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Clueless or cynical?

datePosted on 15:19, February 9th, 2021 by Pablo

So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.

This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.

Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.

Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.

in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.

Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.

The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.

For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.

Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?

Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.

Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?

Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?

NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.

NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.

Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.

A self-mutilation ritual.

datePosted on 11:40, February 8th, 2021 by Pablo

It appears that rather than follow the not-so-sage advice offered here in KP a short time ago about how to save their future as a political party, the Republicans have decided to double-down on their Trumpist/MAGA bet. After the House Democratic majority stripped a recently elected QAnon freak from her committee assignments (I will not mention her name here) because of her deranged behaviour and speech (including calls to kill Democratic congresspeople and claims that the Rothschilds used a space laser beam to start California fires in order to make a profit and that the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were faked), her GOP colleagues reaffirmed their support for her while rebuking the 11 of them who voted for Trump’s impeachment on grounds that he incited the January 6 insurrection in the Capitol building. The freak then held a press conference and announced that the Republican Party was “Trump’s party.” No Republican contradicted her and state Republicans in the home districts of the pro-impeachment GOP renegades voted to censure them.

This is going to end badly for the GOP. Corporate America and (prodded by lawsuits) even mainstream Rightwing media appear to realise the danger that the assault on Congress represents. Non-Republican rightwing extremists have infiltrated the MAGA ranks and exploited them for their own purposes. Conspiracy theory craziness has taken hold in the MAGA movement. Seeing this, some regretful MAGAites have defected once they realised that the Trump pipe dream was not going to become reality or that his claims about the stolen election were deliberate lies that cost taxpayers millions of dollars to refute (in the form of recounts and litigation). To be sure, there are still many who still worship the ground he walks on, but many more are glad to see the back of him and want it to stay that way.

Catering to the remaining MAGA base may solidify GOP support in hard Red states, but the rest of the country is turning Blue as demographics increasingly work against perpetuation of that base as a proportion of the population, much less as a cohesive voting bloc. Insurrectionists are bad for business as well as law and order, so for a party that claims that it is the champion of both, kowtowing to the violent maniac fringe is a losing proposition over the long term. The MAGA brand is turning to mud even if those loyal to it cannot see what is coming at them down the road.

There is the hitch. Most analysts now see the GOP as divided into three parts: a MAGA populist wing, a neo-con Reaganite wing and a bridge faction with feet in both wings that attempts to straddle the fence of specific policy issues (or want to have things both ways–conspiratorial crazy on the one hand and soberly responsible on the other). After the attack on the capitol, what many of the non-lunatic factions in the GOP fear is two things: being physically threatened or attacked by MAGA and QAnon extremists egged on by Trump and his acolytes if they do not accede to his wishes; and being “primaried” out of office by them with funding provided by the Trumpsters (“primaried” refers to the practice of putting up candidates against incumbents in party primaries so as to replace them with more ideologically aligned people).

The combination of physical and political threats has paralysed most of the GOP party leadership, who have opted for the default option of blaming Democrats for assorted ills while looking to them for the knock-out electoral blow on the lunatics in 2022. They understand that things have gone too far and they cannot prevent the MAGA wing from trying to take control of the party as a whole while Trump continues to agitate from the sidelines. So this is their state of play: hope that the Democrats win big in the congressional mid-terms so that they can purge the MAGAites from the party and return to some semblance of conservative normalcy. They know that the purge of moderate candidates in GOP primaries will likely lead to massive losses in the 2022 general election and the consolidation of Democratic control of the federal government for the near future. That allows the non-MAGA Republicans to clear house and get their affairs in order without the burden of having to govern, something that can set them up well for 2024 and beyond. People like Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney understand this well.

Of course, many of those immediately involved in the fray may not see things in this light and may continue the internecine fights over the heart and soul of the GOP well after 2022. The MAGA wing certainly see their future as wedded to Trump, and the Senate impeachment trial will go a long way towards determining which of the GOP factions will prevail over both the short and the long term. But as long as they are divided and the Democrats coalesce while in power and restore some semblance of respect, normality and competence to governing (not a sure thing but more plausible today than in the past because of the stakes at play), then the Republican Party is going to increasingly be on the outside looking in when it comes to national policy-making. And that will suit the lunatic fringe just fine, as they have been exposed as being uninterested in democracy if such a thing involves compromise, toleration, transparency, equality and mutual consent in the policy-making process. That, however, will only increase their marginalisation as a political force. They had their moment during the last four years and soon they will pay a political (and in some cases, criminal) price for their sins.

In the meantime, watching the Republican in-fighting is like watching someone repeatedly cut themselves. The difference is that self-mutilation is most often not fatal to the person doing it, whereas what is going on in the GOP has the potential to be terminal to the party as a democracy-supportive political institution.

To kill a beast.

datePosted on 14:45, January 26th, 2021 by Pablo

Let’s be clear: if Trump is not politically killed off once and for all, he will become a MAGA Dracula, rising from the dead to haunt US politics for years to come and giving inspiration to his wretched family of grifters and thousands of deplorables well into the next decade. So what is needed now is a stake in his black heart, or a silver bullet, so long as whatever the means employed, it kills the beast.

The process of doing so is more akin to cancer surgery than supernatural intervention, but before proceeding to the discussion let me explain why Trump’s political death sentence is recognised as necessary.

The Democrats know what he is so I shall not discuss the logics by which they came to the conclusion that he needs to be extirpated from the body politic. It is the Republicans who are decisive here. They–by that I mean the Republican National Committee, US congressional delegations, state governments and legislatures, and the corporate interests that influence and fund Republican causes and candidates–have to come to grips with simple facts.

Trump was never a “true” Republican. Not only is he not a blue-blood old monied elite with stakes in traditional Republican ventures like oil, automobiles and finance. He was not a member of the party until he switched allegiance in 2010. From the get-go, his politics have been more of the George Wallace meets Barry Goldwater type rather than of the Nixon-Reagan-Rockefeller variant. His victory in the 2016 presidential primaries was a slap in the face by an upstart vulgarian to the Republican establishment, which he then proceeded to eviscerate by using their own opportunism against them. He offered the GOP “family” tax breaks, deregulation, a return to Anglo-Saxon heterosexist patrirachical Christian values and shirt-sleeve patriotism. They responded with political support. That support was contingent on his staying in his lane and understanding the limits on his authority and the boundaries of his power.

He did not. Instead, he picked needless fights at home and abroad over matters both inconsequential and important. He alienated allies and he cultivated American enemies. Rather than work to heal old wounds he picked the scab of racism and bigotry until it festered and burst into the public square in places like Charlottesville, Portland and Kenosha (the last two where he joined rightwing conspiracists in claiming that Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of unarmed black men by police were an Antifa-Socialist plot).

Meanwhile, he drove a wedge within the GOP by forcing out non-MAGA types and replacing them with national-populists who would do his bidding. That fractured the Republicans, and yet the marriage of convenience between the GOP establishment and Trump continued until 2020. However, at that point his erratic behaviour and incompetent, some might say delusional approach to the Covid-19 crisis turned a bad situation into a world-leading case study in governmental dysfunction. He turned a public health crisis into an internecine ideological war about masks and lockdowns. He refused to listen to scientists and increasingly relieved on conspiracy theorists for advice on the pandemic and more. In doing so he became bad for business even as the financial markets remained optimistic that at some point he would come to his senses.

He did not. He ran a dog-whistling re-election campaign marked by Covid super-spreader rallies. He impugned the integrity of the electoral process months before the vote was held. He tried to manipulate votes by filling the US Postal Service with partisan hacks who attempted to suppress absentee (mail-in) ballots by reducing collection points and sorting facilities. He urged Republican state election officials to challenge minority voting rights and to limit access to voting facilities in areas that traditionally went Democratic on Election Day. He did everything in his power to tip the scales, skew the results and delegitimise any outcome other than his win.

He lost anyway. Not by hundreds of thousands or a few million votes. He lost by nearly 8 million votes. It is true that he garnered 74 million votes himself, but that was on the back on the highest voter turn out in over a century (60.66 percent). Joe Biden won close to 82 million votes, so in the end even with those 74 million votes cast for Trump, the race was not close.

Rather than concede gracefully, Trump well and truly jumped out of his lane. He denounced without evidence fraud in the electoral system and specifically those in contested swing states. He spoke of dark forces operating behind the scenes to cheat him out of his rightful victory. He decried foreign (but non- Russian) interference. He mounted over sixty specious legal challenges to the results in several states, losing all but one of them. And then he crossed the biggest line of all: he incited a seditious insurrectionary attack on the US Capitol in order to prevent the Electoral College results from being certified by Congress. People were killed and injured in the mass assault and occupation of the Legislative branch. Politicians were forced to flee for their lives and take cover as the mob swarmed the debating chamber and halls baying for blood. And rather than appeal for calm, Trump watched it unfold on TV.

Whether they recognise it or not, that was the point when he crossed a Republican bridge too far. The assault on the Capitol was aimed not just at Democrats but at Republicans as well (people chanted “Hang Mike Pence,” among other niceties). In the days leading up to, during and after the siege, Republican lawmakers were harassed and threatened in public spaces, social media and via personal communications (including Mitt-Romney (R-UT) and Lyndsey Graham (R-SC), as were Democrats (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-NY) were singled out for particularly violent misogynistic abuse). The attack may have been originally driven by partisan rage stoked by Trump and his minions, but became a broad-brushed assault on an institutional pillar of the American Republic.

Because many of the insurrectionists were wrapped in body armour and armed with blunt and other street-level weapons like Mace and bear spray (there were also firearms and explosives cached near the Capitol), which they used to fight sworn law enforcement officers defending the complex, the assault was an attack on the sovereignty of the US government itself. That is because one of the foundations of sovereignty–the core of what it is to be a “sovereign”–is legal monopoly over organised violence within defined territorial limits (the definition is from Max Weber but the origins of the notion of sovereignty as having a coercive core dates back to Thomas Hobbes).

It has now been established that, cloaked by the larger crowd who attended the Trump “Stop the Steal” rally and then walked to the capitol after Trump urged them to, members of various militias were acting in a coordinated fashion to the extent that some used walkie-talkies and their phones to organise aspects of the attack such as blocking the underground tunnels below the Capitol that are used as escape routes for congresspeople in times of crisis. Once they violently engaged the Capitol and DC Police on the steps and interior of the legislature, they challenged the sovereignty of the Federal Government and the components parts of its repressive apparatus.

For any nation-state, much less a supposed superpower, that cannot stand. Regardless of partisan orientation, no individual is above the Institution. As the saying goes, the Nation is one of laws, not people. Sovereignty cannot be contested because if it does, the Republic is at risk. The State is sacrosanct so long as it performs its core functions.

That is why Trump must be excised. He has undermined the basic foundations of the constitutional Republic and thereby challenged fundamental notions of the US as a sovereign State. He has divided the Nation and manipulated his supporters into becoming a riotous seditious mob. He has put himself before God, Flag and Country even while wrapping himself in them.

If not in public, in their hearts Republicans know this.

Removal of Trump’s malignant political presence is a three step process. One is via his Senate trial and banishment, one involves the prosecution and punishment of his seditious supporters, and one is a form of legal chemotherapy that will hopefully prevent him from returning to the political scene. This is what needs to happen. It does not mean that it will happen. We can only be hopeful.

Senate Minority Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seems to understand the situation. With his bleating about “rigged” elections in Georgia, Trump contributed to the GOP losing both Senate seats in that state (to a Jew and an African-American!). That cost McConnell his majority leadership. He now has an incentive to see Trump finished off because among other things it will pull the rug out from under and bring to heel would-be pretenders to the MAGA throne like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley.

The impeachment charge against Trump is incitement of the attack. In asking for two extra weeks for Trump’s lawyers to “prepare, ” McConnell may in fact be giving Democrats more time to uncover irrefutable evidence that the Trump White House colluded with insurrectionists on how to storm the Capitol. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have uncovered evidence that some of the “rioters” were paid staff on Trump’s campaign and were in contact with members of Trump’s entourage, including family members and people like Rudy Giuliani. With the articles of impeachment now tabled, more evidence may be uncovered before the Senate court proceedings begin. People can be subpoenaed to testify under oath or offered immunity in exchange for their testimony. Unlike his first impeachment, Trump cannot offer presidential protection to those called as witnesses (as he did when he ordered various officials not to testify). Things are about to get real and that reality is ugly for Trump.

17 Republicans need to cross the aisle and vote in favour of conviction in order for Trump to be impeached. McConnell has said that he has whatever numbers he needs to go either way. If the evidence is compelling then it will be easier to convict on “institutions over individuals” grounds. Doing so will be the start of the de-Trumpification process. Although that is necessary, it is not sufficient. More needs to be done by way of follow ups.

If Trump is convicted he then can be banned from political life by a simple majority vote in the Senate. The decision to vote on a lifetime ban is called by the Democratic majority. Given his long-standing repudiation of Trump, Mitt Romney will gladly provide the cross-over vote but there are others who will be willing to do so as well.

In order to make the ban stick, the second step is a form of legal chemotherapy. He needs to be sued and charged in civil and criminal courts at the state and federal levels, along with family members and others, like Giuliani, who conspired with him during his time in business and government. The constant barrage of lawsuits and prosecutions will exhaust him financially and perhaps mentally and will open space for people to turn on him in order to escape or receive lesser punishment themselves. So long as he is occupied in this fashion he will have relatively little resources, time or energy to try and mount some sort of political re-birth under different guise.

The final part of this process involves the prosecution and serious punishment of those charged with offences related to the assault on the Capitol. These include murder; conspiracy to commit murder; grievous bodily harm; conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm; inter-state transport of weapons with the intention of committing crime; looting; vandalism; theft of government property; theft and distribution of classified material; rioting; affray; sedition; treason and more. The charges must be as serious as possible and the sentences must be as severe as legally permissible.

The reason for this hard line approach is not just the punitive value it has on those who perpetrated the attack on the Capitol. Its main value is deterrent. It provides a palpable indicator of the boundaries of the “no go” zone when it comes to political dissent and legitimate protest. Adopting a judicial hard-line will help deter copycats or those who think that just because some politicians, even the president, say it is OK, seditious insurrection in fact is not OK as far as the constitutional State is concerned.

The three-tiered approach to extirpating the Trump malignancy from US politics is the only way that we can be reasonably assured that the treatment will work (and yes, I recognise that I am borrowing some of that “organic” language used by the Argentina junta when referring to its victims. But if the shoe fits, then why not wear it?). In the end, Trump is an existential threat to the very notion of the US as a nation-state, and must be treated as the domestic terrorist inspiration and enabler that he is. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he is no better and more likely a bit worse than one of Osama bin-Laden’s drivers in Pakistan. If so, and those guys wound up in Guantanamo or dead for their efforts, why should he be treated appreciably differently than they were?

One can only hope that Mitch McConnell and the GOP recognise that Trump is just another data point on that anti-democratic continuum, but one that is far more dangerous to the US than any Islamicist chauffeur.

Sedition from within.

datePosted on 15:49, November 13th, 2020 by Pablo

The refusal of Donald Trump and his supporters in the media and Republican Party to acknowledge his defeat in the presidential election has taken an ominous turn. What at first could be discounted as the childish petulance of a sore loser is now morphing into the makings of a constitutional coup. The move is two sided, involving the de-legitimation of the electoral process as a foundational institution of the political system; and the hollowing out and/or partisan stacking of key agencies that otherwise would be the most resistant to that type of subversion. This is, in effect, sedition from within.

In the last days Trump has fired the Secretary of Defense and forced the resignations of key aides, including the DoD Chief of Staff and head of special operations and low intensity conflict. He has replaced them with craven loyalists, including Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, a former Army special forces soldier and recently Director of Counter-Terrorism at the NSC. Miller has an intense hatred for Iran and supports Trump’s efforts to immediately withdraw US troops from Afghanistan in order to re-deploy them on Iran’s Western flank, which in turn will be part of the “maximum pressure” campaign Trump wants to wage on the Persian State. US military commanders object to both the withdrawal and to the lop-sided re-deployment, to say nothing of being drawn into yet another (senseless) war of opportunity.

Trump is rumored to be getting ready to fire the CIA and FBI directors. He has purged professional careerists in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and replaced them with hyper partisans. He has politicised and promoted partisans and loyalists in the Border Patrol and Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The pace of this “purge and replace” process has quickened since Election Day. If he continues to do so, by Inauguration Day he will have cleared a path in the repressive apparatus of so-called “constitutionalists” in favor of loyalists.

The Miller appointment is also ominous because Acting Directors do not need Senate confirmation and one of the main missions of US Army special forces is to train indigenous militias in guerrilla warfare. Already there is speculation that his experience can be used to forge links between DoD, Republican-led state governments and various rightwing militia groups in the event that Trump’s refusal to abdicate turns into physical confrontations between his supporters and Biden supporters and/or local government security agencies. This puts pressure on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and service branch leadership as to what they will do in the event that DoD lends its institutional weight and resources to the pro-Trump insurgents, egged on from within the Oval Office.

The Trump administration has already held a trial run of sorts when it comes to politicised domestic repression. A few months ago armed federal “agents” wearing uniforms without identification were sent into Portland to counter BLM protests. They were not invited by the mayor or the Oregon governor. They stayed for several weeks, making arrests, using batons and tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, seizing people and removing them in unmarked vans to locations outside the city centre. They worked alongside the Portland Police, who in turn cast a blind eye on armed right-wing militants showing up to counter-demonstrate against the BLM crowds. It turns out that these unidentified federal agents were recruited from within the Border Patrol, ICE, Customs and other agencies overseen by DHS. They were removed from Portland when their activities were exposed in the media and were subsequently prohibited by several local jurisdictions–Chicago and New York among them–from deploying there in spite of Trump’s threats to “send them in.”

Then, of course, there was the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray by National Guard and other federal security units against peaceful demonstrators in and around Lafayette Square in Washington DC. When DC based National Guard troops–many of them African Americans–baulked at repressing their fellow Washingtonians, Trump had supportive Republican governors supply National Guards from their respective states (National Guard units are commanded by state governors or, in the case of federal territory like the District of Columbia, by the president himself). He went so far as to stage a photo opportunity outside St. Johns Episcopal church adjacent to the square in which the Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, and then-defence Secretary Mark Esper were paraded out and used as props (both Milley and Esper later claimed that they were unaware of what was going on when they were invited to join the president for a walk into the Square).

Trump has refused to allow Biden to receive the daily intelligence briefs that incoming presidents are normally provided. He has made no plans or engaged in the usual niceties of transitions between administrations. Instead, he has dug his heels in on the fraudulent election claims and in this he has been supported by (with a few exceptions) the Republican Party at all levels, rightwing media, and foreign despots like Jair Bolsonaro. Whether out of prudence or preference, the autocrats running China and Russia have remained silent on the issue.

If Trump is able to corrode the institutional apparatus by hollowing it out and stacking it with cronies, then one of the last defences against a full authoritarian take-over of the executive will have to be the courts. But Trump has the Bill Barr-led Justice department running cover for him, not only in cases involving his administration, his campaign or disputes with Congress, but even attempts to represent him in personal matters such as defence against lawsuits stemming from rape allegations dating back to his days as a private citizen. He has named over 200 judges to federal courts and has successfully placed three Supreme Court judges on the highest bench in the land. He is banking on them coming to his side when push comes to shove regarding the presidency. It remains to be seen if they will do so but the fact that it may even come to that is alarming of itself.

Opinion polls show that Republican voters are much less supportive of democracy as a construct and much more supportive of governments that cater to their policy preferences. That is to say, when it comes to democracy, for US conservatives it is all about deliverables. This is a variant of the old “trains run on time” argument made about Mussolini–that efficiency is more important than representativeness, equality or transparency when it comes to governance. It is this instrumental view of democracy–that it only works or is preferable if it works in one’s (partisan) favour–that under-rides popular support for Trump’s authoritarian moves.

The anti-democratic trend is visible world wide in both new and mature democracies, but in the US it has a distinctly partisan aspect to it. Normally anarchists, communists and assorted other Leftists would be the most opposed to what Lenin called capitalism’s “best possible shell.” But in the US it is the right-wing view that this political shell–bourgeois democracy–covers the work and policies of nefarious liberal elites. QAnon elevated the nefarious nature of elite behaviour into the realm of pedophilia and sex-trafficking in Deep State-operated circles, so the crazy is strong and runs deep on that side of the US ideological ladder.

That is what makes Trump’s moves more alarming than they should be under “normal” circumstances. There are a lot of people who welcome his sedition and in fact want to be part of it. For many it is a defence of the historical status quo that motivates them, heterosexist, patriarchical, racist, xenophobic and classist as that may be. For others it is just an opportunity for taking advantage. Whatever the motivation, this coalition of deplorables are ready, able and willing to join the Trump-led subversion of American political institutions. And they are here to stay whether he remains in office or not.

The danger of a US constitutional coup is compounded by the fact that many people in and outside the federal bureaucracy do not believe that “it can happen here.” For every MAGA maniac frothing about the Deep State, there are many reasonable others who believe that the US institutional foundation is too solid to be usurped or overthrown. They simply cannot grasp the notion that a coup can occur in the US, much less one that is carried out quietly, incrementally and from within the State apparatus. And yet for the entirety of his presidency, Trump has been preparing the ground for exactly that, using the justifications of “draining the swamp” and fighting the Deep State as the cover for his seditious intent.

That brings up the question about Republicans. Although it is widely understood that they at first thought that they could control Trump and bend him in their preferred image, by now they must realise that was a pipe dream. So the question of the moment is why do major components of the Republican Party and rightwing ecosystem continue to cling to him after the election and tie themselves to his attempts to overturn the results? Is it their desire to ride his political coattails? Or what he could do to them down the road? Is it fear of what his MAGA base can do to them now and down the road? Or are they sincere in thinking that the election was stolen (only where he lost) and that usurping the constitution and institutional foundations is justified by that circumstance even if it destroys the Republic?

It may pay for the GOP to remember that Trump was a Democrat before he switched to being a Republican ten years ago. It may pay for them to recall that he said that he switched because Republican voters were dumb and it was easier to dupe them. It may pay for them to remember that before he embraced evangelical Xtians he led a degenerate atheist lifestyle that has only been slightly tempered by his move into public office. It may pay for them to remember how he turns on those in their ranks who question his actions, and on Fox News when it stops blindly cheerleading for him. Because what that should tell them is that their loyalty to him is not reciprocal, and that his actions are based in personal self-interest, not principle or partisan conviction. That is the ultimate motivation for his sedition from within.

It may seem far-fetched, but of this the US constitutional coup could be made.

Counterfeiting information.

datePosted on 14:24, October 30th, 2020 by Pablo

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

The Chinese List.

datePosted on 10:41, September 17th, 2020 by Pablo


News that Zhenhua Data, an arm of China Zhenhua Electronics Group, a subsidiary of the military-connected China Electronic Information Industry Group (CETC), maintains a list of 800 New Zealanders on a “Overseas Key Information Database” that contains personal information on more than 2.4 million foreign individuals, has caused some consternation in Kiwi political circles. The list of New Zealanders includes diplomats, politicians, community leaders, senior civil servants, defense and military officials, criminals, corporate figures, judges, B-list celebrities and Max Key. Complete with photos, information on these people is gleaned from public sources, particularly social media accounts, in what is one type of open-source intelligence gathering. Involving twenty “collection sites” around the world (including the US, UK and Australia) the larger global canvass is a broad first cut that extends to family members of prominent figures, upon which subsequent analysis can be conducted in order to whittle down to particular persons of interest in search of vulnerabilities, pressure points, sources of leverage, influence or opportunity across a range of endeavour.

However, there is a context to these efforts because Zhenhua Data is not the first company to compile records on “high value” foreign individuals nor is the People’s Republic of China the first or only State to (directly or indirectly) engage in this type of data collection.

Less than a decade ago, Edward Snowden revealed that US intelligence agencies and their Five Eyes counterparts shared information stored in a vast digital data bank obtained by bulk collection of personal data from US and foreign individuals and groups. Information for actionable intelligence “nuggets” was extracted via data-mining using computer algorithms and, increasingly, Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies. Although the bulk collection program was later found to be illegal under US law, the practice of data-mining has continued in private and public sectors around the globe. Anyone who uses social media has their personal information stored and analysed by the providers of such platforms, who then sell that data to other firms. For profit-oriented actors, the objective is to tailor product advertising based on consumer preferences and characteristics. For governments the objectives can be security-related or oriented towards more effective public good provision, such as for public health campaigns. The overall intent is to get an actionable read on the subjects of scrutiny.

Added to this is the fact that intelligence agencies have long used network analysis as an intelligence tool, most recently in the fight against violent extremism. The larger purpose of network analysis is to connect dots on a large scale by establishing overt and covert linkages between disparate entities, both individual and collective. There are variations to network analyses, including what are known as “mosaic” and “spiderweb” tracing processes. Uncovering linkages helps futures forecasting because it can identify patterns of connection and behaviour, including funding sources, favours owed, personal ties, foibles and affectations. More recently, bulk collection, data-mining and network analysis have been wedded to facial recognition technologies that provide real-time physical imagery to records compilation efforts. This includes images of people in groups or in public spaces, which can be frame-by-frame analysed in order to help discern hidden or covert interactions between members of suspected networks as well as specific individuals.

None of this is particularly new or particular to the PRC. In fact, it is a routine task for intelligence agencies that is used as a first cut for more targeted scrutiny. Along with the Five Eyes partners, Israel and Russia have been pioneers in this field.

When taken together, open source data-mining coupled with social network analysis using a combination of advanced computer technologies creates a chaff/wheat separation process that allows further specific targeting of individuals for purposes important to the State doing the undertaking. In the case of Zhenhua Data, the list of targets includes those designated as “politically exposed persons” and “special interest persons.” Beyond general knowledge of “high value” individuals, the presumable objective of the exercise is to identify and locate hidden connections and personal/group vulnerabilities that can be leveraged for the benefit of the Chinese State. The application of specific designators provides an early filter in the process, from which more focused signals and human intelligence efforts can be subsequently directed.

Zhenhua Data is not alone in using its private business status as a front for or complement to State intelligence-gathering operations. The US firm Palantir, co-founded by New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel with seed money provided by the CIA venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, specialises in big data analysis, including software-based analytic synergies involving data mining, AI and facial recognition technologies. Palantir has an office near Pipitea House, Headquarters of the GCSB and SIS, and its local clients exclusively reside within the New Zealand Intelligence Community (NZIC).

The question, therefore, is whether Zhenhua Data is doing anything different or more insidious than what Palantir does on a regular basis? The answer lies in ideology, geopolitics, values and alliances. In New Zealand Palantir works for the Five Eyes network and local intelligence and security agencies. Its relationship with the spies is hand-in-glove, so it has a Western code of business conduct when dealing with confidential and private information and operates within the legal frameworks governing intelligence-gathering activities in Western democracies. Its orientation is Western-centric, meaning that its geopolitical outlook is driven by the strategic concerns and threat assessments of Western government clients. Although it may have a relationship with the New Zealand Police, it presumably is not involved in bulk-scale intelligence-gathering in New Zealand and what foreign data-mining and network analysis it does should serve the purposes of the New Zealand government. But the fact that Palantir and Five Eyes as a whole engage in mass data-mining and social network analysis is incontrovertible.

Zhenhua Data, in contrast, is believed to be a military-directed technology front. It is seen by Western intelligence agencies as an integral component of Chinese “sharp power” projection whereby so-called “influence operations” are directed at the elites and broader society in targeted countries with the purpose of bending their political, economic and social systems in ways favorable to Chinese interests. For the New Zealand security community, which as part of Western-oriented security networks has identified the PRC as a non-friendly actor in Defense White Papers and Intelligence Annual Reports, Zhenhua Data is not a benign entity and its intent is not good. Numerous academic and political commentators concur with this assessment.

The issue seems to boil down to whether data-collection activities are seen as good or bad depending on who does it, under what circumstances, and where one’s loyalties lie.

In other words, how one sees Zhenhua Data’s data-gathering efforts depends on how one feels about the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), authoritarian rule and China’s move towards achieving Great Power status in world affairs. If one views authoritarians, the PRC, CCP or Chinese foreign policy with suspicion, then the view will be negative. If one perceives them with favour, then the perspective will be positive. Conversely, if one views the activities of the Five Eyes network and partners like Palantir with suspicion, then Zhenhua Data’s list is of little consequence other than as a non-Western equivalent to Palantir and an indicator of possible things to come.

Ultimately that is a matter of values projected onto real world practices. Stripped of the value assessment, Zhenhua Data is doing what it has to do in order for the PRC to achieve its long-term strategic goals. 

Sort of like Palantir, Chinese style.

This essay was originally published in The Spinoff, September 17, 2020.

Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

datePosted on 11:14, September 8th, 2020 by Pablo

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

Media Link: “A View from Afar” episode five.

datePosted on 16:25, August 20th, 2020 by Pablo

In this week’s podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the geopolitical backdrop to the Israel/UAE peace treaty, developments in Belarus, the Democratic Convention in the US and “Trumpianism” as a global political phenomenon. The link is here.

Hosted by Selwyn Manning and EveningReport.nz, ” A View from Afar” is a podcast series dedicated to exploring current affairs, international relations, political events and military-security issues from somewhat uncommon angles. In this first episode we continue the coverage of the Portland protests first offered on these pages. The conversation can be found here or here.

A turn to darkness.

datePosted on 16:25, July 19th, 2020 by Pablo

US federal agents (FPS, ICE, DEA, TSA and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)) in camouflage uniforms without identification and carrying military weapons, serving under the direction of the Department of Homeland Security by authority of an Executive Order issued by the president, are detaining and removing unarmed and non-violent protestors from Portland streets in unmarked vans. This includes detaining and removing people well away from federal property and protest locations, which is ostensibly the reason for their deputisation and deployment. DHS says it will not only continue to use these agents in Portland but expand their use in other (Democratic governed) cities and states.

The legal justification for this unprecedented move is that the Federal Protective Service (FPS) is responsible for protecting federal property such as court houses, post offices, local branches of federal agencies (say, US Park Service) and even monuments. It can request support from other federal security agencies when needed. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has nation-wide jurisdiction. CBP has jurisdiction within 100 miles of any border, and Portland is located approximately 80 miles from the Pacific coast. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also has nation-wide jurisdiction. The Transportation Security Administration has nation-wide jurisdiction at transportation hubs. CBP and ICE are notorious for harbouring zealous MAGA partisans in their ranks, and the federal forces deployed to Portland are not indigenous to Oregon, so are, in their minds, operating in an “alien” hostile environment. Under the Executive Order, ICE, DEA, TSA and CBP are operating in support of the FPS in Portland. The DHS is the parent department for all of these agencies, and maintains that although the armed officers and the vehicles they are using in their operations lack overt forms of identification, they have discrete identifiers that satisfy legal requirements.

Although the Oregon governor and Portland mayor object to the deployment of federal agents in this capacity, they have no power under federal or state to stop it. What this amounts to is a federal takeover of local law enforcement duties without the agreement of the duly constituted authorities of the jurisdiction in which federal forces are deployed, and without the majority consent of the people who live in that jurisdiction.

For those of us who remember the Argentine “dirty war” and the role of unidentified men in unmarked Ford Falcons in the “disappearance” (desaparicion) of thousands of people, this is a chilling and sinister development. It is particularly so because unlike Argentina there are no armed guerrilla groups seriously challenging government authority in Portland or elsewhere, especially from the Left. For all the rightwing talk of Antifa being a threat, they are neither heavily armed or organised as effective guerrilla fighting units. Instead, what irregular militias exist in the US today are predominately rightwing supporters of the president and his political project who reject government authority because it is ostensibly part of the “Deep State” and who have histories of violence in support of their beliefs.

Here there is another parallel with the Argentine “dirty war.” In the years leading up and then during the early days of the dictatorship that came to be known as the “Process” (Proceso), rightwing death squads roamed the country with impunity, targeting “subversives” and other “undesirables” with murderous vigilante justice. The death squads were both a complement to and a justification for the official repression meted out by the unidentified men in Ford Falcons, whose uniforms were grey suits and black ties. After all, with murderous bands of unidentified armed men stalking the streets, the State needed to step in to restore order.

In Portland and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest there is a very active alt-Right/white supremacist community that is armed and has a history of street level violence. They are particularly active in Portland, and are widely believed to have sympathisers within the Portland police, who in turn have shown a disturbing propensity to resort to violent crowd control methods even when confronted wth peaceful protests. Now, the Portland police and these rightwing militias have a third arm in the guise of the unidentifiable federal security forces being deployed in that city. The federal forces and Portland police may have different legal status than the rightwing extremists, but their objectives vis a vis BLM and other peaceful protests are the same: brute intimidation and suppression by force.

Put in broader terms, the rule of law is disappearing in parts of the US because, although they cloak themselves in a legal mantle, those who enforce the law no longer believe in it and prefer to ally with violent non-state groups who share a similar ideological agenda. That mindset is now evident at the federal level.

A tipping point is rapidly approaching.

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