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An age of protest.

datePosted on 12:50, November 13th, 2019 by Pablo

It seems fair to say that we currently live in a problematic political moment in world history. Democracies are in decline and dictatorships are on the rise. Primordial, sectarian and post-modern divisions have re-emerged, are on the rise or have been accentuated by political evolutions of the moment such as the growth of nationalist-populist movements and the emergence of demagogic leaders uninterested in the constraints of law or civility. Wars continue and are threatened, insurgencies and irredentism remain, crime proliferates in both the physical world and cyberspace and natural disasters and other climatic catastrophes have become more severe and more frequent.

One of the interesting aspects to this “world in turmoil” scenario is the global surge in social protests. Be it peaceful sit-ins, land occupations, silent vigils, government building sieges, street and road blockades, pot-banging and laser-pointing mass demonstrations or riots and collective violence, the moment is rife with protest.

There are some significant differences in the nature of the protests. Contrary to previous eras in which they tended to be ideologically uniform or of certain type (say, student and worker anti-capitalist demonstrations), the current protest movement is heterogeneous in orientation, not just in the tactics used but in the motivations underpinning them. In this essay I shall try to offer a taxonomy of protest according to the nature of their demands.

Much of what is facilitating the current protest wave is global telecommunications technologies. In previous decades people may have read about, heard about or seen protests at home or in far-off places, but unless they were directly involved their impressions came through the filter of state and corporate media and were not communicated with the immediacy of real-time coverage in most instances. Those doing the protests were not appealing to global audiences and usually did not have the means to do so in any event. Coverage of mass collective action was by and large “top down” in nature: it was covered “from above” by journalists who worked for status quo (often state controlled) media outlets at home or parachuted in from abroad with little knowledge of or access to the local, non-elite collective mindset behind the protests.

Today the rise of individual telecommunications technologies such as hand-held devices, social media platforms and constant on-line live streaming, set against a corporate media backdrop of 24/7 news coverage, allows for the direct and immediate transmission of participant perspectives in real time. The coverage is no longer one sided and top down but multi-sided and “bottom up,” something that not only provides counter-narratives to offical discourse but in fact offers a mosaic landscape of perspective and opinion on any given event. When it comes to mass collective action, the perspectives offered are myriad.

The rise of personalised communication also allows for better and immediate domestic and transnational linkages between activists as well as provide learning exercises for protestors on opposite sides of the globe. Protestors can see what tactics work and what does not work in specific situations and contexts elsewhere. Whereas security forces have crowd control and riot training to rely on (often provided by foreign security partners), heretofore it was difficult for protest groups to learn from the experiences of others far away, especially in real time. Now that is not the case, and lessons can be learned from any part of the world.

The nature of contemporary protests can be broadly categorised as follows: protests against economic conditions and policy; protests against central government control; protests against elitism, authoritarianism and corruption (which often go hand-in-hand); protests against “others” (for example, anti-immigrant and rightwing extremist protests in the US and Europe); protests over denied rights or recognition (such as the gay and pro-abortion and anti-femicide demonstrations in Argentina, or indigenous rights protests in Brazil); single-issue protests (e.g. climate change); or mixtures of the above.

The literature on mass collective action often centres on what are known as “grievance versus greed” demands. One side of the continuum involves pure grievance demands, that is, demands for redress born of structural, societal or institutional inequalities. On the other side are demands born of the desire to preserve a self identified right, entitlement or privilege. In spite of the connotations associated with this specific choice of words, greed demands are not necessarily selfish nor are grievance based protests always virtuous. For example, greed demands can involve respect for or return to basic civil liberties as universal human rights or demands for the preservation of democracy, such as in the case of Hong Kong. Conversely, grievances can often be selfish in nature. Thus, although the pro-Brexit demonstrations are construed as demands that politicians heed the will of the people, the underlying motivation is defensive and protective of a peculiarly defined form of nationalism. A particularity of the modern era is that although most of the protests are portrayed as grievance-based, a considerable amount are in fact greed-based and not always virtuous, as in the case of the Charlottesville white supremacy marches and anti-immigrant demonstrations in Europe.

Protests against economic policies and conditions have recently been seen in Chile, France, Ecuador and Iraq. Protests against centralised government control have been seen in Catalonia, Indian Kashmir and Hong Kong. Protests against authoritarianism, elitism and corruption have been seen in Lebanon, Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Haiti, Iran and Nicaragua. Protests against elitism are seen in the UK (over Brexit), and against state repression in Greece. “Othering” protests have occurred in the US, Italy, Hungary, Greece and South Africa, among other places. Interestingly, the majority of contemporary protests are not strictly economic (structural) in nature, but instead concentrate on superstructural factors such as the behaviour of government, restrictions on voice and representation and/or the vainglorious impunity of socioeconomic elites.

Often, such as in Chile, the protests begin as one thing and morph into another (starting out as protests against economic policy and conditions and then adding in protests against heavy handed state repression). The more new actors join the original protestors, the more likely the protests themselves will adopt a heterogenous or hybrid nature. That also extends to the tactics employed: while some protesters will choose passive resistance and civil disobedience as the preferred course of direct action, others will choose more confrontational tactics. The precise mix of this militant-moderate balance is determined by the prior history of protest and State repression in a given society (see below). The idea is to clear space for a peaceful resolution to the dispute with authorities, something that may require the use of confrontation tactics in order for authorities to accede to moderate demands. Remember: in spite of the language used, the protests in question are not part of or precursors to revolutionary movements, properly defined. They are, in fact, reformist movements seeking to improve upon but not destroy the status quo ante.

In recent times the emergence of leaderless resistance has made more difficult the adoption of a coherent approach to direct action in which moderate and militant tactics are used as part of a unified strategy (or praxis) when confronting political authorities. This is an agent-principal problem before it is a tactical problem because there is no core negotiating cadre for the protest movement that can coordinate the mix of moderate and militant actions and speak to the authorities with a unified voice and grassroots support. Under such conditions it is often difficult to achieve compromises on contentious issues, thereby extending the period of crisis which, if left unresolved by peaceful means, can lead to either a pre-revolutionary moment or a turn towards hard authoritarianism. That again depends on the society, issues and history in question.

Santiago, Chile, November 2019.

Introduction of new actors into mass protest movements inevitably brings with it the arrival of criminals, provocateurs, third columnists and lumpenproletarians. These seek to use the moment of protest as a window of opportunity for the self-entered goals and use the protest movement as a cloak on their actions. These are most often the perpetrators of the worst violence against people and property and are those who get the most mainstream media coverage for doing so. But they should not be confused with the demographic “core” of the movement, which is not reducible to thugs and miscreants and which has something other than narrowly focused personal self-interest or morbid entertainment as a motivating factor.

The type of violence involved in mass collection action tells a story. Attacks on symbols of authority such as monuments and statues, government buildings or corporate entities general point to the direction of discontent. These can range from graffiti to firebombing, depending on the depth of resentment involved. Ransacking of supermarkets is also a sign of the underlying conditions behind the disorder. Destruction of public transportation does so as well. Attacks on security forces in the streets are a symbol of resistance and often used as a counter-punch to what is perceived as heavy handed police and/or military responses to peaceful protest. In some societies (say, South Korea and Nicaragua) the ability to counter-punch has been honed over years of direct action experience and gives pause to security forces when confronting broad-based social protests.

On the other hand, assaults on civilians uninvolved in security or policy-making, attacks on schools or otherwise neutral entities such as sports clubs, churches or community organisations point to either deep social (often ethno-religious) divisions or the presence of untoward elements hiding within the larger movement. Both protest organisers and authorities need to be cognisant of these differences.

In all cases mass protests are ignited by a spark, or in the academic vernacular, a precipitating event or factor. In Bolivia it was president Morals’s re-election under apparently fraudulent conditions. In Chile it was a subway fare hike. In France it was the rise in fuel prices that sparked the Yellow Vest movement that in turn became a protest about the erosion of public pension programs and and worker’s collective rights. In Ecuador it was also a rise in the price of petrol that set things off. In Hong Kong it was an extradition bill.

One relatively understudied aspect of contemporary protests is the broader cultural milieu in which they occur. All societies have distinctive cultures of protest. In some instance, such as Hong Kong, they are not deeply grounded in direct action or collective mass violence, and therefore are slow to challenge the repressive powers of the State (in the six months of Hong Kong protests three people have been killed). In other countries, such as Chile, there is a rich culture of protest to which contemporary activists and organisers can hark back to. Here the ramping up of direct action on the streets comes more quickly and involves the meting out of non-State violence on property and members of the repressive apparatuses (in Chile 30 people have died and thousands injured in one month of protests). In other countries like Iraq, pre-modern sectarian divisions combine with differences over governance to send protests from peaceful to homicidal in an instant (in Iraq over 250 people were killed and 5,000 injured in one week of protest).

Just like their are different war-fighting styles and cultures, so too are their different protest cultures specific to the societies involved.

The differences in protest culture, in turn, are directly related to cultures of repression historically demonstrated by the State. In places like Hong Kong there has been little in the way of a repressive culture prior to the last decade or so, and therefore the Police response has been cautious and incremental when it comes to street violence (always with an eye towards what the PRC overlords as well as Hong Kong public will consider acceptable). In Chile the legacy of the dictatorship hangs like a dark shadow over the security forces, who themselves have enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy from civilian oversight in the years since the transition to democracy (in what can be considered, along with the market-driven macroeconomic policies that favour the dictatorship’s economic supporters, another authoritarian legacy). In places like Egypt the repressive response is predicated on belief in the utility value of disproportionate force: any demonstration, no matter how peaceful, is met with degrees of (often extra-judicial) lethality so as to serve as a lesson and set an example for others.

The way in which state security organisations respond to protests is also a function of the degree of security sector coherence. Issues such as inter-service rivalries, factional disputes within the armed services, different perspectives on civil-military relations and standards of professional autonomy all factor into if and how those charged with the management of organised violence will respond to differentiations types of protest.

It is therefore in the dialectic between social protest and State repressive cultures where the physical-kinetic boundaries of collective mass action are drawn. Some societies are restrained or “polite” and so too are their notions of proper protest. In others, the moment for restraint ends when protests begin.

Underlying different approaches to contemporary protests is the issue of consent and toleration, or more precisely, the threshold of of consent and toleration. Basically popular consent is required for democratic governance to endure and prosper. Consent is given contingently, in the expectation that certain material, social and political thresholds will be met and upheld by those who rule. When the latter fail to meet or uphold their end of the bargain, then consent is withdrawn and social instability begins. Although it is possible for consent to be manipulated by elites, this is a temporary solution to a long-term dilemma, which is how to keep a majority of the subjects content with their lots in life over time?

Contingent mass consent also depends on a threshold of toleration. What will people tolerate in exchange for their consent? The best example is the exchange of political for economic benefits in dictatorships: people give up political rights in order to secure material benefits. But the threshold of toleration is often fragile and unstable, especially when grievances have been festering for a time or demands have repeatedly gone unmet. When that is the case the spark that precipitates the withdrawal of mass contingent consent can be relatively minor (say, defeat by a national football team in a World Cup or the assassination of an innocent by the security forces).

Each society develops its own threshold of contingent consent and toleration. What people will tolerate in Turkey is not the same as what people will tolerate in New Zealand (assuming for the purposes of this argument that Turkey is still a democracy of sorts). In fact, the very basis of consent differ from society to society: what Turks may consider acceptable in terms of material, social and political conditions may not be remotely acceptable to the French. Even outright authoritarians need to be conscious of the threshold of consent and toleration, if not from the masses then certainly from the elites that support them. But that only adds to their governance dilemmas, since pursuit of elite contingent consent can bring with it an intolerable situation for the masses. At that point the cultures of protest and State repression will come into play.

Ultimately, the current age of protest is the product of a global crisis of governance. Belief in the combination of market capitalism and democratic forms of representation as the preferred political-economic combination has eroded significantly. Rapid demographic and technological changes, increased income inequalities and other pathologies associated with the globalisation of production and exchange have undermined the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats under liberal democratic conditions. Authoritarians have increasingly filled the void both in countries that have democratic traditions as well as those that do not. Using the power of the State, they propagate fear-mongering and scapegoating between in- and out-groups in order to consolidate power and stifle opposing views.

The irony is that the turn to authoritarianism may be seen as the solution to the crisis of democratic governance, but it is no panacea for the underlying conditions that produced the current wave of protest and in fact may exacerbate them over the long term if protest demands are repressed rather than addressed. If that is the case, then what is currently is a global move towards reformism “from below” could well become the revolutionary catharsis than recent generations of counter-hegemonic activists failed to deliver.

That alone should be reason enough for contemporary political leaders to study the reasons for and modalities of the current wave of protests. That should be done in an effort not to counter the protests but to reach compromises that, if not satisfying the full spectrum of popular demands, serve as the foundation for an ongoing dialogue that reconstructs the bases of consent and toleration so essential for maintenance of a peaceful social order. It remains to be seen how many will do so.

The fallacy of the proximity argument.

datePosted on 12:43, September 3rd, 2019 by Pablo

Longer term readers may remember my complaining that, as a political scientist, it is burdensome to have non-political scientists wanting to engage me about politics. No layperson would think to approach an astrophysicist and lecture him/her on the finer details of quarks and black holes, but everybody with an opinion feels perfectly entitled to tell me exactly why their views are just if not more accurate than mine when it comes to discussing political phenomena. Some go on to mention that I must have gotten my degrees so that I could become a politician, which is like telling a primatologist that he wants to be a chimp (I have used this analogy before so apologies if you have already read or heard it).

One of the most often used lines that I hear is what I call the “proximity argument.” That is the belief that proximity to an event, situation or process gives one special insights into them and therefore entitles one to opine from a position of purportedly superior insight. In vulgar terms it is the “you don’t live here” or “I was there” argument, in which the fact of being proximately familiar with something confers special argumentative rights when discussing it.

In recent weeks I have been following the lead up to October’s general elections in Argentina, including reading the posts from friends in Argentina on social media. Their opinions are deeply divided between Left and Right-oriented folk, with some of their commentary bordering on hysterical. What they all have in common is that they claim to know better what the “objective” situation is because they are living in Argentina at the moment, so observations from the likes of me, regardless of the fact that I have written professionally about Argentine politics for all of may adult life, do not count because I live outside of the country.

I cannot enumerate the times that people in the US, particularly MAGA morons, discount what I have to say about US politics because “you don’t live here anymore.” This despite my years of government service prior to emigration, my research and writing on various aspects of US foreign policy and military affairs and my ongoing connections to people in politics and government in that country. “You gotta be here,” they say.

Closer to home, I repeatedly hear and read people claim that one can not opine about issues involving Maori if one is not Maori. Most recently, I have watched with concern the unhappiness voiced by members of the NZ Muslim community with the way on which the investigations into the March 15 attacks have proceeded, in particular the way in which the Royal Commission of Inquiry has handled their participation in the process. The claim is made that since they were the targets and subjects of the attacks, Muslims should be front and centre in any investigation into the events that led up to March 15.

Conversely, several prominent commentators–Gerry Brownlee, Lianne Dalziel and Russell Brown amongst them–attacked me in personal terms because of my media commentary that Christchurch had a well- documented history of white supremacism prior to the attacks. Beside the hypocrisy that comes naturally to politicians, one can only assume that their reactions are due to their personal connections to that city, which may have led them to the conclusion that I was attacking the city as a whole rather than a well-known extremist element within it. In other words, they could or would not see the very rotten trees in their particular forest, or will not admit to having known about them (Dalziel still insists that there is no white supremacist “problem”).

Putting on my analyst’s hat, I find that proximity arguments of this sort to be problematic. Of course familiarity with something gives particular insight into it and therefore those closest to an event, situation or process need to be heard when seeking remedies or even just objective understanding of the phenomenon. But proximity also brings with it emotion and subjectivity, both of which are anathema to analytic objectivity.

Years ago I published a collection of essays titled “With Distance Comes Perspective.” The book title was taken from the Spanish phrase “hay que tomar distancia” (“take some distance”), which refers to the fact that one must sometimes step back and put some distance on something in order to understand its objective status. That always reminds me of the children’s story about five blind people touching an elephant–each describes a different beast depending on what part of the elephant they are touching–because the emotion and subjectivity conferred by proximity often makes one blind to the larger realities at play, or at least the bigger picture.

I put together that collection because I gained perspective on the US, and international politics in general, from having moved to NZ and gaining literal, figurative and theoretical distance on great power dynamics by adopting the perspective of a very small democratic state. I found that in order to better understand US foreign policy I needed to move away from it after having spent time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

That helps explain why the proximity argument is fallacious. It may be necessary to understanding something but it is not sufficient when trying to explain it. In many cases it obscures objective understanding because it clouds the analysis with emotion and/or the particular (often myopic) perspective of specific participants in or observers of an event. Balanced analysis requires objectivity and objectivity more often than not requires neutral distance from the subject of study. Emotion and subjectivity have no place in the analytic mind.

That does not mean that proximate familiarity is not required. All Ph.D. programs in comparative politics worth their reputations require students to acquire language skills and conduct in-country field research as part of their dissertations, preferably through the use of personal interviews, archival research, documentary collection and observer participation in the broader events and context surrounding their studies. The purpose is for the student to gain cultural familiarity with their case study or studies in order to give depth and contextual understanding to the specific research that they are undertaking. For example, one can never fully understand the nature of Argentine football if one does not understand the class and urban/rural divisions that underpin it, be it from club structure and the stadium songs used by fans to the role of organised crime in club governance and the selection process for the national team. For that to happen, one has to spend time there, both in general and in the stadiums.

For me the dissertation process required repeated trips to Argentina in order to conduct research in the Health and Labour Ministries, interview unionists and health policy makers, and run ideas past others in the research institutes to which I was affiliated at the time (all in Spanish, of course). Being raised in Argentina gave me a distinct advantage when it came to moving around and making connections, but I had to put my political beliefs and personal feelings aside when engaging in research and writing because my dissertation committee were not interested in how I felt but in rather what I objectively observed and the analytic conclusions that I reached from said observations (I left the personal stuff for the dedication page of the finished work).

That is something that I have carried with me over the years and, along with things such as inductive versus deductive reasoning, most-similar versus most-different and large-N versus small-N methodologies, that I tried to impart on students during 25 years of academic service. The idea is to use proximity whenever possible but to use it in a broader context where neutral analytic distance is maintained.

All of which is to say that we must not be fooled by those who use the proximity argument when opining about current events or policy issues. Be it measles, land rights, climate change, gun control, political finance, threat assessments or any other matter of contentious public concern, the false expertise of those who rely on the proximity argument must be balanced with the objective appraisals of those who can address the subject dispassionately and knowledgeably whether or not they have immediate connection to what is being discussed.

I did an interview on the TVNZ Breakfast Show about the situation in Hong Kong. I tried to frame the issue as a collective action problem between two sides with very different end games. The video is here.

Because of time constraints we could not discuss the fact that the Hong Kong protests do not have a unified leadership that could lend coherency to the strategy and connection between tactics and that strategy. It also did not address the fact that the protestors have now moved to challenging the (HK) State’s monopoly over organised violence in the territory, which means that it is posing an existential threat to a core function of that State. Since the Hong Kong State has little more than police and intelligence agencies as its repressive apparatus, that means that further and more serious challenges to this monopoly will be met by a State that has far more coercive power at its disposal–the PRC.

I should have mentioned at some point that the interplay between hard-liners and soft-liners on both sides is crucial to a peaceful settlement. Only if soft-liners prevail on both sides will the solution be peaceful, but in order to have that happen the soft-liners will have to prevail within their respective camps. With hard core nationalists on both sides rejecting any form of compromise as a loss of face and demonstration of weakness, the stage is set for them to prevail. If they do the outcome will be bloody.

The soft-line opposition strategy is based on the fact that the PRC can wait a long time while gauging international reaction to immediate events in Hong Kong, added to the fact that provoking a violent PRC response erases what the Hong Kong hard liners aspire to deliver ( and those goals are indeed aspirational rather than deliverable). It remains to be seen if the principles understand this type of logic.

We also did not discuss the how the moderate-militant approach I mention in the clip has to be part of a larger incremental gains strategy whereby the protestors try to push a “two steps forward, one step back” agenda that sees them roll back various authoritarian initiatives while conceding on short term or relatively minor issues (perhaps including the extradition bill that sparked the current round of protests).

Nor did we discuss the fact that at the time of initial handover from the UK, the PRC was in no position to contest the terms of the agreement, especially those centred on the “One Nation, Two Systems” 50 year compromise. Nearly halfway into that process, it is clear that conditions have changed. Among other things, Hong Kong is no longer the source of GDP and international capital that it was for the PRC in 1997, having been eclipsed by mainland centres of commerce like Shanghai. This makes it less risky for the PRC to impose its will and accelerate the devolution process before the 50 year transition period ends in 2047. That puts it on a collision course with those in Hong Kong who want more rather than less autonomy when that time comes.

Finally, we did not discuss the fact that should push come to shove the protesters are on their own. For all the US bluster and the threats of trade sanctions against the PRC if it uses force to quell the protests, no one is coming to the rescue. Not the UK, not the EU, not NATO, not SEATO, not Taiwan, not blue-helmeted UN troops–nobody will do anything significant in their defence.

That means that there is a limit to what the protestors can achieve by pushing the protest envelope, since there will be no counter to the PRC use of force if and when it comes. Hence the need for the incremental gains approach mentioned above, and even that may be too little to stave off the eventual PRC takeover in 2047.

Xenophobia is not always racist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the false narrative.

datePosted on 11:19, April 25th, 2019 by Pablo

ISIS and a junior defense minister in the Sri Lankan government have claimed that the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in the island nation were a response to the white supremacist attack on mosques in Christchurch on March 15. The claims need to be treated with skepticism. Here’s why.

Having been defeated on the battlefields of the Levant, ISIS now urges its followers to return to decentralized terrorist attacks as a form of irregular warfare. It wishes to show continued strength by claiming that it can orchestrate attacks world-wide and that no country can escape its reach. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka fit that narrative.

The truth is otherwise. The Sri Lankan attacks may have taken inspiration, and perhaps even logistical support from ISIS but planning and preparation began well before March 15. It is true that ISIS called for retaliatory attacks after the Christchurch attacks, and it could well be possible that March 15 was a precipitant event for the Sri Lankan bombings. But there was and is a larger and yet more local picture in play.

The Easter Sunday bombings occurred against a backdrop of rising violence against both Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhist militants, something that has accentuated in the last year and is the underlying motive for the attacks. These were not random or foreign in origin, but represent a violent response by one oppressed minority using terrorism against another minority and tourists in order to make a sharp point to the constitutionally empowered majority that it sees as increasingly oppressive in nature (70 percent of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism, which is the official religion of the country and which has constitutionally protected privileges). Christians were the targets because they were left unprotected by an indifferent or incompetent government, while tourists were attacked because the country depends on them for hard currency revenues. Neither targeted group were the real subject of the attacks, nor was the objective of the attacks strictly about them.

Operationally speaking, the effort to engage in coordinated, simultaneous attacks against multiple soft targets using significant quantities of explosives and involving at least 7 suicide bombers requires months of target surveillance, stockpiling and concealment of bomb-making ingredients, manufacture of human-portable bombs, coordination and communication between perpetrators and accomplices and logistical support in at least three cities, all under the veil of secrecy. Whether or not Christchurch served as a precipitant or ISIS called for revenge attacks in its wake, the making of the Easter Sunday plot was long in the works well before the white supremacist gunman walked into the Masjid al Noor.

Simply put, the Easter Sunday bombings simply could not have been put together in the month after the Christchurch attacks. Moreover, the Sri Lankan security services were warned several times before March 15 that Muslim extremists were preparing to launch attacks, followed by specific information two weeks ago that Catholic churches were being targeted on Easter. The complexity of the attacks and the repeated warnings of them strongly suggests that ISIS’s claims are opportunistic rather than truthful.

Likewise, the uncorroborated claim by a Sri Lankan junior minister that Christchurch was the reason for the Easter Sunday atrocities appears to be reckless attempt to deflect attention away from the gross negligence that led to the intelligence “failure” that facilitated them. In an atmosphere of rising ethnic and religious tensions, the Sri Lankan government received repeated and specific warnings about the impending attacks and yet did nothing. It did not increase security around churches and hotels and did not seek to preemptively arrest suspects on various extremist watch lists. Instead, rendered by partisan infighting and weighed down by incompetence, the security forces cast a negligent eye on what was going to happen. That may be because the attacks can serve as an excuse to crack down on the Muslim community, something Buddhist hard-liners have been seeking for some time. Whatever the reason, it was not an intelligence “failure” that facilitated the attacks. The security services knew, or at least were warned about what was going to happen. They either could not or chose not to act.

In truth, ISIS and some Sri Lankan government interests converged in making Christchurch part of the narrative. Falsely claiming that the Easter Sunday attacks were revenge for Christchurch makes it seem as if they are part of a larger struggle in which Sri Lanka is a pawn. The reality is more simple: the attacks were a local Islamist response to increased ethno-religious conflict in Sri Lanka in recent years, which itself is part of a larger struggle within South Asia between Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as their lines of division continue to harden.

Therein lies the danger of the false narrative embedded in the ISIS and minister’s claims about Christchurch. They feed into the “clash of civilizations” argument put forward by ideological extremists that the world is in the midst of an cultural and religious conflict in which only one side can win. Subscribing to this argument justifies so-called “tit for tat” responses, whereby an attack by one side leads to an attack by the other, creating a cycle of violence that is designed to spiral into an existential confrontation between antithetical “others.” Although the vast majority of religionists the world over are non-violent and tolerant of other beliefs, this is the apocalyptic vision that extremists want to propagate.

The antidote to this is to place responsibility where it belongs and to not buy into false opportunistic narratives about revenge-based existential conflict. Sometimes the blame for atrocities lies closer to home, both in terms of root causes and inadequate responses.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Radio New Zealand web site (rnz.co.nz) on April 25, 2019.

Is Israel Democratic?

datePosted on 10:41, February 13th, 2019 by Pablo

An interesting thing happened after I wrote last week’s first blog post about Venezuela ( http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2019/02/on-the-venezuelan-mess/). A gentleman from the Israel Institute of New Zealand wrote me at my business email address to request a correction or retraction for something I had written in that post. The objectionable phrase was my reference to Israel as “semi-democratic.” He pointed out that Israel ranked just one point away from France as a “flawed” democracy in the latest Economist democracy ratings, not far behind Germany. In that post I characterised France and Germany as Right-leaning “advanced democracies” so he reckoned that I had slighted Israel when I labeled it as “semi” democratic instead.

We backed and forthed on the subject for a day or so. I told him that I based my characterisation on the fact that Arab Israelis are treated as second class citizens. I told him that I would leave it at that and not get into the subject of settlements on occupied land, the drift rightwards towards extremism and intolerance in its politics under the Likud Party (created by those paragons of democratic virtue Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and now led by Benjamin Netanyahu), the corruption of its government under Netanyahu (and his predecessor), its approach to Palestinians etc. He countered by pointing out that Arab Israelis have all rights given to non-Arabs, that they do not have to do compulsory military service but can vote and that a High Court judge who will hear Netanyahu’s corruption trial is an Arab.

I explained to him that I do not take the Economist’s ranking as gospel. In fact, I think that they are flawed due to an Anglo-Saxon bias and formal procedures and frameworks rather than substantive interactions (for example, I believe that New Zealand is ranked too high and Uruguay is ranked too low in the Economist list). I pointed out that I had an academic background that included writing about democratic theory (and democratisation in practice), so understand democracy to involve procedural (free and fair elections), institutional (impartial application the rule of law), societal (toleration, equality as mass values), and economic (fair distribution of productive wealth) dimensions, all of which I believe are deficient in Israel. He replied that Israel fulfilled the first three criteria. I also told him that I was raised in a strongly pro-Israel household and that I understood its unique security and geopolitical conditions as well as the fact that, when compared to pretty much every other nation in the Middle East, Israel was the most democratic of them. But that is just damning it with faint praise.

Perhaps I expect more of the Israelis, but its behaviour in the last two decades (and more) leads me to believe that it is no longer (if it ever was) a liberal democracy. Just because people have formal, de jure rights on paper does not mean that they have de facto rights on the ground. It may not be apartheid but in its treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants and other non-European Jewish peoples, it falls very short of the “equality for all” mark that I would expect of a truly substantive democracy and well short of most European, North American and Antipodean democracies. This is not to say that the latter are all healthy and above reproach. It just means that Israel does meet even their lowered standards.

We agreed to disagree. I did not print a reaction or correction. I invited him to explain his views in a comment on the thread but he declined. After our correspondence I found myself thinking about how KP readers would classify Israel. I realise that given the ideological leanings of the blog many will be firmly in the anti-Israeli camp, but I wonder what, upon honest reflection, readers think about Israel’s form of governance. In other words, what argument do readers make to themselves about where they stand on Israel?

So here is an invitation for readers to express their views on the matter, formally posed as this question: is Israel democratic? . That way we can get a sense of how intelligent (mostly Left and Kiwi) readers see the Jewish state. But first a few rules:

No anti-Semitic anything. One can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic (as an example, see this). One can criticise Israel without running nasty alt-Right tropes. One can defend Israel without resorting to false charges of anti-Semitism against those who oppose it, and one can defend Israel without making bigoted or other prejudiced remarks about Arabs, Palestinians etc. No re-litigating history. Israel is here to stay regardless of what some might prefer. And, as other democracies have done, it has behaved ruthlessly towards its enemies. So please, do not go down the worm-hole of who did what to who first.

IT goes without saying but is worth repeating nevertheless: No personal attacks on other commentators. Keep the discussion polite, rational and on-topic. I say this because any time Israel is mentioned people tend to lose their senses when confronted with contrary views. It really is a hot button issue.

I shall moderate the comments section a bit more vigorously given the subject matter. But by all means have at it because I am genuinely curious as to how people come to form their opinions on Israel.

The Venezuelan mess, again.

datePosted on 10:37, February 6th, 2019 by Pablo

I continue to watch developments in Venezuela with interest, including the reaction of the international community to the crisis. Increasing numbers of democracies are lending their support to Juan Guaido’s presidential challenge, including 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group convened to facilitate negotiations on a peaceful resolution. Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania joined the UK, France and Germany (and Canada!) in siding with Guaido after the Maduro government refused to call for new elections within the eight day deadline demanded in an ultimatum issued by the EU members. It seems that much of the Western democratic world is now openly opposed to seeing Maduro continue in office.

That got me thinking more about Juan Guaido. How could this young (age 35) man emerge so quickly and be received so warmly by so many democracies? What I found out is interesting.

Guaido is a former student activist and industrial engineer who received post-graduate training at George Washington University in Washington DC. He got into politics when the Chavez government closed down the most popular private TV station in Venezuela and proposed constitutional reforms that strengthened the presidency at the expense of the other two government branches, and has reportedly spent time since entering public life at several Right-leaning think tanks in the US and Europe. After his introduction to politics he came under the wing of the well-known anti-Chavista Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez, now under house arrest, is a neoliberal economist by training (he has degrees from Kenyon College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). He is the son of a former president and former mayor of Caracas himself, so his elite credentials are impeccable (he even did his high school education at an exclusive private boarding school in the US). Reportedly a friend of Elliot Abrams (see previous post), he was a leader of the 2002 abortive coup against Hugo Chavez and spent several years in military prison as a result. In 2014 he led another failed uprising against Maduro, getting house arrest rather than popular support for his efforts. He agitates from his home, where he uses social media and encrypted apps to communicate with foreign and domestic allies and uses his telegenic wife to serve as his spokesperson.

In 2009 Lopez and Guaido formed the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) Party. Although it claims to be a Social Democratic Party affiliated with the Socialist International, VP gained notoriety for its uncompromising, hardline anti-Bolivarian orientation and direct action street tactics. Although some of its thuggery was in response to that of Bolivarian militias and para-militaries, the strategy employed by VP was essentially a two-track approach: work within the institutional framework as given by contesting elections for the National Assembly and presidency; and use direct action on the streets to foment mischief and undermine Bolivarian attempts to establish law and order.

Under an agreement with Lopez, Guaido became VP’s parliamentary leader while Lopez retained the party chairmanship. First elected as an alternate delegate in 2010, Guaido was elected to a full National Assembly seat in 2015 and, given that more senior party members were either under arrest or exiled, named Opposition Leader in 2018. Under the power sharing arrangement in the National Assembly, Guaido assumed the rotating parliamentary leader’s position on January 5 of this year. A week later he declared his presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate due to massive fraud and low voter turn-out (both of which are true). Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the National Assembly leader is declared president if the elected President and Vice President are disqualified, absent or cannot serve, which Guaido claims is the case here.

There is strong suspicion that Lopez has a direct connection to neoconservative circles in Washington, and through them, the Trump administration. There is speculation that some form of material assistance is being funnelled from the US, including from Venezuelan exiles, to VP in order to support its anti-regime efforts and the Guaido campaign. Although I have no direct knowledge of this, it would not be surprising if these claims prove to be true given the quickness in which Guaido emerged on the scene, the strength of the organisation supporting him and the rapidity with which the US recognised his claim. What is confirmed is that emissaries from a number of the region’s democracies as well as the US met quietly and exchanged secret messages with Guaido and his representatives in the weeks leading to his assumption of the parliamentary presidency.

This has me wondering why so many democracies have been quick to jump on the Guaido bandwagon. They surely are not acting just out of ideological distaste for the Bolivarian regime. They surely have good information on Guaido’s background and connections to Lopez and US interlocutors. They surely must know that although Maduro and his cronies are reprehensible thieves posing as a popular government, Guaido’s connections to the US will make it very difficult for him to claim legitimacy and could in fact, spark a violent backlash from the 30 percent of the Venezuelan population that continue to support Maduro (mostly the poor and working class). They also must understand the perils of supporting a foreign-backed constitutional coup (which is essentially what being attempted), especially when the move is closely tied to the threat of US military intervention. So why would they abandon long-held commitments to upholding the doctrine of non-intervention?

Some will argue that the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela requires drastic action and that action cannot come from within Venezuela under present circumstances. Yet even the issue of humanitarian assistance has turned into a political tug of war. The Lima Group and European democracies, led by Spain, have pledged humanitarian assistance, mostly in the form of food and medical provisions, to Venezuela. The same is true for Argentina, Canada and Brazil. But they insist on having Guaido and his supporters administer the aid provision, something that the Maduro government categorically rejects. Neither contender is interested in talking to the other about jointly administering relief assistance and instead are busy staging demonstrations and claiming support from within the military (where so far Maduro has a considerable advantage).

Perhaps the show of external support for Guaido is designed to be no more than a form of pressure on Maduro to call for new elections under international supervision, and not really a vote of confidence in Guaido per se. Coupled with the redoubling of sanctions by the US, UK and others against Maduro, his entourage and state agencies suspected of money laundering, the idea seems to be that the combination of forces being applied to the Boliviarians will make them cave to the election demands. The reasoning may well be that Maduro will see this option as preferable to civil war or a coup because it gives him the chance to run again rather than be run out of town in a hearse. After all, the primary rule for coup-plotters is that the people being ousted must not survive the ouster less they come back to haunt the usurpers–something the failed coup against Chavez demonstrated in spades.

This assumes that the target of the foreign pressure a) feels it to the point of pain and b) has no other options other than to cave to it. At this moment there is no evidence to suggest that Maduro and company are close to either concern. And for all his foreign support, Guaido does not appear to have moved the dial with regards to popular support significantly in his direction.

What we have, thus, is what the Latin American political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell (of bureaucratic-authoritarianism and democratic transitions fame) once called (with reference to Argentina 1946-1983) an “organic crisis and hegemonic stalemate” where both sides can check the other but where neither can unilaterally impose its vision for arresting the national decline.

Under those conditions, it may well be external actors who play a decisive role in determining the outcome, something that does not bode well for the prospects of national reconciliation required to reaffirm democracy while returning peace and stability to Venezuelan life.

The Venezuelan mess.

datePosted on 14:35, February 1st, 2019 by Pablo

WARNING: This post is long and somewhat meandering, as it gathers several strands of thought about the issue.

There has been some concern voiced about New Zealand’s refusal to take a side in the power contest now being waged in Venezuela, where the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, has declared himself interim president in opposition to fraudulently re-elected Nicolas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez in what is known as the “Boliviarian Revolution” that started in 1999. The Maduro administration is notoriously corrupt and incompetent and has driven Venezuela into the ground, to the point that millions are starving and more than 2.1 million have fled the oil-dependent country in the last two years (the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history). The reasons for this human-made disaster are many and will not be covered here. Instead, let’s start with the NZ reaction and proceed to how things might eventuate over the next weeks and months.

When first asked about US support for Guaido (the US recognised his presidency a few hours after he made his claim public) and whether New Zealand would follow suit, Prime Minister Arden said that NZ supported “neither side.” That sent the NZ political right into paroxysms of indignant fulmination, with politicians and commentators claiming that she supported Maduro, communism, evil-doers in general and people who kick their dogs. Not surprisingly, her ad-lib was followed shortly thereafter by a more measured comment by Foreign Minister Winston Peters that NZ does not choose between foreign political parties and contenders and prefers to allow them to settle differences on their own.

Coming after the PM’s comments (which reminded me of her “there are no undeclared Russian spies in NZ” remark in March 2018), Peter’s tidying up was appropriate. Although the Maduro regime is odious, it is less repressive than many other authoritarian regimes that NZ recognises and trades with (its major flaws are grotesque corruption and incompetence). NZ also has a long-standing public commitment to the principle of non-intervention and support for peaceful constitutionally-driven political change. The Maduro regime is now being confronted by an externally-backed constitutional coup in the form of the Guaido challenge (and no one elected him to be anything other than an opposition National Assemblyman. He only assumed leadership of the National Assembly in December as part of a rotation-in-office deal with other opposition coalition parties). Guaido and his supporters are not necessarily democratic champions themselves and their promises to hold new elections in a timely fashion are vague at best, so immediate recognition of him as “president” is more an act of faith or cynicism rather than a demonstrable fact of his democratic inclination. In that context Peter’s statement strikes a good diplomatic balance.

With some notable exceptions most of the Latin American governments supporting Guaido are right-leaning like that of Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Sebastian Pinera in Chile, with the advanced democracies supporting his challenge also being governed by Right administrations (UK, Australia, France, Germany as well as semi-democratic Israel). Meanwhile, left-leaning democracies such as those of Bolivia and Uruguay support the Maduro government. So there appears to be an ideological bias at play in how some democracies are casting their lots on the matter. The majority of the global community have taken a stance akin to that of NZ.

The usual clustering of dictatorships and semi-democracies that are backing Maduro such as the Cuba, PRC, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria have hard-nosed geopolitical as well as ideological reasons for doing so. Cuba gets the majority of its oil from Bolivia at discounted prices and has propped up the Boliviarians with both civilian and security assistance. Russia has cultivated Venezuela as an anti-US bulwark with weapons sales and military aid. China has spent billions investing in Venezuelan infrastructure. Iran and Syria have both benefitted from the Boliviarian’s alliance with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. None of them may be particularly enamoured of Maduro but they have serious investment stakes in the game.

As for the NZ response, think of the PRC’s potential reaction to New Zealand siding with the US after its “choose a side” demands, particularly in light of the Huawei imbroglio. Think of the US response if it sides with Maduro. In other words, the diplomatic consequences of taking sides are not positive regardless of which side is chosen. That is why Peter’s statement is judicious–it annoys no one.

In summary, NZ is correct to not choose sides in the Venezuelan crisis, both for principled as well as pragmatic reason

With regards to the crisis itself, the solution has to be internal rather than externally imposed. They key is for the military–the 130,000 troop Army in particular since it will have to do the repressing–to drop support for Maduro in favour of a transitional government that schedules elections in the near future (the Navy has a limited land presence and along with the the Air Force can only support or resist what the Army does, but neither can prevail on their own no matter which side is chosen). To this end, Guaido’s emissaries have been working hard to establish a dialogue with the armed forces, something that, at least with regard to the Venezuelan high command, so far has been rebuffed.

Venezuelan flag rank officers are Maduro cronies who are deeply corrupt and incapable of leading troops in battle. Instead, they have been siphoning off “tax” from the ministries and border commands that they control (which cover drug, people, petrol and arms smuggling routes). The ones that are the key to what happens next are field grade officers (Colonels, LTCs, Majors and Captains) and NCOs who command the enlisted soldiers with the guns. That means bridging the division between constitutionalists (those who swear an oath to protect the constitution no matter who is president) and nationalists who see themselves as saviours of the nation in a time of need–but those include both pro- and anti-Maduro factions. The move involves mending horizontal (between service branches and ideological factions) and vertical (between ranks or military school graduating class) cleavages, something that often involves intra-institutional violence as a precursor to what follows.

In this type of scenario, the military is subject to what are known as “push” and “pull” factors. The “push” factors are those internal to the military that compels them to intervene in politics. These can be a loss of combat readiness or military discipline and professionalism, overt politicisation of the officer corps, rampant corruption etc. All of these are present within the Venezuelan military.

“Pull” factors are external events or conditions that draw the armed forces out of the barracks and into politics. They include armed challenges to military monopoly over organised violence (say, by paramilitaries, guerrillas, criminal organizations and the like, all of which operate with some impunity in Venezuela), and what is known as civilian pleading. Civilian pleading refers to calls from civil society for the military to act. This includes appeals by business groups, unions, religious and community organizations as well as external actors such as Venezuelan exile communities and foreign governments and organisations such as the OAS.

The sense of compulsion is reinforced by the personal experiences of troops when not in uniform. Militaries do not exist in a vacuum and in fact are reflective, in their own way, of the society from which they are drawn. Venezuela has a volunteer military and many of its personnel return to their families and homes after a day’s work. So they are living the crisis both as uniformed personnel as well as citizens.

In short, the Venezuelan military is getting an earful from many sides and has internal, “corporate” reasons to act in order to preserve its position as the pre-eminent institution responsible for managing organised violence in that society. Whether it adopts an arbitrator or governing role once it does so remains to be seen, but it is now the primary determinant of the nation’s political future.

If the field ranking officers and NCOs abandon support for Maduro he is finished, although his loyalists in the Cuban-dominated intelligence and police/paramilitary services will resist the move. It is also likely that, barring massive defections, the 70,000-strong National Guard (which is the agency primarily responsible for domestic repression and which has gained a reputation for brutality) and 150,000 strong National Militia will continue to side with Maduro. The scene is then set for mass violence and prolonged resistance (remember that the Cubans have helped Maduro create thousand of small-scale neighbourhood militias that are trained to use guerrilla tactics against any superior force, foreign or domestic. Along with National Guard resistance that could protract the conflict and drag foreign forces into another long-term ‘pacification” campaign).

The military could opt to simply lay down their weapons, but that is unlikely given the presence of loyalists in the ranks and the National Guard still loyal to Maduro. Or the military can unite around Maduro and ward off US interference by getting Guaido to back down on his presidential challenge, possibly in exchange for new elections and/or constitutional and political reforms. That is the most peaceful option but it does not solve the underlying economic and social problems or the issue of a potential US military intervention if Maduro remains in power (it is highly unlikely that any Latin American country will contribute troops to any US-led intervention force, although it is feasible that Colombia and Brazil might allow US forces to forward deploy and stage in their territories).

So the likely scenario is that Maduro is removed by force, be it threatened or actual. While inevitably bloody, a pro-Guaido military coup will be better than an external military intervention, where many erstwhile opponents of Maduro will rally against armed foreign interference, especially from the US. If it is revealed that Guaido and his supporters have been receiving advice, money and logistical help from the US, that could backfire hard on his military and civilian allies and increase as well as prolong the bloodshed.

In order to avoid civil war the military will have to be united in its support for one or the other presidential contender and willing to demonstrate its resolve. That is easier over the short term if the field officers and NCOs side with their superiors in defence of Maduro, but given the circumstances that is unlikely to hold over the longer-term and could lead to a direct confrontation with US forces should the Trump administration determine that it is expedient (say, as part of a declaration of “national emergency” that includes emergency funding of the border wall by Executive Order) to sacrifice lives in order to see him ousted (the annotation of “5000 troops–>Colombia” on John Bolton’s press briefing notes this past week may or may not be a real statement of intent but certainly signals that “all options are on the table,” even if they are not well thought out. After all, 5000 troops are not enough to control all Venezuelan territory and will have difficulty subduing militias, guerrilla groups and nearly 1 million strong volunteer military that even with defections and intra-service clashes will dwarf the invading force coming across a well defended land border. Which is to say, armed intervention by the US will involve a lot more than a brigade and a lot more than a land assault from Colombia).

It is telling that the person nominated to lead the US Venezuela task force is Elliot Abrams, of neocon Iran-Contra, death squads and the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez fame. His “skill set” is a dark and narrow one, so his appointment pretty much reveals the foundation of the current US approach to the crisis. The irony is that Abrams was originally a “never-Trumper,” who was initially blacklisted from any administration job. But with fellow neocon John Bolton as NSC advisor, the time for redemption is apparently at hand. It will be the Venezuelans who pay the price for that. 

Foreign supporters of Maduro like to claim that US sanctions imposed on his government are a large part of why the country was crippled. This ignores the fact that the sanctions targeted Maduro administration officials and state-controlled firms suspected of money laundering and pilferage. The sanctions did not target economic activities connected to the provision of basic goods and services, nor did it target average citizens. The loss of basics such as food and medicines is not due to sanctions, but to the rampant thievery and incompetence of what now can only be called a kleptocracy as well as the response by the private sector to it.

On the other hand, the Venezuelan political opposition, when not in-fighting, have behaved less than honourably towards the Boliviarians even before Chavez began to tighten his grip after the 2002 coup–a coup that business elites, domestic political opponents and the US government were quick to support even before his arrest was made public (he was freed and launched a counter-coup just hours after being detained). Business elites have largely liquidated assets and decamped the country rather than accept increased taxes on individual wealth and corporate profits. Since 1999 political opponents have schemed and plotted with the ex-pat community and other Latin American rightwing groups to overthrow the Boliviarians. So there is much blame to spread around and choosing between Maduro and Guaido will not necessarily solve the underlying fundamentals of the national decline.

Let us be clear on a key point: if Maduro and his associates had one shred of decency and honour they would have resigned rather than rig last year’s election. They have managed to squander Chavez’s already diminished legacy, allied themselves with some rather unsavoury foreign actors, alienated most of their regional counterparts and overseen the collapse of what once was a prosperous country. Some of that may be due to the so-called “oil curse,” where countries dependent on fossil fuel exports almost inevitably succumb to authoritarianism and the vicissitudes of commodity booms and busts (as has happened in Venezuela). But the blame for what Gramsci would call an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state lies squarely on the shoulders of Boliviarians, not imperialists and domestic reactionaries. The extent of their perfidy and ineptitude is outlined here.

Guaido is believed to have offered Maduro and his associates (including the military leadership) amnesty for their crimes in exchange for abdication. There are reports that he has offered safe passage into exile for regime leaders along with much of their ill-begotten assets. There are rumours of secret talks between his representatives and field rank officers. His supporters have gathered outside military bases clamouring for the troops to lay down their arms or join with the opposition. It is clear to everyone that the military holds the key to what happens next, but the question remains open as to whether the military will choose a side, fracture or simply remain neutral while the civilian actors negotiate or fight for political control. So far the military leadership remains loyal to Maduro, but defections in the ranks are commonplace (including the military attache to Washington, who defected and requested asylum).

It is unlikely that Guaido would have made his move spontaneously or without the encouragement and support of the US. It is very likely that US representatives worked with him in the weeks leading to his challenge for power, and it would not be surprising if the US has provided logistical and material assistance to his campaign. It is also likely that discrete overtures have been made to military officers by the US, if nothing else then to ascertain the mood of the troops. The emergence of a right-leaning political bloc in Latin America provided Guaido with a favourable geopolitical context in which to make his move (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica all have right-leaning governments at the moment). This has translated into Organisation of American States (OAS) support for Guaido, something that breaks with a long-standing tradition of promoting non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its members.

The bottom line is that Maduro’s position is increasingly untenable but Guaido is somewhat tainted by his association with the US. The solution to the impasse rests in the hands of middle and junior rank Army officers and NCOs, who must choose to defend Maduro or opt to support an election-based political transition to a post-Bolivarian regime (that may or may not be led by Guaido or Maduro if the elections are genuinely free and fair). That requires a public move one way or the other from within the Army as a signal of intent. There is likely to be violence involved with either choice, both within and between armed service branches, paramilitary organisations, intelligence agencies and guerrilla cadres connected to civil society and political parties. But that will be the lesser price to pay if the alternative is US military intervention.

In the meantime the international community can do its part by marshalling humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people. The UN and OAS can lead those efforts and the contending political factions can broker an interim agreement on priority needs and the means and methods of conveying that aid, something that could lessen factional and partisan tensions and set the stage for more substantive negotiations on the terms and conditions for the political transition that, one way or another, is an inevitable part of Venezuela’s future.

.


Left compass lost.

datePosted on 14:35, November 29th, 2018 by Pablo

One of the disappointing aspects of the Anne-Marie Brady affair has been the reluctance and sometimes outright refusal of people on the New Zealand Left to condemn the criminal harassment directed at her as a result of her research into Chinese influence operations in Aotearoa. I shall enumerate the general reasons justifying their stance but want to note first that it is not similar to the very real fears of the independent minded expat Chinese community in NZ, who remain silent in the face of threats against them here as well as against their families and associates back on the mainland. It behooves readers to read, watch and listen to the Mandarin-language media here in NZ (even if needing translators) because the rhetoric employed by these outlets–which Brady has pointed out are with the exception of the Falun Gong mouthpiece Epoch Times all controlled by CCP-linked United Front organisations–is hostile to the point of threatening towards all those who do not toe the Party line. To get an idea of the hostility, check out the Facebook page of a fellow by the name of Morgan Xiao, a Labour LEC member in Botany Downs and “journalist” for some local Chinese media outlets. He clearly does not like Anne Marie Brady.

Amongst the NZ Left, there seems to be 3 main reasons why people do not want to support Anne Marie Brady or the general concept of academic freedom in a liberal democracy. The first, prevalent amongst academics, is concern about losing funding or research opportunities for publicly siding with her. The concern is obvious and acute in departments and institutes that receive PRC funding directly or which receive NZ government funding related to Chinese-focused studies. All NZ universities have such connections as well as being reliant on Chinese students for a large part of their tuition income, so the dampening effect is nation-wide. Academics are also worried that public association with a “controversial” scholar may somehow diminish the research grants and opportunities made available to them even if they do not work on matters related to China. Guilt by association is alive and well in the NZ academe.

Overlapping this is concern about Professor Brady’s sources of funding and ties to US think tanks. Some believe that this skews her research in a Sinophobic direction and that she in fact parrots the opinions of her US sponsors. I can only say that, even though it might have been prudent for her to not be closely identified with the US Embassy and conservative US organisations focused on China (although she also maintains ties to reputable institutions like the Woodrow Wilson Center), she was a well known China watcher long before she published the Magic Weapons paper and NZ-based sources of funding for overseas research are few and far between. Beggars cannot be choosey and under circumstances of limited research funding in NZ in general and at her home university in particular, it is not surprising nor compromising for her to accept funding from abroad so long as she is transparent about it and conducts her studies independent of any external political agenda. From all that I have read, that is what she has done. So even if her views dovetail with those of foreign entities in places like Australia and the US,  it does not mean that she is their puppet. Plus, no one has decisively refuted what she wrote in a paper that was always intended to be applied research product rather than a theoretical or conceptual scholarly breakthrough. In a word: her research is sound regardless of how it was funded.

Other academics refuse to support Brady because they personally do not like her. I do not know the woman but if irascible personalities were a disqualifying trait in higher education then there would be no universities to speak of here or elsewhere. Egos, intellectual insecurity and professional jealousy are constants of academic life, and it seems that they have percolated into the discussion about her work and its ramifications for her personal life. One can only be dismayed that some people cannot separate personal animus from defence of the principle of academic freedom (and freedom of expression in general), in this case the right of an academic to not be criminally harassed for her work.

Outside of academia the refusal of some Leftists to support Ms. Brady appears to be rooted in a form of “whataboutism” connected to strong anti-US sentiment. Although some old-school Marxists are equitable in their dislike for all imperialists, new and old, most of the “what about” relativists believe that the US and/or UK are worst imperialists than the PRC and in fact (in the eyes of some) that the PRC is a benevolent giant seeking to better international relations through its goodwill and developmental assistance. For them the whole story, from the content of Ms. Brady’s Magic Weapons paper to the subsequent burglary of her office and home and tampering with her car, are just concoctions designed to stain the image of China in NZ and elsewhere.

A sub theme of this strand is the argument that if NZ is going to have to choose a master, better that it side with trade over security. That follows the logic that we are utterly dependent on trade for our survival but we are utterly insignificant as a security target. NZ involvement in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network and Anglophone military partners is of minor concern, both in terms of the guarantees they give to NZ security as well as the difficulties posed by trying to abandon them.

Then there is the tin foil hat crowd. Leftist conspiracy theorists share views with Rightwing nutters about the “Deep State,” chemtrails, 9/11 holograms and assorted false flag operations, including the harassment of Ms. Brady. If you believe them the same people who target anti-1080, anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination and anti-TPP activists are behind the staged assaults on the Canterbury academic. I am not sure who these puppet masters are but I somewhat doubt that Ms. Brady is wrapped up in a chemtrail conspiracy.

If we gather up all of the arguments against supporting Ms. Brady, they boil down to two main lines of thought. First, that Anne Marie Brady has staged the break-ins and vandalism in order to promote herself via sympathetic PR. Second, that the attacks on her property were done by the NZSIS with or without US connivance in order to smear the PRC.

My answer to the first is that Ms. Brady was sufficiently well known at home and abroad before the attacks, so she did not have to stage anything in order to garner attention. If she did so in order to widen public attention on Chinese wrongdoings outside of academic and policy-oriented circles, then she would have to be very crafty indeed. Although that is possible, I tend to think it not probable.

As for the false flag suspicions. Why would the SIS and/or US expend resources and run the risk of detection in such a low level operation? What would be achieved that was already not in the public domain already? Even if the spy agencies thought about doing so, would not the costs of being discovered outweigh any benefits accrued from falsely framing the PRC? So on this one, too, I say “possible but unlikely.”

Of course, there is the third explanation, which is that people acting on behalf or under the instructions of the Chinese state did the deeds. These would not have to be intelligence operatives tasked by the PRC embassy or Beijing. They could be patriotic expats, perhaps living in NZ on student visas, who took umbrage at professor Brady’s claims and the publicity surrounding them. With or without the connivance of Chinese authorities they may have wanted to make an intimidatory point much along the lines outlined in the opening paragraph of this post.

What is clear, because the NZ Police have said that the investigation has passed on to Interpol, is that the perpetrators are likely overseas and will not likely be caught and extradited. Since the investigation into the burglaries is now 10 months old, it is equally unlikely that local common criminals are suspects (especially given that nothing of value was taken in the burglaries other than phones, lap tops and flash drives). So whether the government equivocates or not the finger of suspicion rests most heavily on the criminal harassment being the work of people unhappy with Ms. Brady’s work on China, and in particular her Magic Weapons paper.

What is ironic is that the United Front-Organised “influence operations” that she expounds upon at length are not illegal. Their genius lies in that they exploit the system as given, in NZ’s case being the looseness of campaign finance and political contribution regulations. They also exploit a lack of enforcement capability in the financial and other business sectors in order to overlap legitimate and ethically questionable behaviours. But all of this is, while ethically dubious, perfectly legal.

Engaging in criminal acts against a NZ citizen on sovereign NZ soil is another thing entirely. This moves from peddling influence to, indeed, engaging in intimidation as a “hard” form of interference. It is an intrusion on academic freedom but also a breach of professor Brady’s freedom of expression. it reinforces the view that no one is untouchable should they dare to criticise the Chinese state, and that NZ is powerless to stop more of the same.

That is why the government response has been weak and the Left reluctance to fully support Anne Marie Brady so disappointing. Because the issue is as much about sovereignty, democratic civility and human rights as it is about anything she wrote or her personal and professional attributes or flaws. One may understand why the Right wants to cast a blind eye on such mischief because capitalists put profits before people’s rights, and trade with the PRC definitely brings profit to a select few. But for a Left Centre government and many Left activists to not strongly repudiate criminal harassment of a local academic for any reason, especially economic reasons, is a betrayal of the basic principles upon which the democratic Left is founded upon.

Shame, then, on those who proclaim to be of the Left but on this matter clearly are on the Right side of the Chinese.

Confronting Despotic Interference.

datePosted on 13:51, October 10th, 2018 by Pablo

It is hard to fix a precise date when despotic politics entered the liberal democratic world, and then again when it began to corrode the rules-based international order. Some say that it started with the emergence of right-wing nationalism in Europe in response to the importation of authoritarian cultural values on the back of mass migration from non-European regions. Others see the rise of despotism as the response to the sclerosis and decay of liberal democracy in advanced capitalist states, where corporate influence, political corruption, post-industrial decline and technocratic indifference to popular concerns conspired to undermine confidence in the institutional system. Still others saw it as a response to unfulfilled expectations in newer democracies, where hopes of equality of opportunity and choice were dashed by a return to oligarchical politics dressed up in electoral garb.

Whatever the cause, the response has been the corrosion of democracy from within exemplified by the rise of new form of despotic politics, and despots, that promise much and which use imposition and manipulation rather than persuasion and compromise as their main tools of trade. Democracy is increasingly rule by the the few for the few, with the mass of citizens serving as pawns in inter-elite struggles and useful fools susceptible to demagogic appeals.

Much attention has focused on the rise of right-wing national populists like Donald Trump, Rodrigo Dutarte or Recep Erdogan. But the turn to despotism in seen on the left as well, such as in the case of the Venezuelan regimes led by Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, the post-revolutionary Sandinistas led by Daniel Ortega and the South African ANC under Jacob Zuma.

To this can be added the places where despotism never left the scene and defied the successive waves of democratisation that marked the late 20th century. That includes the Middle East in spite of the so-called Arab Spring, most of Sub-Saharan Africa and much of  East, Central and Southeast Asia. Throughout the “Stans” despots reign and places as different as Morocco, Jordan, North Korea and Singapore are ruled by authoritarians of varying degrees of benevolence and legitimacy.

Whatever the date of origin, the rise of despotism is inevitably due to a mix of factors and motives, many idiosyncratic to the country in question. Hungary is not like Italy, which is not like Turkey, which is not like the Philippines or the US. And yet in spite of their variance  across the globe there has been a shift to despotic politics, something that in turn has had a pernicious impact on the international system. The truth is that, much like the waves of democratisation that preceded it and to which it is the antithesis, we have entered a new age of despotism that has international as well as national ramifications.

The global rise of despotic politics has clearly been encouraged by the election of Donald Trump in the US. His attacks on the media, “fake news,” the so-called “Deep State,” his vilification of minorities and political opponents, his xenophobic and racist dog-whistling and his courtship of foreign authoritarians in parallel with his insulting of long-time US allies and trade partners all provide an environment in which the US in no longer seen as a defender of human rights, press freedom and the international rule of law. On one level this has encouraged other despots to emulate him (e.g. Jair Bolsonaro’s campaign slogan of “Make Brazil Great Again,” Matteo Salvini’s calls for erecting an Italian wall against Arab and African immigrants and Dutarte’s dismissal of reports of extra-judicial killings by his police as “fake news’). On another level the US retreat from international affairs and the poisonous impact of domestic despotism in other democracies has led to breakdown in respect of international norms by despots and ostensible democrats alike. It is, in a phrase, a move back towards a Hobbesian state of nature in international affairs.

Into the vacuum left by the US abdication of its traditional international role have entered the politics of despotic interference. Unlike the hard power of military force, soft power of diplomatic persuasion and smart power of hybrid approaches using both in concert, despotic interference is one application of authoritarian “sharp power” where the projection of influence has hostile and subversive intent. Among other objectives, despotic interference is designed to influence foreign perceptions in a favourable way while stifling dissent at home and abroad by nationals and foreigners alike. It offers honey to those who bend to its will and vinegar to those who do not.

Seen in Chinese “influence operations” such as those outlined by Anne-Marie Brady with regard to New Zealand, or in the cyber warfare practiced by Russian military intelligence against Western targets (including hacking attacks on the World Anti-Doping Agency, Democratic National Committee and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), authoritarians no longer feel constrained by the rules of diplomatic respect and non-interference in the sovereign affairs of foreign states. The most unpleasant of these include attempted murder by poison, as practiced by the Russians against a turn-coat Russian spy living in Salisbury, UK and a male member of the Pussy Riot dissident group. In their murderous intent the Russians are not alone. This week a Saudi journalist disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish authorities believed that he was either killed or kidnapped when in the consulate. Not to be outdone, bodyguards of Turkish president Erdogan physically assaulted, in front of the Washington DC police and assembled media cameras, Turkish expat protesters on the occasion of a state visit to meet with president Trump. For their part, the Chinese have used strong-arm tactics against dissident groups abroad such as Falun Gong and, as Australia has found out, muscled its way into political and corporate circles without regard to the conventional niceties of democratic competition (such as having mobs of pro-Chinese students assault and intimidate compatriots voicing non-Party lines). In fact, just like the Russian poison campaign, the Chinese appear to be interested in intimidating opposing views regardless of where they are located.

Many will respond to this line of thought with the usual “whataboutism” that the US and other former colonial powers and mature democracies have extensively intervened in the domestic affairs of other states.  That is obviously true and to be condemned, but it ignores the fact that if we value democracy as an intrinsic good and believe in the right to dissent, then the recent turn towards despotism and despotic interference are inimical to basic values of free and fair societies. That does not excuse the historical excesses and crimes of the US and other liberal democracies when it comes to their meddling in other countries affairs, but it does recognise that what has emerged in recent years is a new form of interventionism that has a negative impact on rules-based societies, to include the international community.

This is where New Zealand comes in. In the months after Professor Brady published her now famous “Magic Weapons” paper, in which she details how the Chinese Communist Party uses “United Front” organisations to advance its interests and suppress dissent in New Zealand and elsewhere, her office and home were burgled by parties unknown. The thieves left valuables behind but took her lap tops, phones and memory sticks, and in the home robberies rifled her bed sheets. Given the brazen nature of the burglaries and public nature of most of what was on her devices, it appears that the break-ins were done as acts of intimidation and warning rather than as information-gathering operations. The question is who would have motive to do so?

If the thieves were acting on behalf or under the orders of Beijing, then the burglaries were a step up from influence operations into criminal acts committed on sovereign New Zealand soil.

The New Zealand Police involved the SIS in the investigation, and most recently announced that the detective work had been handed over to Interpol and that leads were being pursued abroad. This implies that the New Zealand authorities believe that the perpetrators are now overseas, which means that they likely will never be brought to justice even if identified. And if they were Chinese agents, what is the New Zealand government going to do in response? Therein lies the rub.

Despotic interference, to include influence and disruption operations and the direct intimidation of dissidents and critics abroad, happens because those ordering the interference believe that they can get away with it. What are the target countries to do in the face of a hacking episode, a simple burglary or assault on a foreign national because of his/her political beliefs? Escalate things into a diplomatic confrontations? Declare War? Begin trade embargoes?

The beauty of despotic interference is that it does not invite easy retaliation and in fact makes a proper response very difficult to calibrate. The situation is all the more difficult for small target states like New Zealand, especially when the perpetrator of a criminal act of interference happens to be the government of its largest trading partner and a major source of foreign direct investment in the local economy. And yet to allow acts of despotic interference to go unpunished only encourages more of the same, so policy makers in targeted states are caught in a vicious circle about how to appropriately respond.

This is the situation New Zealand will find itself in if the burglars in the Brady break-ins are identified as having links to the Chinese state. Its response options are limited. It might issue a formal protest to the Chinese ambassador in Wellington or expel a low ranking diplomat. It might withdraw the New Zealand ambassador to Beijing for consultations. If the burglars entered New Zealand on student visas, then reducing the number of such visas issues to Chinese nationals might be considered. Limitations on tourist numbers could be considered and military-to-military contacts reduced.

The problem is that the response has to be seen as proportionate and discrete because the Chinese are acutely interested in saving face and are known to react disproportionately to even small slights. This is a serious problem for New Zealand given its trade dependency on China and the as of yet unchecked influence of Chinese money and favours in local politics (unlike Australia, New Zealand has placed no restrictions on fund-raising or influence peddling by suspected Chinese agents operating in Aotearoa). But New Zealand also cannot be seen as doing nothing in the face of such a criminal violation of sovereignty.

There lies the conundrum. If Western liberal democracies do not respond to acts of despotic intervention then they will likely continue and even increase. But many within Western liberal democracies, to include those in policy-making circles, no longer have faith in democratic values or see them in purely instrumental and opportunistic terms. The example being set by Trump in the US is emblematic in that regard but the consequences are felt globally, both in his imitators in other democracies and in the emboldenment of other despots such as Putin and Xi when it comes to meddling in the domestic affairs of sovereign democratic states. In that regard New Zealand is no different, with apologists for China denying or downplaying the pernicious nature of  its honey and vinegar approach to Antipodean affairs.

In that regard New Zealand again has become a laboratory rat for larger geopolitical experiments. In this instance the research question, to quote Lenin, is “what is to be done?” Rather than addressing the imperatives of making revolution, here the question is directed at how to respond to despotic interference in order to deter future applications of it. As mentioned, Australia has already tightened legislation governing foreign money and accounting transparency in campaign financing. All of the Five Eyes partners save New Zealand have placed restraints on the involvement of Chinese telecommunications companies in strategically sensitive infrastructure. But even in the face of the criminal violation of Anne Marie Brady’s privacy and academic freedom, New Zealand authorities have only offered vague assurances that it will respond forcefully if the culprits are found to be working for a foreign state.

The answer to the question of what is to be done is whether to draw a line on despotic interference in New Zealand given that it may have escalated into criminal behaviour, or downplay the episode given the diplomatic and economic necessity of avoiding offence and therefore injurious retaliation from an authoritarian great power.

To a significant degree, the true nature of New Zealand’s autonomy and independence in foreign affairs will be seen in how it responds.

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