Archive for ‘comparative politics’ Category

Squandering Political Opportunity.

datePosted on 12:51, October 31st, 2010 by Pablo

The dramatic reversal in the Democrat’s fortunes since November 2008 and their impending defeat in Tuesday’s mid-term elections raises the question of how things went so wrong for them in such as short time. Needless to say, the situation they inherited did not help: a major recession with near record unemployment, bankruptcies and home foreclosures, two wars of occupation, immigration concerns and a deeply polarised electorate. Even so, President Obama had a wave of popular support, the Democrats gained control of Congress, there was a mood for change in the country and the world was sympathetic to the incoming administration. Inherited obstacles notwithstanding, the scene was set for a major shift in direction under consolidated Democratic leadership for years to come.

Instead,  the Democrats have foundered while the GOP-Conservative opposition has rebounded and mounted a formidable challenge that threatens to undermine any hope for significant alterations in US policy direction. The immediate reasons for this Republican resurgence and the pallorous state of the Democratic Party (and the President) in the run-up to the midterms has more to do with the latter’s strategic and tactical errors rather than the former’s platform for governance. The Democrat errors can be enumerated, and will be summarised here.

The first strategic error was to believe that playing a centrist game was going to work. That may have succeeded in years gone by, but with an Republican opposition operating off a script of obstructionism, fear-mongering, personal denigration, xenophobia and cultivation of populist ignorance, it was never going to prosper in today’s political climate. Appeasing a disloyal opposition simply encourages it to become more vicious in its attacks, particularly when it has a partisan media working on its side. Thus the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” and “Pelosi-Reid deficit spender” memes that have reverberated from the moment the Obama administration took office and the Democrats gained control of Congress.

What the President and his party should have done is staked out an explicitly Liberal-Left policy agenda that starkly differentiated their (relatively, given that it is in the US) progressive and pro-active  approaches to the nation’s woes. They were going to be vilified anyway, so the stark differentiation of their platform from the reactionary and failed GOP approach would have clarified the lines of debate in ways that the public could clearly understand, both in terms of where the fault lay with regards to the economic woes of the country as well as in the solution set being offered as an alternative. After all, the US has not had anything remotely close to a “progressive ” policy agenda (and I say this phrase advisedly simply because what passes for progressive in the US is centrist is most other liberal democracies) since the early days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and the inherited economic and political conditions were ripe for a bold move away from the failed policies of the Bush 43 administration. That would have been a real agenda for change.

Since the Democrats did not do so, they failed on a second strategic level: they failed to impose the terms of the policy debate and ceded that space to the Fox and talkback-led conservative opposition. Since the latter had little to offer other than invective, this allowed them to turn to the usual diversionary wedge issues in order to gain political traction: ethnic conflict, cultural mores, “socialism,” and taxation. Whatever the administration’s accomplishments (and there have been a number, including nuclear arms reductions with the Russians and the gradual military exit from Iraq), these have been lost amid the din of conservative outrage about sins more imaginary than real.

Thus the Democrats found themselves on the defensive even as they tabled their policy agenda. Since those who dictate the terms of debate are those who win the debate, that meant that they were fighting a losing battle from the get-go.

They compounded these strategic errors at a tactical level. President Obama granted leadership of the legislative agenda to his Congressional counterparts. That was a mistake. The November 2008 elections were about him, not the Congressional leadership. The Democratic take-over of both Congressional majorities was more a result of coat-tailing on the President’s popularity than on the intrinsic merits of Democratic candidates themselves. Obama had a mandate, and he had the political capital surplus to spend; Congress did not, and in fact remained one of the country’s most detested institutions even after his election. Thus, by delegating leadership on the legislative agenda to the likes of Pelosi and Reid (which he likely did in deference to his former senior colleagues), President Obama ceded his bully pulpit to the circus on the Hill. That gave the impression that he was weak and insecure, which in turn gave the Republicans space to go on the attack against “entrenched interests” and all the other failures of the DC-based “liberal elite.”

The tactical error was compounded by the choice of battles to commence with. Instead of focusing on mortgage relief and rescue for desperate homeowners, serious financial market reform, education opportunity enhancement, immigration policy adjustment and re-orientation of US military commitments abroad (among any number of policy areas), the President and Congress chose to address health care first. Although it is obviously needed given the deficiencies of the US private health care system, it was simply too contentious and big a problem to tackle at the onset given the image of Presidential lack of experience and his conciliatory nature. Democratic strategists may have believed that they had to spend the President’s political capital early so as to ensure its passage, but in fact taking that policy issue as the first order of business under Congressional leadership direction hamstrung the Democrats even if they succeeded in passing a watered-down version of health care reform that provides some level of universal benefit to all citizens.

Put another way: the last thing the American public wanted to hear at a time of deep recession and after the financial bail-outs of the banking and automobile industries was that more public money would be spent of health care and that future taxes would reflect that increased level of deficit spending. Compared to the billion dollar figures being bandied about with regard to health care reform, Obama’s “middle class tax cut” (for those earning US$250,000 or less) and tax rebate (amounting to $500 per household) were seen as negligible drops in the bucket and meaningless political sop thrown for opportunistic purposes. For those who had spent a lifetime of paying for private insurance, it also seemed be a case of the indolent, irresponsible and unmotivated being gifted, at taxpayer expense, benefits that they did not deserve. Once the Republican-conservative spin machine got a hold of the issue, the spectre of “socialised” medicine replete with “death panels,” lack of individual choice, limits on care, endless delays and assorted other deficiencies soon dominated public discourse regardless of Democrat attempts to clarify the issue.

The combination of these four factors–failure to head to the Left and carve out a distinct position, ceding the terms of political debate to the opposition, allowing Congress to set the legislative agenda and choosing to reform health care as the first priority–set the stage for the political train wreck that is the Democrat’s midterm election campaign. To that can be added a failure to realise early that Republican operatives are using the Tea Party movement as a Trojan Horse with which to re-gain political momentum and a return to power. Similarly, the White House chose to ignore rather than frontally confront the “Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist”  allegations until they were well entrenched in the public consciousness–a full twenty percent of the US electorate now believe that the President is one, the other, or all three. It is too late to bolt the door against such attacks.

Some argue that the Democrats are playing to lose because the inevitable gridlock that will follow from Tuesday’s vote will allow the President to paint the Republicans as do-nothing obstructionists without a real agenda for solving national problems. That could be true if the Republicans do not win the Senate as well as the House, but if they win both branches then they will have the ability to impose a legislative agenda that among other things will repeal the health care reforms and other aspects of the Democrat’s agenda that have been accomplished so far. That puts the ball in the President’s court because it forces him to exercise his veto in order to salvage his original program, which in turn casts him as the obstructionist during the two years leading into the 2012 presidential election.

The bottom line is that although the Republican-conservative opposition play extremely dirty, the Democrats have no one but themselves to blame for this impending election fiasco. If Clausewitz is correct in his assertion that war is politics by other means, than the reverse is equally true: politics is war by other means. The goal is to win, pure and simple, and that means that if the opponent is going to play dirty then the governing party must understand what it is up against and counter it decisively without equivocating about the niceties involved. Rather than understand this very simple logic, the Democrats returned to form, tried to play nicely to the center, tried to respect the separation of powers mythos that is ingrained in US political folklore, tried to be civil in the face of a disloyal opposition and tried to embark on big policy reforms before the the President and his new Congressional counterparts had fully moved into their offices. For their efforts they are going to get hammered on Tuesday.

The US as the new Greece.

datePosted on 12:33, October 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Watching the lead up to what will be a major Republican and Tea Party comeback in the upcoming US midterm elections, and having spent an earlier part of the year in Greece, I cannot but help but be struck by the parallels between the two countries. This may seem crazy, but sometimes what is obvious is not necessarily apparent.

The US and Greece are saddled with immense debt, most of it public. Both have extremely large state bureacracies that consume an inordinate amount of the tax base. Both have lived, in their personal and public consumption, way beyond their means over the last two decades, riding the wave of financial sector excess and lving off real estate and other speculative bubbles that did not, in fact, significantly contribute to national productive rates.

In each case immediate past centre-right governments contributed to the false sense of security by allowing the financial sector to operate with considerable degrees of autonomy and lack of oversight, reduced taxes for the wealthiest sectors of the population and corporations, and spent money well in excess of state revenues. In Greece state expenditures went into a bloated welfare system that was designed to prop up living standards that are seen as a birthright of all Greeks; in the US, the excess state spending went into war. In both instances the center-right governments increased state spending and the public deficits that accompanied them. In both cases they were turned out at the polls in the past two years.

Center-left governments replaced the discredited right. They inherited unsustainable deficits that will take years to redress and embarked on economic reform programs that were designed to cut the public deficit and increase economic efficiency over the long term. In Greece this meant slashing the public workforce, decreasing public salaries and welfare benefits while offering a package of tax incentives to small and medium business so that they could innovate, expand and thereby take up the slack produced by reductions in the public workforce.

In the US the economic stimulus program was designed to prop up and revitalise at-risk major industries (the automobile and financial sectors in particular) while providing tax relief for 95 percent of the working population. A national health program was instituted that, even though watered down and more pro-business than pro-consumer and nowhere close to socialised medicine,  provides for minimum health coverage for the majority of the population. Selective regulation on the financial sector was legislated, although this worked more on the margins of the system rather than at its core. Military spending was cut at the corners, and in a number of cases companies that received financial bail-out packages have begun to re-pay their debts.  In effect, although in the US public spending increased over the short term with the stimulus and health care packages, the design is oriented towards lowering the overall public spending bill within five to ten years while maintaining a  disproportionate emphasis on “defense.” That is the American way.

In both instances some or most of the center-right opposition in the legislature supported the economic reform packages of the government, but backtracked when confronted by public reaction. In both cases that backtracking led them to move towards the zealot wing of their popular base. That has consequences.

The reason? In each case there was an immediate, reflexive and largely unthinking  public backlash against the reform measures. Following Greek protest tradition, often violent strikes and demonstrations have engulfed the country from the moment austerity measures were announced. Although the protests are led by unions and other elements of the agitational Left, the real beneficiaries of the crisis are the hard Right, who have seen an opportunity to engage in nationalist-populist demagogery in which “foreign interests,’ illegal migrants, “Communists” and a host of other suspected culprits are blamed for the country’s woes.

In the US attempts at reform have been met by a wave of right wing backlash among the mostly white middle classes, who also blame illegal migrants, “Socialists” and other purported “progressives” as well as atheistic liberal homosexual-enabling secular humanists for the decline of Empire. At public forums many vented their anger by calling for a “revolution” or at least the ovethrow of the Washington elite. Some of them turned up armed to make their point.  They have a movement not unlike the Greek ultra-nationalists. It is called the Tea Party.

What is striking about both hard right wing resurgences is that they stand to gain the most from upcoming elections simply by blaming the governing center left administrations without offering a plausible solution to the problems of the day and near future. Both want to return to something long gone. Both want lower, not more taxes, apparently not understanding that in the case of Greece that national pasttimes of tax avoidance, island vacation homes and reliance on the state for pensions, social security and universal health care are contradictory and incompatible. In the US the pejoratively labeled “Tea Baggers” apparently have not connected the dots between maintaining a massive military apparatus that consumes 6 percent of GDP, is fighting two wars of occupation and at least a dozen small irregular conflicts simultaneously, has a presence in 150 countries and deploys three carrier task forces comprised of 7 ships and 75 aircraft at sea at any one time (no other country can deploy even one), and the need for a substantial tax base. Nor can they see that the party that they support is the one that has the most extensive ties to the Wall Street giants that played loose with their money in the game of financial roulette known as the sub-prime lending market that has now come a cropper. Instead they rail against welfare queens and “illegals” stealing the jobs most Americans disdain.

In both countries the conscious anti-intellectualism of the Right is manifest.  They want simple solutions to complex problems, they want the solutions to benefit them without requiring any sacrifice, and they want it all to happen yesterday. Reflexively ignorant political champions lead the charge and rally the masses in each case.

Most of all, it is historical myopia, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the lack of acceptance of responsibility and the shifting of blame that ties the US and Greek public together in their rightwards march. Both cultures prefer to forget the immediate past that led to these tough times and instead focus on a mythical past in which the Nation was strong, proud and united in its demographic homogeneity and cultural mores. Both cultures believe that they are special and especially deserving because fortuitous circumstance determined that they were born Greek or American. Neither culture embraces the notion of individual and collective responsibility as a majority ethos anymore. Instead, the common approach is to blame others for individual failure and collective misfortune.  Both right wing movements have little to offer than hatred for central government elites, current reform policy, bankers of “dubious” persuasion and all the “others” who instigated the entire mess. Mutatis mutandis, there are faint echoes of interwar Europe in all of this.

That may be a basis for victory in any contemporary elections given the circumstances, but it is certainly no blueprint for national regeneration. History has repeatedly shown that national-populist lurches to the right produce more anomie and retrogression than progress. For the latter to occur, people will have to first take individual and collective responsibility about their role in the process of decline. Then they will have to accept the costs of redressing that decline which means that they will need to assume the burden of altered lifestyles no longer easily bought on the back of cheap credit, deficit spending and overinflated notions of national grandeur. They will then have to grin and bear it during the tough times so that their children and grandchildren will prosper under different conditions.

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

Headed home, looking to contribute.

datePosted on 15:04, October 20th, 2010 by Pablo

Tomorrow evening I fly back to Auckland for the beginning of a phased return to NZ. I have some pending obligations and personal commitments in SE Asia so  after two months in NZ will be doing a long distance commute between NZ and SG until the middle of next year. But I have made the decision that it is time to permanently return to NZ and find a way to contribute in a non-academic capacity. To that end I am registering a NZ-based political risk, market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy under the name Buchanan Strategic Advisors, Ltd.  As far as I can tell it is the first of its kind in NZ: a consultancy solely dedicated to international and comparative industry and market analysis, political context assessment and security threat evaluation. I will also focus on labour market characteristics, industry-political relations, futures forecasting (both strategic and sector-specific) and ethical and sustainable investment. The firm will have a public outreach component that will provide expert commentary to general and professional audiences as well as the media on matters of contemporary international import. As readers may know, I have long been concerned about the lack of strategic vision, both in its long-term and in-depth dimensions, exhibited by NZ public and private entities when it comes to foreign affairs. This is my way of helping to fill that analytic and policy gap.

It may seem counter-intuitive but I believe that basing the firm in NZ enhances its “brand” because of NZ’s reputation and image as a fair, transparent, honest and autonomous country, We may know that in fact NZ does not quite live up to its image in many respects, but having lived in nine countries I believe that it comes the closest to doing so. Since we operate in an age of telecommunications and rapid transport, I do not see NZ’s size and location as a major disadvantage to providing the intellectual value added services embodied in the firm. To the contrary, I see the firm as an ideal interface between NZ and foreign partners, complementing and reinforcing existing diplomatic and business networks.

I have been fortunate to have a number of Kiwis encourage me in this venture and have some leads on business opportunities. The real test is to see if public and private entities in NZ will pay for such services. I believe that it fills a niche for actors that do not have in-house expertise on specific subjects or whom do not wish to pay the full costs of maintaining a full-time, in-house political risk capability. But I also have offered this type of service for free to several NZ entities, only to have them baulk at continuing receiving my analysis and opinion on a fee-paying basis (this includes some specialised security agencies that clearly lack in-house capabilities in the areas that I am competent to discuss). Thus the real make-or-break issue is whether private firms and public agencies are willing to pay for this type of specialised advice. The next year or so will tell.

In any event, I am thrilled to be heading back home. I get to reclaim my house in the Waitakeres and breathe clean air (the Indonesian smoke haze in SG at the moment is at dangerous levels), feel the nighttime silence of the bush, and reacquaint myself with friends. That will make the pressures of setting up the firm all the more bearable. It may be a challenge after so many years of doing full-time academic work and part-time consulting, but if there is an ideal place in which to undertake a new venture like this, Aotearoa is my choice.

A press release on the establishment of the firm can be found here.

Ahmadinejad Amps Up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Bicentennials, and two disappointments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the US, a return to primordialism.

datePosted on 09:03, August 21st, 2010 by Pablo

In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a “post-racial” society was never going to happen.  Instead the reverse transpired, with race, religion and ethnicity now dominating US political debates in a measure not seen in years. Fuelled in part by the president’s overt identification with African-American culture and causes in spite of his mixed race heritage, the real instigators of the return to American primordialism are the conservative media outlets, Tea Party agitators and opportunistic Republican politicians who see political advantage in harping negatively about race, religion and ethnicity. Be it arguments about reverse racism, immigration, “socialist” health policy, religious freedom (in the case of the proposed Islamic cultural centre located 2 blocks from ground zero in New York City), the hot button issues in the lead-up to the November 2010 midterm elections are rooted in conservative white fear of cultural diversity and ethnic equality. That garrison mentality resonates in the great American echo chamber of conservative blogs, radio and television, and it has set the tone for the political debates of the moment.

The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight. This view holds to the belief that White Christians are the carriers of superior values tied to the Protestant Ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship,  and that these values are now under siege from a variety of forces, both domestic and foreign (often working in concert). Fear of the “other” is the subtext of the day. With the nightmare of a black Kenyan Muslim in the oval office now realised (at least in the minds of some), the culturalist Right have chosen to fight. Their method for doing so is to fill the public space with racially charged interrogatives that speak to white grievances against affirmative action, poverty reduction, undocumented immigration (including so-called “anchor babies”), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values.  Cultural scape-goating is phrased as a defense of traditional values in order to cloud the message and make it difficult to refute. The Democrats and progressive elements in the electorate have been slow to stand up to the cultural bullying, and even slower to recast the terms of the political debate. Since those who set the terms of political debate are the ones who usually win the argument, this augers poorly not only for the president and his party in November, but for the future of American social diversity in general.

The return to race baiting and xenophobia is due not only to white Christian conservative fear of what the future US demographic may look like, but also to their inability to offer a policy agenda that is anything other than opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. Capitalising on anti-“big government” sentiment that conveniently overlooks the fact that the expansion of the federal government deficit was fuelled by a massive military build-up in pursuit of two wars undertaken by a conservative Republican president aided and abetted during his first 6 years in office by a GOP-dominated Congress in a context of corporate deregulation and lower taxation of firms and wealthy individuals, the white conservative backlash against Obama is visceral, vicious and anything but virtuous in intent. For some on the US Right the turn to primordialism is a return to their darker ideological roots.

The irony is that the Right’s politics of primordialism is not necessary. In spite of victories in health care and finance industry regulation, the successful rescue of General Motors and its ahead of schedule withdrawal of combat troops  from Iraq, the Obama administration has shown itself to be vacillatory and reactive across a broad range of policy issues. Rather that set a firm agenda it appears to bounce from crisis to crisis, blaming its predecessor for problems that are not of its making (such as regulatory failures that led to the Gulf oil spill, inherited federal deficits and the 2008 financial crisis). All this does is convey the image of an whinging Administration out of its depth or indecisive at the point of engagement, aided by a venal Congress disconnected from the realities of common voters.  Coupled with the usual anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment and an unusual amount of hatred for the federal government, this leaves the Democrats in a perilous position in the lead up to the November midterm elections. 

Hence, in the current context of an impending “double dip” recession and mounting fiscal deficits, ongoing high unemployment and continued foreclosures and mortgagee sales as involvement in foreign conflicts drags on, the Democrats can be defeated in November on issues of policy alone, even if the alternative is incoherent on specific points of remedy. The diversion into the so-called “culture wars” consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice.  The choice is to engage a raw backlash at everything Obama represents as a social construct.

Not surprisingly the focus on primordialism obscures and mystifies the increasing gap between the US corporate elite and investment rich, on the one hand, and the salaried middle and working  classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual “responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “freedom,” this is a return to the late 19th century-early 20th century era of ethnic divide- and-conquer anti-unionisation efforts played by the robber barons and their Pinkerton thugs, and which finds resonance in the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic militia-style rhetoric of the present day. It also is wrapped in a strict constitutionalist interpretation that sees anything not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, such as universal health care, as insidious attempts to undermine the White Christian foundations of the nation.

There is an irony here. The descent into primordialism could spell trouble for the GOP at a time when it should be easily crafting an alternative agenda for a return to political dominance. The libertarian and moderate wings of the Republican Party are being made to choose between the xenophobic Right and disaffiliation. The plight of Florida governor Charlie Crist is instructive.  A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic  and Black populations and a heterogeneous mix of Whites, Crist was losing badly in the polls for the Republican Party Senate candidacy in favour of a more conservative, less experienced candidate. Faced with a primary loss next week, Crist is now running as an Independent in what will be a three-way Senate race in November that looks increasingly hard for the GOP to win given the vote-splitting caused by Crist’s presence.

Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its “small government” origins hijacked by a reactionary culturalist agenda that harks to the Anglo supremacist views of the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and early 1960s. That leaves Tea Party economic liberals and fiscal conservatives at the mercy of the new segregationists and isolationists, thereby dividing the movement at a time it should be uniting around a common agenda for change. That opens space for conservative Democrats to make common cause with the economic, as opposed to socially conservative Tea Party adherents.

The Democrats are not immune from the primordialist temptation. The controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre in NYC has seen a number of prominent Democrats, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, come out against it. Spurred by electoral considerations and like the Republican primordialists, they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.” Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the “provocation” to having Nazis build a monument at Auschwitz or the Japanese building a shrine at Pearl Harbour, conveniently ignoring that the fact that the former was a political movement with genocidal pretensions and the latter was a state declaring war, whereas Islam is the religion of 11 extremists who committed an atrocity (much as Christianity was the religion of the Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh).  In fact, the more appropriate analogy might be to propose to build a Christian church on the site where a murdered abortionist practiced, something that has in fact happened at the place where Dr. George Tiller had his Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tiller’s memory and work on behalf of the pro-choice movement met with little outcry and more than a passing wave of approval on the part of the same people who now most avidly decry the Ground Zero “mosque” (I put the word mosque in quotation marks because the proposal is for a multi-use facility that includes prayer rooms for men and women).

Nor has the “provocation” argument had to reconcile with the fact that two established mosques are located four and six blocks from Ground Zero, respectively, or that various porn shops and strip clubs are located across the street from the hallowed site itself. Even so, few mainstream politicians have spoken out against the inconsistencies of the “provocation” argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese “sneak attack” brush, in no small part for fear of being seen as pro-Islamic. That is sadly telling of the current state of affairs.

In fact, that Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich can make common cause on an issue involving religious freedom demonstrates how debased the US political debate has become. Worst yet, after initially framing the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, President Obama backtracked in the face of conservative criticism and said that it is a matter of local opinion and religious sensitivity to broader public concerns, thereby ceding the argument to the primordialists while confirming the impression that he is indecisive and thin-skinned.

The impact of the return to primordialism has yet to be seen, but two logical inferences can be made if it continues. First, that it will have an atomizing effect on US politics and society, as conservative White and minority ethno-religious communities grow increasingly alienated and see their collective fortunes in zero-sum terms. Rolling back 50 years of improving race relations is a recipe for instability and conflict which cannot be solved over the long term by Whites stockpiling arms and joining civilian militias in a country that is dependent on migrant labour and which will have a majority non-White demographic in 25 years regardless of illegal immigration controls. Secondly, the return to primordialism will confirm in the minds of foreign adversaries that the US is, in fact, a Christian White supremacist imperialist state that seeks to impose its values on non-Whites and non-Christians at home and abroad.  That means that international conflict, in its “clash of civilisations’ mode, will continue unabated until such a time as the US abandons the politics of primordialism. Nothing indicates that will happen soon.

Then there is the final implication: united they will stand, or divided they will fall.

The Racial Basis of a Small SE Asian State.*

datePosted on 16:51, July 11th, 2010 by Pablo

From my perch in SE Asia I have observed with some bemusement what passes for immigration debate in the US, UK, Europe and NZ. I am bemused because the place that I live has a very non-PC approach to immigration and yet is held out as a beacon of ethno-cultural diversity, toleration and meritocratic entrepreneurship. Were it that it be so.

In most of the West the dominant discourse on immigration is phrased in terms of labour market necessity. Countries need skilled and/or unskilled labour as the case may be because their domestic reproduction rates cannot keep pace with economic growth. Since capitalism must grow to survive, it needs labour inputs to provide the human fuel for that growth. Depending on the human resource base of the country in question, skilled or unskilled labour is imported and allowed to settle in order to fill labour market demand and to increase inter-generational reproductive rates conducive to eventual labour market self-sufficiency. Or so we are told.

Yet there is a demographic aspect to this labour-market immigration strategy as well.  In the contemporary US Hispanics fill many of the unskilled labour needs; in Germany Turks do the same; in France Algerians fulfill that function; in Greece Albanians perform the role; in Portugal Romanians, Angolans and Brazilians play that part. In NZ it has been traditionally Pacific Islanders who fill the ranks of unskilled labour, and receive preferential immigration treatment as a result. Skilled labour shortages are filled by Indians, Chinese and Europeans in the US, by Spaniards, Greeks, Italians and Eastern Europeans in “old (Northern) Europe,” and by Indians, Asians and expat Europeans and South Africans in NZ (the list is not meant to be exhaustive and recognises overlap in skill categories in some instances). There is, in other words, an ethnic component to inter-state labour market migration.

The unspoken question, and the elephant in the room in such approaches to labour market necessity requiring the import of foreign labour, involves the intertwined issues of race, culture, ethnicity and religion. Until recently, with the exception of conservative or right-wing cultural supremacists, it was simply unacceptable to wonder out loud whether certain races, cultures or creeds were more or less likely to assimilate and contribute to the dominant culture and society of their adoptive countries.  Race-baiting politicians in the US, Europe and NZ have regularly played that card for electoral purposes, but by and large the majority of “proper” people in Western democracies prefer to not to confront the thorny issue of racial and religious composition of immigrants under conditions of labour market necessity. Yet not talking about it does not make the issue of ethnicity in immigration go away. Put bluntly, elites may see immigration in purely labour market terms, but the masses may just as well see it in ethno-religious and cultural terms, with all the baggage that entails.

The SE Asian country I live in has no PC qualms when it comes to the issue of work force demographics. This country is ethnically Chinese dominant (they make up 65% of the population). The ethnic totem pole then descends through Indians (the faithful lieutenants to the Chinese), Europeans (read: white people who are the managerial class for both local and foreign enterprise, and who are derogatorily called ang mor  or ang moh (red haired, which goes to show that NZ is not the only country in which “gingas” are reviled), other Asians (Koreans and Japanese preferably), Malays, Indonesians, Tamils, Sri Lankans, Ceylonese, Filipinos, Burmese and other sub-continental ethnicities. Immigration and reproductive policy is explicitly crafted to favour ethnic Chinese over all others when it comes to immigration, residency and citizenship. Because the country is labour-starved on both ends of the skill spectrum and the local Chinese reproduce at unsustainable rates, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese are given preferential immigration treatment even though the local Chinese look down their noses at their mainland counterparts as uncouth and unwashed uneducated provincials (their disposition is more generous towards Taiwanese but the attitude of superiority of Singaporean Chinese towards other Asians is pervasive). The country makes no secret of its determination to keep the present racial balance so as to maintain ethnic Chinese dominance, and makes no secret of what it sees as the superior cultural values of the dominant ethnic group (familial piety, ambition and discipline being foremost amongst the supposedly “Confucian” traits). For the rest of us it is a take it or leave it proposition, with money being the great leveler when it comes to attracting both top end and low end talent.

The very good public housing system is based on forced racial integration schemes, with the percentage of units allocated in any given housing bloc reflecting the proportional mix of ethnicities in the country. Although promoting racial and religious “disharmony” is prohibited by law and vigorously enforced in the main, racial integration and harmony are construed on Chinese terms and in their favour. From where I sit, it looks a lot like, albeit in a more disguised and benign way, aspects of the Jim Crow Southern US, except that here everything is written in Orwellian terms so that racial “harmony” actually means Chinese dominance. So long as everyone understands their place, play by the rules as given, bow to the rule of the one party state and accept material gratification and commodity fetishism as their reward, the racial status quo is preserved and the business of making money (or in the official jargon,  “pursuing prosperity”) can continue unimpeded.

Even so and despite the official line on racial harmony, racism is a constant latent fact of life here. Besides resistance to inter-marriage and barely disguised inter-racial contempt (particularly by the local Chinese towards Malays, Indonesians and Filipinos), things like housing blocs are divided in such a way that resident Malays can only sell to Malays and Indians to Indians, thereby depressing house prices and impeding upwards mobility for the majority of these subordinate groups. Non-citizens and non-permanent residents cannot own housing bloc units. Although there is much official palaver about being a meritocracy, the unspoken truth is that nepotism and patronage networks are equally if not more the key to economic success, and these unofficial channels are, given the demographics, Chinese-centric (although ethnic Chinese are not alone in the use of informal vehicles for economic advancement, nor is this phenomenon confined to this one state–NZ has its well-known system of old boy and new boy-girl networks that are anything but meritocratic). Here the bottom line is simple: accept the racial status quo as given and toleration of difference will be the order of the day. Challenge that status quo and run the risk of running afoul of the Internal Security Laws and their very broad definition of sedition. A pervasive system of domestic intelligence gathering, particularly but not exclusively focused on the resident Muslim community, ensures that challenges to the status quo are thwarted early and often.

Non-citizens and permanent residents do not receive anywhere close to the health, welfare and housing benefits accorded to citizens. To the contrary, they are actively discriminated against in allocation of public goods. This goes as much for the high end immigrants as for their low end counterparts, but it is only the former who have the personal income or corporate subsidies to cover costs in the private health, retirement and housing  markets (this is the case with most Kiwis, Australians and Americans living here). Low skill foreign workers, mostly coming from ethnics groups such as Tamils, Bangladeshis, Nepalese and Sri Lankans, do not have the financial resources to engage private care, so most often are deported with token compensation should they fall ill or otherwise unable to work (that includes pregnancy). Most low end foreign workers live in subsistence dormitories provided by employers who sign them to three year minimum wage contracts (some of these dormitories are converted shipping containers housing 30-50 individuals with a single toilet and shower). 

In fact, foreigners in general fall into three categories, investors, employees and dependents, with the first two being the only basis for residency. Should a foreigner lose his or her job or withdraw or lose their investment capital in the country, their visas are withdrawn and they and their families summarily issued orders of deportation (usually with a 30-60 day expiration date; overstayers are regularly caned as part of their punishment). In some cases, such as those of Chinese construction companies, foreign investors bring their own employees with them and subject them to their own labour standards via exclusionary clauses in local labour legislation. Add to that the very lax labour laws governing dismissals and redundancies, and you have a structural bias, in the form of labour market regulations and working visa controls, in favour of ethnic Chinese socio-cultural dominance.

I note all of this with agnosticism. Readers can make whatever inferences they choose to. The larger point I am trying to make is that here is a small state that is considered to be a model of capitalist development in the late 20th and early 21st century that uses an explicitly race-based labour market-driven immigration model in pursuit of the cultural, social and political dominance of the majority ethnic group. The system works; in fact, it is hegemonic by any definition.  Given that success, is it worth broaching the uncomfortable subject of cultural dominance when it comes to immigration in a place like New Zealand? Or is that simply a bridge too far and labour market logics should be the sole rationale (other than refugee quotas) upon which immigration policy is formulated and implemented? But if it is indeed unacceptable for a liberal democracy like NZ to use race-based criteria when confronting labour-market driven immigration  and social policy, then why does the NZ political-economic elite use my current country of residence as a developmental model or example to be emulated?

*Because there has been some misreading of the post in the comments thread, I have updated it in order to clarify some of the argument.

Conservative dementia in the US

datePosted on 20:08, July 6th, 2010 by Pablo

One has to hand it to the US conservative movement. They have no shame, or at least plenty of chutzpah.

They love to bark about the evils of Democrats while having no regard for the consistency of their own positions. Take the issue of corporate responsibility. Conservatives railed against the bail-outs of the Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers, arguing against the “they are to big to let fail” logic of the W. Bush and Obama administrations when these came to the financial rescue of the beleaguered  giants. “Let ’em fail” they screeched, since “the market will sort ’em out.” Yet, when Toyota lied about the causes of sudden uncontrolled acceleration in its cars and delayed recalls while “investigating” the incidents (which resulted in over a dozen deaths and more than a hundred injuries), these same groups demanded that the US government step in to investigate and charge those responsible for everything from criminal negligence to consumer fraud. Likewise, the US right wing is now raving that the US federal government has done too little too late to respond to the BP oil spill even though–surprise surprise–the US federal government does not have the deep water capping technology available to the private oil industry, had previously deregulated that industry at its request in order to stimulate production (and profits) and was initially relying on that industry to give honest estimates of the disaster and rectify the situation based upon its own expertise and record in controlling spills of that nature. Some conservatives even demanded that the US accept offers of foreign assistance in controlling the spill, and scolded the Obama administration when it declined to do so. Fancy that, conservatives calling for foreign aid at a time of domestic crisis. Thus, when it comes to issues of corporate responsibility, US conservatives cannot make up their minds about the why, how and when of government intervention.

As far as taxation is concerned, the likes of the Tea party movement are opposed to current federal taxation rates and demand cuts across the board without considering that it is taxes that pay, as just one example, for the US military’s trillion dollar budgets and prosecution of a seemingly endless procession of wars abroad in defense of the “freedom” they so much rhetorically cherish. They appear ignorant of the fact that without taxation the US would not be able to maintain its preeminent global position, and that the current federal budget deficits originated in the W. Bush administration’s deficit spending to fuel the wars while lowering the taxation rates for corporations and high income individuals. In fact, in this regard W. Bush was emulating the champion of all American conservatives, Ronald Reagan, who massively increased defense spending and the overall size of the federal budget while lowering taxes for the upper third of the population. How is this “fiscally responsible?”

Finally, although all conservatives are self-styled “patriots” who literally wear their flags on their sleeves, bumpers and lapels, some are of the “America first” persuasion whereas others are of the “US superpower” kind. The former prefer that the US concentrate on its own affairs and limit its foreign entanglements, while the latter wants to see the US as the major player on the world stage. One view is isolationist; the other is imperialist. The two views are irreconcilable.

In effect, American conservatives are not the limited government champions they claim to be, nor are they consistent in their linkage of national necessities with taxation. They are divided on their views of the US role in the world. Instead they are a collection of blustering fools, economic retrogrades and illiterates, corporate toadies, religious zealots, assorted bigots, xenophobes and militarists mixed in with a minority of true libertarians and honest believers in the primacy of individual over collective rights and responsibilities. That means that even if they make major gains in the November 2010 elections, the centrifugal forces within the US conservative movement, as well as the lack of a coherent core rationale underpinning it, will prove deleterious to their chances for successful overhaul of the US political system. In fact, such a victory could well make the crisis of US politics even worse.

Does New Zealand have a Strategic Culture?

datePosted on 16:28, May 27th, 2010 by Pablo

Given the pacifist tendencies of many KP readers, the question in the title of this post may seem unusual and of little importance. Little attention has been paid by most public media, much less the Left-leaning ones, to the issue of strategic culture both in general and with specific reference to Aotearoa. My interest in the subject has been sparked by my current book project, where I try to analyse the post Cold War security politics of three “peripheral” democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal. Among other things that I have discovered as part of the project, it appears that there be no, or at least different conceptualisations of, a unique kiwi strategic culture. Let me elaborate on both the subject and the specifics of this.

Strategic culture refers to the security perspectives, traditions, institutions and behaviour of a country. Although it has often been confused with it, strategic culture is more than just a military war-fighting tradition. It is more than a diplomatic posture. It encompasses the full array of security concerns, from intelligence-gathering techniques and priorities to trade orientation and diplomatic alliances, that make up the larger framework with which policy-making elites perceive the strategic environment in which they operate.

As an example of one dimension of strategic culture, let us look at the core feature with which it is most often confused: war-fighting tradition. Much has been written about different cultural and national “styles” of warfare, be it, among others, Arab, American, Australian, British, Chinese, German, French, Israeli or Russian.  Some emphasise mass over maneuver, others prefer tactical flexibility to centralisation of command, and still others prefer deception and stealth across ill-defined fronts rather fixed lines of combat in well-demarcated battle spaces. The array of war-fighting styles also extends to unconventional or guerrilla war-fighting—urban guerrilla warfare is not the same as rural insurgency, nor is the ratio of ideological-psychological work to kinetic operations the same in all contexts. Although there is plenty of overlap in all war-fighting styles, each is a unique adaptation, based on terrain, culture, technology, organisational capacity, leadership characteristics and the ethno-religious and national make-up of the fighting forces involved, as well as the ideologies that justify what they are fighting for.

The question thus begs: does NZ have a distinct war-fighting tradition? If so, what are its characteristics? Whatever the answer, that is only part of the picture.

That is because strategic culture involves geopolitical perspectives and geostrategic orientation, institutional morphology and historical practice. Countries with large land masses and multiple borders see things differently than do island states.  Countries with ample resources and robust economies of scale in value-added manufacturing conform their approaches to trade and security differently than resource poor agro-export platforms. Countries with on-going territorial, cultural or political disputes tend to “see” threats differently than those that are not encumbered by such conflicts. Countries governed by authoritarians often perceive things differently than well-established democracies. So do countries with long histories of warfare (internal as well as external) when contrasted against countries with peaceful internal histories and little involvement in foreign wars.

Domestic political dynamics over time, as well as specific histories of military and diplomatic alliances, also impact on the specifics of strategic culture.  The number of variables is larger and more varied than this, but the point should  be clear: strategic culture is a product of national character molded by historical practice, current political dynamics, institutional framework and geopolitical context.

In highly simplified fashion the equation looks like this: strategic culture—> geopolitical orientation—> geostrategic perspective—> threat environment assessment and contingency planning—> security force orientation—> force composition—> force staffing, training and equipment—> force deployment and operations. This includes intelligence and police services as well as the military, because it includes internal and external security roles. The most important thing to note is that strategic culture is the point of departure for all that follows; absent a strategic culture there is little basis for a coherent strategic vision over time , which in turn impacts negatively on all of the other variables arrayed along this particular chain of causality.

Which brings up the point of this post: does NZ have a distinct strategic culture? One of the things that emerged during my discussions with numerous observers during my visit to NZ in February and March was an unspoken consensus that NZ does not have a strategic culture to call its own. This is in part a product of the apparent ad-hoc approach to policy-making I mentioned in a previous post. But it also appears to be rooted in organisational dysfunction and incompetence as well as a dependence on foreign patrons for strategic guidance. Many of the most informed people I spoke with were openly derisive of the competence and vision of the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS leadership, particularly the civilians that ostensibly provide the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS with policy guidance (the name Mark Burton was mentioned more than once as absolute proof  of how ineptitude can still find its way into the upper echelons of security policy-making). Plus, advancement within the security bureaucracies is seen as being tied to toeing both the (incumbent) party line as well as the extant corporate culture, however misinformed or dysfunctional they may be. Thus, even though there are futures forecasting shops in various security agencies, very little is actually forecast that the bosses do not want to hear or read, and most of what is forecast is make-work destined for annual reports rather than designed to serve as a basis for strategic planning over the medium term.

The same accusation has been made of the plethora of security agencies that have emerged since 9/11, which may be in part why the National government has made the decision to convert the External Assessments Bureau into a National Assessments Bureau with oversight authority over the whole lot. But the latter does not indicate a move to develop a defined strategic culture. It is just an attempt to impose some form of managerial rationality on the intelligence-security combine in order to overcome areas of duplication, overlap and turf battles.

There was also the view expressed that when it comes to security, NZ has traditionally looked to Australia, the US and the UK (in the current order) for strategic guidance rather than develop a distinctive strategic culture of its own. This is believed to be a result of NZ dependence on these countries (and others, such as France) for military equipment and training and intelligence flows. But NZ has a distinctive approach to things like nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peace-keeping, so surely that is reflected in a unique perspective on the external security environment and the role that NZ should play in it. Here again, my supposition that NZ has a distinct way of viewing things from a security perspective was contradicted or dismissed by the knowledgeable interlocutors with whom I spoke. Yet I remain unconvinced that their skepticism is fully warranted. Surely there is an appreciation of the need for a uniquely Kiwi approach to strategic affairs?

Which leaves me with my opening question. I know that Chile and Portugal have distinct strategic cultures that informs the way in which they engage the post-Cold War world on security matters. These distinctive strategic cultures give them coherency and predictability when construing threats, organising their security forces and engaging in security planning. Can we say the same thing for NZ?

Dissecting North Korean Madness.

datePosted on 17:27, May 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Forensic evidence examined by three independent experts confirms what was suspected all along: the 1200-ton South Korean frigate Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo while cruising in South Korean waters near their common maritime border, with the loss of  46 lives. Not only were traces of RDX (a military grade explosive whose chemical signature can identify its source) found in the salvaged wreak. Pieces of the torpedo itself have been recovered, including the propeller assembly and housing. The finger of guilt points heavily in Pyongyang’s direction. A secretive commando unit with direct links to Kim Jung-il, unit 586, is suspected of staging the attack using a mini-submarine as the launching platform (since such platforms would be harder to detect using standard anti-submarine detection methods). The fact that Mr. Kim awarded the commander of Unit 586 with his fourth generals’ star in a ceremony held shortly after the attack is seen by some analysts as proof of its involvement as well as Mr. Kim’s direct authorisation of the attack.

The question is why would the North Koreans do such a thing? Admittedly, they have a track record of unprovoked attacks on South Korean targets, including a 1967 attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 39 sailors, a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 118 people, an attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma in 1983, plus a series of bloody naval skirmishes dating back to 1999, including an incident last year when a North Korean gunboat was heavily damaged, with loss of life, in a confrontation with South Korean naval forces. Some argue that the torpedoing was simply an act of revenge over this last incident, but it appears that there is much more at play than immediately meets the eye.

The North Korean torpedo attack is alarming because the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war. The 1953 armistice is not a peace treaty, so a state of war continues to exist between the two countries in spite of the episodic thawing in relations between them. That serves as both the justification for the attack as well as a major source of concern. Usually a cross-border raid into a sovereign nation’s territorial waters during peace time that results in an unprovoked attack on a military vessel would be construed as an an act of war deserving of commensurate, if not overwhelming response. But since the two countries are already in a state of war, each is free to pursue aggression as it sees fit. That has resulted in a (mostly one-sided) low intensity conflict between the two states for the last 57 years, and is why US forces are stationed in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that constitutes their common land border (US troops in the DMZ serve as a “trip wire” in which an attack on them will trigger the US security guarantee for the South Koreans, meaning direct US military involvement in the response).  Thus the North Korean torpedo attack is just a continuation of an on-going limited war rather than an outright declaration of war. Even so, it is an outrageous provocation and therefore runs the risk of escalating into something bigger.

South Korean public outrage demands blood in revenge, yet in practice South Korea has few options at its disposal. North Korea has already declared, with its usual bluster, that any military response will be met with “all-out war.” Although North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South Korea as well as beyond (to include Japan and US bases in Okinawa and the Western Pacific). It also has a Chinese security guarantee to match the American compact with its southern neighbour. That means that a South Korean military response runs the risk of escalation into high intensity conflict that could lead to both security guarantees being invoked, thereby forcing a US-China confrontation. It is not in either power’s interests to see this happen, so pressure is on South Korea to not call North Korea’s bluff and retaliate in kind. Yet, most analysts agree that no response will only embolden the North Koreans and result in further incidents with a greater potential for escalation. Hounded by this dilemma, South Korea has so far limited its response to calling for UN Security Council condemnation of the attack, something that so far has not occurred.

Shadow warriors and covert operations specialists point out that more discrete means of retaliation are available that can make the South Koreans’ point just as effectively. All that is needed is patience and planning in the execution of a discrete mission against a select target. But even this approach needs to factor in the motivations of the North Korean regime in staging the attack, because understanding of its rationale can better inform the response not only of South Korea, but of its allies and the larger international community as well.

It appears that the attack was staged as a result of divisions within the North Korean hierarchy over the issue of leadership succession. It was more than just an “unfortunate incident” resultant from miscommunication or misreading of intent. It is clear that Kim Jung-il is on his last legs after a series of strokes and other ailments. Thus the jockeying for position as heir to the Kim throne is now reaching fever pitch, with hard-liners and soft-liners attempting to out-maneuver each other in the run-up to his death (hard-liners are regime defenders, soft-liners are regime reformers). Some intelligence analysts believe that Mr. Kim authorised the attack in order to to shore up hard-line support for his son, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates. He has no administrative or military command experience as far as is known. This leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of veteran Communist (i.e., formally named the Workers) Party and military authorities whom may have leadership ambitions of their own. Some of these heavyweights may accept a power-sharing arrangement where the Kim dynastic line is continued more or less along the lines presently operative. Others may prefer that the younger Mr. Kim serve as a figurehead while real power is distributed among a broader array of bureaucratic cadres, thereby decentralising policy-making authority (and power) in a slow process of regime reform. Still others may prefer to dispense with the Kims entirely and assume power directly, in coalition or as part of a small cadre, either as part of a reformist or retrenchment project. All of these factions are hard-line in the views of the world, which means that whatever happens democracy and major liberalisation of the regime will not be on the menu.

On the other hand, there are soft-line factions with the DPRK regime. These are drawn from elements in the Communist party and civilian bureaucracy who have had to wrestle with the deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure, living standards and health during the last twenty years. These people are well aware that North Korea is an economic basket case that feeds and arms its military at the expense of its people, who have been subject to famine, starvation, an array of diseases, homelessness and unemployment as they eke out what for all purposes is a Dickensian existence. It is these people who know that there are two North Koreas, one for the elites and one for the masses (as a Stalinist version of the “dual society” thesis that has been used to explain comparative underdevelopment), and it is these people who are most acutely aware of how far behind North Korea has fallen behind its ethnic kin to the South under the vainglorious and rigid Kim dictatorship. It is these people who understand that Kim Jung-il’s death provides an opportunity to open up the regime, if not immediately on the political front, then certainly on the economic front.  After all, even after the Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese abandoned communism as the major organising tenet of society, the DPRK dinosaurs cling to it as an insurance policy against threats to their rule. Hence the soft-liners are working to persuade leadership contenders that their support depends on a major opening of the regime, even if still under one party authoritarian aegis. In fact, for the soft-liners, their continued support for one party rule is contingent on economic liberalisation.

That is why the torpedo attack was carried out. It had to do with internal dynamics in the Kim regime rather than the war with South Korea itself, which merely served as an excuse (by hard-liners) to  launch the attack. A tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support is to stage a militaristic diversion that rallies the public along nationalistic grounds (some might argue that this happens in democratic regimes as well–witness, say, the US and UK attack on Iraq in 2003). The torpedo attack was a sucker ploy designed to incite a South Korean response that would help consolidate the position of one of the North Korean leadership factions. But therein lies the rub, because history also shows that diversionary attacks staged by dictatorships often end in defeat and regime collapse, either immediately or in time. The Greek colonel’s regime collapsed after its defeat in the 1973 Cyprus War, a war that it started at a time when it was facing rising domestic discontent and increased disunity within the armed ranks. The Argentine junta collapsed in 1982 after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands campaign, a war that it also started in order to divert public attention from pressing economic problems at a time when, again, political in-fighting amongst military and civilian elites was increasing. The fall of Saddam Hussein had its origins in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and even if eventual rather than immediate, the end of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was predictable from that point on.

To this can be added the problem of succession in authoritarian regimes. It is considered the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism, especially in heavily personalised, dynastic or military-dominated regimes (North Korea is all three). Because power is so tightly centralised in such regimes, even where institutionalised under one party aegis, the benefits of leadership are virtually unfettered and unlimited. There are little or no checks and balances or separation of powers in such regimes, so the material and political rewards of leadership are astronomical when compared with even bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Singapore or (now) the PRC. Hence the stakes of the succession game in places like North Korea are extremely high for all contenders, and the competition for leadership succession gets, to put it mildly, quite rough.

All of which is to say that the response to the North Korean attack should be subtle rather than overt. Devoid of a militaristic opportunity to engage in jingoistic stirring of popular fervor, the declining Kim regime will be forced to turn back inwards as the leadership succession issue gets more factionalised and hostile. That will likely lead to more attempts to use the military diversion option, perhaps as a desperate last resort by a losing faction in the internecine battles over leadership in the post Kim Jung-il era. But it is only a matter of time before the DPRK regime enters into terminal crisis, which is why it is best to not answer this latest provocation with force. That time may well come, but first the nature and course of the North Korean leadership succession must become apparent.

In the meantime, then, perhaps it is best for the South Koreans to move in shadows rather than in light when countering North Korean aggression.

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