Archive for ‘Authoritarianism’ Category

Understanding Brinkmanship.

datePosted on 13:20, November 26th, 2010 by Pablo

The latest North Korean military provocation against South Korea, discussed at some length in Lew’s previous post, elicited some interesting discussion but also reminded me of the need to have a full conceptual grasp when contemplating seemingly irrational or dangerous acts in the international arena. Beyond the fact that rationality is multi-layered and subjective, so what looks crazy to outsiders at first glance makes perfect sense to insiders with a longer-term perspective and different interests at stake, the hard fact is that–as poker players know so well–acts of apparent irrationality are often calculated risks designed to achieve higher goals. Bluffing, be it stonewalling or sandbagging in nature, is designed to mislead the opponent so as to lure him into over-playing his hand or to fold while ahead. These tactics are integral to war-fighting and strategic gaming between states. Today I would like to briefly mention one other ploy that uses apparent irrationality as a rational weapon to secure strategic advantage: brinkmanship.

Inter-state brinkmanship is the use of provocative acts to test an opponent’s resolve and to incrementally secure strategic advantages that otherwise would not obtain by diplomatic means and which are too costly to go to war over. Brinkmanship is a strategic game that is most useful to actors that have little to lose by engaging it. Having something to lose, and confronted by an opponent that has less or nothing to lose, makes rational actors hesitant to initiate, respond in kind or escalate a provocation. On the other hand, if the provocation is such that it itself constitutes a serious loss of value to the receiving party, then brinkmanship can lead to larger conflict.

The matter is one of relative versus absolute gains: the actor that has less to lose in the event of war gains more via brinkmanship relative to the actor(s) that have more to lose, who see war losses in absolute terms even in the event of victory. They key to success, therefore, of the brinkmanship strategy is to understand the relative cost/benefit calculus at play in the opponent’s (collective decision-making) mind, given the contextual factors involved (alliance structures, security guarantees, role of third parties etc.). Needless to say brinkmanship occurs in social interaction below the inter-state level, but that is not the focus here. Although I have some familiarity with interpersonal brinkmanship, my professional interest is focused at the international level in general, and current North Korean behaviour in particular.

North Korea has in the past and is currently playing the brinkmanship game to perfection. Beyond the internal issues that I believe are a major cause of the provocations, the DPRK knows that South Korea has much more to lose in the event of all-out conflict. There is little in North Korea that the South Koreans want other than the restoration of familial ties (which are slowly dying out). It serves no strategic advantage to South Korea to up the ante and force a full military confrontation, even with the assured entrance of the US into the conflict under the terms of its security agreement with Seoul. Likewise, the US has no interest in seeing another major regional conflict explode over a minor border incident when it is busy with wars elsewhere. In addition, China has no interest in seeing such a conflict engulf the buffer state on its southern border at a time when it is focused on economic growth and the (not so) quiet development of a blue water naval capacity with which to protect the sea lines of communication upon which its raw material and primary good imports depend (since Chinese entrance into a direct confrontation with the US on the Korean peninsula would inevitably entail the destruction of that incipient capability).

Even if South Korea won a major conventional war with North Korea (since the DPRK does not have a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and has more than enough conventional force to wreak substantial havoc in the South even as it is defeated), the economic and social costs to the South, as well as the inevitable refugee streams from the North into the South across the conflict zone, are prohibitive for Seoul. Win, lose or draw, the DPRK leadership will still be fed, housed and nurtured at the expense of its subjects, whereas the South Korean regime will face the wrath of a public largely disinterested in war or having to shoulder the costs of winning one. As one US diplomat is reported to have said, North Korea is a country “without options.” That may be true for North Korean society, who must suffer and bear the consequences of their leadership’s decisions, but the leadership itself has plenty of options to choose from, and brinkmanship is one they know how to play extremely well.

Thus North Korea knows that it can push the envelope and stage the second military attack on South Korea in ten months because none of the other actors with an immediate stake in the game want to see the conflict escalate. It therefore can use the provocation as leverage in other areas of strategic interest: resolution of the armistice/peace treaty impasse; renewal of talks on the nuclear weapons programme in exchange for international fuel and food aid; creation of an effective DMZ along the two country’s water boundaries (and possible negotiation of the boundaries themselves)–the leverage possibilities are only limited by the imagination and interests of the DPRK leadership. Whichever faction in that leadership that successfully played the brinkmanship card will be strengthened in its internal power struggles for having done so.

Even if there is some more exchange of fire between the two sides, and it escalates a little in intensity (say, by South Korea using its air force to bomb North Korean military positions), the game is stacked in North Korea’s favour. All other parties will push to sue for peace sooner rather than later, and the price for that will be agreeing to discuss something that is of more interest to the North Koreans than anyone else.  In other words, the terms of that discussion will be framed by the successful brinkmanship game played by the DPRK.

Sometimes being seemingly crazy has its own rewards.

Brief considerations on Korea

datePosted on 08:36, November 24th, 2010 by Lew

Normally I would leave discussion of this sort of topic to Pablo, whose expertise is much greater than mine (and I expect he will weigh in with his own thoughts on the topic too). But I lived there for a few years and had a great deal of time to ponder the security situation there, both through my own research and in discussion with several groups of former soldiers and senior businesspeople whom I was teaching English whilst there, and I think I have a handle on it.

A bit of background. The DPRK (North) and ROK (South) Korea remain officially at war; the armistice agreed in 1953 after the Korean War was not a peace treaty and signalled only a cessation of hostilities which has been accompanied by significant military and intelligence preparations on both sides. It is a tense situation, but it is at a fairly stable equilibrium because the mutual assured destruction principle still holds to a large extent. The ROK and its allies understand that the DPRK and its primary military and command assets are sufficiently well-defended that an assault from the South would draw a counter-attack which would inflict massive civilian, military and infrastructure casualties — estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in greater Seoul alone, which is within easy artillery range. And that’s with conventional weaponry alone, not taking into consideration the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (the regime certainly has the former two; it’s generally agreed that it also has the latter, but not in a deliverable form). For its part the DPRK understands that such an assault on the ROK would spell the end of its regime at the hands of a US-led NATO force.

There is a sense among people responding to the the news that yesterday’s exchange of artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea is qualitatively different from the dozens of other skirmishes which have taken place over the past 50-odd years of this cold conflict. It is true that this is one of the more serious engagements of that war, but it essentially follows the same pattern. Some action by the ROK and its allies (in this case a joint US-ROK naval exercise) granted the DPRK a pretext to rattle its chains; it fired a few rounds and some fiery rhetorical statements and the ROK does likewise. Two ROK soldiers have died, a dozen or so soldiers and a few civilians have been injured, and more civilians from the region have evacuated to the mainland. The casualty count is higher than usual, but so far, so typical. Late last night (NZ time) the DPRK released a statement alleging that the ROK had fired first. This is almost certainly false — the ROK rarely instigates these sorts of engagements — but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of the statement is to raise questions as to the ROK’s moral standing in the engagement, and to provide the ROK government with cover to stand down on the basis that it’s not worth going to war over a misunderstanding. If they do stand down the ROK government risks a minor loss of face, but since they are a liberal-democratic state whose populace has no appetite for war (and for the strategic reasons mentioned above) then barring much more serious provocation they will do so, President Lee Myung-bak’s own florid rhetoric about “enormous retaliation” notwithstanding.

Again: business as usual. While this latest event is perhaps quantitatively more serious than some previous events, it is qualitatively no different. This is the same strategic posturing game which is played out every crab fishing season in the West Sea, and year-round on the land border between the two states. The most serious mistake most of those who are now calling this the start of World War III are making is to try to understand this event in customary diplomatic terms as they would the relationship between two liberal-democratic states in good international standing. The DPRK’s actions and motivations make no sense when viewed in this light, because the DPRK is not, and never has been such a state. The explanation of these events are to be found, if anywhere, in an examination of the DPRK’s internal regime dynamics. Pablo has written about this topic recently with regard to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March, and I urge you to reread his post in light of these most recent events.

So I don’t think there’s anything much to this. Due to the DPRK’s military doctrine of total war, an invasion or genuine commencement of hostilities would not begin with a few mortars; it would start with a massive and rapid deployment of force, targeted at the most vulnerable civilian and infrastructure targets, likely in the middle of the night and preferably during an adverse weather event or some sort of civil unrest. None of these conditions abide at present. But the fundamental point is that the tense yet stable strategic situation on the 38th has not changed, so it is very unlikely that either side will choose this juncture as the hook upon which to hang the possible demise of their state. There have been some recent developments in that strategic situation — the probable elevation of Kim Jong-Il’s son to a senior position in preparation for ascent to leadership of the regime; fresh concerns about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and so on — but I believe these are too minor and too recent to have wrought the sorts of changes to the internal DPRK dynamic and to the cross-border dynamic which would be required for a substantial change in posture.

Of course, you never know. I have no special inside information or insight into the strategic situation there, and it may be that events of which few people are aware are driving this situation. But on the face of things this has been just another day on the 38th Parallel.

L

On a lighter note: Machine of Death

datePosted on 21:37, November 2nd, 2010 by Lew

Not that the Rolling Stones have destroyed us — I mean, you can’t always get what you want. You know what I’m saying? Brown sugar. I have no idea what that means.  -- Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, October 27, 2010

On 26 October 2010, the guy who writes the marvelous Dinosaur Comics and a bunch of others self-published a book (because nobody would publish it for them) of short stories based around the idea of a machine which could tell you how you would die. The book is called Machine of Death. They happened to choose October 26 as the publication date without knowing that Glenn Beck’s latest tome of dangerous absurdities with the suitably loony title “Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure was to be released on the same day. While it’s nice that Machine of Death pipped Beck’s book in the amazon.com sales rankings on opening day (proof), what’s most wonderful about this little episode is that it so incensed Glenn Beck that he had a wee rant about the book on his widely syndicated radio programme. It’s so gloriously insane, there’s nothing to do but quote it in full:

And I want to tell you that, um…our books are ALWAYS #1. And I find it REALLY fascinating, FASCINATING, that if you go to Amazon.com, Broke is number THREE. And the two books that are ahead of it — one is Keith Richards’ Life, which is getting a TON of — you know, that’s everywhere.
But this is a book about, you know, how he snorted his father’s ashes, after death. (sarcastically) THAT’S cool. This is the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] book. This is for all of the — this is for [union leader] Andy Stern who’s all, I guarantee you he’s on the phone and has been the last few days, you know, with people like, you know, Bill Ayers going “All right, DUDE! Ah, do you remember when we were rolling around in the mud like animals? Remember that? This guy was smoking ash — you know, smoking his dad, and, and, popping stuff into his veins? Ah, those were the DAYS, man.” And then William Ayers was like, “Whaddaya mean, those were the days? I’m still doin’ that stuff, man!”
So that… “culture of death.” And it’s an escape into the past, of, you know, the Woodstock stuff.
And then, the #1 book — TODAY, at least — is Machine of Death. And it’s a — collected stories about, you know, people who know how they’re gonna die. Haowww!
So you have DEATH — I know it’s called Life, but what a life it is, really! It’s a culture of death! OR, “How do we restore ourselves?”
These are the — this is the left, I think, speaking. This is the left. You want to talk about where we’re headed? We’re headed towards a culture of death. A culture that, um, celebrates the things that have destroyed us. Not that the Rolling Stones have destroyed us — I mean, you can’t always get what you want. You know what I’m saying? Brown sugar. I have no idea what that means.
— Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, October 27, 2010

This, as if it needs to be said, is the other side of the Angel of Death ad I wrote about the other day; what happens if the font of inchoate hatred which powers the Tea Party movement isn’t carefully channeled through propaganda wizards and filmmakers and spin doctors. Wonderful. Frightening.

L

Class, identity, solidarity and dissent

datePosted on 21:36, November 1st, 2010 by Lew

Recently commenter Tiger Mountain raised the parallel between solidarity with Actor’s Equity regarding The Hobbit and support for the māori party given their coalition with National and sponsorship of some bad legislation. I explained how they’re not equivalent, but leaving aside the main difference of mandate (which the māori party has and AE doesn’t) the wider issue of critical solidarity is an important one, and one which has been raised several times recently. In the wake of The Hobbit fiasco matters of class, identity and solidarity are high in everyone’s minds, and I think in spite of our many differences, we can agree that’s a good thing.

Another contribution to the wider debate is by Eddie at The Standard. For once I find myself agreeing with Eddie’s opening sentence about the māori party, which is:

The problem with any identity-based political movement is it pre-supposes that the common identity of its members surpasses their conflicting class interests.

It’s true, although I would have phrased it as follows:

The problem with any class-based political movement is it pre-supposes that the common class of its members surpasses their conflicting identity interests.

I wrote at length about this dynamic tension at a time when it looked like Labour was going to force Māori to choose between their class identity and their identity as tangata whenua — and how foolish forcing such a choice would be. (It’s still not clear whether Labour has abandoned it, but it at least seems obvious that they don’t have a full-blooded commitment to the blue collars, red necks strategy. But that’s by the way.)

What tends to follow from statements like that one is a series of value judgements about which set of interests ought to take precedence. This can be valuable, but is often tiresome, particularly when those making the pronouncements are “fighting a corner” for only one half of the equation (usually, it must be said, the “class” corner). But Eddie has mostly (not entirely) resisted the urge to do so and focused on the internal dispute within the māori party, and in particular the rather dictatorial stance taken by Tariana Turia regarding opposition to the new Marine & Coastal Area (hereafter MCA) Bill. That’s an important debate and examination of it is valuable, but what’s not really valuable is Eddie’s attempt to frame Turia’s stance as a matter of māori identity v class identity. It’s not. It’s a matter of the tension between moderate and radical factions within the movement; part of the internal debate within Māoridom.

Class is an element of this internal debate, but it is not the only element, and I would argue it is not even the predominant element. I think it’s clear that the conciliatory, collaborative, third-way sort of approach to tino rangatiratanga taken by Turia and Sharples under the guidance of Whatarangi Winiata (and whose work seems likely to be continued by new president Pem Bird is the predominant force. I also think the main reason for the left’s glee at the ascendance of the more radical faction is largely due to the fact that there’s a National government at present (and recall how different things were when the boot was on the other foot from 2005-2008). Those leading the radical charge against the MCA bill — notably Hone Harawira, Annette Sykes and Moana Jackson (whose primer on the bill is required reading) are not Marxists or class advocates so much as they are staunch advocates for tino rangatiratanga, who oppose the bill not so much for reasons based on class, but for reasons based on kaupapa Māori notions of justice. The perspectives of all three are informed by these sorts of traditionally-leftist analyses, but those analyses are certainly not at the fore in this dispute (as they have been in some past disputes). In fact, the strongest (you could say “least refined”) Marxist critiques of the bill advocate for wholesale nationalisation of the F&S, unapologetically trampling on residual property rights held by tangata whenua in favour of collective ownership.

For Eddie’s caricature of the dispute as “identity” v “class” to hold strictly, Turia, Sharples, Flavell and Katene would need to occupy the “authentic” kaupapa Māori position, the legitimate claim of acting in the pure interests of mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga; while Harawira, Sykes and Jackson (among others) would need to be largely denuded of this “identity” baggage, and be more or less pure class warriors. Neither is true; Harawira, Sykes and Jackson’s critique of the bill isn’t a Marxist critique; they’re arguing that the bill doesn’t serve the imperative of tino rangatiratanga and is therefore not an authentic kaupapa Māori position; an assertion that Sharples has tacitly accepted with his response that the Maori Party must accept compromise. (This is true, of course; I agree with Sharples and Turia as far as that goes. I just disagree that this bill is the issue upon which to compromise so heavily. Because of that, I come down on the side of Harawira, Sykes and Jackson.)

The other misguided thing is how Eddie frames Turia’s insistence that Harawira and others adhere to the party line as some sort of manifestation of Māori over class identity within the party — the quelling of dissent and insistence on loyalty to the leadership elite’s position as a “Māori” way of doing things, opposed to a “Left” way of doing things. This is absurd. The “left” does not automatically stand in defence of dissent or the public airing of heterodox views, much though Eddie (and I) might wish that it should. As I already mentioned, this is shown by Labour’s response to Turia in 2004 and the māori party’s first full term, suspicious at best and hostile at worst. The AE dispute is also an excellent illustration. In that case, the prevailing, “authentic” left position (including that taken by many writers at The Standard, though not — as far as I can recall — by Eddie) was to insist on total public solidarity with the union. In other words, precisely what Turia is insisting upon. I disagreed with this position in AE’s case, and I disagree with it in the māori party’s case. Dissent of this sort (or the imperative of its suppression) is not some innate part of “the left”, nor is it absence a characteristic of “identity politics”. It can exist or not in movements of either type, depending on the merits and specifics. It’s my view that such dissent is the beating heart of a movement, and it is peril to quash it. It is a shame that Turia seems to be making the same error as Helen Clark made regarding this issue in 2004.

But despite these objections, ultimately I agree with Eddie about one other thing: the dispute is really interesting, and the emergence of radical critiques and challenges within the movement is exciting and important. The māori party has a mandate to agree to the MCA act as drafted; after all, according to Edmund Burke’s famous saying, representatives owe their constituents not only their efforts but their judgement on what is just and right and possible. They’re not elected to always take the easy route of political martyrdom, and because of this they may find themselves staring down their constituents. Sometimes they may win. But nowhere are representatives guaranteed that those constituents must not try to stare back. If those who oppose the bill can raise a hīkoi in support of their cause, then let them do so, and more strength to their waewae. And let members of the “left” movements, if their enmity to the bill is genuine, rather than a reflexive attack on a National-led government and the māori party orthodoxy which supports it, march alongside them in solidarity. That will be some sort of justice.

L

The Perils of the Dark Side

datePosted on 21:29, October 19th, 2010 by Lew

Via 3 News journalist Patrick Gower on Twitter, the news that Pita Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Destiny Church annual conference this Labour weekend. Concerning news.

Except I’m not sure it’s completely accurate. According to the Destiny press release, Sharples is the keynote speaker at the Friday night Awards & Recognition event which kicks the conference off, while (who else) Bishop Brian Tamaki is the “keynote preacher” for the weekend-long event. I think this is an important distinction: it’s appropriate for Sharples, with a lifetime of support for Māori excellence, to be present for an event which celebrates achievements in “business, management, the health and social services sectors, Pacific arts, family breakthrough and contribution to at-risk youth” for a large and largely Māori organisation, featuring pasifika and kapa haka performances to boot.

But that’s quite a different thing to lending the imprimatur of his status as the co-leader of a government party and Minister of Māori Affairs to the shady cultishness of Destiny’s main event. This is not to say that Sharples should shun Destiny outright: after all, as a kaupapa Māori politician he does represent some of the group’s members, and many non-members who share some of their values. Such ‘Dark sides’ of support exist for almost every party; the Greens have their crazed dark-green environmentalists; Labour has the blue-collar rednecks about whom I’ve written previously; ACT has mostly sucked away the white-collar rednecks (and doesn’t mind admitting it) from National, but the Nats still have the worst offenders among the farming lobby and many of the least-savoury Christian sects (much of Destiny undoubtedly included). For all that they might be abhorrent to some, these are all legitimate interest groups and — within reasonable bounds — they must be tolerated and their needs entertained in a free society. Their members have as much right to democracy as anyone else, but (as with any fringe group) politicians must be extremely circumspect about the type and quantity of support that they grant.

There is a danger that Pita Sharples will be seen to pander too much to Destiny; and indeed a danger that he does pander to them. The māori party paddles turbulent waters at present; having compromised very heavily on the Marine & Coastal Area/Takutai Moana legislation to replace the Foreshore & Seabed Act, and now finds that Faustian bargain under attack both from the ACT party without and from Hone Harawira within. Despite the former, and probably because of the latter, they have been very quiet lately. Although they — ironically — share some common ground with Labour on the Takutai Moana bill, there remains a very large gulf between them; not least because Labour’s own conference signals a much more classical materialist direction than that which has previously obtained. Sharples and Turia are no fools, and can see that remaining a client of Key’s pragmatic-instrumentalist National party is a hiding to nothing — even with the ACT party likely out of the picture after the next election, the likelihood that they can maintain common cause once the other has outlived its immediate use seems slender. So they feel like they need another support base, and it must be very tempting to team up with a charismatic leader such as Brian Tamaki at a time like this.

It would be ruinous to do so. Most obviously, this is because outside of his most loyal followers — his 700 Sons — Tamaki’s is an illusory sort of strength, based on the smoke and mirrors of a showman’s art rather than upon deep loyalty and conviction. This much was clearly shown in the 2005 and 2008 elections, where the Destiny Party (and later the Family Party with Destiny’s express endorsement) failed to come close to success, due largely to a lack of internal cohesion. Destiny has failed to demonstrate — even at the height of its profile five years ago, under a government largely hostile to it — that it could mobilise a meaningful number of votes.

The second, and by far the more important reason, is the abhorrent nature of the policies and principles Destiny stands for — crude Daddy State authoritarian Christian conservatism with a brownish tinge; illiberal, intolerant, homophobic and misogynistic, quite opposed to where Aotearoa is heading. And that’s to say nothing of the corruption and appalling social dysfunction endemic to the evangelical cults of which Destiny is an example. The sorts of scandals which currently rock the church of Tamaki’s own “spiritual father” Eddie Long in the USA must undoubtedly also exist within Destiny. This is essentially the same package of qualities which turned the Exclusive Brethren to political poison for Don Brash’s National party in 2005. Because of this deep and fundamental disconnect, and New Zealanders’ innate distrust of folk who think they’re ‘exclusive’ (especially if they’re brown, wealthy or religious), the reality is that an alliance between the māori party and Destiny would likewise be poison, and would probably circumscribe any future prospects of working with either of the two main parties, not to mention utterly ruling out the Green party — with whom the māori party shares the most policy in common.

So there is no easy course for the māori party in the long term; the swell is heavy and the winds both strong and changeable. But to extend the nautical metaphor, Destiny is a reef; not an island. Better that they paddle on by their own course and seek more solid ground.

L

Anchor me

datePosted on 08:46, October 5th, 2010 by Lew

Indian-born Hawkes Bay-resident overstayers Sital and Usha Ram are to be deported with or without their three children, who are New Zealand citizens aged eight and six. These are not ‘anchor babies’ in the US sense that that hate-term is employed; no attempt has been made by the Rams to mislead Immigration or to hide from the authorities, nor are they using their childrens’ citizenship status to thumb their noses at the powers that be. This is, for all intents and purposes, a model New Zealand family.

The children, as New Zealand citizens, have a “cardinal and absolute right of residence” according to a 2008 judicial ruling, which means they can on no account be deported. This is where they belong, it’s where they live, the only place in the world they can do so in full legality, since it is impossible to exchange their New Zealand citizenship for Indian citizenship until they turn 18 (and indeed, nobody can force them to do so).

As the article says, they face a terrible choice: return to India and condemn their children to a life of poverty, or return to India alone and leave their children behind. But it’s not really much of a choice: they can’t simply abandon their children in either sense. Fundamentally, the terrible choice is faced by the government, who must decide whether to tear a family quite literally apart, permanently. To demonstrate their loyalty both to their children and to their country and therefore to win this battle in the public view, the Rams need do nothing more than peacefully resist being separated from their children. Call the government’s bluff. Let Immigration enforcers tear apart mother and daughter, father and sons. Let them carry the parents bodily to the paddywagon, and from the paddywagon to the waiting aircraft. Let it be known that this is the government’s doing; their choice, not that of the parents. This is a chance to force the government to actually do the dirty work of eviction and deportation, to undertake the harsh deeds which their tough-on-everything rhetoric implies. And they should be forced to put their actions where their words are.

So my advice to Usha and Sital Ram is: invite John Campbell into your home. Let him and his camera crew be present at the time of the forcible separation; in your living room and at the airport, and let the whole world watch, and listen to the wailing. The narrative will be big bad Muldoonist Daddy State jack-boot dawn raids, breaking down doors and wrecking families in 2010 as in 1980, and the country will need to decide: is this who we are? Does this represent us and our aspirational, compassionate, multicultural society?

And, as Pablo suggests in his recent post about Paul Henry, it’s a question which needs to be answered.

Update: As usual it’s occurred to me that a poet has previously expressed my core argument in two lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Dylan Thomas)

L

Ahmadinejad Amps Up.

datePosted on 13:11, September 27th, 2010 by Pablo

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s airing of a 9-11 conspiracy theory during his speech to the UN General Assembly last week produced a walk out by several delegations (including New Zealand’s) and a predictable chorus of outrage by conservative Western media. Not being a fan of 9-11 conspiracy theories myself, I simply note that this is is just the latest in a series of provocative UN speeches by Ahmadinejad, including his contention three years ago that there are no gays in Iran (insert Tui ad here).

What may not be apparent to the peanut gallery is the real reasons for the crazy talk. Let me therefore explain them.

As I have written before here and elsewhere, authoritarian regimes are seldom monolithic but instead are usually divided into factions of one kind or another depending on the specifics of the regime. There are hard-liners and soft-liners, idealists versus pragmatists, old guard versus new guard, religious versus secularist, military versus civilian, rural versus urban–these and other cleavages may overlap in any variety of ways (and can include inter-service divisions in military-dominated regimes). Ahmadinejad is associated with one hard line faction within the electoral authoritarian theocratic regime in Iran. This faction has been seriously undermined by the disputed December 2009 election results and subsequent unrest, something that comes at a time when Tehran is trying to impose its stamp as a major regional power by, among other things, pursuing an independent nuclear capability that has the potential if not intent of achieving nuclear deterrent status. That is the domestic context in which the UN speech was given.

The speech was televised live in Iran. It was designed to bolster Ahmadinejad’s hard-line credentials and image as a strong leader at home, thereby shoring up his support within the Revolutionary Guard affiliated hard-line elements that are vying for regime control with more moderate, secularist factions. The speech was, in other words, more for domestic consumption than international indigestion.

But it was also designed to raise Ahmadinejad’s stature within the Muslim world, and by extension that of Iran in its battle with pro-Western Sunni regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. The theory that 9-11 was an inside job perpetrated by the US so that it could then embark on a military project of world domination and defense of the”Zionist entity” has a fair bit of credence amongst (mostly uneducated) Muslims. Although crazy on the face of it, supposedly unexplained questions about the attacks themselves, the possibility of an ex post facto US whitewash or cover-up of the events leading up to and immediately following the attacks, and the subsequent US declaration of a “war on terror” leading to the invasion and occupation of two Muslim-dominant states (as well as the deployment of US military forces to dozens of others), lends itself easily to conspiracy theorisation, if not out of genuine skepticism than as a tool by which to manipulate subject populations already hostile to the US and Israel. By voicing one version of the “9-11 was an inside job” theory (as one of three possible explanations for the attacks mentioned by Ahmadinejad in his speech), the Iranian president dared to go where other Muslim leaders fail to tread. That raises his profile, and that of Iran, as the champion of Islamic interests at a time when other Muslim states are seen as complicit with or subjugated to US-led Western interests.

There is an irony in all of this. In a very real sense, Ahmadinejad’s speech and the reaffirmation of his position within the Iranian regime can be seen as a good thing when it comes to negotiations about its nuclear ambitions. It is axiomatic in diplomatic negotiations that agents have a strong mandate from their constituents. If the agents do not then their bargaining position can be undermined during or after the negotiations, making the entire process futile. By making his speech Ahmadinejad bolsters his position as a negotiating agent in the measure that support for him unifies and consolidates into diplomatic talking points. Put another way, were his position within the regime to remain weak or under challenge, his position as a negotiator would be undermined as well and anything that he agreed to could be undone by rivals seeking to strengthen their own internal hand. In other words, his word would mean nothing at the negotiating table.

But if his speech serves to unify support for him, then his ability to negotiate an agreement on the nuclear programme in which trade-offs between renunciation of weapons ambitions are exchanged for removal of sanctions and provision of aid, etc. will be enhanced. This is especially so because he is a hardliner with a reputation, reaffirmed by the speech, of defying the Great Satan, the UK and other Western powers while denouncing the Zionists and courting Chinese, Pakistani, North Korean and Venezuelan ties. Just like US Republican administrations (Nixon and Reagan, respectively) could lead the opening to China and the thawing of relations (glasnost) with the Soviet Union because of their hard-line credentials and domestic positions of political strength, so too it is that Ahmadinejad’s faction, not the soft-line or moderates in the Iranian regime, has the best credentials for negotiating the terms of any durable agreement on its nuclear programme. In the measure that his speech reaffirms his hard-line credentials and strengthens his position within the regime, the more possible it is for him to be a reliable negotiating agent vis a vis the West, which means that the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse are actually improved if his speech has the desired effect on his intended main audience.

Which is to say, Ahmadinejad may seem crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.

Two Bicentennials, and two disappointments.

datePosted on 09:27, September 18th, 2010 by Pablo

Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizens in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.

Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.

Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.

This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution, Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists. The number of such luminaries is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close to fulfilling the promise of its naturally-given and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.

I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of these and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.

I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and political problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) and a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.

Argentina has not had a revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos in person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That only precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.

After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but both at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society. Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through. And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.

All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the younger generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.

Blue smoke

datePosted on 09:31, September 16th, 2010 by Lew

In my previous post on the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) I lamented the conspicuous absence of outrage in response to the bill’s provisions from partisans on the right. I have since been heartened by the responses from some of the more principled commentators on the right; well done them.

But there is one most conspicuous exception. I have on many occasions in the past defended Kiwiblog’s David Farrar from allegations that he’s a bog-standard Tory authoritarian. Yes, he’s a loyal partisan; yes, he does have his authoritarian tendencies, but his typical policy alignment is clearly classical-liberal. He is is consistently more liberal than almost all of his fellow-travellers and has regularly exhibited a forthright commitment to democratic principles of the rule of law, of good constitutional practice and the importance of checks and balances. Even yesterday’s response conveyed lukewarm concern about the scope and extent of the act. But I take back all that defence of David’s character; and so, apparently, does David take back his commitment to those liberal principles.

Because this morning’s post on the CERRA is nothing short of cringing, snivelling partisan apologia for dictatorship dressed up as a simplistic classical history lesson. Dictatorship, it appears, is a-ok with David just as long as the dictator wears the right coloured tie. Where now are the lofty appeals to the principles of good governance, the shrieking about attacks on the nation’s constitutional integrity, the billboards bearing the endorsements of dictators? There are plenty around, including a very explicit homage to the Free Speech Coalition campaign which David fronted, but nothing from this erstwhile and self-proclaimed champion of democracy himself.

The fact that DPF is being schooled on both the principled and pragmatic problems with this bill by some of the more wide-eyed and reactionary members of his commentariat suggests that he has taken leave of his political instincts as well as his principles; for instance, the notorious ‘burt’, who urges him to consider what might happen if (due to the collapse of ACT) National fails to win the 2011 election and a Labour minister takes over from Brownlee; a possibility he and the government had either not anticipated or don’t believe was worth considering. Nothing would be sweeter irony, but either way: David’s credibilty on these matters is up in a cloud of Tory-blue smoke; a legacy destroyed by unprincipled partisan loyalty. Such is the price of political dependence.

Update: Similar sentiments from Peter Cresswell, Danyl Mclauchlan and The Standard, from whom I purloined the image.)

Another update: More angels required to dance on DPF’s pinhead.

L

No democracy on the honour system

datePosted on 21:47, September 14th, 2010 by Lew

This morning I posited a conspiracy theory that the government would use the temporary deregulation measures undertaken in response to the Canterbury earthquake to progress another tranche of wide-ranging reforms to the resource management regime and building and construction industries after the 2011 election.

Absurdly, if the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill is passed without very extensive amendments of the sort proposed by the Greens and voted down by both major parties (it’s going through all three stages right now), then all that and much, much more could happen this week, no election required, and without any review by the courts. The executive powers granted to the relevant Minister (that’s Gerry Brownlee) in this bill are so sweeping as to permit him to do almost literally anything as long as it has something to do with quake recovery — amend or suspend almost any piece of legislation, overturn any electoral decision — really, Dean Knight, Graeme Edgeler and Andrew Geddis (themselves no wide-eyed conspiracy nuts) are just three of the constitutional law experts who are boggling at the possibilities; Idiot/Savant is also much more than usually incandescent, and Gordon Campbell pulls few punches, either. Geddis says the law gives him “a case of the screaming collywobbles”. How’s that for a technical term. Their argument — contra government speakers such as Nick Smith — is that, because there is no real oversight to test whether actions taken are “reasonably necessary or expedient for the purpose of the Act”, the bill’s scope is not strictly limited in black-letter law to those matters, nor indeed to the region impacted by the quake, and the minister and his commission basically enjoy immunity. These are sweeping powers such as those which might be accorded an executive head of state in a command-government situation such as a major war.

Not would happen, mind. I don’t think anyone genuinely thinks Gerry Brownlee will decriminalise murder, approve mining across all schedule 4 land, enact wartime conscription or overrule the results of the forthcoming Supercity election. I don’t. But the point is (assuming Dean Knight knows what he’s talking about) that Brownlee can. Or will be able to tomorrow, until April 2012, which astute readers will note is a good half-year after the next general election must be held. There are no real checks or balances, much of the actions taken under this legislation are able to be taken in secret, and actions taken will not — at least on paper — be subject to judicial review. This means that we are relying on Gerry Brownlee to not be evil. But democracy doesn’t work on the honour system. It can’t. It doesn’t work on the basis that you give a government power in the hope that they use it legitimately; you give it power on the basis that you have the authority and ability to wrest it back from them if they misuse it, and on the assumption they will misuse it. The honour system is fine for bouquets being sold at the cemetery gates. It’s no basis upon which to run a country.

As I’ve often argued here and elsewhere, what sets liberal democracy, with all its failings, apart from authoritarian systems is the ability for the electorate to transfer power by the exercise of these sorts of checks and balances. Under orthodox authoritarian socialism for examplem — more or less the only form of socialism ever fully implemented on a nationwide scale, in the USSR and China, for instance — the transitional dictatorship is empowered with the sole authority and means to put down any such counter-revolution as might endanger the transition to genuine communism; and because of this, the dictatorship enjoys impunity. It has no reason to work in the interests of the people it purports to serve, inevitably becoming inefficient, corrupt and brutal. (Thus, the problem with socialism is authoritariansm which accompanies it, not so much the economic aspects, but that isn’t my point here).

The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Bill, of all the ridiculous things, brings into being the potential for just such a regime in New Zealand, and we can only hope it is not used to that effect. It is a colossal, hypervigilant overreach. And if any ill comes from this, Labour — and even the Greens and the māori party — will bear as much responsibility as National; they are all supporting it out of “unity”.

Where now are those who railed against the Electoral Finance Act, who speculated darkly that Helen Clark might not relinquish power after the election, or might suspend the operation of the free press; who shrieked about the Section 59 repeal; against ‘Nanny State’ and the illusory Stalinism of lightbulbs and shower heads, drink-drive limits and alcohol purchase ages and compulsory student union membership? Here the papers are being signed to dismantle robust constitutional democracy right under our very noses, and there’s barely a whimper.

(Updated to add Lyndon Hood’s fantastic image of Brownlee VIII, link to Campbell’s article, and tidy the post up a bit.)

L

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