful as a punishment that reminded potential victims of the costs of engaging in specific courses of action and thereby deterred them from doing so. I also thought that it involved sadistic pleasure on the part of desensitized socio- or pyschopathic perpetrators.

Now I believe that, along with both of these motives, torture persists throughout history because it is a useful interrogation method under specific conditions where democratic norms, values, institutions and legal codes do not apply. Since democracies have historically been a minority among world governance structures, this can explain the wide-spread use of torture to this day.

I am belabouring the obvious.

I will not go into how the Catholic Church and several democracies were active supporters of the Argentine dictatorship (including the US until Jimmy Carter was elected, and then after he was replaced by Ronald Reagan). Nor will I delve into how civil wars often see more atrocities committed than in foreign wars. What I will note is that when democracies begin to be corroded from within and respect for institutions and laws and basic norms about civility begin to be supplanted by partisanship, opportunism and treachery, then the slide into darkness has begun.

Perhaps that is what happened to the Bush 43 administration, and which may be happening now under Trump. Perhaps it is what led the French to go feral when trying to cling on to their colonial possessions in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whatever the case there is one more thing to ponder. If a liberal democracy like New Zealand had anything to do with the extraordinary rendition and black site programs that the US ran as conduits into and locations for its “enhanced interrogation” efforts, then merely having strong institutions and respect for the rule of law is not enough to guard against complicity in torture when fear of “the other,” bureaucratic opportunism and security partner pressure is involved. That is a major reason why I am interested in reading the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security’s (still delayed) report on whether New Zealand had anything to do with that part of the US “war on terrorism.”