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Hamstrung from the start?

datePosted on 09:47, May 30th, 2019 by Pablo

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Christchurch terrorist attacks has begun its work. This represents an extraordinary moment in which to examine the mechanics of the event, i.e., how it was planned and prepared, who may have been involved beyond the perpetrator, the timeline that led him to the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Islamic Centre on that fateful afternoon on the Ides of March, and who dropped the ball when it came to preventing the attacks.

The inquiry represents an opportunity to uncover the systemic, institutional and individual errors that together combined to produce a catastrophic intelligence failure on the part of New Zealand’s security authorities—not just the Police but the dedicated agencies that together make up the larger New Zealand domestic security community. These include the SIS and GCSB as lead intelligence agencies but also intelligence “shops” in places like Customs and Immigration, all of whom failed to see or ignored warning signs in the accused’s movements in and out of the country during the last five years and who may have been organizationally blind to or dismissive of the threat that he represented to New Zealand society.

The inquiry is needed because the Christchurch terrorist attacks represent the worst act of ideologically-motivated non-state violence in New Zealand’s history. March 15 was not a normal day in Aotearoa and it should not serve as a baseline for a “new normal” in the country. A fully transparent and in-depth investigation into the acts of commission and omission that contributed to its terrible success should be of utmost priority.

The two commissioners, Sir William Young and Jacqui Caine, a former High Court Justice and diplomat, respectively, have seven months in which to conduct the investigation and return their findings. These will include the details of what they uncover as well as recommendations for remedies and future action. Their terms of reference include provisions for consultation with the NZ Muslim community and others who have a civil society stakeholder’s interest in the inquiry. The scope of the inquiry is broad, and includes examination of all potential contributors to the chain of events leading up to March 15.

However, there are causes for concern that suggest that the Commission’s work might be hamstrung from the beginning

First, there is the short time frame. Seven months is an inadequate period in which to conduct a thorough investigation into all of the contributing factors. That is complicated by the accused terrorist’s trial being held concurrently with the inquiry, with the Crown’s case overlapping with and mirroring the work of the Commission. Rather than separating the inquiry’s two investigative streams—one focused on the killer’s actions prior to the attacks using evidence from the trial and the other focused on broader factors that contributed to the successful execution of the attack—the inquiry will have to do both simultaneously while the trial runs in parallel (and perhaps beyond the December 10 deadline for the Commission to present its report). Assuming that the Commission will not be sharing evidence with the Crown while the trial is underway, this could limit the scope of the its work.

The second concern is the lack of intelligence-related experience and limited powers of the Commissioners in a context of official secrecy. Although well-respected in their fields, neither Sir William or Ms. Caine have experience with intelligence collection and analysis. They undoubtably have been consumers or evaluators of intelligence reporting in past roles and they certainly are able to keep secrets. But that may not be enough to resist push-back or “bureaucratic capture” by the agencies they are charged with investigating. This is facilitated by the Terms of Reference and its Minute One (“Procedures for gathering Information and Evidence”), which outline why most of the Commission’s work will be done in private on national security grounds. This is permitted by Section 15 of the Inquiries Act 2013 and justified by Clause 10(3) of the Terms of Reference and Section 202 of the Intelligence and Security Act 2017.

The agencies that have been granted secrecy include the SIS, GCSB, Police, Customs, MBIE, DPMC, Justice, MFAT and the Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. No foreign derived information will be revealed in public. A blanket ban has been placed on identification of employees of these agencies whose names turn up in the investigation. In practice, that means that there will be no public accountability for those who may have contributed to the attacks via incompetence, bias or myopia. More broadly, the move to secrecy means that whatever skeletons are uncovered will remain buried away from public view.

The Commissioners do not have powers of compulsion or the ability to veto an agency’s decision to withhold classified materials. That leaves them at the mercy of those they are investigating when it it comes to access to sensitive data, even if what is “sensitive” about the data is not related to national security but to the reputations and orientation of individuals and institutions.

This is not unusual: security agencies under the spotlight often resort to a “get out of jail” card in the form of claiming that open discussion of their actions will compromise sources and methods that are vital for ensuring national security. But the truth that needs to be uncovered in this instance does not involve national security secrets but the derelictions, biases or pressures that might have contributed to the failure to detect and prevent the attacks.

Efforts to limit the openness of the inquiry and the accountability of those that are its subjects must be resisted. The Commissioners need to have powers to compel documents, data and answers from those in positions of authority within the NZ security community and they need help from experienced intelligence overseers when doing so. The Inspector General of Intelligence and Security is one such person, assuming that there would be no conflict of interest involved (since the IGIS has no operational role and hence would not have been part of the command chain that failed to detect and prevent the attacks). A panel of experts with the IGIS, an IGIS representative, or another retired official as chair would be a good compromise option between utter secrecy and full transparency.

A third source of concern lies in the staffing and budget allocated to the inquiry. At $8.2 million the allocated budget is adequate only if it goes towards the investigatory aspects of the inquiry and not public relations or administrative expenses. The Department of Internal Affairs is the host agency of the Commission, so it will be its staff that does most of the logistical footwork underpinning its work. Here again the question of expertise and powers afforded investigators remains an open question.

Another potential problem is the nature of the Commission’s victim outreach program, called the Muslim Community Reference Group. Divisions have emerged over who and how many people should be included in this advisory body. Concerns have risen that self-proclaimed community “leaders” are being shoulder tapped for official interlocutor roles without proper consultation with their purported constituents. This may be due to expediency given the time constraints operative, but it also follows a historically “thin” approach to stakeholder consultation by the NZ State, where what passes for outreach has traditionally been more symbolic than substantive.

Either way, the process of establishing the Reference Group augers poorly for the representative transparency or inclusiveness of the process, something that is acknowledged in the Commission’s Minute One. Plus, the relationship between the Reference Group and the investigation streams is unclear at best but, given the veil of secrecy wrapped around the inquiry, is likely to be little to none.

Finally, the scope of external input into the inquiry, while theoretically extensive, appears destined to be limited in nature. Few invitations have been issued to civil society stakeholders to testify before the Commission, no public meetings have been scheduled and no written submissions solicited (although all have been promised). Along with the mantle of secrecy, this will limit the amount of public review and consultation. That skews the investigation in favour of those under scrutiny.

In effect, on paper the terms of reference for the Commission look thorough and broad. In reality, its work could well be stunted at birth. With limited experience and powers on the part of the Commissioners, a lack of pertinent expertise to help them, unrepresentative liaison with the victims, limited budget and staff and statutory permission for the agencies under investigation to restrict public knowledge of their actions, both the transparency of the inquiry and its ability to identify sources of accountability are compromised.

It is therefore incumbent upon the Commissioners to broaden stakeholder participation in the inquiry, strengthen the Commission’s powers of compulsion, and extend the deadline for submission of its report. It is within their powers to do so even if a court challenge to secrecy clauses in the Inquiries and Security and Intelligence Acts is required. The question is, will they? At the moment that prospect looks unlikely.

UPDATE (June 14): The killer has just plead not guilty to 51 counts and denies being the Christchurch terrorist. His trial date is set for May 4 next year and scheduled to last 6-12 weeks. The nearly year-long delay in bringing him to trial means that the Royal Commission will have done its work and issued its report six months prior to the trial. What that means for the execution of justice and the content of the Commission’s report is unclear but at a minimum it removes court testimony under oath from the inquiry. Given what I have outlined above with regards to secrecy and the inability of the Commissioners to compel testimony under oath or the surrendering of classified material, the lack of access to court testimony and evidence weakens the inquiry even further.

First a massacre, then the push back.

datePosted on 13:31, April 2nd, 2019 by Pablo

During the first hours and days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch, I tried to be optimistic about what could come out of the event. I saw it as a window of opportunity and teaching moment, a time to grieve, heal and reflect on what New Zealand is as a society. I thought that we could finally confront the elephant in the room: that underneath the veneer of tolerance and egalitarianism there is a dark underbelly in New Zealand. It is called racism.

For the first week it seemed that the opportunity was going to be seized. The government responded with empathy and compassion for the victims and with decisiveness when it came to banning certain types of military-style weapons and parts that can be used to modify hunting weapons into military-style ones. It is pondering how to give the killer a fair trial without turning it into a martyr-making propaganda circus. It is reviewing hate speech laws and has ordered a Royal Commission inquiry into how the attack happened and the intelligence failures that may have contributed to it. The majority of the nation followed its lead and demonstrated that most Kiwis are, in fact, decent people.

However, in the ensuing days the national conversation has been side-tracked. After a period of silence or contrition, rightwing outlets are back to their old enabling games. Outlets like the virulently Islamophobic Whale Oil and slightly more moderate blogs have enforced some degree of moderation when it comes to the language used by authors and commentators, but the hateful tone toward the “Other” remains the same when read between the lines. The rightwing rallying cry is defence of free speech, in which the ruse used is to deliberately conflate protected offensive speech with hate speech in order to demonstrate that “liberal” democratic values are under siege by overzealous Lefties using the tragedy and their control of the state apparatus to impose their will on dissenters. This risable argument is supported by some on the venerable Left who seem to be more concerned about defending the rights of nasty white people rather than consider the fact that it is those people who facilitated and enabled the nasty white guy’s mass murder of a bunch of brown folk whose sole crime was to exist (and who made a point when doing so by gunning them down when they were practicing their faith in their houses of worship).

Diversionary tactics aside, let us be clear. When it comes to free versus hate speech the issue is simple: any speech that incites, encourages, supports, applauds or otherwise instigates or excuses violence against individuals or communities because of who they are (as opposed to anything they have done, although even there the call to violence is debatable), has crossed the line from protected speech into hate speech. Offensive speech remains protected, but the urging of violence is not. The issue is not about causing offence; it is about causing harm.

The gun lobby also has decided that amnesia is the best part of public virtue so now moans and whines about “law-abiding” people losing their gun rights thanks to the government’s legislative reforms, conveniently forgetting that the killer was a law-abiding loser until the moment he stepped out of his car down the street from the Masjid al-Noor on Deans Avenue. Here too, the issue is simple (and I urge readers to look up my blog colleague Lew on Twitter to see his very reasoned explanations of the matters at stake). Tightening of licensing requirements and enforcement of laws governing purchase of semi-automatic weapons and removal of conversion kit and military-style weapons does not infringe on the privileges of the gun-owning majority (note that it is a privilege to own a gun, not a right no matter what the bloody NRA would have us believe). The law changes do not prevent anyone from using guns as tools to target shoot and kill critters. It just helps lower the human body count when a gun owner goes off the rails (do not get me started on the “but then only criminals will have such guns” argument because that is a matter for strict law enforcement, and law enforcement must have the will to, well, strictly enforce the law rather than play nice with gangs and assorted other bad guys).

Then there are the closet racists who have emerged into the light like the Hamilton city councillor and Immigration officer (?!), who besides ranting on Facebook (a prime vector for hate speech in spite of recent bans on white supremacists) about immigrant “scum” in Europe after the Paris terrorist attacks now says without a hint of irony that NZ needs to “move on” from the Christchurch event. He is joined by a-holes like Brian Tamaki, who claimed that the call to prayer on the day of national remembrance a week after the attack was proof the Sharia was being imposed on NZ. He appears to not be the only non-Pakeha religious leader (if you can call a fraudster con artist that) with this sentiment, as I have been told by informed community members that Islamophobia is very much a staple part of sermons in some Pasifika Christian churches.

Assorted talkback hosts and politicians are now in full “whataboutism?” mode, trying to equate the evils of Muslim extremists (and Islam itself) with those of other fanatics (while conveniently avoiding their ideological cause). This follows the denialism of such (perhaps as of yet closeted) politicians as Gerry Brownlee and Lianne Dalziel, who claim (Brownlee in very pointed remarks directed at me) that they were unaware of any white supremacists in Christchurch or anywhere else in NZ. Sensing an opportunity, people with ideological personal and agendas are in full throat, be it as purported experts on gangs and terrorism or pushing lines such as that the 1881 assault on Parihaka is a comparable atrocity (in which no one died).

Let’s not muddy the waters. Arguments about gun control and free speech and the historical grievances that are part of the national story are all diversions from the essence of post 3/15 New Zealand. The core subject is that of racism and the cesspit of bigotry in which it festers, from the enabling head-nodders to the inciting megaphones to the keyboard cowards to the actual perpetrators of physical and psychological (yes, they exist) hate crimes against people who supposedly are “different.”

This is not just a problem with a few skinheads. It is a problem for all. Some Pakeha hate Maori. Some Maori hate Chinese. Some Chinese hate Polynesians and some Polynesians hate Palangi. Some Maori and Pakeha hate Chinese and some Chinese reciprocate the feeling. Some hate Muslims and some hate Jews. Some hate Muslims, Jews and anyone who is brown, black or “yellow.” Some hate gays, lesbians and transgender people. Some hate red heads. Some hate the notion of equality when it usurps patriarchy or heteronormative values. Some hate is individual, some of it is institutional and some is systemic. Some hate involves relationships and asymmetries of power, but not always. Hate comes in multiple cross-cutting dimensions that serve as the foundation for ongoing bigotry and racism. In contemporary Aotearoa it may be a minority sentiment that is fractiously manifest rather than uniformly presented, but it is the wretched garden in which the bitter fruit of bigotry and racism are sown and reaped. And it is endemic in NZ.

THAT is what the national conversation should be about. That is what our children should be taught about. That is what the enablers, accomplices and purveyors of racism must be confronted with. This is no longer a time when we can look the other way, say “she’ll be right” and hope that the unpleasant stuff just goes away.

3/15 changed all that, and it is time to stand up and be counted. And being counted is not to just have academic panel discussions and government inquiries and commemorations. It is about confronting racism and bigotry wherever it rears its nasty head and however it is specifically manifest: on the streets, in buses, in shops, in schools, in sports clubs and volunteer organisations, in churches, in local politics, on-line, on talkback radio and in town halls and community fora–whenever the trolls rise there must be righteous people willing to call them out for what they are: ignorant fearful losers looking for scapegoats for their own failures in life.

It is hard to confront someone, especially if they are bigger or in groups. So strategies must be developed to help the average person perform this important civic duty. That means gaining the support of and involving the authorities so that complaints can be made and charges laid without undue risk to the good people calling out the antisocial misfits. Because if all we do is talk about what a bummer racism is and then go back to our own self-interested lives unwilling to actually walk the walk of daily anti-racist conviction, then we truly are a nation of sheep.

The Hollow Giant.

datePosted on 16:42, March 14th, 2019 by Pablo

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts in the US began to focus more on its social geography and less on its military capabilities (which if formidable were not keeping pace with US technological advancements). This came about because, unlike the Kreminologist bean-counters, more astute analysts saw in that technological stagnation fundamental signs of a society in decline. The simplest of the observations made during those years was this: the problem of productivity in the USSR “worker’s paradise” was in large part due to the fact that work only got done in the mornings. After a (liquid) lunch, workers simply were too drunk to put in more hours of hard graft. The problem was apparently pervasive, to include inside the Soviet military. This led to scrutiny of data on alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, deaths and other pathologies (street fighting, domestic violence) which, even if incomplete given the nature of Soviet rule, allowed the US intelligence community insight into the causes of what turned out to be a terminal malaise of the Soviet social economy.

Technological innovation is hard to come by, much less put into practice, when many of productive age prefer distilled spirits over spiritual or societal improvement. The “Socialist Man” was no more.

I say this because the US is starting to increasingly look like the Soviet Union in decline. The president just announced his 2020 budget proposal that includes US$714 billion on “defense” but cuts US$1.7 trillion from public health, education, welfare and social security allocations while decentralising and privatising nearly as much through the use of bloc grants to states and profit-oriented entities.

This is important to understand because the US is a nation with increasing numbers of elderly, fixed income residents who depend on social services to live out their twilight years with some measure of dignity and grace. It is in the midst of an opioid crisis of unparalleled dimensions, to the point that a US resident is more likely to die of an opioid overdose than in a car crash. The Trump budget does nothing to address that.

Income inequality continues to grow, with nearly 40 percent of US residents (140 million) living near or in poverty. Health indicators remain largely stagnant. While some areas improved, other declined, with geographic dispersion and income being major factors in health indicator scores nation-wide. Likewise, education statistics show a levelling off of the number of people graduating from both high school and tertiary institutions, while literacy rates are showing signs of slipping.

The point of these data source linkages is to show that while the US continues to devote huge amount of resources to its military, it is under-resourcing and therefore underachieving on major social indicators that are the backbone of a healthy, robust nation (both characteristics of the USSR in decline). With Trump in office the hollowing out process has accelerated to the point that the US has begun to cede ground to rivals when it comes to technological innovation: witness PRC advances in space exploration, Russian hypersonic weapons development and the myriad high tech incubators sprouting up everywhere from Mumbai to Buenos Aires.

This is not to say the the end is nigh, but it does indicate that if not Rome before the Fall, the US is starting to look more and more like the USSR before perestroika and glasnost.

The trouble for the US is that all of its ills are compounded by the crisis of its political system, which is not just embodied in the persona of Donald Trump and his entourage of grifters, incompetents and venal opportunists. It is also enshrined in the Republican Party, which abandoned any pretence of adhering to principle in pursuit of partisan gain and personal enrichment. That in large part is due to the profound corruption of the political system, now dominated by corporate lobbies and insider deal-making that are oblivious to the popular will. This extends to the judiciary, which far from being independent in many instances has deep ties to the private and public agencies that it is responsible for adjudicating (for example, via the appointment of corporate lawyers to state-level and federal district benches).

The USSR was fortunate to have Mikhail Gorbachev as its eighth and final leader. He knew that the pathologies mentioned at the start of this essay were irreversible under the system as given and that the USSR could not respond to, much less sustain the pace of the competitive pressures of strategic rivals pressing ahead with socio-economic and military advancements. He knew that the system was broken and had to change, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. As much as we may look back at his days as tinted with too much idealism and too little understanding of the deeply rooted authoritarian ethos embedded in Russian culture, he was able to resurrect Russia out of the ashes of the former USSR and set the stage for its return to great nation status under subsequent (and much less enlightened) leadership.

The US has no such saviour. What it has is the political equivalent of a drunken sailor lurching about after a night on the terps. In fact, to continue the analogy, the US political system is a bit like the drunk who finds himself lying in a gutter, bruised and covered in his own secretions. At that moment, he has two options: realise that he has hit rock bottom and get up and seek help; or roll over, sleep it off and continue on a bender once he can stand again. The US–or at least the Republican Party and the MAGA masses–has chosen the second option.

For Soviet workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the turn to liquid lunches represented a quiet, passive protest against the failures of the worker’s State. It was a weapon of the weak used against uncaring bureaucrats and apparatchiks who no longer related to the everyday struggles of the Soviet Man. Used as a form of collective action, it slowly ground the Soviet productive apparatus to a near halt, thereby making it vulnerable to the pressures of its external rivals at the same time that it no longer had the internal vigor, will or stability that allowed it to defeat the Germans in WW2 and grow into a super-power. It was just a shell of its old self, a mostly declawed paper tiger that while dangerous if cornered, was in need of rejuvenation based on fundamental social, economic and political change.

In a sense the US is in the same predicament, except that it does not know it yet. Its form of capitalism has gone from cowboy (they would say “entrepreneurial”) to rapacious. It is no longer a meritocracy for all (if it ever truly was), at least if the recent university admissions pay-to-pay scandal is any indication. It still has leading edge sectors of the economy, but the bulk of GDP is located in provision of services rather than production of tangible assets. It has a political class that is decadent, venal and corrupt. And it has an alcoholic’s blindness to its own flaws and failures, instead hiding behind short-sleeve patriotism and nationalistic bluster.

Robert Mueller will not be the US’s Gorbachev. Even when Trump is removed, the systemic problems that have caused the US decline will remain. The crisis, in a word, is organic. US politics is broken, society is fractured and the economy is more brittle that it appears at first blush. Maybe the Democrats will stage an intervention in 2020 and remove the addled-minded bully from the White House along with his congressional enablers. Perhaps a new social contract can emerge from the MAGA mess that rejects its core tenets of chauvinism, xenophobia, bigotry, ignorance and greed. It is possible that the era of short-sighted economic opportunism rooted in finance capital, the military-industrial complex, social media tech and fossil fuels will finally come to an end. But if that does not happen, then the Hollow Giant will plod along like Nero in a stupor or the USSR under Brezhnev until it, too, ultimately falls.

The unwanted jihadist.

datePosted on 11:31, March 6th, 2019 by Pablo

It turns out that Kiwi-born Mark Taylor, known as the so-called “bumbling jihadist” because he left the GPS tracking feature on his phone while he made pro-Daesh videos (including one where he burns his NZ passport and another where he calls for jihadists to stab police and military officers at ANZAC Day celebrations), has surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish peshmerga alliance that is part of the mostly Western military coalition fighting Daesh under the name “Operation Inherent Resolve.”

He was fortunate or smart enough to surrender to the Kurds, who respect the laws of war and Geneva Convention when it comes to captured jihadists, something neither the jihadists themselves or the Syrian Army are in the habit of doing. This means that he can be transferred to other, Western members of the coalition for juridical administration. He is merely being held by the Kurds after he admitted who he was and that he was a member of Daesh. As far as the Kurds are concerned he has committed no specific crimes under their laws (beyond, perhaps, criminal association), so he is taking up space in a cell reserved for more unpleasant characters.

The issue of what to do with him has become a political football in NZ. The PM says that there is little the government can do for him because it has no diplomatic representation in Syria, much less the East Syrian conflict zone. But she then says that as a NZ citizen he is “our responsibility” even if NZ cannot help him where he is. The Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister says good riddance to him, in part because he turned his back on his birth country and in part because he is a bigamist. The Opposition and Right-wingers of all types set to xenophobic baying about his betrayal of his home country, the risk he poses and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be wasted on his return both in terms of travel as well as monitoring and incarceration of him.

The PM went so far to say that NZ has “no relationship” with “the forces” fighting in Eastern Syria even though it is well known that US, UK, Australian, French and German forces are fighting alongside the Kurds and NZ SAS troops are rumoured to be doing so as well. The NZDF has senior officers on the Joint Task Force staff assigned to Operation Inherent Resolve, so the notion that NZ has “no relationship” to those fighting in Syria (the same forces who drove Daesh out of Mosul and westward into Syria) is disingenuous in the extreme.

What is worse, the Australian journalist who interviewed Taylor in the Kurdish jail claims that Taylor told him that he was interviewed by NZ intelligence officers (presumably SIS) shortly after his capture/surrender in December. If that is true, then the government has not only known for a while about his whereabouts but is claiming no possibility of contact with him even though he has had face-to-face meetings with NZ agents. Be that as it may, I am still of the opinion that he may have some useful intelligence value left in him, as questioning in a Kurdish jail in winter is a bit different than interrogations conducted in a NZ detention centre at any time of year.

Given the amount of dissembling and ignorant ranting going on, I thought that I would clarify some of the issues at stake.

On the matter of whether or not Mr. Taylor has NZ citizenship in light of his renouncing it: Only a State can confer and withdraw citizenship. A person claiming to renounce citizenship without State sanction is just stating intention, not deed. Burning a passport (a token of sovereignty) just prevents one from legal inter-State travel. Citizenship is conferred by birth or by application and only lost when the State withdraws its recognition of it. That has not happened with Mr. Taylor. He remains a NZ citizen.

Under international law undocumented criminal suspects, including terrorists, are to be returned to country of birth if known. If an undocumented suspect is captured in battle or surrenders to an allied belligerent in a recognised conflict, s/he is a POW and must be treated as such. This includes irregular non-State belligerents captured by non-State actors like the SDF working alongside State militaries during an internationally approved (in this case UN-sanctioned) conflict against a common (in this case non-State) foe.

If possible, captured undocumented enemy POWs must be returned to their known country of origin to face justice. They can be kept in allied and home country military custody during transfer. There is no need for consular assistance or travel docs if they remain in military custody, just access to legal advice during process. Conversely, the military can transfer the prisoner to a location where his country of origin has diplomatic representation, whereupon he can be issued emergency travel documents. NZ has representation in both Iraq and Turkey, both of which have ties to the anti-Daesh coalition. It is therefore relatively easy to move Mr. Taylor out of Kurdish custody, into Western military custody and onwards to a location that either has NZ diplomatic representation and /or NZDF presence to whom he can be delivered (think, for example, of moving him from Kurdish-held Eastern Syria to Camp Taji in Iraq).

Should Mr. Taylor be returned to NZ he can be arrested and charged at the border under the Terrorism Suppression Act for being a member of an internationally-designated terrorist entity. To that can be added other charges depending on what he is suspected of having done while with Daesh and the evidence compiled of him doing so. At a minimum he could receive a 6-7 year jail term for aiding and abetting a criminal organization. At a maximum he could he found guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity if he is found to have participated in atrocities or collective acts of violence against civilians (such as the enslavement of Yaziri women and girls as sex slaves. He has admitted he would have liked to have had a sex slave but could not afford one, so the question remains as to whether he participated in any act of kidnapping or enslavement while in Syria). NZ has legal authority to prosecute its citizens for war crimes and even though it does not have the death penalty (except, apparently, for treason), a guilty verdict on a war crime could result in life imprisonment.

Concerns have been voiced that if he returns home the leniency in the judicial system could see him freed and out on the streets. There is a possibility of this if his defence attorneys ask for psychiatric evaluations that prove that he is not mentally competent to stand trail. He clearly is intellectually sub-par (an uncle of his claims that he suffered brain damage as a toddler during a fit of some sort), and his actions over the years indicate that he may be a bit of a lost soul. Even his co-religionists at the mosque that he worshipped at in Hamilton say that he was more interested in companionship and a sense of belonging than in waging jihad.

If he is released he undoubtably will be monitored closely, not only by the security services but members of his own religious community. In fact, I would not be surprised if he is shunned by the latter because of the disrepute he has brought upon them. So as far as posing an on-going risk to society if he returns and is freed, I would hazard the guess that it would be very low.

The more likely scenario is that he will return in custody, be held on remand during the time he is on trial, be found guilty of terrorism-related crimes and sentenced to a significant period in prison. Some believe that if that happens he will then work to radicalise fellow inmates, as is often a common practice in US and UK jails and which has some precedent in NZ. But the truth is that Mr. Taylor is a follower not a leader and does not have the cunning and agile thought processes that would make him a convincing jailhouse preacher. So here too my reckon is that he will not pose a threat of radicalisation to other inmates. If anything, other inmates will pose a threat to him (think white supremacists, gang members and others who make take a dim view of his citizenship renunciation and embrace of Islam and jihad).

There is question as to whether he has wives and/or children in Syria. That is a humanitarian concern because arguably they are innocents caught up in his mess. If it turns out that he does in fact have family in Syria, the question is then what to do with them? If they have no connection to NZ it is perhaps best for them to return to their hometowns, but that is a question that refugee resettlement and immigration officials will have to address in the event that he is returned to NZ.

The most sorry aspect of this is that the fate of Mr. Taylor has become yet another pawn in the partisan bickering in Wellington. The truth is that the case is straight-forward: he is a NZ citizen and member of a terrorist organisation who was captured by allied forces. His return is mandated by international law. NZ law requires that he be arrested, charged and tried according to provisions in the Terrorism Surpression Act and perhaps other related laws. Anything other than this is an abdication of responsibility by the NZ government and a denial of his democratic rights to a fair trial and legal defence (because even bad guys have legal rights in democracies).

For NZ there is opportunity in this process. Returning him and putting him on trial demonstrates that NZ is a responsible international citizen that assumes the burden of dealing with its own when they misbehave (because let us be clear: membership in Operation Inherent Resolve is not just about contributing to the military campaign against ISIS in the Levant; it is also about accepting responsibility for deciding the fate of coalition member citizens who joined ISIS and lived to tell the tale after capture). It gives the Crown an opportunity to test the TSA after the fiasco of the Urewera 18 case (the so-called “dog’s breakfast” case that saw seven people eventually tried on firearms, not terrorism charges). It shows that NZ is a a nation where the rule of law supersedes political cynicism and popular sentiment. It serves as a cautionary tale and possible deterrent to other home-grown would-be jihadists. And it keeps at least one foreign fighter from returning to Daesh any time soon.

Interest, values, trade and security.

datePosted on 14:59, February 18th, 2019 by Pablo

The media frenzy about the NZ-PRC relationship got me to thinking, but as I got to thinking I found myself meandering off of my original train of thought. You see, at first I was pondering the one-sided, hectoring nature of the media coverage, where pro-China shills like the business writers at the Herald and assorted corporate types and National Party flunkies like Tod McClay were allowed to run their mouths about how the relationship with China was headed down the tubes. There was the Kiwi coward resident 34 years in China* who implicitly disparaged Anne Marie Brady by saying that “(i)t’s unhelpful for politicians and a few anti-Chinese professors to feed uncorroborated McCarthyite conspiracies about Chinese spy networks in their countries and targeting anyone who doesn’t share their view.” There was Audrey Young’s reference to “ivory tower” eggheads in her regurgitation of business lobby bullet points. All of this was offered without a single rebuttal.

  • *I am not going to mention this useful fool’s name but it would have been nice if a “journalist” has asked him, given his long residency in China and successful business ventures there, whether he was a dual citizen and/or member of or has ever had any formal contact with the Chinese Communist Party, whether he has ever had to “facilitate” transactions or provide pay-offs to party or local officials and whether he is on any Chinese government payroll as a spokesperson, business “ambassador,” representative, go-between or in any other capacity. I say this because it is unusual for Chinese authorities to allow non-diplomat Westerners to comment on official reactions to PRC-related events in foreign countries even if they are citizens of the country in question.

There were even pro-China academics featured in the media and assorted pundits opining that the Labour-led government needed to pull an about-face and correct things ASAP. There were the usual skeptics about the GCSB rational for advising against using Huawei in the 5G roll-out. One of them, a well known rightwing blogger and pollster, used a 2012 junket to Huawei headquarters paid for by the company to proclaim that all the security concerns were a stich up up of an honest company so that Western telecom firms could gain a competitive advantage. There were the usual shouts of racism from the Chinese language media and wanna-be “influencers.” There was even something that looked suspiciously like a planted fake news article in an English language mainland media outlet that was extensively and uncritically quoted in the Herald that said that Chinese tourists in Aoetaroa complained about being “stabbed in the back” by the Kiwis. I shall leave aside the curious fact that the article only appeared in English and used rather odd quotes to describe the reaction of tourists to a minor diplomatic row involving their home and host countries–a row that had zero effect on them.

It was all so sickly obsequious to the Chinese that my initial thought centred on whether most of NZ’s business and political elites (and their lackeys in the media and academia) were so obsessed by self-enrichment, greed and short term opportunism that they completely lost sight of their moral compasses. After all, China is a one-party authoritarian state that uses mass internment camps to control a restive ethno-religious minority, mass surveillance as a form of social control, violates human rights in systematic fashion, transgresses international norms and laws as a matter of course (such as in the island-building projects in the South China Sea) and uses bribery, corruption, fraud and intellectual property theft as an integral part of its business development models. This would seem inimical to the values of the paragons of virtue extolling the “special relationship” between the PRC and NZ but nooooooo. The Chinese are good for the NZ economy and that is all that matters. It would seem that the trade-oriented business elites and their political puppets are China’s Vichy representatives in Aotearoa.

That sent my thoughts in a more academic direction. I recalled that Marx wrote that the combination of private ownership of the means of production and universal suffrage could not hold because if everyone got an equal vote and only a few were property owners (capitalists), then capitalism would be voted out of existence. He was wrong about that due to the reform-mongering function of the capitalist State, but that got me to thinking that he also wrote that capitalists were incapable of being patriots because profits were made globally and hence their interests were not confined to their countries of origin. People may recall that in the Manifesto he wrote “workers of the world unite!” as a response to capitalism as it entered the Gold Age of imperialism, a topic that Lenin subsequently developed a greater length.

It occurred to me that in the arguments about China we see a NZ variant of this. NZ capitalists and their toadies do not give a darn about democratic values, transparency, norms, a rules based order or the security concerns of Western states. They are in it for the buck and if that means kowtowing to a dictatorship then so be it. Given that NZ business and political elites have kowtowed to the likes of the Saudis, this should not be surprising. In their view if there is money to be made then the less impediments to doing so the better.

The smarter types will show the structural impact of Chinese trade with NZ by citing the usual $27 billion in 2018 bilateral trade figure and 8,700 jobs connected to it. But this trade is mostly in milk powder, tourism and English language and tertiary education (as NZ exports) and consumer non-durables (electronics, light machinery and plastics, mostly) as imports, so it is not as if NZ is going to turn into a high tech artificial intelligence and robotic hub thanks to the Chinese. The bottom line, then, is the bottom line: NZ capitalists by and large will cling to the window of opportunity presented by the opening of the Chinese market even if it confirms our trade dependency on primary goods and agro-exports and even if it means sacrificing NZ’s commitment to principle when it comes to exercising an independent foreign policy.

That was going to be the end of my thought process on the matter. I was going to balance the criticism of China by noting that the US and traditional Western partners have less than stellar records in their foreign relations and spy histories and that the US under Trump is an insane clown posse when it comes to international affairs even if the intelligence and security professionals who staff the 5 Eyes network would not be swayed by the craziness swirling around them and would make assessments about security matters on objective grounds. But then I got to thinking about something I read repeatedly on right-wing political sites: values.

One of the major objections to the Chinese and NZ’s relationship with the PRC appears to be the issue of values, or the fact that we do not share values. People point out the long cultural ties that bind NZ to the UK and Anglophone Commonwealth as well as the US. They point to joint sacrifices in war and peace, common sports, notions of good and bad, proper behaviour, etc. These folk do not want these shared values to be usurped and replaced by Asian values, or at least the Confucian-derived cultural mores that contact with China brings to NZ. The list of fears and concerns is long but the bottom line is that many on the conservative side of the political ledger have real fears of the Chinese “other” that go beyond the “Yellow Peril” of the Cold War.

That prompted a turn in my thought. You see, although I have a fairly idealistic streak and understand the utility of constructivism in international relations practice, I am a realist at heart. And realists are not sappy snowflakes looking for a global group grope. Instead, they focus on two things as the currency of international relations and foreign policy: power and interest. As the saying goes, in an anarchic world or Hobessian state of nature where values are not universally shared and norms are contingent on voluntary acceptance by independent State actors as forms of self-imposed restraint, then what matters is the exercise of power in pursuit of national interest.

That leads me to the following pseudo-syllogism:

States have interests, not friends.

Foreign partnerships are based on interest, not friendship.

Trade and security relationships are therefore interest-based.

They may overlap, complement but should never countervail.

A State’s degree of interest in any matter is self-defined.

Values help define but do not determine interest.

Interest may be influenced by values and values may involve shared cultural mores, norms and history that make for notions of “friendship,” but interest is not reducible to them.

Interest prevails over values when interest and values are at odds.

It is the relationship between values and interest that concerns me now. If I accept that values are only part of the definition of interest, then I must accept that shared values do not necessarily place some forms of interest above others. Nor does the absence of shared values do likewise in the negative. And if that is the case, then the matter of trade versus security must be weighed based on the degree of value-free interest in each and the impact each has on the ability of NZ to wield what limited power it has on the global stage.

The issue is problematic because NZ has long claimed to have a “principled” foreign policy that is based on the values of independence, multilateralism, transparency, non-proliferation, human rights adherence and assorted other good things. I do not believe that NZ actually adheres to these when push comes to shove or even as a foreign policy bottom line, but if virtue signaling in international relations is characterised as lauding the role of “principle” in foreign policy, then NZ is the semaphore of that movement.

To be sure, NZ is a trading nation and is committed in principle to it. Securing a favourable balance of trade that helps GDP growth and distribution is a matter of economic security and must be included in any national security estimates, to include threat assessments. There are as a result practical and principled reasons why the issue of assessing relative interest is so important and why it may favour the trade whores.

Put another way, what are the interests at stake in NZ’s security relationships and what is their worth to the national well-being when juxtaposed against the country’s trade relationships (since security and trade have been uncoupled in the NZ foreign policy perspective)? If the benefits of trade are real and immediate while the benefits of security partnership are more ethereal or hypothetical than real (especially given the actual and opportunity costs involved), interest would dictate that trade should be favoured over security. But what if the benefits of security relations are more like those of insurance policies, in which you only fully realise them when you need them? How do you calculate the pluses/minuses of the trade-security dichotomy over the medium to long-term?

I do not have the answer to this. I have written plenty about the NZ-PRC-US strategic triangle and the unfortunate balancing act NZ has to engage in because of the misguided attempt to trade preferentially with China, on the one hand, and seek security guarantees through partnership with the US, on the other. Either could have worked in isolation or when the two great powers were not in competition, as it seemed when the two-track foreign policy approach was developed and refined in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But those days are long gone. There are ascendent and descendent great powers contesting for dominance in the Western Pacific, and we are just another pawn in their increasingly acerbic game.

So the question now is how do we measure “interest” in our trade and security relationships and which, on balance, should we favour given the centrifugal pull of each on our policy-makers? Do we give up our Western-centric security ties to fully embrace a China-led Asian/non-Western foreign policy orientation? Or do we give up the material benefits of our Asian-focused trade, learn to live within our means and reaffirm our security ties to our “traditional” partners? Is there a middle road or happy medium that can be pursued without suffering the consequences of alienating our partners on either side?

That seems to be the preferred option for the moment. But that assumes that NZ has a choice in the matter and that its behaviour will influence the corresponding behaviours of its larger, contending interlocutors because their respective interests are maintained by our dichotomous foreign policy approach. That is a very tenuous assumption to make because it is also quite possible that in the end it will be a larger partner who, exercising its power over us in its own national interest within a strategic context dominated by great power rivalries, that makes the choice for us.

Spare a thought for Anne-Marie.

datePosted on 10:10, February 15th, 2019 by Pablo

Put yourself in the following position: You are a professor at a NZ university, a NZ citizen who although well-known in your academic sub-field is virtually unknown outside of academia. Your research interests focus on the foreign policy of an Asian country and you have written well-received books and articles about aspects of it. You speak and read the language of that country and have many contacts in it. Because of your acknowledged expertise, you are invited to give talks and presentations on these subjects and are awarded visiting fellowships at prestigious institutions overseas.

In 2017 you write a paper about how the country you study influences politics in NZ. The paper is not theoretical or conceptually ground-breaking, but instead gives a fairly detailed description of the people and organisations involved in promoting the interests of that country in Aotearoa. It demonstrates the pervasiveness of this influence-mongering amongst the NZ political elite, including the two major political parties. It also shows the systematic way in which this country uses front organisations to control the foreign language media related to it as well as shut down independent ex-pat voices critical of it. The country you study is, not surprisingly, ruled by a one-party authoritarian regime and intolerant of criticism at home and abroad.

The paper is first presented overseas, whereupon the local media seize upon it to highlight how that country is exploiting the NZ political system. You receive much media attention and gain your five minutes of fame.

However, within weeks of it being made public, you begin to receive threatening messages and phone calls from people who apparently do not like the thrust of your paper. A few months after its publication your university office and home are burgled, twice. Nothing of value is taken other than some cell phones, lap tops and flash drives. The thieves make no attempt to disguise the robberies.

You go to the police to report the crimes. You have not had this happen to you before and you are concerned that the burglaries may be connected to the threats about your paper. The police initially fob you off saying that burglaries are a low-level crime and therefore of low priority, but then re-open their investigation after you go to the media to express your concerns that something sinister may be at play. The police dedicate a special investigative unit to the task and contact Interpol, the international police information sharing organisation, about the case. Months go by.

Almost a year after the burglaries, while your car is being warranted, the mechanics doing the job notice that your front tires appear to have been deliberately deflated. Not knowing who you are they contact the police because they believe the vandalism could result in a serious accident. The car in question is used by other family members as well as yourself, so when the police contact you it causes you further alarm. You worry about the safety of your husband and children as well as your own.

A few months after the tire-tampering the Police issue a statement saying that the investigation has concluded with no culprits having been found, either for the burglaries or the tampering. They encourage people with additional information to come forward but reiterate that they will not continue to investigate the case. The offenders have gone free. Meanwhile, even though statements of support for your right to academic freedom and freedom of expression have been signed by scholars and activists at home and abroad, the government–including the Prime Minister–refuse to be drawn on the case.

What are you to do? Here you are, a NZ citizen who has every reason to believe that the actions taken against you have the hand of a foreign power. behind them. The police offer you no protection but instead advise you to up your own security and have the university do likewise in your workplace. You do not know if the offenders are still in your home town or if they will come back again. You put on a brave face but you are afraid. You might even consider moving to a safer place, perhaps out of the country.

This is the situation facing Anne Marie Brady. All she did was write a paper detailing Chinese influence in NZ politics. She deserves to have her rights as an academic and a person of conscience defended by those entrusted with protecting the security of NZ citizens. Instead, those responsible for doing so decided that there was nothing that they can do. She is on her own in her own country.

Perhaps there are reasons of State behind the Police decision to wind up the investigation. Perhaps the Police are simply incompetent and wasted over a year chasing shadows. Either way, professor Brady has reason to feel that she has been abandoned by the authorities.

If in fact the burglaries and vandalism were done to intimidate her because of what she wrote, and if the perpetrators were aided, abetted or acted as agents of the Chinese regime, then they succeeded. Because even if professor Brady will not be intimidated, the real message from the NZ Police and the Labour-led government is that those who write critically about the PRC do so at their peril even if they do so while on NZ soil.

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.

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On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

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