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Deja Vu all over again?

datePosted on 15:26, July 2nd, 2017 by Pablo

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.

 

PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

Still think it is all about postmodern identity?

datePosted on 15:24, June 18th, 2017 by Pablo

Long term readers may recall something I wrote a few years ago about the issue of Left praxis and the need for a class line above all other strategic perspectives. That post was done in part because of the prevalence of identity politics and other post-modern forms of association within the NZ Left (such as certain “polyamorous” factions present in local progressive circles). This focus on non-class based forms of identification has been eloquently defended at some length by my colleague Lew here at KP, so there is merit in it, at least in some instances.

However, I believe that a major contributing factor to the decline of the Left as an ideological force and political alternative to currently dominant market-supportive ideologies and parties is the turn away from a class line, be it by the 3rd Way Labourites that NZ Labour emulates or the NZ Green Party with its election campaign emphasis on youthful (primarily female Pakeha) candidates over policy substance (which has completed the turn away from “watermelon” politics where class was at the core of its environmental philosophy and grassroots demographic and towards a business-friendly largely urban metrosexual orientation). The fact that many on the Left welcomed the victory of Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker, over Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, in France and failed to understand Donald Trump’s populist appeal to white American working class and lumpenproletarians (a sin I was guilty of) demonstrates the intellectual and practical vacuum at the core of what passes for modern progressive politics in some parts of the world, Aetoroa in particular.

It puzzles me that even in the face of Bernie Sanders’ remarkable primary campaign in the 2016 US presidential election and UK Labour’s rise under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the UK snap elections of a fortnight ago, that many in the US, UK and NZ Left still cling to the (false consciousness) notion that centrist policies and identity politics are the way to play the game. The truth is that centrist politics have bottomed out under the polarising conditions produced by Alt-Right provocations and disinformation and the futility of the Left trying to successfully play a “soft” version of the market-oriented election game. The corporate and media Right have been quicker to realise this and seized the opportunity to deepen neoliberal era policies of economic deregulation and public sector cost-cutting by adding to it the politics of cultural conflict, immigration control and other methods by which the underlying bases of class conflict are downplayed in order to harvest the political fruits of cross-class uncertainty and fear.

The effect of three decades of market-driven ideological socialisation and post 9/11 politics of fear has been to prompt vulnerable sectors of liberal democratic societies to revert to primal and centrifugal forms of identification–race, religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality–all of which divert attention from the commonality of wage labour class subservience and its increased precariousness under the rule of a predatory type of post-industrial capitalism. Clearly non-class forms of identification need to be factored into any  discussion of praxis in a given socio-economic and political context, but adding non-class identification into the mix as the main focus of progressive struggles only serves to further dilute the solidarity bonds created by the one commonality workers have in the social division of labour of contemporary advanced capitalism.

And yet, in the face of this much of the Left appears to be suffering a form of post-modern paralysis where it is unwilling or unable to recognise that the advances made on superstructural issues like gender and LBGTI rights have their genesis in (but are not reducible to) the class driven struggles of the industrial and post-industrial eras, many of which persist to this day.

With that in mind, rather than prattle on as an old white male former academic, I defer to a genuine organic intellectual of the Left. The context is the aftermath to the Grenfell Tower fire in London:

https://www.facebook.com/thedeepleft/videos/649061075299366/?pnref=story

What price for “friendship?”

datePosted on 13:34, May 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump’s classless lecturing of NATO leaders on the need to increase defense spending, and his subsequent refusal to endorse the alliance’s collective defense policy (“an attack on one is an attack on all”), should serve as a warning to New Zealand policy makers. Coming after his calls for Japan and South Korea to increase their defense spending less their security ties with the US be reviewed, Trump’s attitude towards US security alliances is a sobering reminder that New Zealand is not immune from his bullying.

Trump specifically wants US security allies to spend 2 percent of GDP on “defense.” The US currently spends 3.6 percent of GDP on military expenditures, including 14.5 percent of the federal budget. European Union countries spend 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent of GDP and central administrative expenditures, respectively, on defense. Overall, NATO countries spend 1.5 percent of GDP on their militaries, with only five member states (including the US) spending two percent or more. As for other US security partners, Australia spends two percent (and envisions future spending increases), South Korea spends 2.6 percent, Japan spends one percent and New Zealand spends 1.2 percent of GDP on defense (the same as Germany).

The 2 percent of GDP benchmark for individual member contributions to NATO’s defense was an aspirational goal first raised during the Cold War and periodically reaffirmed thereafter. In February 2017 US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the goal a requirement extended to non-NATO US security partners as well, warning that the US “would moderate its commitment” to them if they did not meet the threshold by the end of this year. This runs counter to the overall trend of the past decade, where with the exception of frontline democratic states like Estonia, Poland and South Korea, military expenditures have fallen throughout the liberal democratic world, terrorism notwithstanding (which cannot be fought by conventional military means anyway). In fact, the only regions that have seen increases in military spending over the last decade are the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, all active conflict zones dominated by authoritarian regimes.

Should Russia continue to encroach on NATO borders or hostilities between the West and China and/or North Korea increase, that might change, but the truth is that unlike the US most liberal democracies put the welfare of their subjects before war preparations, which means that they largely spend more on health, education and welfare as a percentage of central government budgets than the US does, while the US, in turn, spends more on “defense” than most of its democratic counterparts and, in fact, most authoritarian states as well (China, for example, spends 1.9 percent of GDP and 16 percent of central government expenditures on “defense”, while Russia spends 4.9 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively).

Contrary to what some US pundits allege, there is no free-riding and nothing parasitic about the contributions to collective defense of most NATO members and other US security partners–they are simply paying the amount that their priorities deem to be appropriate. The US wants to maintain its global military dominance in a world of rising new and old powers, so it spends more and wants those in its alliance networks to do likewise. But that does not mean that the latter could or should do so given their domestic priorities and threat environments. The “one size fits all” approach to collective defense does not account for the particular circumstances of individual countries, something that Mr. Trump fails to understand.

This is why New Zealand needs to prepare for pressure from the Trump administration on matters of mutual security. The Wellington and Washington bilateral agreements bind New Zealand to the US as a military ally in everything but name only. It is a first tier US intelligence partner given its membership in the “5 Eyes” signals intelligence collection alliance that includes Australia, Canada, the UK. It is a NATO associate. It is therefore likely that the US will demand that New Zealand “lift its game” to the 2 percent of GDP mark, especially given that Australia already has.

Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to New Zealand is a portent of things to come. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he once posed nude for a lady’s magazine and is an open advocate of torture as an interrogation technique, is slated to take up the post in Wellington by the end of this year, pending Senate confirmation. Given Mr. Trump’s advocacy of torture and his musing about re-opening the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site kidnapping and secret detention program, it is possible that Mr. Walker will be the bearer of bad news in the form of demands for New Zealand to increase security budgets to US satisfaction and toe the new line when it comes to extrajudicial approaches towards terrorism.

This pressure must be resisted. Although it can be argued that New Zealand’s strategic position and threat environment may not readily accord with its current security posture or spending (for example, by having an Army-centric military and limited blue water patrol capability in a maritime nation), it is also clear that New Zealand’s security interests do not uniformly coincide with those of the US and more importantly, the Trump administration approach to fundamental norms such as the Laws of War and Geneva Convention. Moreover, New Zealand’s trade position is more vulnerable than that of its larger military partners, which makes blind compliance with US security demands risky when these involve antagonizing economic partners such as China.

When the subject of the two percent threshold was raised earlier in the year, former Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee dismissed the notion that New Zealand would raise its spending in response to US demands. It remains to be seen if his assurances will hold over the longer term. As it stands, New Zealand’s spending on intelligence and security, including the NZDF, has increased over the last decade and is high when compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Current spending priorities are on cyberdefense, counter-terrorism and equipment upgrades for conventional forces. These can all be addressed for less than two percent of GDP.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s remarks to NATO and the G7 Forum, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel warned Europeans that they could no longer rely on the US on matters of security and trade, and that they needed to look to themselves when determining their fate. New Zealand needs to heed that advice. One way of demonstrating resolve in the face of US pressure is to declare Mr. Walker persona non grata in light of his support for torture and the emerging Trump security doctrine. The opportunity to do so arrives next week in the person of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will be on his first official visit to NZ. Declaring  Mr. Brown unwelcome may result in some diplomatic discomfort, but if New Zealand is to maintain its reputation as an honest broker and independent actor in international affairs, it is a small way of demonstrating that when it comes to its security the price of partnership is not up for negotiation.

A shorter version of this essay appeared as an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, June 2, 2017.

Bowing to petty tyrants.

datePosted on 15:16, May 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I just got back from a trip to my hometown, Buenos Aires. During the time that I was there, the center-right president, Mauricio Macri, made a state visit to the White House. Like Donald Trump, Macri is the son of a millionaire who continued the family business and branched out into sports, entertainment and then politics. Unlike Trump, Macri was a two-time mayor of Buenos Aires who was widely recognized as having cleaned up the city and instituted a number of important public works and modernisation projects. He is not universally popular but he is generally acknowledged as competent. Oh, and he is reported to have business ties with the Trump Organization.

I write this in order to provide background to Macri’s visit to the White House. Not so much because of what was said during his meetings with Donald Trump but because of what did not happen. It turns out that in March the Argentine official government gazette, the Boletin Oficial, published an announcement that after the state visit President Macri would be awarding Argentina’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of San Martin, to Jimmy Carter for his focus on human rights in general and the efforts he led–channeled through his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the late Patricia Derrian–to uncover the fate of the “disappeared” under the Argentine military bureaucratic dictatorship of 1976-82.

I was involved in human rights work in the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina and can personally attest to the fact that Carter and Derrian saved hundreds if not thousands of Argentine lives simply by asking the junta about the whereabouts of political prisoners. Carter was also the first US president who made the provision of foreign aid, both military and economic, contingent on a country’s human rights certification by the State Department (where the State Department investigates and evaluates a country’s human rights record before recommending for or against channelling aid to it). Although Republican presidents have tried to weaken the human rights certification provisions in US aid programs, Democratic presidents have largely adhered to the parameters first enunciated by the Carter administration.

Before Macri traveled to Washington, the Trump administration asked the Argentine government to cancel the award ceremony for Carter. This, in spite of the fact that the ceremony was not part of Macri’s state visit and was to be done outside of the official schedule of events. So, to repeat, let’s get this straight: at the insistence of the Trump administration, the US government formally asked the head of a sovereign state to not award a former US president a rare honor for that president’s championing of human rights world-wide and his specific role in opposing the murderous actions carried out by the Argentine military and its accomplices during the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

That is reprehensible. It is not only an insult to President Carter but to the Argentine government, the Argentine people and the history that they commonly share. Sadly, against the advice of his Foreign Ministry, President Macri bowed to the US request and cancelled the award ceremony.

Speculation about why he did so ranges from not wanting to get off-side with the White House, diplomatic necessity and/or Macri not wanting to jeopardize any future business ties with the Trump Organization. Whatever the reasons, Macri has justifiably been condemned for acquiescing to the request. His best option now is to invite Jimmy Cater to Argentina in order to receive the award, something that in retrospect is probably the more rightful place where to do so.

But why would Trump and his minions make such an outrageous demand? Is it because Trump hates Democrats or Jimmy Carter specifically? Perhaps. Could it be that he has no regard for supporting human rights as a matter of principle or practice? Possibly. Or is it because the Trump administration is currently in the process of cozying up to tyrants such as Dutarte, Erdogan and Putin as well as a number of lesser despots and has even spoken of being “honoured” to meet with that “smart cookie,” Kim Jun-un? If so, could it be that Trump did not want a reminder of when the US actually acted as a moral champion interfering with his value-free power politics approach to international relations? Again, whatever the reasons–and most of them reduce at best to needing any and all partners in the fight against common enemies and threats, even though the commonality of those enemies and threats is in dispute–Trump has shown himself to be a bullying coward lacking in any decency, while Macri has been revealed to be a quisling in the face of the bully’s demands.

There is a lesson here for NZ. Trump will interfere with sovereign decisions of other states under the implicit threat of retaliation. He has no moral compass and no ethical compulsion to respect another country’s decision to uphold international standards (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should he find it inconvenient to do so. Given that NZ still clings to the fiction that it maintains an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy, it likely will not be long before that claim is put to the test by the sociopath in the Oval Office. And with the defense agreements signed between the US and NZ over the last eight years, it will likely be NZ support for Trump-instigated conflicts where that test will be.

The National government has two choices in that event: like Macri, forsake national interest and bow to the bully; or prepare contingency plans for the repercussions of saying “no.” The question is whether National has the spine to even consider the second option.

“You can’t handle the truth!”

datePosted on 15:07, April 4th, 2017 by Pablo

Well, no one should have been surprised that the government opted to not convene an inquiry into the allegations made in the Hager/Stephenson book Hit and Run. It preferred to let those accused “investigate” themselves and come up with an exoneration, then let the PM bad mouth the authors while wrapping himself in pseudo-sentimentality about the impact the accusations had on military families. SOP from National and the NZDF, especially in an election year.

Even though they may have forced a delay in ascertaining the truth as to what happened that August night in Afghanistan, they may have set themselves up for a bigger fall, albeit one that will cost taxpayers far more than if the inquiry had been done under the aegis of the Solicitor General, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security or some other reputable and independent local jurist. That is because if a state refuses to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by its troops, then that bumps up the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC can be petitioned to open an investigation and launch prosecutions against those suspected of war crimes if a state refuses to do so, and that may eventually be the case here.

The government strategy at this point seems to be to refuse an inquiry and force interested parties to make a case under the Inquiries Act, in the courts under one or more Acts, or in international bodies like the ICC. That is expensive and time consuming, so those willing to challenge the NZDF’s self-exoneration must be well resourced and prepared for a lengthy legal battle. In the meantime crucial evidence may disappear, sources for the allegations may change their minds out of fear of reprisal, material inducements for non-cooperation with investigators may be offered–no one should be so naive as to think that those under potential scrutiny would not stoop to such things.

The government is also clearly banking on political pressure for an independent investigation waning rather than increasing in the weeks and months ahead. It is confident that political parties will focus on the election and the media will move on to other things over the next few news cycles and that the claims will be forgotten by the public in short course. There are grounds to believe that it may be correct in these assumptions, but that depends on how interested parties feel about matters of truth and accountability in public institutions such as the military.

The government could well be daring the likes of Rodney Harrison QC, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod, who are representing the survivors of the alleged attacks and who successfully represented Ahmed Zaoui against the then-government’s mischaracterisation and detention of him as a dangerous terrorist, to take the case to the ICC. That is because although New Zealand is a member of the ICC, the US is not. Since the US Army provided the close air support for the raids and is implicated in the killings of civilians in the Hit and Run narrative, this means that a key part of any investigation–US complicity in the killing of innocents–will not receive US support or cooperation. In fact, the US is not a member of the ICC precisely because it does not want to see its soldiers or the authorities who command them ever face prosecution in The Hague. And without US participation, the presentation of the NZ side of the story would be incomplete at best, and thereby not a full account of what went down that fateful night. It is hard to mount an investigation or a prosecution, much less secure a conviction, without the participation of one of the principles involved. For a case to stand up in court a partial account of events is simply not enough without corroboration by others involved in the actions in question. This may be true for NZ courts as well as the ICC.

Even so, I am not sure that banking on US non-membership in the ICC is a winning strategy even if it adds to the costs and delays involved in establishing the truth and achieving justice for those needlessly harmed without cause. Refusal to participate in an ICC investigation could be worse for NZ’s reputation than agreeing to it and finding out that not all was as depicted by the NZDF version of event–even if war crimes were not committed.

The bottom line is that the government appears to be running scared with its quick acceptance of the NZDF clean up job. One video from a US helicopter and the NZDF report on the raid–a chronicle of events that leaves numerous questions unanswered, as pointed out by Selwyn Manning in the previous post–is all that it took to convince PM Bill English that all was hunky dory that night. Given that there were likely to be multiple camera angles and audio communications recorded during the raid by both the NZSAS as well as US forces for after-action de-briefings, the fact that just one served to convince the PM of the veracity of the NZDF account leaves me with only one simple conclusion with regard to Mr. English. In the words of Jack Nicholson playing a Marine Colonel under investigation for covering up a homicide at the Marine detachment stationed at Naval Base Guantanamo in the movie “A Few Good Men:”

YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

After doing the radio interview linked to in the last post, I was approached by the nice people at The Spinoff to write a short elaboration on what I discussed on air. Here it is.

Media Link: Some thoughts on “Hit and Run.”

datePosted on 13:13, March 30th, 2017 by Pablo

I have done a fair share of media interviews about the Nicky Hager/Jon Stephenson book “Hit and Run.” Needless to say, the claims in the book are damning of the NZDF, although I believe that the criticism is more focused on the command leadership rather than on the troops involved in the operation that is the subject of the book. In any event, this is a an interview I did with radio New Zealand on the matter.

About that “Deep State.”

datePosted on 06:57, March 22nd, 2017 by Pablo

One of the distressing things about the ascendance of a worldwide politically retro (aka “alt-“) Right is the role played by conspiracy theories, alternative narratives and ideological appropriation. The so-called alt-Right, which is not just a US phenomenon but was instrumental in Trump’s electoral victory, basically adopted many of the maxims of the postmodern and conspiratorial Left when espousing a political, social and economically white Christian nationalist agenda. This as true in Poland as it is in the UK, Australia or the US. Realizing that in an age of social media the promotion of alternative “news” once exclusively purveyed by tabloids like the National Inquirer and gossip magazines can now have real weight in political and social debates, the alt-Right drew upon the Left in order to make its pitch. Using a steady stream of Left originated conspiracies such as the assassination of JFK and 9/11 being “inside jobs” and the moon landing never happening to push a counter-hegemonic agenda, the alt-Right introduced its own version of the proper order and the reasons why it was under siege  (assuming that one accepts that liberal hegemony based on principles of fairness and equality has increasingly been the norm in recent times, something the proponents of the alt-Right clearly believe even if a comparative examination of global political culture paints a very different picture).

To the use of Left conspiracy theories as a basis for re-imagining an alternative Right reality is added appropriation of the worst of post-modern theory: that there is no such thing as “objective” truth or rationality, that everything is subjective, contextual or inter-textual, and that all views are equally valid. This latter school of thought, with its rejection of Enlightment reasoning, would have us believe that a rationality that defends and legitimizes foot binding and clitoral excision is equal to feminism, to say nothing of giving equal weight to rejections of larger theorizations about universal human rights, medicinal science and practice, climate science, psychology, market behavior and political participation. This is particularly seen in the field of sub-altern studies, where the “noble savage” premise is as condescending as it is strong, to say nothing of just plain wrong.

It is one thing to give voice to the dispossessed. It is another, less honourable thing to give equal interpretative weight to the voice of socio-cultural relativity, subjectivity and “alternality” when it comes to matters of truth, objectivity and factual evidence. Because that is what has allowed the alt-Right to turn things on its head: victims become oppressors, fair becomes foul, white becomes black, and truth becomes fiction. “Facts” do not matter, just feelings and opinions do.

This is not a revelation. The alt-Right appropriation of Left generated absurdism has philosophically entrenched roots. Like National Socialism, the theoretical foundations of the alt-Right may be shallow at best, but as been pointed out elsewhere, the alt-Right is about whinging and being mean, not about being analytically deep, correct or corrective.

The point is not to criticize post-modernists, whose original cadre enriched social thought. Instead, the concern here is with how the focus on social relativity, subjectivity and victimization has been combined with conspiracy mongering in an alt-Right worldview where the propagation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” is the new normal.

That brings us to the subject of the so-called “Deep State.” Like many conspiracy theories, it has a grain of truth in it, but the original truth has now been conceptually stretched to the point of distortion.

The concept of Deep State refers to an unelected, politically unaccountable permanent national security bureaucracy involving key actors in the military, intelligence, national police, economic and broader internal security communities. Civilian and uniformed personnel are involved and often collude with organized crime and/or business interests in what amounts to a marriage of convenience when it comes to steering the ship of state. Administrations and even regimes may come and go, but the Deep State remains.

The original notion of the Deep State was associated with authoritarian regimes or countries with histories of fragile electoral rule alternating with episodes of dictatorship. Praetorian military and intelligence services constituted the core of the Deep State, which was charged with ensuring that vital national interests and orientations were maintained regardless of the vicissitudes of politicians, strongmen or the voting public.

The initial take on the Deep State purportedly came from Turkey, where part of the Kemalist legacy was a permanent bureaucracy inherited from his reign that was tasked with perpetuating his secular-nationalist political legacy. It has been associated with countries with histories of political instability like Argentina and Pakistan, where shadowy forces are believed to operate unchecked by elected authorities and who, in fact, are suspected of manipulating political institutions and processes for their own ends. And it has been associated with countries with long authoritarian cultures and traditions that currently operate under electoral veneers, such as Russia. The common denominator is that the Deep State not only serves as a shadow government but more importantly as the guarantor of certain vested interests—economic, geopolitical, social and ideological—regardless of the public face of governance.

In the conspiratorial view the Deep State is subversive of consolidated democracies. It is also part of international capitalist/imperialist networks often dominated by Zionists and others who wish to usurp the “real” will of the people. It has its hands in all facets of governance and yet is invisible to the electorate and unaccountable to those they install in office.

That is exactly what Steve Bannon and his co-religionists are preaching from the White House. They claim that a Deep State populated by Obama/Clinton supporters is operating to undermine the Trump presidency by promoting uncertainty, doubt and mischief with selective leaks and “fake news.” These views are echoed in Left-leaning outlets like Salon and The Intercept, where numerous stories make reference to the nefarious machinations of the US Deep State at home and abroad. Many in the US and elsewhere have taken them at their word.

The truth is different. Although there is certainly a career civil service and military/intelligence bureaucracy that serves as the permanent staff of the federal state apparatus and which have institutional interests of their own, these do not quite amount to a Deep State. For starters, they do not have the degree of ideological cohesion and shared material stake required to operate undetected over time. They are constrained by laws and regulations governing the federal bureaucracy, to include whistleblowing protections, that make it difficult to set up secret networks within core agencies. They are subject to oversight mechanisms and turf battles that impede inter-agency collusion in pushing a hidden collective agenda of any magnitude. The size and scope of the state apparatus makes improbable that a secret network of bureaucrats could translate undetected their common desires into effective State action. Finally, the vagaries of the political process, with its impact on policy-making and staffing under different administrations (for example, from Reagan to Clinton to W. and Obama), make it difficult for even a small cadre of well-placed idealogues to develop the resource base and operational control required to run a Deep State.

To be sure, intelligence agencies and the military undertake secretive operations that push the envelope of what is legally permissible. Civilian agencies often attempt to whitewash or bury scandals. Cover-ups of official malfeasance is commonplace. Businesses and interest groups collude with state agencies in rent-seeking behavior. But these do not amount to proof of the existence of a Deep State. In fact, one can argue that if there were a Deep State in the US, it would have ensured that Donald Trump was never elected.

What Trump is encountering is the natural blowback occasioned by his attacks on the integrity and purpose of key agencies and his attempts to diminish, replace or dismantle some of them. For example, since the Environmental Protection Agency is charged with doing just that, it should come as no surprise that its staff react with hostility to the appointment of a fossil fuel industry advocate as Director, especially when he doubts climate science and has stated his intention to loosen air, water and land pollution standards while pushing for an overall downsizing of the agency and its budget.

Similarly, the intelligence community (IC) has not reacted well to Trump’s accusations that it is incompetent and acts like “Nazis” when it comes to the subject of Russian interference in the US elections. It finds problematic that Trump has his own non-vetted “intelligence” group led by Bannon that now has access to the combined product of the IC via the daily briefs to the president and the NSC.

The armed services have been attacked as well, with Trump saying that he “knows more” than the generals, that they are incompetent and that the US military is in disrepair. He uses the Joint Chiefs of Staff as props in political theatre events such as his first address to Congress. He says that he has a plan to defeat terrorism but then demands that a plan be drawn immediately by the very generals he has derided.

The list of aggrieved agencies is long (pity the Department of Education!) and the depth of bureaucratic resentment is deep. But bureaucratic pushback is not synonymous for or evidence of a Deep State at work. To claim otherwise is simply to indulge in a form of post-modern conspiracy theory, even if the claim comes out of the West Wing.

It is ironic that we have some on the Left to thank for that.

I shall leave for another time discussion of whether there is a Deep State in New Zealand. What is true is that the New Zealand intelligence community has a degree of operational autonomy and history of non-accountability that could allow for the formation of a cabal of intelligence “insiders” who carry on as they please. This is especially true given the absence of parliamentary and ministerial oversight, paucity of public interest, ignorance of security matters on the part of MPs and the  traditional weakness of review mechanisms such as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence. To some extent, the same is true for the NZDF and the Police. The question is whether this has resulted in bureaucratic capture by these agencies of their ostensible political and judicial overseers, or has it led to the formation of a Deep State within the state bureaucracy.

The answer, it would seem, is a matter of perspective.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

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