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After previously examining the big four of NZ politics we now turn our eye to the first of the lesser denizens of the swamp called parliament and look at one species of creature soon to be extinct. Also apologies for the length, I swear I try and keep them short.

If there was a time when ACT was a genuine political party, those days are past. In the late 90s and early 2000s ACT could indeed claim to be a such a thing as it polled respectably and had yet to be tainted by the scandals, squabbling and power struggles which have now left it dead in the polls and relevant only because the Auckland electorate of Epsom has developed a rather strange fetish for it.

The fact that the party has visibly withered in the last decade is almost entirely down to its own deceitful actions and the fact that it’s championing of the neo-liberal agenda and as a mouthpiece for the ultra-rich and corporate entities has gone from distasteful to downright loathsome.

The question that always interested me was in trying to figure out if ACT really believed the gibberish it was spouting or if they were just happy being mouthpieces for one of the most vile ideologies of our time; that of a happy return to feudalism under corporate masters rather than blue bloods.

In the 90s the party happily spouted Business Roundtable platitudes while supporting the National government but it also could claim some degree of moral ground under “perk buster” Rodney Hide (who was later busted for abusing the very same system of parliamentary perks and privilege that he had hypocritically been railing against) and having some theoretical pedigree by claiming it was championing individual rights and freedoms.

Today it polls about as popular as a party of pedophiles and its theoretical and political base is worm ridden and compromised (in fact given it currently polls around the 1% mark I see no irony in recognizing the fact that it is has always represented the interests of the 1%). But between 1996 and 2002 it rode high in the polls as part of those heady days of early MMP with a respectable 7%.

The fact that that most of that 7% could be ascribed to the more right wing elements of the National party fleeing in the wake of Nationals dismal results in 1999 and 2002 may have escaped ACT’s attention but despite these high poll results it was never a part of the Labour Government under Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008 (I wonder why?).

But at its simplest ACT was built and commissioned as a vehicle for those who wanted to continue to advance the free market ideology of the 80s into the 90s and beyond.

If my previous analysis of the big four political parties had looked at the failures of each party under the headings of: the party itself (Labour); its individual members (National); personal political advancement (NZ First) and selling out its core values (the Greens: no they haven’t done this yet but that’s what my post about them was warning against) then my analysis of ACT is a combination of all of the above.

The grim state of the party is a warning to all others in the NZ political sandbox of what happens to those who abandon all morality for greed by peddling themselves to clearly self-serving ideologies that reject even the basic tenants of community and commons.

More technically ACT is clear evidence of what happens when a political party is clearly serving a vested interest and staffed with a rouges gallery of goons and goombahs in the best traditions of the SA.

Yes that’s right (no pun intended), ACT were to be the brown shirts of right-wing NZ revolution (an odious tradition continued today by bloggers like Cameron Slater over on the Whale Oil), a vanguard of the free market and like the SA are self-destructing in a queasy orgy of criminal and corrupt behavior (although no night of the long knives for ACT, yet).

It’s worth examining some of the histories of the specters that have made up the party to get a better picture of what exactly went wrong and why the party is no longer a viable entity.

First things first there was Rodger Douglas. In being a key figure in forming a political party the message was crystal clear of what ACT stood for. If you liked the regulatory and free market revolution that his reforms had created for NZ then this was the party for you. Most of the electorate was not a fan but a sizable minority (6%) did vote for the party in 1996 and in part that was on the perceived value of the firm economic policy that ACT seemed to be advocating and the supposed benefits it brought.

In 1996 Douglas was no longer in charge of the economy but with his disciple Ruth Richardson (a known member of the Mont Perlin Society: The John Birch society for accountants) still keeping the ovens going (under a continuation of Rogernomics now termed “Ruthanasia”) his reforms continued and helped to make 1990s NZ a grim and bleak place to live.

With Labour back in government in 1999 it was clear that ACT was not going to be getting a seat at the table and Douglas, never keen on Hides leadership stepped away from the party in 2004 as ACT languished in opposition for most of the decade.

Then in 2008 Douglas, along with Heather Roy, staged a failed coup attempt on Rodney Hide, who survived due to the timely intervention of John Key. Douglas started to fade after this time as several bills he tried to introduce into parliament failed in the house and in 2011 he called it quits.

His legacy as the architect of so much pain and misery is reflected in things like the growing wealth and inequality gaps, the scandal of poor and hungry children in NZ and a merchant banker (John Key) as PM.

Douglas is the reason why the argument that ACT sold its soul to sing for the devil is false. ACT (and Douglas) never had any soul to begin with; they were catamites from the start and an open vehicle for the free-market agenda that has been exploited by a grubby few to almost everyone’s disadvantage.

But Douglas is the just the first of many who would make the party look like the criminal rabble it was rapidly turning into and leave it as the soulless husk it is today.

Stalwart party members like John Banks (accused of submitting false electoral returns, shilling for Kim Dotcom and a dangerous level of religious zealotry among his numerous misdeeds); Donna Awatere Huata (tried, sentenced and jailed for fraud); David Garret (stealing the identity of a dead child in an attempt to get a false passport); Rodney Hide (caught abusing the very perks he had built his reputation on); Heather Roy and Ken Shirley (shilling for big pharma); Deborah Coddington (anti-Asian Immigration) and Hillary Calvert (who makes the list for her delightful quote “we care about people ahead of silly little chickens”) have been the storm troopers of right wing ideology and policy, who have helped turn ACT into the ship of fools that it is but also a refuge for misfits, rejects and political mercenaries of all stripes (Don Brash).

If it was just its cast of ugly criminal characters alone then ACT would be no worse than National with its similar scum pool of human misdemeanors but ACT also fails on the Policy front, ala Labour, but much much worse.

On casual perusal, ACT’s policy portfolio seems to have some merit with its claims of freedom and lower taxes for all but as with all policy the devil is in the details and with further reading, as well as knowing ACT’s pedigree and track record, it’s easy to locate the keywords and decipher their actual meaning.

ACT adheres to the political equivalent of creationism, that of small government; low taxes and private provision of public services (charter schools, Serco run prisons, asset sales and letting the kind and benevolent market take care of things).

ACT’s definition of “core functions” of government ignores the reality that is the highly complex society that we live in and imagines that market functions would be able to contain the anarchy that the market itself has been shown to create (booms, busts, bubbles, cartels, tax havens, corruption, nepotism, market manipulation, offshore trusts and growing wealth and inequality).

At its center ACT’s intellectual pedigree, albeit diluted and watered down, is no worse than the intellectual foundations on which other parties sit, but unlike National and Labour, which have simply let their policy bases fade away in favor of craven appeals to the policy melting pot of “the middle ground”, ACT’s is, and has always been, in the service of those who seek appealing theoretical foundations on which to base their dubious actions.

ACT’s foundations lie in Friedrich Hayek and the Mont Perlin society and more directly the NZ Business Roundtable (now dubbed the New Zealand Initiative). Hayek’s arguments against collectivization were an intense part of my undergrad study in political theory and his was, like many other thinkers, a clear and conscious reaction to the tumult of the first half of the 20th century by attempting to provide solutions to those times problems.

As a political theory this is fine (although I tended to favor the position taken by Polanyi) but its use as a smokescreen for actions by others with agendas which do not really align with the theory they are trumpeting is nothing more than intellectual window dressing for the traveling snake oil show that has been neo-liberalism and its use by global elites to dismantle any organisation or structure which hampers their pursuit of profit and power.

Reading through chunks of policy statements give the impression that ACT is obsessed with saving “the children”, really hates big government and that lower taxes are the answer to many issues but one also can find references to “ACTs advisers”; a distaste for beneficiaries, the treaty of Waitangi, the RMA; and a host of neo-liberal buzzwords like “signalling”, “choice” and “potential”.

The sum of all of this is that the parties’ policy prescriptions sound wonderfully empowering and harmless until you realize that these prescriptions have already been enacted around the world and we have been living in the “utopia” promised to us by the smooth talking acolytes of small government and less taxes.

I could go on forever here in pointing out the flaws in these overly elaborate theories which have never been, and never will, be honestly enacted but the point is clear. The message being preached has failed, it’s been tried and it failed, the desperate cries of “more of the same”, by ACT and National, to solve the problems previously created by “more of the same” now sound like doom cultists chanting.

But what about the current leadership, what about ACT’s philosopher-king David Seymour and his role as free-market mouthpiece?

At first Seymour seems to be a new face for the party but once you dig into his background his links to conservative think tanks, including one which helped shape Stephen Harper’s right wing paradise in Canada (before the inevitable backlash kicked in), it becomes clear and you figure out that someone (read what painfully passes for ACTs brain trust) has been seeking to emulate the safe, white, suit and tie, clean shaven, middle aged male look (ala Key, Cameron, Bush Jnr, Blair et al) but not quite managed to get the facial features right on the identikit robot they ordered from conservatives’R’us.

And with the ACT party webpage now resembling a personal blog (with what appear to be self-written press releases by Seymour about Seymour all over the main page) and his face repeatedly staring back at you with each new post I find myself wondering. His opinions, while few and far between in the press, have given no indication that he has deviated from the party line but perhaps, just perhaps, he realizes its a dead ship he is now captaining and has plans to try and steer it into a safe port for rest and refit.

The odds of that happening rest entirely on Epsom deciding to retain any party candidate as their representative in parliament. Personally If I was Labours campaign manager I would be marshaling forces to get Seymour and Act out of Epsom at all costs even (this could also apply to Peter Dunne in Ohariu) to the point of getting voters to vote National (something that happened in the last election anyway when tactical voting chopped ACTs lead to 6% over National).

Seymour has none of the appeal of Key, personality of Winston or moral integrity of the Greens. It’s almost like he has no soul (a double possibility given his intellectual and political backgrounds) and I will be watching Epsom 2017 with great interest as if ACT loose their seat then its dead and buried and all the grubby refuse that is the party will be swept away.

ACT, unlike Labour and National, does not have a historical background to fall back on when its actions in the present taint it; nor does it have the charisma and appeal of someone like Winston to work their mojo for the crowds; also it does not have any moral stance to support its positions and arguments (ala the Greens) and protect it from criticism.

ACT has been around just over 20 years and its life is almost over. Truly the flame that burnt as half as long was twice as dull.

 

Apologies in advance for the hyperbole but once I got on a roll it was impossible to stop.

 

I got bagged last week by some who knew me and read my post about Andrew Little and Labour as I appeared to them (and not all of them would fit into the mold of Left or Liberal) as a closet or crypto sympathizer for National and John Key and all they stand for.

This of course would be far from the truth, as on the political spectrum, I consider myself a fascist anarchist and in no way supportive of National. But as I said last week I am no fan of Labour but some took my last post as a clear vote for the Senor Key and Co. So to keep the karmic balance this post will peel away the blue on National corpse and see what lies underneath (I was planning to write about the security services in NZ but c’est la vie).

The difference between my analysis of Labour and National is that while my focus on Labour was on the failures of the party over the failures of individuals, National is the opposite it’s the failures of individuals that dominates the party and has done so for over a decade now.

To start John Key has been very successful as a politician, so successful in fact that it would be easier to call National the “John Key Party” than refer to them as National. But Keys success as Politician has come at a cost, to both himself and the John Key Party.

Firstly Keys success as politician does not translate well into actual leadership, legacy or being remembered as PM. The multitude of screw ups, gaffs, scandals, dodgy behavior, greedy and corrupt behavior by Keys minions is legion which shows that despite his high polling he has been unable to keep his employees from running amok when his eyes are not directly on them.

This is because that Key has his own version of the Fuhrerprinzip (leadership principle) in play here. He may not have started out as the dictator of National but as the success of the party rests entirely on his ongoing popularity it’s become his show and his show only and much like other dictators Key keeps those under him busy squabbling for power so that they don’t have time to unite against him or do too much damage.

Unfortunately political golems that comprise the party, such as the reptilian Judith Collins, failed Wagnerian/Faustian Jerry Brownlee and power hungry Steven Joyce, feature regularly in the press but rarely for good reasons.

Collins misdeeds are numerous and not even worth mentioning here except that it’s clear that Key brought her back into cabinet after the scandal of Dirty Politics and who she was dining with in China under the old adage of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. The smiling assassin wants to see the blade coming and by keeping Collins on a short leash and continuing to utilize her attack dog qualities he keeps her occupied and not with no further time to plot his overthrow, as had been rumored.

Brownlee also has been a useful tool to Key as flak catcher for the growing disquiet around the Christchurch Rebuild (nepotism, shoddy work practices and questionable dealings) but Brownlee is really known for little but his escapades in the media where he tried to start a war with Finland, Flouted Civil Aviation Authority rules and has demonstrated that his mouth is not connected to his brain. Also his placement as Minister of Defense, while seeming important, is actually a demotion to a backwater government department as a way of keeping him busy and out of trouble (much in the same vein that Murray Mcully’s appointment to the Foreign Affairs kept him out of the way by keeping him out of the country as much as possible) with all those “important” meetings overseas.

Meanwhile Steven Joyce oversaw his Frankenstein creation of MBIE (among other misdeeds), cobbling together disparate ministries and sections of government into an unholy (and unworkable) creation, staffed at senior levels with barely competent DCEs and then jammed into a chicken coop of a building complete with opulent surrounds at taxpayer expense. It was a power grab pure and simple and much in the vein of the SS in Germany capturing police and security functions under the banner of “centralization” but it’s become a bloated sagging beast with a toxic work culture and extremely high union membership.

But it’s not only the senior ministers that have appeared in the media as creatures that you’d rather not sit next to on the bus. Arron Gilmore will be forever remembered as for his arrogant outburst regarding who he was in regards to his membership in the John Key Party and current troubles with Todd Barclay’s staff show that the newer members of the party won’t be lax when it comes to acting like they are to the manor born.

And these are just examples that I am pulling off the top of my head. There are so many more that it does seem at times that the New Zealand political press are running a concerted campaign to discredit the Senor Key Party by publishing only the bad news but the truth is that the behavior of the members of the party has long been grossly out of touch with expected standards of decency and behavior. The short lived political career of Pansy Wong springs to mind or the highly inappropriate behavior of Maurice Williamson in calling the police when a rich “friend” was in trouble for are just a few more that freely spring to mind.

But there is a method to my madness in cataloging these examples of nether-spawn here and it’s to place the popularity of Key in clear contrast to the Party (and its dismal inhabitants) he fronts.

Key is the Golden Boy, popular in the polls and able to appear in public during daylight hours. But the shadow he casts is long and dark and it’s in the darkness that things grow and thrive, things which cannot go into the light lest they die from exposure.

This is a tale of horror and dark deeds, of human sacrifice and blood, of a pact with demons, a deal with the devil.

Our tale begins in 1999, after nine years in government (and the last three at the behest of Winston Peters) Jenny Shipley (now being sued as a former director of Mainzeal) steered the party onto the rocks of Defeat and Helen Clark led Labour into power. Nationals performance in 1999 was dismal but was nothing to the beating it got in 2002 (20%; it’s lowest ever election result and a nadir even lower than anything achieved by Labour at the polls).

Then several strange things happened but to sum it up simply the party was taken over/bought out in aggressive coup by right-wing interests fronted by Don Brash and the Business Roundtable (Now known as the New Zealand Initiative in an attempt to re-brand its tarnished image). Bill English (possibly the last real link to National of the past times) was sacrificed publicly and painfully on the altar of political convenience and John Key entered the party (or if rumors are to be believed he was aggressively recruited due to his wealth and connections).

Weather Brash had sold his soul to get the leadership or was a patsy may never be known but it’s around this time that the remaining country elements of the party were being cleared out and put off to pasture (no pun intended). Dark words and incantations had been whispered and evil things summoned and now the life that flowed through the party was no human blood but a mix of money, religion and spin.

Shortly after Brash self-destructed in an orgy of greasy stories about his sex life and revelations from Nicky Hagar’s Hollow Men showed that the party was not only beholden to larger business interests but also rapidly becoming a vehicle for money and religion in ways that mirror the strange nexus of religion and power in US evangelicals. Stepping into the breach in 2006 at this time was John Key and the party’s fortunes mysteriously began to rise (to be fair Brash’s infamous Orewa speech had helped to raise the party’s fortunes but his own personal culpability was still poison to the party).

And rise they have but only in relation to Keys personal popularity and when he falls the party will fall with him.

By listing only some of the stains found on the scaly carcass of the party it’s clear that the John Key Party is not only wholly corrupt but incapable of behaving in any manner that requires honesty, decency or integrity and that without the magic of John Key National would have either self-destructed (ala Labour with endless power struggles and coup attempts) or faded into electoral irrelevance by now.

So what’s the plan in the post Key environment for the misanthropes of National? Which of the shambling horrors currently prowling the halls of the Beehive would the average Kiwi voter go for?

The first (and only) name that springs to my mind is Simon Powers. He was being groomed for the role by being chief whip and had the looks, and ability to speak without putting his foot in his mouth but Powers left after two terms (perhaps sensing the poison in the chalice being offered to him) for greener pastures (Run Simon, run!).

Other than that it’s difficult if not impossible to imagine anyone of the current crop of National MPs now sitting at the top level being able to either lead the party without its descending into a hellish power struggle or elicit any positive reaction in the polls to the grotesque suggestion that they may be likable or have any human feelings (or perhaps are even human). Further with the junior ranks either imploding due to swollen hubris or simply because so many National MPs (like Labour’s middle and bottom tiers) are just seat fillers, cautious drones taking their nice salary and doing little for their electorates, no voter in their right mind would be ticking their name on the ballot form either.

A clear example of this hideous electoral dislocation is Winston Peter’s astounding win in the Northland by-election. In what was supposed to be a safe National seat (until Mike Sabine was found to be under investigation by the Police for Assault in another instance of reprehensible behavior) Winston took his traveling medicine show out on the hustings and reaped the spoils of Nationals arrogance and terrible treatment of the electorate.

And if your still reading at this point you may be getting the picture. National is a party that is on life support and that life support is John Key. As soon as he leaves or no longer has the magic touch in the polls the party will be a shambling corpse, an undead husk full of nothing but vile waste and human maggots.

No one is going to vote for Judith Collins, Jerry Brownlee or any of the others grim specters as leader or as PM and the desperate reliance on dirty tricks and heavily manufactured (official and unofficial) spin has left the party desperately hyping and protecting its one and only political life line, John Key.

But zombie parties do not die, they have to be killed and the question is who will do the killing? Vernon Small pointed out in today’s media that John Keys current position in the wake of Panama Papers (the usual Key safe, clean and neat statements) is effectively “handing a cudgel” to the opposition. But who will swing it? Who has the strength?

The Greens and NZ First most certainly have the will but not the strength to really kill National. Labour has the strength but is unable to get its house in order and remains timidly cowering in the corner (in the tradition of many classic horror movies) paralyzed with fear while the beast runs amok among other victims.

Possibly in combination could these three, like some sort of political transforming robot, combine their powers to take out National but that is unlikely (an issue to be explored at a later date) and the odds that come November 2017 we will either see John Key lead his party into a fourth term or a Coalition Government with Labour, NZ First and the Greens in uneasy coexistence are high.

If National is defeated in 2017 then it’s the end of Key, he won’t hang around and will go off to reap the rewards promised by his backers way back in 2002. If National makes a fourth term then all bets are off and Key will rule as long as his popularity lasts.

And that is the final key (no pun intended) to the puzzle, his popularity. As Phil F pointed out in the comments to my last post (and is echoed by the folks over at Redline Blog), a large section of the New Zealand electorate has been docile and passive in the face of the Machiavellian antics of Key and Co.

Voter apathy in the wake of endless scandals by the National party and John Key means that where acts which would have people out in the streets or at least an uproar in other countries have been met with large doses of indifference and ignorance, which are fuel for the polling engine that drives Team Key. Part of the blame lies with the mainstream media but the other with the general public themselves (again fodder for future posts) and it’s rapidly becomes a chicken or egg argument in determining which causes which.

So to end what has again been a long post (I do apologize for the length) it’s worth summing things up. National is a dead party walking as soon as it no longer has John key to prop it up (be it in person or popularity); it’s filled with corrupt individuals and backed by larger business interest for said interests. Its policy is a mild brand of conservatism, watered down to enable it to hold the middle ground and engineered in-line with failed and discredited Neo-liberal principles.

This is a party fighting a holding action to enable those who currently benefit from 30 years of rapacious public policy to consolidate their gains and maintain their lifestyles. The fact that National is literally rotting away before the nations eyes and lead by a necromancer king has yet to generate the fear and loathing that it should in this climate of change shows that we are either under Keys spell or things will remain as they are until history does the job for us and removes the horror for us.

In times like this a heroine or hero is required, or the peoples will must be manifest, both of which have their dangers but it’s clear that the beehive is now more akin to Dracula’s castle looming over the peasant village below and at nights dark and monstrous shapes can be seen  in the windows.

The destruction of brand Trump.

datePosted on 11:37, March 13th, 2016 by Pablo

As readers may be aware I am delighted by the Trump candidacy because it is destroying the Republican Party and will pave the way for an epic defeat in the November general elections. Not only will the GOP lose the presidential race because none of its candidates will be able to muster the votes needed to overcome the Democratic advantage (be it Hillary or Bernie who lead the ticket). It could well lose control of Congress on the negative coattails of the presidential race (the entire House and 1/3 of the Senate are up for grabs, with the Democrats needing to win 4-5 current Republican seats in order to gain control of the Senate). It does not matter if Trump is the GOP presidential candidate or if he or another Republican go independent in the wake of the convention, which itself promises to be a bloodbath. The vast majority of swing voters and independents, who tend to vote on the Left in any event, will be galvanised to vote against whatever the Republicans have to offer, Trump in particular. For all his bluster about bringing out new voters on the Republican side, what he really has done is bring out new voters on both sides–most of whom are against him. As a result, the GOP is doomed and could well split into Tea bagger/populist and “moderate” right parties in the wake of what is looming as an electoral  catastrophe of historical proportions.

A tipping point has been reached this week with the escalation of protests against Trump at his rallies and the retaliatory violence of his supporters and campaign staff and security against those who dare confront him on his xenophobic bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric (and one has to ask why local law enforcement and the Secret Service act as his praetorian guard when removing peaceful protesters at his behest. After all, they are not in his employ and are not legally authorised to detain, handcuff and arrest people exercising their right to protest in public spaces just because he wants them forcibly removed).

The cancellation of a Chicago rally because of protests will only encourage more of them, and they will be increasingly large and organised in nature. That in turn will enrage Trump, who does not have the good sense (or even basic ability) to moderate his venom, which will bring out the full nut case element in his support base (which has already started to appear more and more frequently). Unfortunately, it is now a very real possibility that someone will be killed or seriously injured at a Trump rally, and the perpetrators will be his supporters, not his opponents.

When that happens, the wheels will come off the Trump political cart.

By then the damage to the GOP “brand” will have been irretrievably done. But what I find just as wonderful is that Brand Trump itself is now irreversibly damaged as well. However illusory, it used to represent luxury, opulence, quality, style and the excess that comes with success. It had global recognition. It was synonymous with capitalist high rolling, only in part because of his obsession with casinos.

In the wake of this presidential campaign, that image has been replaced by something less illusory and much darker. “Trump” is now synonymous with racism, xenophobia, buffoonery, demagoguery, narcism, sociopathy, chauvinism, misogyny, war-mongering, bullying, cheating, lying, senseless violence, stupidity–the list goes on. Whatever people may have done by way of word association with the name Trump in the past, my bet is that the first thing that now comes to mind when his name is mentioned is some of the negative terms mentioned above.  In fact, the word Trump may well become an adjective or verb, as in “that old white dude went all Trump on me when I said that Obama was not a Kenyan,” or “that reactionary fool is just plain Trumped in the head.” It could even be used as a noun, for example, as in “Trumpster:” n.: an idiot, fool, dolt, ignoramus, numbskull, someone who is gullible, slow on the uptake, blindly naive or prejudiced in the extreme.

His tarnished brand may survive in the US, perhaps in red neck resort destinations like the Florida panhandle and the coastal Deep South and/or parts of Appalachia. But many Americans, and not just “ethnic” Americans or Democrats, will shun his products, services and anything with his name on it. There may be boycotts and protests organised against them. And with the possible exception of Putin’s Russia (given the mutual admiration society he runs with Trump), as a global brand it is finished. Think of the Arabs, Latin Americans, Asians and even Europeans that Trump has scapegoated and insulted. Any current or potential Trump business partner or investor now has to wonder if they will be tainted by association with him and whether their business will suffer as a result. Given daily revelations of his less than salubrious past business dealings, profound dishonesty and myriad failures that have ruined others much more than it has hurt him,what foreign governments other than those of tinpot dictators are going to want a bar of him as an investment partner? Even better, increased scrutiny of his business dealings may well result in criminal charges being laid against him, which will only add to the tarnish on the brand.

The hard fact is that the Trump campaign will prove deleterious for Trump business holdings, which explains why his managerial minions, “the best people” in his words,  are currently in the process of putting legal and PR distance on him. The trouble for them, however, remains embedded in that ubiquitous name.

This is the silver lining in the Trump cloud. Not only has he exposed the ugly side of US politics. He has exposed himself and his illusory brand in doing so. He is taking the GOP down along with him, and neither it or his brand will survive the fall intact.

That is truly a good thing.

Fiji’s strategic pivot.

datePosted on 15:13, January 27th, 2016 by Pablo

Last week Fiji took delivery of a shipment of Russian weapons that were “donated” by Russia pursuant to a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in February 2015. The Fijians say that the weapons are needed by Fijian peacekeepers in places like the Middle East because what they currently have in their inventory is obsolete. The shipment includes small arms (squad) weapons, two trucks, tear gas, other non-lethal munitions and possibly one or more helicopters. The shipment will formally be unveiled in February in front of a Russian delegation that will include military trainers who will remain in Fiji to instruct Fijian military personnel in their proper usage.

Fijian opposition figures believe that the shipment is illegal because it was not approved by Parliament and that it could be used against domestic opponents of the current, military-backed government. Let me briefly outline the issues.

The shipment is perfectly legal as it is not part of a Treaty that needs parliamentary ratification. Plus, it is a “donation” of military aid so it does not need parliamentary approval.

The opposition is correct to be concerned about the “dual use” potential of the weapons. Squad weapons, tear gas and non-lethal munitions can be used in peacekeeping but can also be used as instruments of crowd control at home. Given the Fijian Military Forces history, that is a very real possibility.

The arms shipment could trigger an arms race with Tonga, which also has a military and is a rival of Fiji. The Tongans are not likely to view the shipment kindly even if it does not specifically include naval equipment. Squad weapons can and are used by navies as a matter of routine, and the introduction of military helicopters into a regional rivalry is bound to cause alarm in the Kingdom.

Although Fijian military inventories may well be obsolete (meaning Vietnam era US weapons), most UN peacekeeping missions are armed by the UN using NATO-standard equipment. That includes small arms and troop carriers used in “blue helmet” operations.  Thus the claim that the Russian arms are needed for peacekeeping is debatable at best.

The MOU with Russia also outlines military educational exchanges. These follow on a similar program with the Chinese military (PLA). The Chinese also have funded and undertaken numerous infrastructure projects such as port dredging and road building that have a parallel “dual use” potential: they can be used for civilian and military purposes alike.

Given the above, it is reasonable to speculate that the Chinese and/or Russians may receive forward basing rights in Fiji in the not to distant future. Under the “Looking North” policy Fiji has clearly pivoted away from its traditional Western patrons (Australia, NZ and the US) and towards others that are less concerned about the status of Fijian democracy (such as it is, and it is not very much). Given these weapons transfers plus bilateral military education and training exercises with China and Russia, the path is cleared for the two countries to use Fiji as a means of projecting (especially maritime) power in the South Pacific. The Chinese are already doing so, with Chinese naval ships doing regular ports of call in Suva. After years of neglect, the Russian Pacific fleet has resumed long-range patrols. So the stage is set for a deepening of military ties with a basing agreement for one or both.

The Chinese and Russians are enjoying some of their best bilateral relations in decades. It is therefore possible that they may be working in coordinated, cooperative or complementary fashion when it comes to their overtures to the Fijians. Both seek tourism opportunities as well as preferential access to fisheries in and around Fijian territorial waters, so their non-military interests converge in that regard, which may limit the regional competition between them.

It is clear that post-election Fiji has moved from a “guarded” democracy in which the military acts as a check on civilian government to a soft authoritarian regime in which the executive branch supersedes and subordinates the legislature and judiciary with military connivance. Instead of going from a “hard” dictatorship to a “hard” democracy, Fiji has moved  from a “hard” dictatorship to a “soft” one (for those who know Spanish and the regime transitions literature, the move was from a “dictadura” to a “dictablanda” rather than to a “democradura”).

Some of this is by constitutional design (since the military bureaucratic regime dictated the current constitution prior to the 2014 elections), while other aspects of the slide back towards dictatorship are de facto rather than de jure (such as the speakers’ order to reduce the amount of days parliament can sit. The speaker is a member of the ruling party yet holds a position that is supposed to be apolitical). Then there are the strict restrictions on press freedom and freedom of political participation to consider. Attacks on the Methodist Church, arrests of civil society activists and claims of coup plotting by expats and local associates contribute to concerns about the state of governmental affairs. Add to that the fact that the first Police Commissioner after the election resigned after military interference in his investigation of police officers implicated in torture, and then was replaced by a military officer (against constitutional guarantees of police and military independence) while the policemen were given military commissions (which insulated them from prosecution thanks to provisions in the 2014 constitution), and one gets the sense that Fiji is now a democracy in name only.

None of this bothers the Russians or the Chinese, both of whom resisted the imposition of sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup (to include vetoing UN Security Council resolutions barring Fiji from peacekeeping operations).

All in all, the outlook is two-fold, with one trend a continuation and the other one new. Fiji is once again becoming authoritarian in governance, this time under electoral guise and a facade of constitutionalism. In parallel it has decisively turned away from the West when it comes to its diplomatic and military alignments. This turn is a direct result of the failed sanctions regime imposed on Fiji after the 2006 coup, which was too porous and too shallow to have the impact on Fiji that was hoped for at the time of imposition. The result is a greatly diminished diplomatic influence and leverage on the part of Australia, New Zealand and (to a lesser extent) the US and the rise of China, India and Russia as Fiji’s major diplomatic interlocutors. Factor in Fiji’s disdain for the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and its continued attempt to fashion the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as a counter to it, and the makings of a regional transitional moment are clear.

The sum result of this is that the strategic balance in the South Pacific is clearly in flux. Given the US “pivot” to Asia and the reassertion of its security ties with Australia and New Zealand, that is bound to result in increased diplomatic tensions and gamesmanship in the Western Pacific in the years to come.

Some thoughts on Syrian refugees.

datePosted on 16:57, September 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.

I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.

The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).

When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.

Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers.  They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.

For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.

Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones.  And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.

Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first”  “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.

Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.

That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.

To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.

Don’t tase me bro

datePosted on 23:47, August 1st, 2015 by Lew

Police Commissioner Mike Bush on Friday announced that tasers will be deployed for the use of all front-line officers.

The reasoning behind tasers emphasises the taser’s potential for de-escalation — a “less-than-lethal” alternative to shooting someone — sometimes on the basis very limited operational data. In 2009 and early 2010, when the weapons were on limited deployment in Auckland and Wellington, 10 people were tased, prompting then-Commissioner Howard Broad to write: “It’s pretty clear that in several instances, the person could have been shot with a firearm if Taser hadn’t been available.” The wiggle room here is important: several, could.

Technical and cultural problems
In June, science writer Phillip Ball addressed (MP3) the Royal Society of New Zealand on the topic of invisibility, emphasising that while we tend to regard advantages of this sort as technical problems they are, in reality, moral problems: problems of money, power and sex, or all three at once. One might as well say “cultural problems”. The crucial questions are not about what it does, but about how it is used, by whom, for whose benefit, and governed by what norms. This is the same profound observation that underpins restrictions on weapons of mass destruction, landmines and poison gas, why signatories to the Geneva Conventions use full metal jacketed ammunition, and why no nuclear weapons have been used in war since 1945. So it is disappointing, but not surprising, that the discussion around the Police’s deployment of tasers is largely technical, not cultural.

The justification is clearly-articulated: tasers have, the Police say, proven a useful tactical option between OC spray and a firearm. But the evidence is more complex. It is clear from New Zealand Police operational reports that tasers are safe in aggregate — from 2010 to 2014, 87% of situations where a taser was presented were resolved without it being fired, and the injury rate from their use was 1.1%.

How they are used, by whom, against whom
Aggregates do not tell the whole story. More than half of those tasered are Māori or Pasifika, a figure that has remained reasonably consistent, and which matches the overseas experience in the UK, Canada, the USA and Australia — in Queensland from 2010 to 2012, Indigenous Australians were subject to 22.6% of taser use, despite comprising only 3.5% of the Queensland population. People with mental illness are also subject to much higher rates than others — the British Home Secretary says mentally ill people are about 30% of taser victims, and the Queensland Police Service data cited above says 24.2%. We know also that those at the margins of society, with the fewest options and the least access to legal systems and good medical support — including victims of domestic abuse, sex workers, trans people, drug users and homeless people — are also much more likely to be subject to profiling, greater suspicion, and greater threat of violence by Police. Members of these groups are also more likely to suffer from medical conditions such as heart disease and schizophrenia that can elevate the danger of being hit by a taser. Mental health risks are also particularly concerning, given how prevalent mental illness is in members of these groups, often with violence or abuse by people in power as a contributing factor.

Risks are not evenly distributed. Non-white people are overrepresented in crime statistics, and this must explain some of the increased rates of taser usage against them, but the fact that they are overrepresented is itself a function of the economic, systemic and cultural biases that infuse our society. All else being equal, wider deployment of weapons in the hands of the Police is escalation. It means those at the margins get a double-dose of systemic bias: they’re more likely to be selected as a potential criminal, and once selected, they’re more likely to be subject to violence. Those that are subject to violence then suffer greater harm and have fewer options for recovery or redress.

It is surely with this in mind that Emmy Rākete has requested the Police release whatever research they have conducted into the lethality of tasers, and their potential for abuse. Gina Rangi also asked, on Twitter, about Police training in institutional racism, and the monitoring of it in relation to taser usage. We deserve answers to these queries.

Even the presentation of a taser without it being fired is a strong tactical option, including “laser painting” and “arcing”; explicit threats of force. And although injury rates are low, the fact that tasers are regarded as “less-than-lethal” means they tend to be used more readily than “lethal” tactical options, and are apt to be used as a compliance tool, rather than to defend the safety of Police or the public. In New Zealand, about half the time tasers are used against people who are threatening, but not violent towards Police, and according to Amnesty International, 90% of those who died as a result of taser were unarmed and do not present a serious threat. The New South Wales Ombudsman found that one in seven taser presentations was “inappropriate”, including cases of tasers being used on fleeing suspects and people who had already been handcuffed. “Less-than-lethal” violence can still be a heavy punishment.

These risks are all cultural, not technical. No amount of “less-than-lethal” rhetoric or low recorded-injury rates can adequately address these concerns when the factors leading to the decision to use a taser are not subject to the same scrutiny as its final use. Given that context, and absent significant change in the cultural factors, the wider deployment of tasers is not de-escalation, it is escalation.

Displacing firearms or augmenting the existing arsenal
To the extent that tasers displace firearms from frontline Police use, their wide deployment is a good thing, because in spite of everything else, it is generally better to be tased than to be shot. Tasers are less lethal than firearms, they operate at shorter range without such risks to bystanders, and they are equipped with cameras that provide some context to aid inquiry in case of abuse. Firearms do not record the circumstances in which a trigger is pulled — though the technology exists, and its use may grow, along with with the advent of body-cameras. While the last year’s worth of fatal shootings of unarmed black American men by white Police illustrates that technical solutions do not themselves correct cultural problems, the prospect of being charged with murder may prove a deterrent to the worst abuses. To ensure this, New Zealand should provide for the release of taser-cam footage in case of alleged abuse. (The NSW Ombudsman released video of case studies showing abuse of the weapons in that context; some are taser-cam, and some are not. You can watch them here, but be warned; some of it is quite harrowing.)

However, the real trouble with the argument that tasers displace guns isn’t with the claim that tasers are less-lethal than guns, or that they provide better oversight — it’s that that the evidence for displacement is weak, or at best unclear. In New South Wales, firearm presentations by police remained steady at about 800 per year for the three years following the introduction of tasers — while taser usage nearly tripled from 407 presentations to 1,169 over the same period. Similar effects were noted in Canada, where Police have walked back the argument that a taser is a replacement for a firearm:

When the RCMP unveiled plans to equip its Alberta detachments with Tasers in 2002, Sgt. Steve Gleboff told reporters “what we’re trying to do is eliminate the necessity to shoot somebody.” […] That expectation was wrong, according to the man who trains Calgary police officers to use Tasers. “Use of force experts across Canada right now, we’re kind of shaking our heads going, ‘How did we give the impression to the lay public or the media that Tasers were ever supposed to be a replacement for lethal force?'” said Staff Sgt. Chris Butler. “They were another use-of-force tool in the same regard as the baton, the O.C. spray. Just another tool.”

Given this position — that the taser is not a replacement for a firearm, but an alternative to OC spray and batons — it is clear that wider deployment of a more effective weapon over and above those existing tools, where the ultimate tactical option of firearms does not already exist, means the escalation of violence, not its de-escalation, as a matter of policy.

The limited deployment of firearms is an important difference between New Zealand and the jurisdictions for which good data is available (in Australia and North America), that make these comparisons uncertain. (In the UK, which would be a better comparison, there are strong calls for similar policy.) Given this difference, we may have little to fear — it may be that the deployment of tasers forestalls the routine arming of frontline police for five or 10 or more years longer than it otherwise would have occurred. But as someone pointed out to me on Twitter, the avoidance of hypothetical violence by the application of actual violence also is not de-escalation: you can’t defend giving the Police machine guns on the basis that you have declined to give them tanks as well. The onus is on the Police to demonstrate that their decision to deploy tasers across the force will reduce the use of firearms, and will also be accompanied by more rigorous training and oversight to prevent abuse, and to limit excessive use on the groups who already bear the heaviest burden of Police violence.

L

This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

Perhaps not yet a Cuba Libre, but an opening nevertheless.

datePosted on 14:55, December 19th, 2014 by Pablo

In a previous life one of the US government roles I played was as co-team leader of the OSD/JCS Cuba Task Force. That was a combined team of officials and officers from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) tasked with exploring contingency scenarios for Cuba, including refugee flows (then ongoing) as well as possible civil unrest and regime transition scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to the island nation and the increasingly geriatric nature of its original leadership. My co-team leader was a Cuban American political appointee, with the idea being that my academic experience studying authoritarian regime transitions and knowledge of the Cuban approach to irregular conflict would be balanced by his sensitivity to the domestic political implications of  any moves we proposed to undertake.

Although I cannot reveal much of what we did, I can say a few things about the process that has now led to a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

First, almost everyone in the US government realised that the embargo was a failure. However, the Cuban lobby is on a par with the gun and Israel lobbies when it comes to single issue fixation and willingness to spend money for the cause. This made Cuba a thorny political problem for any US government trying to improve relations with it, as the usual suspects would (and still do) immediately hurl the “soft on communism” and “appeasing dictators” invective as part of their negative electoral campaigning. This placed the issue in the “too hard” basket as far as most politicians were concerned, especially given the myriad of other issues at play and the trade-offs they involved. As a foreign diplomat said in my presence when asked about the US approach to Cuba: “That is a domestic matter, not a diplomatic one.”

Secondly, from the 1980s to the present day, every former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo and resumption of full diplomatic relations. One would have thought that the weight of conservative military leaders and the leading business organisation in the US would hold some sway, but in fact their views were trumped by the lobbying efforts described above. Episodic attempts have been made to launch US business initiatives in Cuba (for example, in agricultural machinery), but the legal and monetary costs of circumventing the embargo by using off-shore subsidiaries, etc. simply proved too much given the limited nature of the potential returns.

Third, as of the early 1990s the Castro brothers increasingly delegated authority to second generation leaders, who now have been replaced in large measure by third generation revolutionary cadres (people in their 40s and 50s). In fact, both the Cuban exile community as well as the revolutionary leadership have seen the physical decline of the so-called “dinosaurios” (dinosaurs) and their replacement with younger, often more moderate leaders who were not present during the revolution and who therefore do not all have personal scores to settle stemming from it. My co-team leader was second generation and not fuelled by the rabid thirst for revenge exhibited by many of his parent’s generation (some of whom I got the dubious pleasure of meeting). Now that second generation’s children are coming to the fore. This has opened the door for initiatives focused on normalising relations.

But the issue remains complex. The end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR actually reinforced the view in some US policy circles that an embargo could, given the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba, bring the Castro regime to its knees.  On the other hand, the increase in non-US foreign investment in Cuba after the Cold War (mostly but not exclusively in tourism) was seen by some in the US as making the embargo counter-productive when it came to promoting US business interests in its near abroad. Overlying these views was a persistent belief that Cuba continued to logistically and intellectually support Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups in Latin America (including those that drug trafficked) as well as rogue regimes such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Nicaragua and Venezuela). As a result, foreign policy opinion in the US after the Cold War remained very divided on the question of what to do with Cuba given the embargo and rudimentary diplomatic relations.

Yet given the demographic changes mentioned earlier, the question about Cuba the last twenty years has mostly been one of political timing: when is the opportune moment to make the move towards restoring normality to the bilateral relationship? Conventional wisdom on US presidential politics states that only during second terms can presidents get away with bold foreign policy initiatives, and even then they have to be popular and presiding over a strong economy in order to do so (since voters tend to ignore foreign policy issues when their pockets and bellies are full). However, owing to the perverse ideological evolution of the Republican Party, only Democrats would even contemplate doing so after 1990, which meant that it was left to Clinton or Obama to be bold (recall that Nixon opened the relationship with China and Reagan encouraged glasnost and perestroika, even if both Republican presidents did so for self-interested reasons).

I have little doubt that Clinton would have normalised relations with Cuba in his second term if he had not been hamstrung by the Lewinsky scandal, which helped turn the Elian Gonzalez saga into a Republican battle cry (Elian Gonzalez was a little Cuban boy who washed up on US shores in a raft in which his mother died. After weeks of to- and fro-ing between the US government and exiled members of the boy’s family, he was forcibly repatriated to Cuba to live with his divorced father. Sensing that Clinton was wounded by the Starr investigation into Cigargate, the GOP turned the boy’s ordeal into an anti-communist political circus, which effectively ended the quiet efforts Clinton’s administration had initiated with an eye towards opening up the Cuban relationship).

Now it appears that Obama has seized the moment to undertake a little glasnost of his own, perhaps because he senses that he has little to lose given the disloyal nature of the opposition (which will rant and rail at anything he does), perhaps because the US economy is doing well enough for him to feel immune on some aspects of foreign policy even after the adverse results of the midterm elections, and perhaps because, like gay marriage and medical marijuana, the US public has simply changed its views on Cuba over the years.  In fact, it is likely a little bit of each, as the GOP and Fake News blowhards may not want to waste political capital on a dead issue that will gain the GOP no electoral traction. As it turns out, with the exception of some posturing clowns like Marco Rubio and the braying jackasses on conservative media outlets, the reaction from the political Right has been fairly muted.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Back when I was dealing with Cuba, the word from their side was that everything was negotiable except for two pillars of the revolution: health and education. That is to say, the vaunted Cuban health and educational systems were sacrosanct and could not be touched in any post-Castro environment. Beyond that, market forces could dictate how Cuba would re-insert itself in the global economy. With an extremely literate, healthy and underemployed work force, it would seem that Cuba would be ideal for any number of value-added export commodity production ventures (textiles and pharmaceuticals have already become targets of foreign investor interest).

The other issue, left unresolved during my time working that beat, was the role of the Communist Party. It is clear that the Cuban political elite have been watching the transitions in the former socialist world, be it the USSR, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe. They have also watched the experiments in indigenous socialism in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is pretty clear that they would prefer to do a China-style transition to state capitalism under one party rule.

The trouble with that preferred picture is that it is only a partial transition, with the political regime remaining largely the same while the economy changes. That may be possible in a huge country like China but is problematic in a small country like Cuba, especially when it is so proximate to a formerly adversarial super power and has a number of expatriates with ideas about Cuba’s future that do not include a dominant role for the Communist Party, much less its continued sole rule.

Thus the conundrum for the second and third generation Cuban Communist Party leadership is whether to embark on a sequential transition (first changing the economy then the political system, or, less likely, vice versa), or  to go all in and mount a simultaneous transition of the economic and political systems. From the standpoint of keeping things peaceful and orderly, the best hope scenario is a sequential transition in which economic change precedes political change. Opening Cuba for business will present a formidable challenge for the Communist Patry, and the social and cultural influences that will come with diplomatic normalisation and economic opening will be hard to contain, much less stop. So whether by design or by the forced pace of change, it is likely that the Cuban political system will open up as a result of the economic transition and its superstructural ramifications.

The key is for the Cuban political elite to realise that the Chinese transition model is not possible for them given the circumstances, and that the days of one party rule will either come to a natural end or be overturned by force. In that light the best thing to do is to prepare a timetable leading up to multiparty competitive elections somewhere down the road, with appropriate guarantees put in place to preserve key revolutionary gains and to safeguard the institutional position of entities like the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).  That will take some doing, and could well take a fair bit of time given the current makeup of the Communist Party leadership (in which Fidelistas still hold significant influence along with Raulistas).

The question remains as to what will happen with the two pillars of the revolution in a market-driven economy. It also remains to be seen as to how Cuban society will respond to the introduction of full market logics on the island. Things like the elimination of food subsidies and introduction of merit-based employment criteria in and outside the public serve could prove painful for Cuban society. It could also lead to  criminal opportunism in what some observers have already characterized as an increasingly amoral and feral civil society no longer wedded to the revolutionary ethos of the original 26th of July movement. If one thinks of where Cuba is spatially located in relation to drug trafficking corridors, the downside possibilities should be obvious.

Even so, the resumption of full diplomatic relations is a welcome development and hopefully followed by a formal end to the US embargo (not a certain thing, given opposition by GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives). There still will be many hard days ahead as Cuba comes to grip with its post-revolutionary future, but at least the range of potential outcomes will be expanded relative to those extant up until a few days ago. As for the US, it demonstrates that sometimes diplomatic face-saving on foreign policy is a waste of energy and the better self-interested choice is to admit mistakes and move on. As the old Korean saying goes: a rich uncle can afford to be generous.

Whatever its motivations, Uncle Sam just was.

 

Military rule erodes military professionalism.

datePosted on 12:03, September 7th, 2014 by Pablo

One of the important lessons taught by the study of  military dictatorships is that when the military rules as an institution, such as in the case of the military-bureaaucratic regimes of Southern Europe, Latin America and East Asia in the 1960s through the 1980s, organisational professionalism is compromised. Having military officers sitting at desks as Ministers and department chiefs of non-military portfolios keeps them away from the training grounds and deployments in which military leadership is honed and exercised. Having soldiers patrol the streets and suppressing domestic dissent takes them away from the combat tasks that are supposedly their reason for being. Prolonged tenure in government makes both officers and enlisted personnel susceptible to the temptations of unchecked authority, from material corruption to unethical personal behaviour.

The very nature of military organisation is incompatible with governance. Whether it be collegial or Prussian style or some variant thereof, the military is a pyramidal organisation in which orders are passed from top to bottom and duties are delegated without question. There is no cabinet made up of ministerial equals. Instead, there is either one Military Commander or there is a High Command or Joint Staff comprised of similarly ranked chiefs of different armed service branches, and even then there is a first amongst equals. The further down the chain of command the more immediate and tight the degree of control of superiors over subordinates.

The rationale underpinning the organisational ethos and structure is to promote discipline under fire. There is little room for compromise and stakeholder consultation such as that which is the norm for most public agencies. There is no public consultation and few feedback loops other than after action reports and what soldiers tell their superiors in a chain of command. Superimposing a military organisation on the State apparatus may impose discipline (or at least fear) on the public bureaucracy, but the price paid for that is the softening of the military organisation in question.

The situation is compounded by militaries that use foreign peacekeeping missions as a substitute for combat exercises and as a source of remittances (since UN pay tends to be much high than local military pay in most of the world). Whatever dangers exist in peacekeeping, and there are many, keeping the peace is not, nor can it ever be, a substitute for combat training.

When taken together these factors erode the professional competence of the military as an institution. In countries that have military rule and conflicts with neighbours, this is often seen as a sign of weakness by adversaries. After all, pushing pencils and having long working lunches is not quite living like in a tent eating rations in between live fire exercises. Thus, somewhat ironically, prolonged military rule invites attack by hostile states in which the military does not rule and instead focuses on its combat role.

The capture of 45 Fijian Army peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Nusra Front is a variant on this theme. The Fijians were part of a detachment that included a similar number of Filipino soldiers. When the al-Nusra rebels surrounded and attacked their jointly held UN outpost, the Filipinos, who have years of experience fighting Abu Sayyaf  rebels in the southern Philippines,  staged an armed retreat that allowed all of them to escape capture. They laid down suppressing fire as they drove their armoured column out of the compound at speed, and prevailed in the firefight occasioned by their escape. They suffered no losses.

The Fijians, on the other hand, although being similarly armed and equipped, surrendered without a shot. They are now waiting “divine justice” at the hands of their al-Nusra captors. Neither the Fijian military nor the military government can do anything about the situation, and instead have to reply on UN negotiators for the safe return of their soldiers. Other than appeals to the captors, the only response evident in Fiji is threats to the local Muslim community made by some Fijian nationalists.

The difference between the two outcomes in the Golan Heights is attributable to relative military professionalism. The Philippines Army does not govern and fights on a regular basis with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. They are battle hardened and disciplined as a result. The Fijian Army, in contrast, has ruled Fiji since 2006. Senior military leaders from the rank of major up have held managerial positions in the civilian administration, and the military spends most of its time engaged in domestic repression rather than training for combat. As part of the sanctions levels against it, Fijian military officers were denied admittance to Western military colleges and the Fijian military does not participate in multinational exercises. In spite of a limited military exchange program with China, the Fijian military has not engaged in the types of corporate training that makes for an effective fighting force against other armed adversaries. Instead, it has sent hundreds of soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions, but this is more due to the domestic importance of remittances from Fijian soldiers to their kin (especially in the villages) rather than securing the benefits of operational experience in conflict zones.

The result is that what used to be considered one of the more professional military organisations in the South Pacific is no longer capable of defending itself when attacked by irregular forces abroad. It lacks the leadership and discipline required to engage in organised violence against such armed opponents because it has spent too much time focused on ruling rather than serving its compatriots.

All of this illustrates the point that, beyond the negative impacts of military rule on society at large, the military as an institution is adversely affected by military rule. This is why “enlightened” militaries that stage coups try to relinquish direct control of government as quickly as they can. But others, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they have no immediate adversaries and enjoying the perks of governance, tend to linger in power. In spite of their lofty nation building rhetoric, the longer they retain power the more likely that the military will begin to lose the combat leadership and soldiering skills essential for survival in battle. And should that military ever find itself in battle, it stands a poor chance of victory when confronting hardened soldiers.

That has been proven sadly true for the Fijian Army in the Golan Heights.

Transitional Dilemmas.

datePosted on 11:20, March 16th, 2014 by Pablo

Military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes often seek to legitimate their rule and establish a positive legacy by transferring power to elected civilian authorities. However, they do so only under certain conditions and with specific outcomes in mind. One way to ensure that their post-authoritarian vision is adhered to is to run a military-backed candidate (often a retired military leader) as the “official” candidate while actively working to use their control of the election process to promote divisions and disunity amongst the opposition. The way in which the elections are governed and the process leading up to them are used by the outgoing authoritarians to produce a voting outcome that upholds the status quo under elected civilian guise.

In spite of its dominant position in such “top-down” forms of electoral transition, military-backed candidates and/or parties are confronted with several dilemmas that complicate their ability to ensure their desired post-authoritarian outcome. In this 36th Parallel Assessments brief I point out two of them as well as some other political dynamics at play in such scenarios.

Although the analysis is framed broadly, it may be of particular interest to those interested in the elections scheduled for September in Fiji.

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