Archive for ‘foreign policy’ Category
Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.
I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).
But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.
It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).
The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.
While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.
There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.
Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.
The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.
Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.
I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.
Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.
I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.
Hence my disappointment.
A recent TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed that 32 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, 32 percent had much or complete trust in those agencies, and 33 percent were lukewarm either way (with 3 percent undecided). That means that 65 percent of respondents were less than strongly trusting of New Zealand’s spies. This is a remarkable degree of public skepticism of intelligence organizations in a democracy.
The Prime Minister has said that the New Zealand intelligence community has to work hard to regain public trust. He is wrong, or is just being politically polite.
Unlike agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Police, Fire Service, Health Boards, WINZ and Education, which provide direct goods and services to the public and which depend on public trust in order to operate efficiently (notwithstanding the well-known problems afflicting at least some of these “direct provision” agencies), the intelligence community need not concern itself with expressions of public trust. That is because the service that intelligence agencies provide as ostensibly commonweal organizations (i.e. ones that serve the universal public interest), although for the general good in the last instance (at least theoretically), is not provided directly or even openly. Instead, the intelligence agencies answer to the government of the day as the representative of the public will and provide their collection and analysis skills to the government for the national good as defined by their charter and the government’s interpretation of it. They do not need the public’s trust in order to operate efficiently because most of what they do is away from the public eye.
Thus, in the first instance, the trust of the government is what matters for the spies. In this the intelligence community has an advantage because politicians elected into government are generally not conversant with intelligence matters and therefore are susceptible to espionage agency “capture:” the information that the spies provide gives the political elite a privileged window on the world, so they are most often reluctant to critically dispute the view.
More importantly, New Zealand’s intelligence sharing partners must have strong levels of trust in its spies. Without that, New Zealand’s access to allied intelligence sharing may suffer because foreign partners will be reluctant to risk placing sensitive information in the hands of untrustworthy people. The saving grace for New Zealand’s spies is that the years of relationship-building with its intelligence partners could allay the latter’s fears of incompetence or unprofessionalism on the part of the former.
On the other hand, even long standing relationships can be damaged by breaches of trust. This could well be the case in the wake of the Dotcom scandal, where the case against the internet magnate is crumbling in light of disclosures of illegal warrantless wiretapping by the GCSB (which makes evidence collected by those wiretaps inadmissible). Between the GCSB’s failures to follow its own basic protocols with regards to eavesdropping requests from sister agencies, coupled with the over the top nature of the raids on Dotcom’s residence (which included the presence of armed FBI agents and the detention of women and children by armed police), it is unlikely that any NZ judge will grant the US extradition request. That means time and resources spent by the US and NZ on pursuing the case against Dotcom will be for naught. The GCSB failings are bound to be noted by New Zealand’s intelligence partners, who will wonder about the assurances given by the GCSB and Police (and more than likely the SIS) that their course of action would not be subject to legal challenge or public scrutiny.
The bottom line is one of vertical and horizontal accountability. In democracies, governments are held accountable by the electorate (expressed both individually and collectively). That is the vertical dimension of accountability. Under that government, public agencies are accountable to each other via a system of checks and balances. That is the horizontal dimension of democratic accountability, which is used to cultivate the public trust that is key to vertical accountability.
In New Zealand there is very little horizontal accountability between the intelligence community and other parts of government, to include parliament and the judiciary (and perhaps even the executive in specific instances). This makes its agents (to include the GCSB and SIS) even less vertically accountable than in most liberal democracies, where oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms are much better developed.
As a nation-state New Zealand is also accountable to its diplomatic and security partners. That is another facet of horizontal accountability, writ large. New Zealand’s foreign partners must have trust in its diplomatic, military and espionage agencies in order for their mutual relationships to prosper. So long as they do, domestic trust is of secondary importance. But for that to happen, New Zealand’s intelligence community must be able to deliver on what it promises, which means that it must offer iron-clad guarantees that its activities will not be the subject of contentious public or political debate that can jeopardize ongoing intelligence collection and analysis operations
Thus, on the one hand, the poll results are not as worrisome for the government as may appear at first glance. So long as the New Zealand intelligence community and its component parts have the trust of its allies, then it will suffer no harm as a result of the public loss of faith in it. But should foreign partners come anywhere close to exhibiting the flat bell curve of trust that characterizes the results of the TVNZ survey, then New Zealand could well find itself excluded from at least some of the sensitive intelligence flows that are the ostensible reason for its participation in the Echelon/Five Eyes network, to say nothing of the wider intelligence community of which it is part.
As for the domestic side of the equation: a nation of sheep is led by the sheep dog. The sheep dog is the government, of which intelligence agencies are part. The shepherd is the institutional system of checks and balances that govern intelligence gathering and analysis, to which the government of the moment is subject. Absent such effective oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms, sheep are always at the mercy of an unrestrained and unaccountable dog.
Media coverage of trade negotiations in the Asia-Pacific have largely overlooked the strategic perspectives underpinning different countries’ approaches to the subject. In this analytic brief I outline some of the issues involved, to include potential problems when different strategic outlooks are juxtaposed.
Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.
John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.
Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.
I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.
The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.
Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner? If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.
Posted on 09:50, October 10th, 2012 by Pablo
One thing has become clear after the revelations of multiple New Zealand intelligence agency failures, malfeasance and incompetence over the past few years. That is what happens when there is no effective oversight on, or accountability by those agencies. As things stand the Prime Minster is the sole oversight on New Zealand’s intelligence community. The parliamentary intelligence and security committee is a toothless wonder that gets semi-regular general briefings on intelligence matters (at a rate of less than once a month), and the inspector general (IG) of intelligence–the person who is supposed to independently investigate the actions of the intelligence community–is currently a geriatric former judge who has the equivalent of a .5 full time employee and whose office and resources are provided by the agencies he is supposed to independently assess. His predecessor, another retired judge, resigned under a cloud brought about by the Ahmed Zaoui political asylum case, where the Security Intelligence Services (SIS) was shown to have clearly manipulated analysis of intelligence flows derived from foreign partners and the IG demonstrated bias in favor of the SIS version of events prior to releasing his findings.
Add to that the fact that the IG has limited powers of investigation and a parliamentary committee that cannot be told about operational matters and has no powers to subpoena or authority to force testimony under oath, and what you have is a recipe for institutional “stretch:” the tendency of institutions to exceed and play loose with the rules, laws and regulations governing their charter in the absence of effective oversight and accountability. That has become glaring apparent in recent weeks.
The problem is somewhat mitigated when the Prime Minister is a hands-on type of manager who is knowledgeable about intelligence matters, to include methods of collection and analysis. Although it raises the possibility of PM misuse of intelligence flows for political purposes, it does have the merit of forcing intelligence officials to be accountable to someone. However, if the PM is disinterested, ignorant or laissez-faire in managerial approach to intelligence matters, then the possibility of intelligence agency institutional stretch becomes quite real, as we have now seen.
Given the revelations about the GCSB and prior instances of SIS “stretch,” the time is now perfect for a reform of the intelligence oversight apparatus. Although the PM can and should remain as the minister for intelligence and security, the parliamentary committee needs to be granted effective and binding oversight authority that includes powers to investigate operational issues and force intelligence agency officials of all ranks to respond under oath to questions about the how, when and why of specific intelligence matters. Likewise, the Inspector General’s position needs to be expanded into a three person panel that includes a mix of people with experience in handling sensitive information and knowledge of how intelligence collection and analysis works, and who answer to and are resourced by parliament rather than the PM and SIS, respectively.
Unchecked executive oversight of intelligence agencies is prone to what might be called the authoritarian tendency (by which elected executives assume quasi-dictatorial powers of managerial control), and is in fact the mark of many authoritarian regimes. This avoids the system of checks and balances that is not only a hallmark of democratic political systems, but of their institutional component as well. The issue, as the intelligence community well knows, is about triangulation: there needs to be at least three independent (if overlapped) sources of critical institutional scrutiny for information or oversight to be validated (which are manifest in policy or administrative decisions).
That system of institutional checks and balances is what provides oversight and promotes accountability within public bureaucracies as a whole. Such accountability is horizontal–between different public agencies such as the judiciary and security apparatus–as well as vertical (where public agencies answer to political authorities separated into legislative and executive components). The institutionalized oversight aggregate mitigates against public agency stretch and political manipulation.
Having one individual, whatever his or her persuasion with regard to issues of intelligence collection, analysis and political impact (something driven by the political context of the moment, including the relationship between government and opposition and the personal and partisan implications of any given decision regarding security and intelligence) is, in a democracy, antithetical. In mature democracies policy decisions are not individualized; they are institutionalized and subject to effective oversight.
This is simply a matter of democratic good practice. Effective, independent oversight not only keeps intelligence agencies honest and prevents institutional stretch. It reassure the voting public that the larger common interest, rather than narrow political, diplomatic or corporate concerns, are served by the intelligence and security agencies charged with defending the commonweal.
Posted on 04:53, September 21st, 2012 by Pablo
For those interested in US domestic politics and the potential impact of a Romney presidency on US foreign policy with a South Pacific angle, my thoughts on the subject are gathered here.
In spite of some serious dysfunctionalities in its party politics and potential problems with its economic growth model (heavily dependent on mineral exports), Australia is well on its way to becoming a regional great power. In this regard it shares macro-characteristics with three of the four “BRICs:” Brazil, India and Russia (the PRC has surpassed regional great power status and is no longer, in my opinion, appropriately categorized with the others). Although Australians may prefer not be grouped with the others for a variety of reasons, I take the notion of “rising middle power” as the starting point for a comparative analysis of Australia as a different type of BRIC.
Posted on 17:04, August 1st, 2012 by Pablo
A recent canvass of members of the diplomatic community resident in Wellington had as a common theme the apparent incoherence of contemporary New Zealand foreign policy. That prompted me to attempt to deconstruct the major features of New Zealand foreign policy during the last three decades and to offer some explanations as to why they no longer hold in the measure that they once did. You can find the explanation here.
A conversation with Lew and Selwyn Manning prompted this rumination. It is not meant as a comprehensive organizational analysis but instead as food for thought, using the case of the UN and Fiji after the 2006 coup to outline a phenomenon known as “policy fade.”
Deployment of Fijian soldiers and police as UN peacekeepers after the 2006 military coup in that country is a good example of policy fade, in this case undertaken by the UN. Initial calls for and threats of Fijian suspension from all UN peacekeeping operations never materialized and Fijian involvement in UN-sanctioned armed multilateral operations increased after 2007. Suspension from international organizations such as the Commonwealth and Pacific Island Forum (which included prohibitions on Fiji participation in PIF-sanctioned multilateral armed peacekeeping operations), the halting of foreign aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank, and travel sanctions on officials in the Bainimarama government by Australia and New Zealand were not matched by the UN when it came to peacekeeping. Instead, the UN’s course of action has been marked by non-enforcement of the measures called for by the original policy statements made immediately before and following the 2006 military coup. Along with other circumventions, the UN policy fade allowed the Fijian military to defy the sanctions regime imposed upon it.
Policy fade is the process of putting distance on an initial policy position. There are several ways to back away. Here the focus is not on policy retreats or complete back downs imposed by adverse externalities or changes of mind on the part of policy-makers. Instead, the emphasis is on types of managed policy fade initiated from within a political organization. It can accompany policy softening, which is the modification of policy along its margins without removing the original intent. Managed policy fade is about instituting a controlled move away from failed, unpopular, embarrassing or non-enforceable policy without losing credibility (or face, or honor).
There are several ways with which to manage policy fade. The issue can be ignored over time so that it disappears from the public eye. It can be re-defined so as to diminish its visibility, divert attention away from it or to give credence to a change in approach. It can be deferred and/or delayed so as to encourage historical amnesia. The process of policy fade can involve combinations of these approaches. In all cases the intent is to remove the policy issue from public scrutiny in order to eventually abandon or change the original approach.
The UN used the delay-and-defer approach to the subject of Fiji’s peacekeeping role. Kofi Annan’s originally strong language on the consequences of the coup was qualified by his successor Ban ki-moon. Annan made his statements in October 2006, prior to the coup and during the last three months of his term as Secretary General. Confronted with a lack of votes in the Security Council in favor of a resolution ordering Fiji out of peacekeeping duties and not wanting to risk aggravating rifts in the General Assembly over the issue very early in his term, Ban delayed following up on the promises of Annan and others to that effect. He also deferred the issue to his underlings.
In April 2007 Ban called for a study of the impact a peacekeeping suspension would have on Fijian society as well as the regime. As is well known, service in UN peacekeeping operations is a major source of pride for the Fijian military, which can hone professional skills and maintain espirit d’corps while contributing to domestic stability via remittances from its soldiers abroad. The study was designed to identify the tangible costs of a suspension beyond diplomatic isolation. Its results have never been disclosed. Meanwhile Fijian peacekeepers continued to serve in UN missions and at present constitute the largest source of soldiers for the UN peacekeeping mission in Iraq. It appears that the UN decided the benefits of having Fiji continue to be a contributor to peacekeeping operations outweighed the illegality of its military regime, and simply never admitted to that calculation in public.
The delay-and-defer approach relies on news cycles and diminishing public interest to be effective. If the media and/or public focus continues to bring attention to the issues involved, then policy fade becomes more difficult to implement. On the other hand the press of events means that media and public attention spans are often limited, making the policy fade process possible once the glare of scrutiny is off.
Since 2006 the UN’s and global public attention has shifted elsewhere. That reduced the importance of a possible suspension of Fijian peacekeepers as a UN policy priority. The subject of suspending Fiji from participating in UN peacekeeping operations was consequently dropped from public statements and a quiet accommodation was made with the Fijian authorities that sees Fijian military and police continuing to serve in blue helmet missions abroad (the use of Fijian military and ex-military by private security companies was not effected in any event). When 36th Parallel Assessments recently questioned the UN about the ongoing presence of Fijian troops in UN peacekeeping missions despite the original talk about suspension, the response was to admit that no suspension was authorized and decisions on Fijian participation in peacekeeping operations are taken on a case-by-case basis.
Although it contravenes the intent of the sanctions regime imposed by other international organizations and individual countries, continued Fijian participation in UN peacekeeping operations may be seen as a way of showing goodwill towards, and exercising some diplomatic leverage on, the Bainimarama government as it moves towards re-scheduled elections in 2014. In fact, an increase in Fijian troop contributions to UN missions in 2011-12 coincides with the suspension of the state of emergency in place in Fiji since 2009 and commencement of the voter registration and constitutional consultation process leading up to the 2014 vote.
After 2007 Australia and New Zealand remained silent on the issue of Fijian troops on UN peacekeeping missions even though it demonstrates the futility of their bilateral sanctions against the military regime. Instead, they also have engaged in policy fade, in this case of the “ignore it and it will go away” variety. Knowing that there are more important issues to address and not willing to enter into a public argument with the UN peacekeeping division or be embarrassed in the Security Council and General Assembly when both are contemplating bids for temporary membership on it, Australia and New Zealand cast a blind eye on the continued use of Fijian peacekeepers by the UN even though in some cases (Sinai, Syria) their soldiers serve side by side with Fijians.
In both countries public disinterest or ignorance of the state of play surrounding the bilateral sanctions regime has helped governments to ignore the issue in public while concentrating on other priority policy areas and allowing relations with Fiji to be handled quietly, both directly and in multinational fora.
Given the diplomatic lifeline thrown to the Fijian regime by the UN with regards to its involvement in peacekeeping, the overall sanctions regime imposed on it was porous. However, it also provided a stick to complement the UN carrot, and the uncertainty of the UN case-by-case approach to Fijian peacekeeping ensured that the Bainimarama government could not rest entirely easy with regards to its diplomatic status or that of its blue-helmeted troops in the field.
The task now for Australia, New Zealand and other international agencies is to gracefully move away from their respective hardline stances towards something more accommodating of the Fijian regime. This can be tied to the gradual (and continued) opening of the Fijian political process as the date of elections draws closer, and could involve incremental lifting of sanctions and resumption of fuller diplomatic relations or practical engagement with the Fijian state on the part of those currently employing sanctions against it. The US, Russia, India and PRC already give full bilateral diplomatic recognition to Fiji, so large international organizations can take the lead in following their example in return for continued progress towards the 2014 ballot. Should that happen, then Australia and New Zealand can re-consider their stance on travel sanctions with some decorum.
However it is couched, the ineffectiveness of the international sanctions regime in the face of the UN policy fade on Fijian peacekeepers made necessary policy fade on the part of other actors. The fade process on the original international sanctions policy is transiting to the redefining phase, something that should be evident in policy pronouncements on Fiji by the international sanctions coalition over the next year.
A different version of the essay appears as an analytic brief at 36th-parallel.com
Selwyn Manning gives us the word.