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In my final interview in the “Letters from America” series with Mitch Harris at RadioLive, I reflect on the Alabama senatorial election, the plight of Rex Tillerson, the attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and a few more things. After five months, it is time to go home.

The deaths of four US servicemen in Niger has brought attention the fact that the US military operates in far more places and in far more numbers than the public, and apparently senior members of the US Congress (which supposedly has oversight responsibility for US foreign military deployments) are aware of. Estimates of US bases abroad range from 800 bases in 70 countries to 900 bases in 130 countries, with anywhere from 250 thousand to over 750 thousand troops deployed overseas a given time (the total of bases on foreign soil operated by other countries is around 30, mostly by former colonial powers). The reason that the figure varies is that the Pentagon refuses to reveal the precise number of clandestine or “lilly pad” bases (less than 200 troops on station), so the numbers publicly acknowledged are grounded in the permanent installations the US maintains in places such as Okinawa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  This does not include CIA paramilitary forces operating abroad, which are roughly thought to be in the hundreds.

The ambush that killed the four US Army Special Forces (SF) sergeants was staged during a routine “train, advise and assist” (TAA)/reconnaissance mission in the Southwestern border with Mali. They were part of a 12 man Green Beret team accompanying a 30 man Nigerien partner unit during a routine meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo, part of an area in which Daesh is known to operate on both sides of the border (but which until this particular attack had not been sighted near Tongo Tongo during 29 previous patrols). The SF team was part of an 800 strong US military presence in Niger under the jurisdiction of the US African Command (AFCOM) deployed there to help the Nigerien and French militaries fight Daesh as it seeks safe havens in relatively lawless or stateless parts of Subsaharan and West Africa. The SF team/partner  platoon were attacked after they left the village on their way back to tactical HQ.

Leading figures in US Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claim that they were not briefed on the mission and have not been given answers as to what went wrong. Press attention has focused on the insensitive treatment of one widow by the President once her husband’s body was returned to the mainland, why one of the soldiers was left behind during the evacuation (he was later found dead a mile from the ambush site) and the fact that “no one knew” about the US military presence in Niger. In fact, most Americans and the President himself were unaware of what Niger was until the ambush. Now, partisan rebukes are being thrown and answers are being demanded. Yet, with only one percent of the US population directly connected to the US military as serving personnel or immediate relatives of those doing so, it is not entirely surprising that the public and corporate media are unaware of the full extent of US military activities outside of the open conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A bit more surprising is the apparent Congessional ignorance of what is happening in AFCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) or the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which that SF team and other troops operate (that is relevant because it turns out that the ill-fated patrol had no US close air support and required French air assets to come to its assistance more than an hour after the ambush began). Since it is routine for the Pentagon to provide off-record briefs to the Armed Services Committees of both deliberative chambers on military operational matters abroad, this seems unusual unless there was a highly classified scenario being developed in that part of the world.

The surprise and arguments about the ambush in Niger–“Trump’s Benghazi,” as some are calling it–obscures an underlining fact: US imperialism is in crisis. It may or may not be terminal and it may or may not be positive for world peace, but the reasons for the crisis are worth exploring.

The crisis of US imperialism (or neo-imperialism, should one want to be pedantic) is rooted in both domestic as well as international factors. Domestically, the long era of “liberal internationalism” is over, and so far nothing as emerged by way of a coherent foreign policy and military strategic doctrine to replace it. Liberal internationalism, which emerged during the Cold War and remained as the guiding principle of the US approach to international relations until Donald Trump entered presidential office, is premised on the belief that the US has a special responsibility to engage in the international system in order to safeguard and expand a liberal democratic order based upon market capitalist principles. This was evident in the US role in creating international institutions such as the UN, WTO and IMF but also in its role as the ‘world’s policeman.” The idea was that the US, as the world’s superpower, had the responsibility to promote and maintain a system that, if not made in its image, was supportive of the liberal mores that it espoused, especially when these were challenged by actors with less noble motives. Many might disagree with both the premise and practice of liberal internationalism, but that is what guided US foreign policy and military diplomacy for almost a half century.

The liberal internationalist (some call it interventionist) consensus spanned both major parties and the foreign policy elite in Washington and in academia. But with the emergence of an economically nationalist and neo-isolationist “America First” Alt-Right led by the likes of Steve Bannon and endorsed by Trump, the consensus has broken down. Where American neo-conservatives and neo-Wilsonians, neo-realists, idealists and constuctivists could all paper over their differences under the umbrella of liberal internationalism in pursuit of US global hegemony, they are repudiated in their entirety by the America Firsters. However, other than the appeal to economic nationalism, xenophobia and a “strong military,” the latter are themselves unsure how to approach world affairs. This is seen in the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to assorted foreign policy issues as well as in the lack of high and upper management level appointments in the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies (over 250 such positions remain unfilled ten months after Trump’s inauguration).

By way of default, the US imperial reach is increasingly maintained by the military rather than the diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decimated the upper ranks of the foreign service in favor of relying on a small cadre of trusted advisors, only a few of whom have the type of diplomatic experience that a career foreign service officer would have. In parallel, Trump has staffed the White House and Pentagon with retired and active duty generals, even in positions traditionally filled by civilians. The combination, when added to the lack of strategic vision and baseline foreign policy principles, has resulted in the conduct of US diplomacy led by military threat or fiat, as opposed to military diplomacy being subordinated to and guided by broader strategic and diplomatic objectives.

This is a major sign of weakness because the role of global hegemon requires that the majority of other states and international actors support US leadership and eventually accept and share its values as organizing principles for the international order. That is how the difference between “super” and “great” powers is drawn: “super” powers intervene in the international community in order to maintain and defend systemic interests grounded in the promotion and acceptance of shared perspectives and values, whereas “great” powers intervene in the international community to promote national interests in the absence or rejection of universal standards. Both approaches are grounded in realpolitik, but only the former is hegemonic because it relies more on diplomatic cooperation than military coercion.

Evidence that the US is declining in influence and moving from a “super” to a “great” power is seen externally. The return or rise of old and new powers has shifted the international system towards multipolarity after a decade or so of post-Cold War unipolarity. The US may still be central to the strategic equation inherent in the emerging mulitipolar system but it no longer dominates it. The endless wars since 9/11 have sapped its finances and public morale and demonstrated that its much proclaimed capability to fight and win 2.5 major regional conflicts (MRCs) was baseless in fact (the 2.5 MRC scenario was premised on the US simultaneously fighting and winning two major and one minor conventional regional conflicts alone and against any combination of adversaries. Unfortunately for US military planners and the troops that were deployed under that strategy and unlike Saddam Hussein’s forces, various enemies refused to cooperate by fighting the way they were expected to fight). And while its blood and treasure were and are drawn in dozens of conflicts such as that in Niger, other states push economic development and  military modernization as the path towards great power status.

Although it remains a potent, perhaps unchallenged fighting force under the right conditions, the impotence of the US when it comes to imposing a preferred political solution in the wake of military conflict has been noted by allies and adversaries alike. The latter now challenge the US more and more, in places both far from and near to what should be essential US national interests. They include states as well as non-state actors, and they undertake covert and overt hostilities against the US on several dimensions across multiple fronts, be they cyber, kinetic, economic or diplomatic. The US is increasingly unable to respond symetrically and effectively to these challenges even with a forward military presence spread across the globe.

The problem of US challengers acting with relative impunity in a multipolar world is not its only concern. US allies no longer see its as a reliable partner. This is largely due to the deleterious impact of the Trump presidency on the US reputation, but it is not reducible to it. Allies and adversaries can all see the political polarization within the US, the increase in racial and ethnic tensions, the growing economic inequalities, the culture clashes over traditional values, the overtly tribal nature of interest group intermediation, and the overly violent nature of a popular culture enabled and promoted by weapons manufacturers and the lobbies that use fear-mongering and mythology on their behalf to keep the culture of violence alive and growing. These internal contradictions all spell out the weakness of a society in decline. For many at both home and abroad, the US gives all the appearance of being Rome before the Fall.

It seems that the mainstream media and the public that watches it are slowly cottoning on to this fact even if the political class does not want to admit it. The lack of victories abroad, the lack of information about what the US military does and where it does it (even as the Trump administration authorises expanded CIA paramilitary operations, including drone hunts of suspected extremists), and the notion that the more the US tries to maintain its international position the more it weakens itself on the home front, appear to be gaining traction in the social consciousness. There is more open wondering about “why are we there and what purpose is being served” as opposed to the “if not us, then who” rationales that have dominated public discourse for the past decades. And even though concerns about terrorism remain strong, it is harder for people in the US to rationalize and support policies that claim that tribespeople with pre-modern social organizations in West Africa (or Afghanistan for that matter) are, through a long string of connections, a potential existential threat to the US mainland and its way of life.

Eroded from within and challenged from without, it appears that for this era of US (neo) imperialism, twilight has arrived. The question is what comes next, because if one thing is proven in history is that Empires in decline seldom go quietly into the night. And night is approaching, fast.

Postscript: The radio interview that prompted this reflection (and which covers more than this particular subject) can be found here.

A walking Tui ad?

datePosted on 06:57, October 20th, 2017 by Pablo

The election turned out OK as far as I am concerned. My decision to support Labour after years of supporting the Greens seems to have paid off as they are now leading the new government. The Greens were punished for their shift from red to blue at their core and for bringing in neophytes onto their list, but not too much (although I still have serious reservations about their ideological direction and one of their new MPs). Save for ACT the various useless parties disappeared. And the Nats got what they deserved, which was the boot, even if it took that old dog Winston to apply his toe to their posteriors. As for NZ First, time will only tell if they are the fly in the ointment or the straw that stirs the drink.

When it comes to how the new government will be organized, I am very curious to see who will be appointed Minister of Defense. Ron Mark is a likely candidate, and I have no problem with him in that role in spite of his otherwise reactionary views (apologies if the list of Ministers is out and someone else is the new MoD). With the exception of Phil Goff he will be the most informed person to assume that portfolio in the last 18 years, which is good because the NZDF have some major decisions to make when it comes to upgrading and configuring the force.  There are issues of equipment purchases, recruitment and retention, foreign alliance commitments and the overall thrust of NZDF operations that need immediate addressing. He has been critical of the lack of strategic vision on the part of NZDF and MoD leaders, so my hope is that he will push for an overhaul in the strategic thinking underpinning NZDF operations that goes beyond the periodic exercises known as Defense White Papers. And he will have to address the problem of drug abuse within the NZDF, which has been kept largely under wraps but which is large enough to run the real risk of jeopardizing operational security and/or getting someone killed.

However, when it comes to intelligence matters and the general subject of security, I have concerns about the ability of the new government to impose its will on the intelligence community and Police as well as avoid so-called “bureaucratic capture:” the situation where the lack of experience in a subject field by new overseers or managers allows career bureaucrats to shape the former’s views of the subject in ways that serve the entrenched interests of the latter. I do not see anyone in the top tiers of Labour, the Greens or NZFirst who display particular fluency in matters of intelligence and security, and when it comes to direct political oversight of the NZ intelligence community, the lack of expertise is dire.

Or let me put it in this way:

One notable aspect of contemporary US politics is the re-emergence of so-called culture wars. Orchestrated by Steve Bannon, assorted alt-Right platforms and Murdoch media outlets in response to what could be called the de-WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant)-ification of US society, the conflict is centered on symbols and messaging. The regression into appeals to tradition, “culture” and “values” (read: white privilege) is a modern version backlash against what author and sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) called “good Negro government” after the Reconstruction Era in US history (1863-1877). The theme that today’s culture wars hark to the backlash against “good Negro government”  has been picked up by the writer Ta Nehisi Coates in his latest book “We Were Eight Years in Power,” where he argues that Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 was in large part due to white voters fears that Barack Obama had conclusively proved that people of color could run the federal government competently and that whites could no longer claim that colored people were ill-suited, emotionally, tempermentally, intellectually and culturally, to govern. It is one thing to have “good” Negros portrayed as equals on TV shows. It is quite another for them to actually wield power over whites.

Du Bois outlined his thoughts on “good Negro government” by watching the sequels to post Civil War reconstruction in the South, in South Carolina in particular. After the civil war US authorities mandated a period of social reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy in which free slaves were, by federal mandate, integrated into municipal and state governments and other social institutions. This forced intervention was designed to lay the foundations of a more egalitarian Southern society, and in many instances free Negros took up managerial positions in a variety of public and private agencies. However, after Reconstruction and federal government intervention ended (along with the withdrawal of federal troops), Southern states set about undoing the social changes that it had wrought. In 1895 South Carolina held a state constitutional convention in which most of the gains made by blacks were reversed and they were legally reduced to second class citizens prohibited from holding political offices and purged from public and private bureaucracies. This was also the time when the Klu Klux Klan was founded (as an extrajudicial enforcement arm of the socially revanchist South), the period of building monuments to heroes of the Confederacy was begun and the foundations of Jim Crow were laid.

For Du Bois, this backlash demonstrated that what White Southerners feared most was not a “bad Negro government” rife with incompetence and corruption, something that was already evident in pre-war Southern white governments. Instead, the greatest fear of Southern whites was of “good Negro government” that did the things that only whites were purportedly capable of doing due to their supposedly superior attributes. To that was added the battlefield record of black Union troops, who Southerners thought would be cowards and run from battle but who instead proved to be very competent soldiers, and the fact that instead of rioting, raping and pillaging once they were freed, former slaves went about peacefully rebuilding the South without major problems of their own (in fact, the majority of violence during the Reconstruction was white-on-black as white Southerners resisted treating recently freed slaves as equals).

This combination of factors destroyed the myth of white supremacy that Southerners clung to, so legislative reforms such as the 1895 South Carolina constitution were enacted in order to restore and enshrine the “proper” racial hierarchy under slave-free conditions. In effect, although unable to return to slavery, post-reconstruction legal reforms that restricted the citizenship and human rights of free slaves amounted to an early American version of apartheid, the origins of which were rooted in the fear of usurpation of white privilege.

Coates sees the Trump phenomenon as a repetition of the fear of “good Negro government.” The election of Barack Obama and the success of his administration in the face of disloyal opposition by Congressional Republicans and the Right-wing media was a nightmare for white (mostly working-class male) social revanchists who had been forced to suppress their racism and bigotry since the 1960s, when the Civil Right Act (1964), opposition to the Vietnam War and the adoption of anti-status quo and “countercultural” lifestyles upended traditional hierarchies. In the ensuing 40 years the white wage labouring classes have seen their social status eroded along with their jobs vis a vis competitors, most of them people of colour, emanating from home as well as abroad.

Objective explanations for white working class decline offer no relief to those suffering within it. It is bad enough for them to have to compete on US wages with undocumented immigrants and foreign wage slaves. It is particularly bad for them to have to compete with robotics and other aspects of computer generated productive automation. They have to find explanation for their plight in something other than the inevitable progression of US capitalism in a globalised system of production, communication and exchange. For the white demographic in decline, the answer to their plight lies in no fault of their own under conditions of capitalist competition, but in the social changes occuring corollary to it. That is, the explanation for white decline has to be socio-cultural rather than structurally capitalist in nature, specifically seen in the decline of WASP “values” and emergence of non-WASP perspectives as dominant influences in contemporary US society.

In that light the election of Barack  Obama to the presidency and his subsequent success at mastering the art of governance compounded white social revanchist fears by promoting and celebrating Hispanics, Asians, gays and other minorities in leadership roles in government, business, academia and communities, and by openly embracing minority cultures as part of the mainstream of US society.

Steve Bannon has seized on this to lead the cultural charge in support of “tradition” and against “unAmerican” values, which are now open code words for a return to white supremacy. He and his political acolytes have been successful in orchestrating a pushback that has prompted a regression in US social development, with a white backlash against the gains made by minorities of all persuasions now growing stronger than in the previous three decades. The cultural wars are between an ascendant multicultural, multi-ethnic, poly-religious yet increasingly secular, pro-choice, pro-gun control, pacifist, sexually diverse and egalitarian-minded, “keep your hands off unless invited,” post-modern demographic with a rationalist and normatively relative global perspective, on the one hand, and a monocultural, white dominant, Judeo (but mostly) Christian, heterosexist, patriarchical, sexually aggressive hands -on, pro-gun, militarist, anti-choice, anti-science, industrial, xenophobic, normatively absolutist and economically insular demographic on the other. For the moment, the struggle is even but the numbers do not lie: given current and projected birth rates, the Bannon target demographic is in decline.

The last time there was a cultural clash in the US anywhere similar in scope was in the mid-60s. Until the early 60s the US was run in the image that Bannon and Trump supporters now hark back to: Dad at a good paying manufacturing job that allowed him to own his own home, Mom happily tending to the domestic front, both regularly attending a Christian church with 2.2 kids and a car in every garage (or, for those who may remember such things, basically operating as Ozzie and Harriet of 1950s TV fame).

But the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opposition to the Vietnam war and counter-cultural lifestyles pushed by rock music broke the consensus on the national myth and prompted a major ideological struggle. In that instance, progressive forces won over the rednecks and defenders of tradition. Now the struggle is being repeated but is sparked, as it were, from the other side–conservative whites are pushing back against the progressive secularization and egalitarianism of US society, as exemplified by Barack Obama and his good Negro government. The champion of these social revanchists is Trump, but it is Bannon who is the puppeteer.

There is a popular saying in the US these days: “Stay in your lane.” It is taken from car culture and references highway traffic dynamics. But it has a subtext of implicit or threatened road rage and it is in fact a substitute for “know your place.”  “Stay in your lane” is now used widely to address stroppy females, uppity Negros, recalcitrant children, surly teens, overly camp gays or butchy lesbians–basically any minority individual or community that dares to challenge WASP conventional wisdom about social hierarchy. For Steve Bannon, who has been doing the rounds of talk shows and conservative conventions this past week, it is all about getting the usurpers of white privilege to either get back into their traditionally prescribed roles or return to hiding.

Bannon believes that his 20-25 percent of the electoral base is homogenous, scared and united through social and corporate media. It is a short term vision, but given the uncertain shadow of the future it is possible that short term political gains based on a socially revanchist ideology could seep into the broader electoral fabric. Whatever their antipathy towards Trump aand the GOP, his opponents are heterogeneous, hopeful and yet fractious and divided. The erosion of horizontal solidarities in an age of ideological individualism is abetted and pushed by adavances in telecommunications technology–the same technology that social revanchists use so effectively.  Bannon has already invited Democrats to continue to play the identity politics game (and there is a lesson for New Zealand here), because that allows him to successfully impose the weight of his demographic against those aligned against it. The Bernie Sanders/versus Hillary Clinton campaigns show one end of the “liberal” internecine division in the US; the feminist arguments about the #metoo hashtag show another. There are many more sources of liberal/progressive cleavage, and in Bannon’s eyes they spell “Achilles Heel.”

The success of the cultural wars pushback is concerning. The Right-wing (including alt-Right) media, both corporate and social, have very much influenced the discourse with their attacks on the Obama legacy (him being “weak” in foreign affairs etc.) and in their support for Trump’s demeanour and his dismantling of that legacy via Executive Orders. The impact is real. Things that one would have thought were done and dusted years ago–arguments about gender differences as they apply to employment and wages, racial differences as they apply to law and order, whether being native born as opposed to foreign born should be a criterion for security clearances, are homosexuals trustworthy with kids, what constitutes patriotism, etc.–are now back in the public domain in a measure not seen in decades.

All of which is to say that things in the US are pretty tetchy at the moment, and the possibility of physical conflict between those who embrace “good Negro government” and those who fear it are quite real.

Let us not think that this is exclusively a US problem. Be it in the “I told you so” comments of white South Africans or Zimbabweans about the bad Negro governments that followed the abolition of white supremacy in those countries, or in the similar comments about poor governance of black-ruled cities like Detroit or the District of Columbia in the US, or those who point to problems with aboriginal self-governance in the Northern Territory, there are many who find comfort in black failure and find threats in black success. That is true for some quarters in Aotearoa, where the possibility of “good Maori government” or “good Pasifika government” is dismissed out of hand not so much because of their outright impossibility due to some instrinsic traits of those involved, but because of Pakeha fear that they could do no worse, and perhaps even better than Pakeha dominated government.

Let’s remember this if there is pushback against the notion of “good Negro government” in New Zealand.

Mitch Harris and I continued our weekly radio conversations from the US, this week discussing Harvey Weinstein, reports that Trump is  mentally “unraveling” and how the Mueller investigation into possible Russian interference in last year’s US election is progressing. Theme of the week might as well be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Letters from America, take seven: Dark Irony.

datePosted on 07:50, October 4th, 2017 by Pablo

The fact that a country western concert in the US was the target of yet another mass murder spree by an automatic weapon- toting white man is darkly ironic given that country western fans tend to be ninety percent white, predominantly middle and working class, republican in political orientation and a core demographic of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump support base. They are known for wearing and displaying US (and confederate) flags along with cowboy boots and hats, and indeed many of the victims were clad in patriotic-themed apparel.  The guns used were apparently US-made semi-automatic assault rifles converted to fully automatic by the use of converter kits known as “bump stock” kits (which provide an anti-lock override mechanism attached to a short stock that allows the shooter to hold the trigger down and use the recoil to simulate an automatic setting). The shooter used extra capacity magazines, which are legal in Nevada, as are the conversion kits. In fact, the weapons, ammo and conversion kits can be purchased at the same time in any gun store. Truth be told, a converter kit is not always necessary. A simple file can be used to file down the spot welds that often are the only thing preventing a semi-automatic weapon from becoming fully automatic, especially on older model combat weapons like AK-47s and M-14s.  In any case, semi-automatic weapons are classfied as hunting weapons so purchases do not need to be entered into a federal databank (as some states require automatic weapons to be).

The entire cache of weapons, amunition and acessories stockpiled by the killer were legal. And since he had no prior criminal convictions, so was his possession of them.

With the exception of some rightwing conspiracy types who claimed that the killer was a Muslim convert, and Daesh, which tried to claim credit for the attack, no one in a position of authority is claiming that this was an act of terrorism.

I tend to agree with this assessment even though people in the killing field were clearly terrorized and many more traumatized by what they experienced. Beyond the motivation-versus-effect argument about how to define terrorism, the hard fact is that here again we have another example of a white male getting a pass on the “terrorist” label. Be it in Sandy Hook, Charleston or Colombine, white males who commit mass murders, even when motivated by racial, political or religious animus, are described as mentally ill, insane, maniacs or lunatics. They are not called domestic terrorists.

That is not the case when people of color engage in similar acts, even though the majority of mass murders with guns in the US are committed by white males. Plus, by definition someone who undertakes such acts has to be at least a little bit mentally out of kilter. So why call some US mass murderers crazy and some cold-blooded terrorist killers? Given the level of planning put into the Las Vegas attack, it can be argued that the perpetrator was much less nuts than many other murderers. Yet the “T” word will not be used on him even though what he did was deliberate, calculated, well-planned and executed and designed to have the maximum lethal effect on what was a carefully chosen mass target.

We shall see what set off him off.  It might be gambling debts, a romantic breakup or a psychopathic meltdown rather than a political or musical grudge. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he acted in premeditated fashion. So the forensics on the event will be interesting. Less so is the tragedy porn now playing 24/7 on US television screens, where tales of human misery and pathos, be it man-made (Las Vegas) or natural in origin (Puerto Rico) are on repeat loops for the morbidly obsessed (I am in the US on an extended sabbatical so am getting to live this in real time).

What is noticeably absent from the official police statements and pretty much all of the hourly “news” coverage is any discussion of gun laws that allow an individual to amass 30 or so automatic firearms, thousands of rounds of combat grade ammunition and precursor chemicals for explosives. Instead, the coverage is all about the shooter, his motivations and the wonderful character and/or heroism and/or sacrifice of all of his victims. Leave it to the “liberal” talk show hosts to address that elephant in the room, and leave it to the rightwing media and politicians to make the discussion about gunowners rights as opposed to the victim’s rights that were so brutally violated.

That is why I have no illusions that anything good will come of this. If nearly 30 kids can be murdered in Sandy Hook and nothing gets done in terms of gun control, and instead rightwing freaks saturate social media with claims that it was a government conspiracy hoax done to take away guns from law abiding people (like the Las Vegas shooter), then there is little hope that the president or Congress are going to do anything to change the status quo just because some good ole boys and girls got the hot lead hose down by a disgruntled accountant. This is especially true since Republican congresspeople and the president have received large sums of campaign (if not other) money from the NRA.

It is, however remotely, possible that because of who he targeted, the Las Vegas killer might have sparked a pang of conscience in the gun lobby and the politicians who pockets are lined by it. If that is the case then the victims will not have suffered and died in vain. But for the moment one can only repeat what has been said many times before: the time for thoughts and prayers for the victims is over. The time for action on gun control is long past due.

This week Mitch Harris and I talked about Trump’s  attacks on the so-called “take a knee movement,” his lack of compassion for the Puerto Rican victims of two hurricans and the increasingly risky rhetoric he uses vis a vis North Korea. It can be found here.

As part of the series of radio interviews I do with Mitch Harris on RadioLive on Wed nights, this week we decided to be a bit more free ranging than usual (since the normal focus of the radio version of the “Letters from America” series tends to concentrate on matters of US politics and society).  The issue of Chinese influence in NZ is getting a fair bit of attention as of late, and the pipe rupture causing shortages in aviation fuel and petrol supplies provides a basis for pondering the down side of N8 wire culture. And then there is Hillary blaming Bernie Sanders and the Russians for her loss last year while taking no responsibility for it, and Drumpf ranting incoherently at his first UN General Assembly speech. There was plenty to talk about. You can find the interview here.

Letters from America, take six: Flirting with disaster.

datePosted on 12:46, September 7th, 2017 by Pablo

The theme of the week in the US is “flirting with disaster.” Trump did well on his return to Texas for a second time after Hurricane Harvey–he looked a bit more presidential and at least went to the affected areas to hand out relief packages and hug displaced babies (of color, to boot!). Upon his return to DC his decision to repeal DACA, the so-called “Dreamers Act” (which gave limited legal protection to foreign born children without criminal recrods who were brought to the US by their parents) has enough support in Congress to see it upheld and replaced within the six month time frame Trump has specified for its implementation (although like everything else Trump does, the court challenges are already being filed). So for first time in months Trump had a week devoid of major scandal, crisis or controversy.

But now Hurricane Irma is headed to South Florida after hitting the Leeward Islands, including the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (a US territory with a population of 3.4 million). The Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba are in its path before it is predicted to make a direct hit on the larger Miami area (with a population of 6.7 million). It remains to be seen what Trump’s response to this storm will be given the heavily Hispanic demographic in the impact areas and the fact that he did not carry South Florida in last year’s elections (unlike SE Texas where Harvey hit). He might order full scale federal help given that even Mar el Lago will be affected, but so far he has done nothing and left it to the territories and states to deal with emergency prep.

Irma is stronger than Harvey, being a full fledged category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and gusts to 225 mph (nearly 300 kilometers per hour) and a storm surge of up to 30 feet. Harvey was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall and turned into a rainbomb, but neither in terms of winds or surge is it comparable to the punch that Irma is packing. Like SE Texas, South Florida is low lying (and even below sea level in some places), so the catastrophic potential is huge. The number of people who could be affected in the Florida, Puerto Rico and the island territories is more than double that of those impacted by Harvey, and the demands for recovery assistance both in US territories as well as foreign neighbors will be astronomical.

So Hurricane Irma will be a big test for Trump. He ordered US$ 7.5 billion in federal disaster relief to Texas for Harvey recovery efforts (a drop in the bucket of what is estimated to be a 150 billion dollar recovery cost), but that will now need to be increased exponentially for Irma recovery efforts even in the face of GOP misgivings about disaster relief spending. Recall that the Texas congressional delegation opposed federal relief for the Mid Atlantic areas affected by Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, but are now clamoring for federal help (Ted Cruz and John Conrnyn come to mind). More generally, many Republican congresspeople are loathe to increase the US debt ceiling in order to fund recovery efforts outside their own districts, something that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claims is an abosolute necessity (and a direct betrayal of Trump’s campaign promise to reduce the US debt ceiling). Faced with GOP opposition, Trump has sided with congressional Democrats in calling for a temporary elevation of the debt ceiling in order to finance disaster relief (a Faustian bargain if there ever was one,), much to the annoyance of GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. In view of these differences it will be interesting to see how the Republican majority in Congress reacts to pleas from Florida and US territories for federal receover aid, but what is certain is that the debate over it will be contentious at best.

Almost unnoticed in Washington amid all the hurricane news is the fact that another major disaster is unfolding in the US west. Nearly 60 large scale wildfires  covering hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in seven Western states, and both property and lives have been lost in them. Although the region is drought- and hence fire-prone and therefore has signficant deployable fire-fighting resources at the state and federal level (e.g. via the US Park Service and other branches of the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security), budget cuts have reduced the federal ability to contribute to fighting simultaneous large fires, some of which have reached the outskirts of major cities such as Los Angeles. With no end to the fire season in sight and seevral of these conflagrations still out of control, the possibility exists that a fire disaster can be declared this year. If that happens the arguments about natural disaster recovery funding will only get more intense and partisan.

And then there is North Korea. The test of what the DPRK claims is a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb is a significant step forward in its nuclear testing program. Unlike more primitive fission or “atomic” bombs, these type of munitions are used by all of the major nuclear weapons states save India. The shape of the warhead that Kim Jung-un is seen posing with in photos appears to be similar to a US mid 60s-mid 70s Teller-Ulam  “peanut” design. Hydrogen bombs are two-phased fission-fusion devices that do not need advanced triggers because of their plutonium (or sometimes U-235) primary fission cores, which are more easily “ignited” by conventional high explosives (Pu-239 is used in both the primary and secondary sequences, although the bulk of the thermonuclear explosion comes from ignition of the U-238 “tamper” surrounding the Pu-239 “sparkplug” in the secondary sequence). The size of the prototype shown in DPRK propaganda photos demonstrates that it can fit into the nose cone of their recently tested ICBM (which seems to be a Chinese knock-off similar to Pakistani designs). So they have made a quantum leap towards having a lauchable weapon.

The issue remains as to whether they have the re-entry trajectories down so as to not burn up the nosecone and/or booster at too steep an angle, and whether the US and allied missile defense are up to the task of intercepting the booster before re-entry or upon re-entry on a flatter trajectory slope. Since the DPRK will have only one warhead on the booster (as opposed to the multi-warheaded nature of MARV’d and MIRV’d strategic strike missles deployed by the US, UK and Russia), a successful intercept can push the DPRK back both operationally as well as politically (since it will take some time to mount and fire another warhead, and that will likely not be allowed to happen because a launch in anger makes the DPRK vulnerable to a retaliatory response, be it conventional or not).

The more important question is whether, upon intelligence showing preparations of a live nuclear missile launch, the US will trigger (most likely conventional) pre-emptive strikes against DPRK missile launch facilities, or whether it will wait until a “live” launch is confirmed (which reduces the time avaliable for a response but which can allow more accurate tracking and intercept by ABM defenses such as the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, and which provides data for early detection of the trajectory of future launches, should they occur). Either way, the result will be war between, at a minimum, the DPRK, ROK and the US, with more states such as Japan likely to get drawn in because of direct engagement or alliance commitments. And then of course, there is China.

It is an open question as to where the DPRK got its warhead design. But Pakistan comes to mind simply because it already has nuclear weapons and has a history of clandestine nuclear weapons design and parts proliferation. That poses some thorny diplomatic and security questions for those who have tried to engage Pakistan in the effort to have it moderate its behaviour on a number of fronts.

In the face of a DPRK willingness to launch, the US has very few options left short of pre-emption and or interception upon launch. Trump as usual has backed himself into a corner by tweeting that “the time for talking is over,” and the response from China and Russia to his demands for stronger sanctions has been equivocal at best. Trump’s barking at South Korea for its alleged policies of “appeasement” vis a vis the  DPRK are not only factually incorrect but alarming to regional allies, since the ROK has been anything but appeasing even while urging bi- and multi-lateral talks with the DPRK on a regular basis. Secretary of Defense Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have emphasised that the US is not interested in annihilating the DPRK, but they and the rest of the foreign policy establishment have not dropped the long-standing demand for regime change and reunification under ROK rule, which is simply a non starter from the DPRK point of view. So the walls are closing in on non-military options.

The threat to stop all trade with countries that trade with the DPRK is an idle one given the negative impact on the US economy that such an action would entail (particularly in the case of China), but smaller DPRK trading partners (perhaps including NZ, which purportedly has small backdoor dealings with it), could suffer as a result. The big issue is whether China will put the squeeze on the DPRK in light of recent developments. So far, other than rhetorical condemning of the test and the clear embarrassment it feels at having been ignored by its client when it came to not going forward with the nuclear test, it has shown a relcutance to do so. The Russians flat out refuse to cooperate in any increased sanctions regime. So the US is left with few cards to play short of the military ace in the hole.

In sum, the US is flirtng with disaster on several fronts, three natural and one man made. How Trump handles them is going to impact his standing before Congress and of course have an impact on domestic support as well as international relations. Options on all fronts seem limited and the consequences dire, both for him politically as well as those affected by his decisions. The moment is one where, as Machiavelli noted,successful handling of  the viccisitudes of fortuna (fate) requires the commitment of leadership virtu (virtue).

When it comes to leadership virtue, Trump has so far displayed none. It remains to be seen if the tests now before him will uncover what has never been seen before.

Addendum: Here is an interview that I did with Selwyn Manning of eveningreport.co.nz as part of a video series that parallels/complements the written series here.

From watermelons to algae.

datePosted on 07:26, September 6th, 2017 by Pablo

For the first time since 2002 I will not be giving my party vote to the Green Party. Nor will I give my electorate vote (in Helensville) to its candidate. The rush to privilege personality over substance, to put pretty young (mostly female) faces high on the party list in spite of remarkable lack of qualifications by most of those so anointed (the exception amongst the high placed newcomers being Golriz Ghahraman, who I have respect for even though she also has little practical political experience), coupled with the abandonment of any class oriented (particularly brown working class) policy focus in favor of winning over the millennial metrosexual hipster vote, has diminished the Greens in my eyes. They all seem nice enough as individuals, but being congenial does not suffice to staff an effective political vehicle.

My disenchantment with the Greens occurred before Metiria Turei pulled the short-sighted stunt about her past record of welfare (and voting) fraud, which if clever as a politically opportunistic tactic, was incredibly foolish in light of the inevitable reaction from her opponents and the corporate media. In doing so she may have raised awareness of the plight of those needing public benefit support, but she also set back the cause of welfare reform by opening herself and every other struggling parent to charges of being prone to fraud and abuse of taxpayer-funded benefits. As an experienced politician she should have known better.

With the current line up the Greens have finished the move from Red to Blue at their core and in so doing have diminished their electoral appeal in my estimation. I recognize that I am not part of their targeted demographic and am in fact more of the demographic from which the expelled Kennedy Graham and David Clendon come from, but if the Greens wanted to expand their voter base one would have thought that they would maintain their appeal to traditional “watermelon” voters while actively recruiting the blue-green millennial vote. Instead, they appear to have decided to abandon a traditionally loyal (but shrinking due to age) group of voters in pursuit of another potentially larger but less committed one. In fact, it as if the party list selection is aimed at young urbanites under the age of 35 who prefer image and style over experience and substance. Besides being an insult to the intellect of younger voters, the stratagem also appears to have backfired, at least if recent polls are to be believed.

So goodbye to Greens it is for me. But what to do next? The Right side of the electoral ledger (including Winston First) is a non-starter, the Opportunities Party is a vanity project (albeit with the random ponderable idea), the Maori Party is, well, narrowly focused, and entities like the Internet and Mana parties are full of unsavory critters or marginal types that are best shunned rather than encouraged (I say this in spite of my affection for the likes of John Minto and Sue Bradford, but they cannot carry the can of representation all by themselves). So the options for a disgruntled Green voter are limited…

….To not voting or voting for Labour. I have thought about not voting but that would be the first time I did so in my entire adult life. Plus, the political scientist that I live with takes a very dim view of people shirking their civic responsibilities in a democracy, so I have maintaining domestic harmony to consider. Given the damage another National government can do, it therefore would be irresponsible for me to not contribute to their ouster.

Hence I am left with Labour. But therein lies the rub: Labour has stolen a page out of the Greens book and gone with a so-called youth movement in its candidate selection, including of its leadership. It too is all about a campaign based on sunshine, smiley faces and chocolates in every box. In terms of practicable politics, both Labour and the Greens campaign like debutantes at their first school ball–all hope and illusion, seemingly unaware of the practical (and often dark) realities of what happens when they come to that sort of party.

The good news is that electoral campaigns are nothing more than political icing. The cake in politics is found in the policy platform that a party has underlying it. It is where new ideas find their way into policy proposals and moves to change laws, statutes and regulations. And that is where I feel comfortable voting for Labour this year. Because, beyond the long-overdue commitment to fully legalise abortion, Labour’s policy playbook has many good ideas well worth considering. Most importantly, unlike the Greens their core policy proposals are both doable and targeted at more than their electoral base. Unlike the diminished appeal of the political equivalent of blue algae surface blooming in a stagnating electoral pond of its own making, Labour appears, for the first time in years and in spite of its campaign strategy plagiarism of the Greens, to actually have commonweal alternatives to offer that are more than the usual “National lite” policies of the last decade.

So my party vote this year goes to Labour. Perhaps I will return to the Green fold in years to come, but not now. I am undecided about the electorate vote other than to state that I would rather run rusty metal slivers under my fingernails than vote for the Green or National candidates. Perhaps the Legalize Cannabis Aotearoa crowd will run a candidate in Helensville, in which case I can vote for someone who at least admits to being high rather than someone who is riding on a cloud of flattery and sycophancy that is more divorced from the realities of practicing politics than anyone in the thrall of reefer madness.

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