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There has been a fair bit of public debate about the decision to send NZ troops to Iraq. I have had my say on this so will not go over the pros and cons. What has struck me is the clear divide between those who see NZ as a global actor that needs to “play the game” in accordance with its international commitments and obligations, and those that maintain that NZ needs to steer clear of foreign entanglements at any cost.

Let me start with the latter. The isolationist wing of NZ public opinion has a fair dose of pacifism layered in it, often tinged with strong anti-Americanism (especially amongst the activist Left). But isolationism in NZ is rooted in more than pacifism or anti-imperialism, and appears to be born of the idea that being small and far away from the world’s major conflict zones, NZ simply has no dog in those fights and invites unwanted attention should it join them. It should therefore steer clear of messy involvement in places like Iraq and pay more attention, if at all, to its nearest neighbours.

There appears to be a fair bit of isolationist sentiment on the political Right as well as the Left, particularly amongst those of a Libertarian persuasion that value non-interference in the sovereign affairs of others as strongly as the pacifist Left does.

However, for a country that is utterly dependent on trade and long-cultivated international diplomatic, cultural and political ties for its material and social well-being, this would seem to be a bit of a contradiction. It is hard to determine if it is born of popular ignorance of the linkages between trade, diplomacy and security (“issue linkage” in the academic parlance), or because there is simply a “cannot be bothered” attitude amongst the general public (especially the young, as my university teaching friends point out to me).

What does seem clear is that, as in many other countries, the lower one descends the socio-economic totem pole in NZ, the more likely is the prevalence of isolationist views. My reckon is that this is due to the fact that lower class (defined as subsistence wage labourers) or disadvantaged sectors of society are too busy with the rigours and trials of everyday existence to find time to ponder the intricacies of foreign policy, especially when these do not have a discernible and immediate impact at home (in another manifestation of what I have called “survivalist alienation” in other writings).

On the other hand there are two types of internationalists in NZ: so-called multilateralists who believe that all international problems require collective solutions preferably brokered by international organisations such as the UN; and traditionalists who maintain that NZ is bound to join and support its traditional (Western) allies when push comes to shove in the international arena. This latter stance has been complicated by NZ’s increasing trade dependence on Asia, and the PRC in particular, but as of yet the “traditional” focus on Western alliances and forms of international exchange appear to continue to dominate the public imagination.

I am not sure that the thought processes that distinguish multilateralists from traditionalists have filtered down into the public consciousness to the point that such distinctions are made on a general level. Instead, it seems that these viewpoints exist only in the minds of the informed public and political society (to include public bureaucracies and private firms) rather than the “average” Kiwi, especially in non-Pakeha populations. I say the latter because if one looks at the composition of the foreign policy-making elite, it has an extremely strong Pakeha demographic that reflects the economic, political and social values of the upper classes from which it is recruited.

I do not wish to be controversial about this last reflection and am happy to stand corrected if in fact NZ’s internationalist foreign policy perspectives are significantly (as opposed to symbolically) informed by maori, Pacifika and other non-Pakeha voices. It is clear that Asian perspectives have begun to temper the traditionally Anglo-centric views of the foreign policy elite, but I am not sure if that translates into the full embrace of multilateralism over traditionalism , or whether it trickles down to the level of the Kiwi Asian “street.”

Whatever the distribution of isolationists and internationalists in NZ society, the absence of public debate on most issues of foreign policy and the disingenuous approach taken by successive governments to the subject of foreign policy in general and to sensitive subjects like military adventures in particular have not helped clarify where the NZ public stands on matters that are, again, fundamental to the country’s well being over the long-term. For that to happen there has to be a critical media and a curious public that demands of politicians that they address honestly and openly where they stand on NZ’s international position and role. Only then can the weight of public opinion genuinely influence what is to date an elite conversation conducted with minimum popular consultation.

That is not likely to happen anytime soon.

So much for intelligence community reform.

datePosted on 18:36, February 17th, 2015 by Pablo

It turns out that nearly 5 months after getting re-elected, the government has decided on the composition of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC). Besides himself as Chair of the ISC, the Prime Minister gets to select two members from the government parties and the Opposition Leader gets to select one member from opposition parties.  In both cases the respective Leaders are expected under Section 7 (1) (c,d) of the 1996 Intelligence and Security Committee Act to consult with the other parties on their side of the aisle before selecting the remaining members of the committee. The language of the Act is quite specific: “c) 2 members of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Prime Minister following consultation with the leader of each party in Government: (d) 1 member of the House of Representatives nominated for the purpose by the Leader of the Opposition, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, following consultation with the leader of each party that is not in Government or in coalition with a Government party.” (1996 ISCA, pp. 6-7).

Not surprisingly the government has nominated two National MPs, Attorney General Chris Finlayson and Justice Minister Amy Adams, for membership on the ISC. It is not clear if ACT, the Maori Party and United Future were consulted before their selection. What is more surprising is that Andrew Little nominated David Shearer and did not consult with opposition parties before making his selection. While Shearer is a person with considerable international experience and has been a consumer of intelligence (as opposed to a practitioner) during his career, Mr. Little has been neither. In fact, it can be argued that Mr. Little has the least experience of all the proposed members when it comes to issues of intelligence and security, which means that he will have to lean very heavily on Mr. Shearer if he is not not be overmatched within the ISC.

Moreover, in past years Russell Norman, Peter Dunne and Winston Peters have been on the ISC, so the move to re-centralise parliamentary oversight in the two major parties represents a regression away from the democratisation of representation in that oversight role. Since these two parties have been in government during some of the more egregious acts of recent intelligence agency misbehaviour (for example, the Zaoui case, where intelligence was manipulated by the SIS to build a case against him at the behest of or in collusion with the 5th Labour government, and the case of the illegal surveillance of Kim Dotcom and his associates by the GCSB in collusion or at the behest of the US government under National, to say nothing of the ongoing data mining obtained via mass electronic trawling under both governments), this does not portend well for the upcoming review of the New Zealand intelligence community that this ISC is charged with undertaking.

The Greens have expressed their disgust at being excluded and have, righty in my opinion, pointed out that they are the only past members of the ISC that have taken a critical look at the way intelligence is obtained, analysed and used in New Zealand. But that appears to be exactly why they were excluded. According to John Key,  Labour’s decision was “the right call” and he “totally supports it.” More tellingly, Mr. Key said the following: “A range of opposition voices from the minor parties could railroad the process. I don’t think the committee was terribly constructive over the last few years, I think it was used less as a way of constructing the right outcomes for legislation, and more as a sort of political battleground” (my emphasis added).

In other words, Russell Norman took his membership on the ISC seriously and did not just follow along and play ball when it came to expanding state powers of search and surveillance under the Search and Surveillance Act of 2012 and GCSB Act of 2014.

That is a very big concern. Mr. Key believes that the “right” outcomes (which have had the effect of expanding state espionage powers while limiting its accountability or the institutional checks imposed on it) need to be produced by the ISC when it comes to the legal framework governing the intelligence community. Those who would oppose such outcomes are not suitable for membership, a view with which Andrew Little seems to agree.

This is so profoundly an undemocratic view on how intelligence oversight should work that I am at a loss for words to  explain how it could come from the mouth of a Prime Minister in a liberal democracy and be tacitly seconded by the Leader of the Opposition–unless they have genuine contempt for democracy. That is a trait that W. Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard shared as well, but what does that say about the state of New Zealand democracy?

Mr. Little has given his reason to exclude Metiria Turei of the Greens from ISC membership as being due to the fact the Mr. Norman is stepping down in May and Mr. Little wanted “skills, understanding and experience” in that ISC position. Besides insulting Ms. Turei (who has been in parliament for a fair while and co-Leader of the Greens for 5 years), he also gave the flick to Mr. Peters, presumably because that old dog does not heel too well. As for Mr. Dunne, well, loose lips have sunk his ship when it comes to such matters.

The bottom line is that Mr. Little supports Mr. Key’s undemocratic approach to intelligence oversight. Worse yet, it is these two men who will lead the review of the NZ intelligence community and propose reform to it, presumably in light of the debacles of the last few years and the eventual revelations about NZ espionage derived from the Snowden files.

As I said last year in the built-up to the vote on the GCSB Amendment Act,  I doubted very much that for all its rhetorical calls for an honest and thorough review process that led to significant reform, Labour would in fact do very little to change the system as given because when it is in government it pretty much acts very similar to National when it comes to intelligence and security. If anything, the differences between the two parties in this field are more stylistic than substantive.

What I could not have foreseen was that Labour would drop all pretence of bringing a critical mindset to the review and instead join National in a move to limit the amount of internal debate allowable within the ISC at a time when it finally had an important task to undertake (in the form of the intelligence community review).

As a result, no matter how many public submissions are made, or how many experts, interest groups and laypeople appear before the ISC hearings, and how much media coverage is given to them, I fear that the end result will be more of the same: some cosmetic changes along the margins, some organisational shuffles and regroupings in the name of streamlining information flows, reducing waste and eliminating duplication of functions in order to promote bureaucratic efficiency, and very little in the way of real change in the NZ intelligence community, especially in the areas of oversight and accountability.

From now on it is all about going through the motions and giving the appearance of undertaking a serious review within the ISC. For lack of a better word, let’s call this the PRISM approach to intelligence community reform.

LINK: The Intelligence and Security Committee Act 1996.

Fighting terrorism is a matter of law enforcement.

datePosted on 08:35, January 20th, 2015 by Pablo

The post 9/11 security environment has been dominated by the spectre of terrorism, mostly if not exclusively of the Islamic-inspired sort. In most liberal democracies the response to the threat of this type of extremist violence has been the promulgation of a raft of anti-terrorism laws and organisational changes in national security agencies, the sum total of which has been an erosion of civil liberties in the pursuit of  better security. Some have gone so far as to speak of a “war” on terrorism, arguing that Islamicist terrorism in particular is an existential threat to Western societies that demands the prioritisation of security over individual and collective rights.

Although ideological extremists see themselves at war, this response on the part of democratic states, and the characterisation of the fight against terrorism as a “war” marshalled along cultural or civilisation lines, is mistaken. The proper response is to see terrorism not in ideological terms, with the focus on the motivation of the perpetrators, but in criminal terms, where the focus is on the nature of the crime. Seeing terrorism as the latter allows those who practice it to be treated as part of a violent criminal conspiracy much like the Mafia or international drug smuggling syndicates. This places the counter-terrorism emphasis on the act rather than the motivation, thereby removing arguments about cause and justification from the equation.

There is no reason for Western democracies to go to war. Whatever its motivation, terrorism poses no existential threat to any stable society, much less liberal democracies. Only failed states, failing states and those at civil war face the real threat of takeover from the likes of the Islamic State or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. For Western democracies under terrorist attack, the institutional apparatus of the State will not fall, political society will not unravel and the social fabric will to tear. But there is a caveat to this: both the democratic state and society must beware the sucker ploy.

As an irregular warfare tactic terrorism is a weapon of the militarily weak that is not only a form of intimidation but a type of provocation as well. It has a target, a subject and an objective. Here is where the sucker ploy comes into play. Terrorist attacks against defenceless targets are designed to lure democratic states into undertaking security measures out of proportion to the real threat involved. The weaker adversary commits an atrocity or outrage in order to provoke an overreaction from the stronger subject, in this case from Western liberal democracies. The overreaction victimises more than the perpetrators and legitimises their grievances. In doing so, the democratic state plays into the hands of the terrorist objectives by providing grounds for recruitment, continuation and expansion of their struggle. When democratic societies, panicked by fear, begin to retaliate against domestic minority populations from whence terrorists are believed to emanate, then the sucker ploy will have proven successful.

The sucker ploy has been at the core of al-Qaeda’s strategy from the beginning. Enunciated by Osama bin Laden, the idea behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, then the Bali, Madrid and London bombings, was to cause the entire West to overreact by scapegoating all Muslims and subjecting them to undemocratic security checks, to include mass surveillance, warrantless searches and arrest and detention without charge. With the majority supporting such moves, the Muslim minorities in the West become further alienated. That serves to confirm the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with all of the Muslim world, which bin Laden and his acolytes hoped would generate a groundswell of conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims on a global scale.

The US and UK duly obliged by using 9/11 as one pretext for invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with the events of that day and which had no Islamic extremists operating in its midst at the time. It does now.

After the possibility of staging spectacular large scale attacks like 9/11 became increasingly difficult due to Western counter-measures, al-Qaeda 2.0 emerged. Its modus operandi, as repeatedly outlined and exhorted by the on-line magazine Inspire, is to encourage self-radicalised jihadis born in the West to engage in low-level, small cell (2-5 people) or so-called “lone wolf” attacks by single individuals on targets of opportunity using their local knowledge of the cultural and physical terrain in which they live.

In recent years the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State have provided recruits with the opportunity to sharpen their knowledge of weaponry, tactics and combat skills with an eye towards future use at home in the event that they survive the foreign adventure (although less than 50 percent of them do). With reportedly 15,000 foreign fighters joining Syrians and Iraqis in the Islamic State ranks and a number of Westerners gravitating towards al-Qaeda, that leaves plenty of returning jhadis to be concerned about.

Shopping malls, sports venues, transportation hubs, entertainment venues, non-military government offices, media outlets, houses of worship, schools and universities–all of these present soft targets with significant symbolic value where a relatively small criminal act of violence can generate waves of apprehension across the larger population, thereby prompting a government overreaction as much in an effort to calm public fears as it is to prevent further attacks. The range and number of these targets makes guarding all them very difficult, and if the perpetrators plan in secret and maintain operational secrecy up until the moment of engagement, then they are impossible to stop regardless of the security measures in place. Short of adopting a garrison state or open-air prison approach to society as a whole, there is no absolute physical defense against determined and prepared low level operators, especially when they have access to not only to weapons but common household or industrial products that can be used to untoward ends.

Although it risks detection because of the coordination and numbers involved, one variant of the low-level, decentralised terrorist strategy is the so-called “swarm” attack, whereby several small cells engage multiple targets simultaneously or in rapid sequence, even in several countries if possible. This is designed to stretch the security apparatus to its limits, thereby causing confusion and delays in response while demonstrating the attacker’s capability to strike at will virtually anywhere. At that point the military–ostensibly used for external defense–is often  called in, thereby giving all the appearance of a nation at war. Such is now happening in Belgium and France.

The evolution of terrorist tactics notwithstanding, if we strip away all the ideological gloss what is left is a transnational criminal enterprise. The response required is therefore more police than military in nature, and requires increased intelligence sharing and police cooperation amongst nations. The legislative response should be not to create a separate body of political crimes deserving of increased (and undemocratic) coercive attention from the state, but to bolster criminal law to include hard penalties for carrying out, financing, supporting or encouraging politically motivated violence. All of this can be done without militarising the state and compromising basic democratic values regarding the freedoms of speech, assembly and movement.

What is not needed but unfortunately has been the majority response in the West, is expanded anti-terrorist legislation and sweeping powers of search, surveillance and seizure that cover the entire population rather than those suspected of harbouring extremist tendencies. This violates the presumption of innocence as well as the right to privacy of the vast majority of citizens, to which can now be added restrictions on freedom of movement for those who, even without criminal backgrounds, are suspected of planning to travel to join extremist groups abroad.

Worse yet, such measures are not entirely effective, as the Boston Marathon bombings, Sydney hostage crisis (the work of a lone mentally ill individual with delusions of Islamic grandeur who was out on bail for sexual crimes and accessory to murder) and the Charlie Hebdo attacks have shown (Australia, the US and France have very strong antiterrorism measures, to include the Patriot Act and NSA/FBI mass surveillance in the US, overtly authoritarian security legislation dating back to the Fifth Republic in France–which was a response to the Algerian Crisis of 1958– and increasingly hard anti-terrorist legislation in Australia).

There is a clear need to upgrade police intelligence gathering, sharing and operational procedures in order to combat the terrorism threat. The main impediment to that has not been a public lack of cooperation or the inadequacy of extant criminal law (which needs regular upgrading in any event due to the evolution of crime–for example, 30 years ago cyber security and cyber crime were not issues that needed to be covered by law). Instead, it has mainly been due to inter-agency rivalries between domestic security and intelligence agencies and a lack of international cooperation on ideologically charged matters such as Islamic terrorism (for example, between Israel and its Arab neighbours and the US and China). Given advents in telecommunications technologies, there has to be a priority focus on social media intelligence gathering, particularly of platforms that use encryption to shield criminal behaviour. But all of that can be done without the mass curtailment of civil liberties, and without militarising the response to the point that it gives all the appearances of cultures at war.

It should be obvious that the underlying causes of terrorism in the West need to be addressed as part of a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the problem. These involve a host of socio-economic and cultural policy areas and a willingness by politicians to broach debate on sensitive topics related to them (such as the question of assimilation of migrants, minority youth unemployment etc.). But in the narrow sense of security counter-measures, the key is to not exaggerate the terrorist threat, to strip it of its political significance and to use more efficient policing and intelligence gathering backed by criminal law to treat it not as a special type of (political) crime but as just the violent acts of criminal conspirators.

Although its threat environment (including terrorist threats) is far less menacing than that of its major security partners, New Zealand has adopted antiterrorist and search and surveillance legislation that is more appropriate for the threats faced by India or Pakistan than by a small isolated democratic island state. Other small democracies outside of Europe like Costa Rica, Portugal or Uruguay have not seen the need to adopt such legislation, and Uruguay in fact has accepted released Guantanamo detainees for re-settlement. Thus the question begs as to why New Zealand has chosen to privilege security over freedom when the threat environment does not warrant it? So far, in spite of crying wolf about the spectre of home grown jihadists and returning foreign fighters, the New Zealand authorities have not provided any concrete evidence of plots or other indicators of terrorists at work that would justify the expansion of what is now a full-fledged security and surveillance state.

One can only hope that as part of the forthcoming intelligence agency review an honest discussion of terrorism and other threats can be had so that perspective can be gained and the proper response undertaken. That may well mean rolling back some of the security legislation passed during the last decade while refining specific provisions of the Crimes Act and attendant legislation so that the balance between security and civil liberties can be re-equilibrated in more even fashion.

For an interesting take on the subject, here is an article by a US security academic with clear pro-establishment views.

This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

Media Links: The Sydney Hostage Crisis.

datePosted on 17:09, December 16th, 2014 by Pablo

Amid the flurry of media interviews I did as a result of the Sydney hostage crisis, this one may not have received the attention other outlets have received.

The RNZ interview is here. The TVNZ interview is here.

Repost: The torture-terror doctrine.

datePosted on 11:07, December 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program has once again brought to the fore arguments about the ethics and efficiency of torture when used as part of interrogations. The ethical question reduces to a lesser evil versus greater good argument: as a lesser but necessary evil torture is used to prevent a greater evil in defense of the public good. Hence, torturing someone who knows where a bomb with a fifteen minute timer is planted in a shopping mall is both necessary and good because it will save countless lives.  Torture of someone who is believed to have rigged a car bomb outside a Kabul hotel is seen as unfortunate but just if lives are saved.  The issue is one of tactical urgency, and the value is in the tactical intelligence obtained under duress: the location of the bomb.

However, even if torture might work in some instances in extracting real-time tactical intelligence that saves lives, it is of little use in obtaining strategic intelligence on longer-term of broader based events.  Given the cellular nature of irregular warfare operations, torturing someone to get information, for example, about Osama bin-Laden’s whereabouts is simply time and resource wasting. Instead, what is required is a long-term piece by piece build up of plausible scenarios based on the corroborated evidence provided by multiple sources. Torture simply cannot provide that. And as it turned out, it was old fashioned human intelligence “gumshoe” work that revealed bin-Laden’s hideout.

As for efficiency, the record on torture as an interrogation tool is poor. Hardened zealots would rather than die than betray their comrades. Innocents and weak-willed individuals will say anything to get the punishment to stop, which means wasting time and resources (and risking exposure) tracking down spurious leads.

So why did the US resort to torture after 9/l11? I have written a fair bit about this in the past but have a hunch that its use was much more about punishment than it was about obtaining information.

I have not written much about the subject here on KP. The one essay that addressed it centrally can be found here.  However, in 2005 I published an essay that explored the symmetry between torture and terror in post 9/11 US security doctrine as part of my late “Word from Afar” series in an on-line media outlet .  Although if written today I would make some modifications to the argument and the conclusions, the thrust would remain pretty much the same. Hence I have re-published it below:

“The Symmetry between Torture and Terror.”

(First published April 21, 2005 in Scoop.co.nz)

Revelations about torture of political prisoners held in US prisons in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and the lower fifty have sparked debate about what is permissible in grey area, irregular conflicts such as the fight against Islamicist terrorism. Brutalisation of terrorist suspects and sympathisers is allowed by a raft of post 9-11 legislation that also authorises their indefinite detention without charge and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities are refouled to the country of charge or origin, to be detained, interrogated and juridically administered under local conditions).

President Bush explicitly stated in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks that the US would stop at nothing to locate, bring to justice or eliminate those who organized, sponsored, supported or in any way collaborated in the planning of those events, as well as previous assaults on US interests around the globe. He was roundly applauded at the time by the shell-shocked US public, and it was in that environment that the legal framework for handling terrorist suspects, along with the Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security, were born.

Subsequent divisions over the use of torture in US detention centres have surfaced along the intersection of practical versus ethical considerations. Torture is considered to be a forced necessity imposed by the ungentlemanly nature of the opponent, or is seen as a moral indictment of the US approach to the “war on terror” that descends into the barbarism that it purports to fight. The subtext of the ethical debate swings both ways. Zealotry and unilateralism in the Bush administration are seen as evidence of both moral elevation or moral decay. Faith in the moral virtue of the current US leadership prevailed among its voting public in the November 2004 national elections (by 52 to 47 percent), something not that dissimilar from the vote totals received by Richard Nixon at the time of his re-election in 1972. Then and now it is comforting for the voting majority to know that the United States Government is legally justified in authorising acts that violate international conventions on the rules of engagement. For Nixon, legal justification of the secret extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia was grounded on such a means-ends rationale, and so it is with today’s US approach to the war against Islamicist irregulars and jihadis.

Politicians, jurists and pundits are left with the unhappy task of morally justifying inhumane acts committed against suspected enemies or ideological criminals. Myriad others have reason to wax indignant about the perversity of such arguments. Yet, beyond the pressing ethical dilemmas posed by the use of torture against suspects, there are very organic reasons for doing so. These reduce to a question of symmetry in war and the reciprocal utility of torture as a weapon.

Military planners prefer their wars to be symmetrical. Symmetrical wars are those in which opponents are arrayed along a roughly comparable range of force, with similar weapons and tactics. Although contested, the political objectives of symmetrical wars, as well as the strategic rationales used in their pursuit, are grounded in shared understandings of the limited utlity of war. Generally comparable military capabilities and comon expectations of combat and post-conflict behaviour define the physical boundaries of the armed engagement. That leads to the adoption of norms governing the behavior of belligerents, resulting in, among other things, the Hague Convention on Laws of Warfare and the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners of war. It is adherence to a general set of conventions regarding the conduct of combat operations within bounded levels of force that determines the difference between so-called “conventional” and “unconventional” or “regular” and “irregular” conflicts.

The use of force is conditioned in conventional or regular wars by its relative symmetry, which serves to reduce chaos (and the reach of combat) by providing rules of the game that serve as the ethical and legal foundation for the formulation of military policy and application of armed force in pursuit of political objectives. Incremental qualitative gains and relative quantitative advantages in weapons and troops constitute the physical parameters of war. Within those lines elements of comparative resource base, collective will and technological innovation determine military victory. Adherence to ethical guidelines for wartime conduct is expected of all belligerents.

Asymmetrical wars are those in which the military capabilities of opponents, defined as weapons systems, logistical infrastructure, troop numbers and other indexes of armed might, vary markedly. One side dwarfs the other, militarily speaking. Of itself, that is not what makes such wars unconventional. What does is the combination of ideology, interest and tactics used. If the ideological motivation of opponents is diametrically opposed (say, a choice between submission to secular infidels or defeat by medieval heathens), where the weaker actor is fighting for its national, cultural, religious or ethnic survival whiles the stronger actor is not, then the strategic rationales used by military adversaries will differ considerably. This brings in issues of pure and situational ethics, and the tactics used in pursuit of them.

Guerrilla wars are the highest expression of asymmetric wars. They are fought unconventionally by highly motivated volunteer irregular troops against conventional militaries (often those of nation-states or foreign occupiers, and in many cases paid professionals). In these types of war the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, symbolic versus military targets, and offensive versus defensive operations is deliberately blurred and often reversed by the weaker party (of which there is often more than one, which requires tactical, if not strategic coordination between them–an obvious Achilles Heel). For the weaker party contestation of territory is of secondary importance. What matters is cultivation of popular support and weakening of the opponent’s determination to continue to fight in pursuit of its political interests in a given geographic area. The Iraq conflict is a microcosmic distillation of that fact.

Conventional military planners prefer that force asymmetries be in their favour, understood as superior military technology, training, organization and tactics brought to bear within a given continuum of force on an enemy that agrees to play by the “rules.” For the irregular warrior, the object of the exercise is to use time, tenacity and psychological impact as instruments to wear down the will of the militarily superior opponent. Symbolic acts figure very highly in the guerrilla strategist’s tactical priorities, and terrorism against so-called “soft” civilian targets is central among them because it is designed to produce paralysing fear and a desire to acquiesce among the enemy’s support base. This extends the conflict outside the purely military realm into the area of social cohesion.

The firebombing of Dresden and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to do more than kill the thousands that they did. The bombings were designed to demoralise the German and Japanese human reserve and erode civilian support for continuing the war. So it is with suicide bombers in vehicles or on foot, even if they operate in wars that are undeclared. The difference is that in one instance a warring nation-state utilises terror by extending the non-military reach of conflict via conventional military means, whereas in the other case a non-state actor uses non-conventional methods to do the same thing.

Against an agile and elusive opponent who refuses to fight in conventional symmetry, a militarily superior actor is muscle-bound. Naval fleets, strategic airpower, armoured divisions and thousands of troops are of little use against terrorists operating in dispersed, decentralized fashion in and among civilian populations. If used, they are overkill when confronted by the networked cells that are the organizational latticework of transantionalised terrorism. Sometimes overwhelming force is simply too much force given the character of the opponent and the contextual circumstance in which she is engaged. Should the irregular, unconventional actor refuse to be drawn out into conventional symmetry, the only option for a stronger conventional actor is to engage on her terms. This is the realm of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), which in US practice has evolved new features in the form of CIA para-military squads and contract interrogators not beholden to the rules of engagement governing military intelligence and police.

This is what lies behind the US resort to torture. Along with the deployment of special forces teams and CIA squads in areas in which Islamicists congregate, the US is attempting to get down to the level of its Islamicist opponents in order to bring symmetry to the conflict. The operative belief is that if Islamicists want to play “dirty” by terrorising civilians world-wide, then the US government will demonstrate that it can bring to bear all of its power and resources on those terms. It does so by using the legal, military, administrative and political assets of a superpower to expand the range of allowable state and para-state violence while justifying and institutionalising extra-judicial treatment of terrorist suspects. Legal vetting of the wording of a variety of coercive interrogation techniques that require cabinet-level authorisation is emblematic of the US approach in that regard.

That the US releases many suspected terrorists without charge is beside the point. The objective is symbolic and systematic, or phrased differently, to terrorise in return. Those subjected to the new standard of detention and interrogations who gain release will inform others. They will detail the cruelty as well as the seemingly endless bureaucratic procedures required to seek redress, and they will expound upon their fear. What will be impressive about their stories is the banality of the reciprocal evil practiced in pursuit of “freedom,” and the sense of hopelessness and despair they felt while in its embrace. That condition of atomised infantilisation, whereby the subject is physically isolated, punished and scared while being powerless and utterly dependent on the whim of the captor, is a state of terror.

Torture of Muslims in US detention centres may inflame passions amongst Islamicist hard -liners (defined as those who will commit bodies to the conflict given sufficient provocation). Their mobilisation is justified as an acceptable variant on the honey trap theme, whereby an attractant (or provocation) prompts passive al-Qaeda cells to attempt further terrorist attacks. At that point they can be identified and hunted down, although some will wreak damage before doing so. In the scheme of things, that is held to be an acceptable cost of victory.

More importantly, public dissemination of the torture-terror doctrine will serve to dampen the passion of other would-be jihadis, and deter many who thought to join the Islamicist cause. The point is to demonstrate to the unconventional enemy and its supporters that the superpower, as well as other states, can well fight irregularly and systematically as well, if not better. After all, the most common–and effective–type of terrorism in history is state terror, not that practiced by today’s Islamicists.

This explains the why of using torture-terror as a combat weapon against terrorism. What it does not address is the issue of objective. If the objective of using torture on terrorist suspects is to extract valuable strategic and tactical intelligence from otherwise uncooperative subjects, the results have been poor. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff amid the hundreds of desperate stories told under duress by US detainees has been a difficult process, with relatively little valuable intelligence garnered from it. Thus, as a information gathering technique torture has not been a panacea for the US intelligence community, and given media exposure has become a public relations liability for the US–at least in the West. However, an alternative objective might better explain the rationale as well as the pragmatic criteria upon which to choose it.

If the objective is to wear down the will of jihadis to persist in their global armed challenge while at the same time removing their recruitment base, the systematic use of legally-sanctioned torture-terror by the US may bear fruit. In the measure that it achieves symmetry, it raises the costs of the engagement to the jihadists. In the measure that it turns the tables and weakens the will of the Islamicist irregulars to continue to fight, it will prevail over the long term. In the measure that it prevails it re-establishes the relationship between the West and “the Rest,” especially the Muslim world. In doing so it reconfigures the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and elsewhere by extending the cultural boundaries of Western influence to the necessity of recognizing the need for symmetry in war. That, it seems, is the political syllogism underpinning the torture-terror doctrine.

Media Link: The Slater/SIS/PM’s Office OIA debacle.

datePosted on 10:30, November 25th, 2014 by Pablo

Sometimes one has to speak bluntly but honestly about unethical behaviour within the NZ intelligence community. The revelations about the way in which an OIA request from a notorious right wing blogger was handled by the then Director of Security and Intelligence and the office of the Prime Minister in 2011 affords one such opportunity to do so.

Short of taking monetary or personal favours, this is official malfeasance of the first order and is corrosive of the professional integrity of the intelligence community. Shame on all involved.

Whither the class line?

datePosted on 10:58, November 20th, 2014 by Pablo

In 1995 I published a book that explored the interaction between the state, organised labor and capital in the transitions to democracy in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. The book was theoretically rooted in neo-or post-Gramscian thought as well as the vast literature on collective action and the politics of the case studies. In it I explained how democratic transitions were facilitated by class compromises between labour and capital brokered by the state, which acted as an institutional mediator/arbitrator in resolving conflicts between the two sides of the labour process. I noted the importance of neo-corporatist, tripartite concentrative vehicles for the achievement of a durable class compromise in which current wage restraint was traded for increased productivity in pursuit of future wage gains under restrained rates of profit-taking, all within state-enforced workplace, health, safety and retirement frameworks negotiated between the principles. That way the relations in and of production were peaceably maintained.

One of the things I discovered is that labour or working class-based parties were served best when they had union representation in the leadership. That is because, unlike career politicians, union leaders were closest to the rank and file when it came to issues pertinent to those relations in and of production. As a result, they translated the needs of the rank and file into political imperatives that determined working class political praxis under democratic (read non-revolutionary) conditions.

In contrast,Left politicians tended to be drawn from the intelligentsia and were prone to compromise on matters of principle in pursuit of strategic or tactical gain. Many did not have working class backgrounds, and some spent their entire careers, if not adult lives, currying favour in the pursuit of office and the power that comes with it. More than a few have never held a job outside of the political sphere, which led them to hold an insular view of how working class politics should be conducted. As a result, they were often disinclined to put the material or political interests of the working classes first, preferring instead to pursue incremental gains around the margins of the social division of labour within the system as given.

For those reasons, I found that working class interests were best represented when the union movement dominated the working class party, not the other way around.

But there was a caveat to this discovery: unionists only served as legitimate and honest agents of working class interests if they adhered to a class line. In other words, they had to be genuine Marxists or socialists who put the working class interest first when it came to the pursuit of politics in competition with the political agents of capital. “Class line” was broadly interpreted to include all wage labour–blue and white collar, temporary and permanent, unionised or not. That made them honest interlocutors of the people they represented (the ultimate producers of wealth), since otherwise they would be conceding the primacy of capital and business interests (the appropriators of surplus) in the first instance.

Since the system is already stacked in favour of capital in liberal democracies, it was imperative that the agents of the working class in post-auhoritarian contexts wholeheartedly and honestly embraced ideologies that a minimum rejected the unquestioning acceptance of market directives as a given, much less the idea that capitalism as a social construct was the best means by which societal resources were organised and distributed. The post-transitional moment was an opportune time to press the critique of capitalism, as the authoritarian experiments had demonstrated quite vividly the connection between political oppression and economic exploitation. It was a moment in time (the mid to late 1980s) when unions could impose working class preferences on the political parties that purported to represent the rank and file, and where working class parties could genuinely speak truth to power.

As it turns out, the record in the Southern Cone was mixed. Where there was a Marxist-dominated national labour confederation that dominated Left political representation (Uruguay), the political Left prospered and the working class benefitted the most. In fact, after two decades of failed pro-business government by the centre-right Colorado Party, the union-backed Frente Amplio coalition has now ruled for over a decade with great success and Uruguay remains Latin America’s strongest democracy.

On the other hand, where the union movement was controlled by sold-out opportunists and co-opted bureaucrats (Argentina), who in turn dominated the majority Left political party (the Peronists), corruption and concession were the norm and the working classes benefited the least. In fact, in a twist on the New Zealand story, it was a corrupt, sold-out and union-backed Peronist president, Carlos Menem, who used the coercively-imposed market driven economic reforms of the military dictatorship as the basis for the neoliberal agenda he implemented, by executive decree, in Argentina in accordance with the so-called “Washington Consensus.”

In Brazil the union movement was divided at the time of the transition between a Marxist-dominated militant confederation (the CUT), led by Luis Inganicio da Silva or “Lula”as he was better known,  and a cooped confederation (the CGT) that had emerged during the military dictatorship and which was favoured by business elites as the employee agent of choice. The CUT dominated the politics of the Workers Party (PT), whereas the CGT was subordinated to the logics of the political leadership of the right-center PMDB.

As things turned out, although the PMDB won control of the national government in the first two post-authoritarian elections, and the subsequent governments of social democrat Fernando Henrique Cardoso began a number of social welfare projects designed to reduce income inequality and enforce basic human rights, working class interests did not fully proposer until the PT under Lula’s leadership was elected in 2002 (the PT just won re-election for the fourth consecutive time under the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rouseff).  In the PT Marxist unionists have dominant positions. In the PMDB and Cardoso’s PSDB, the sold-out unionists did not.

That brings me to the the election of Andrew Little as Labour Party Leader. Leaving aside the different context of contemporary New Zealand relative to the subject of my book and the question as to whether the union movement truly dominates the Labour Party, consider his union credentials. His background is with the EPMU, arguably the most conservative and sold-out union federation in the country. In fact, he has no record of “militancy” to speak of, and certainly is not a Marxist. Instead, his record is that of a co-opted union bureaucrat who likes to work with the Man rather than against Him. The fact that business leaders–the same people who work incessantly to strip workers of collective and individual rights under the  guise of employment “flexibilization”– find him “reasonable” and “thoughtful” attests not only to his powers of persuasion but also to the extent of his co-optation.

But maybe that was just what he had to do in order to achieve his true calling and show his true self as a politician. So what about his credentials as a politician? If winning elections is a measure to go by, Mr. Little is not much of one, having never won an election outside his unions. Nor has his tenure as a list MP in parliament been a highlight reel of championing working class causes and promoting their interests. As others have said, he smacks of grey.

Which brings me to the bottom line. Does he have a class line?

Beware the sucker ploy.

datePosted on 09:04, October 24th, 2014 by Pablo

A few years back I wrote about the strategic utility of terrorism. One thing I did not mention in that post was the use of a tried and true guerrilla tactic as part of the terrorist arsenal: the sucker ploy.

In guerrilla warfare the sucker ploy is a tactic whereby the weaker irregular forces stage an incident in order to provoke an over-reaction from their stronger adversaries. Examples include killing a local official so as to have the security forces engage in mass repression of the people in the locality in which he worked. Another is firing at enemy aircraft or armour from inside villages in order to have them retaliate indiscriminately against the entire village. The objective is to alienate and erode support for the enemy by the victims.

For the last five years or so, the international jihadist movement spearheaded by al-Qaeda and now the Islamic State have evolved their tactics to suit the strategic environment they are confronted with. No longer able to carry out large scale attacks such as 9/11 or the Bali, London and Madrid bombings, would-be jihadists have been encouraged to engage in self-radicalised “lone wolf” or small-cell attacks within their respective countries using their familiarity with the local terrain and knowledge of local customs and symbology. These are low level, highly independent and autonomous operations, as was seen in the Boston Marathon bombings last year.

Attacks of this nature are tactically opportune but strategically insignificant. They do not present an existential challenge to any established state. By themselves they are tragic but politically inconsequential.

The motives and desired impact of the perpetrators may differ from those of the Islamicist leadership. Perpetrators may wish to strike a blow and sow localised fear while achieving martyrdom. The Islamicist leadership desires a strategic victory. The only way that it can do so is to use these types of attacks as a sucker ploy.

If governments respond to lone wolf and small cell low level terrorism with blanket increases in mass surveillance, national threat levels, expansion of security and anti-terrorism laws and restrictions on freedoms of association, movement and speech by groups associated with the perpetrators by virtue of religion, ethnicity or the like, then the strategic objectives of the Islamicist leadership are being served. That is because such measures target innocents, not only on an indiscriminate mass scale but often because of who they are rather than anything they have done. That further alienates and marginalises previously passive but increasingly disaffected sectors of society, thereby delegitimising governmental authority while breeding new recruits to the cause.

The temptation for democratic governments responding to such attacks to engage in large scale security tightening is overwhelming, which is of course what the Islamicists are banking on. The public needs reassurance, security agencies see opportunity and conservative politicians want their pound of flesh. Few opposition politicians want to appear soft on the threat of terrorism,  much less by opposing moves to “tighten” security in the wake of lethal attacks in the West motivated by Islam. But that urge, even if given carte blanche by the media-fed hysteria of the moment, needs to be tempered with a broader perspective and deeper analysis of what is at play.

Of course security measures need to be in place in order to thwart such low-level attacks. In Ottawa they clearly were not. But this is no excuse to engage in a knee-jerk over-reaction that results in the type of divisive measures that serve the purposes of the Islamicists more than the population at large. To do so is to fall into the trap set by the Islamicst leadership when they ordered the shift in tactics towards decentralised low level operations conducted by “home-grown” jihadis.

A couple of points worth mentioning: The Canadian threat environment and exposure to Islamic terrorism is different and greater than that of New Zealand and has been for some time. IS had directly threatened Canada before the attacks because Canada has actively joined the conflict by sending ground attack aircraft and special forces troops to the fray.

The perpetrators responsible for this week’s crimes were not returning from the killing fields of Syria or Iraq. They were native born Quebecois, evidencing mental halt issues, with prior criminal records who were known to the Canadian authorities. They were recent converts to Islam, one of whom had been placed on a so-called “watch list” and had his passport revoked because of his overt Islamicist sympathies. The other, a recovering drug addict, was waiting for a passport application to be processed, was living in a half way house, and was frustrated by the delays in securing the passport.  Unable to leave Canada, both turned their murderous gaze inwards.

This should serve as a lesson on several levels. But the foremost one is simple: beware the sucker ploy.

Blog Link: Could Fiji Emulate Singapore?

datePosted on 16:20, September 26th, 2014 by Pablo

Although we in NZ have been preoccupied with our own national election,  Fiji had one a few days earlier that arguably is far more important when it comes to that country’s long-term prospects. Much has been written about this foundational election and the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but in this 36th Parallel analysis I consider the possibility that Fiji may see Singapore as a developmental model worth emulating.

It is not as crazy an idea as you might think at first glance.

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