Archive for ‘governance’ Category

Has the NZDF gone Praetorian?

datePosted on 11:03, June 8th, 2011 by Pablo

The hallmark of professional militaries is that they are non-partisan, subordinate themselves to elected civilian leadership in exchange for corporate autonomy and serve the nation as a commoweal organisation–that is, as an agent providing a universal public good (in this case national defense). The same is true for intelligence agencies, which are supposed to provide objective, factual and politically neutral analysis of threats, current trends and longer-term strategic developments. Conversely, praetorian militaries (named after the Roman praetorian guards that made and unmade emperors) are highly politicised, overtly partisan, permeated by sectarian or class interests and prone to manipulating threat assessments or broader strategic evaluations for corporate or political gain.

The reason I make these distinctions is because there appears to be a disturbing trend at play within the NZDF. Evident in the official misrepresentations and dissembling about the reasons for, and rules of engagement governing the SAS re-deployment to Afghanistan in 2009, the NZDF appears to be following the NZSIS approach to its charter. That is worrisome because the SIS has shown itself to be extremely politicised and prone to praetorian behaviour under the protection of national security legislation that prevents transparency in the reporting and investigation of its activities. The Zaoui case, the branding of Jane Kelsey as a security threat, the spying on peace and environmental activists engaged in  lawful dissent, the attempts to portray the Urewera 18 as something far more sinister than they are–all of this is symptomatic of the deep institutional malaise and anti-democratic propensities of the SIS. Hopes that the praetorian culture within the SIS would change with the appointment of Warren Tucker as director have been dashed as time goes by, and instead its powers of surveillance and scope of authority have been expanded under National-led reforms of the Terrorism Suppression Act and attendant security legislation.

That is why current developments within the NZDF are troubling. Unlike its intelligence counterpart, the NZDF has a reputation for professionalism and straight talk. That remains true for the bulk of the armed services, which for a small fighting force perform admirably within the budgetary and operational constraints incumbent upon them. But over the last decade or so the NZDF leadership–those of field and flag rank–have increasingly shown a propensity to dovetail their assessments with those of the government of the day. While consistency in approach between the military and civilian leadership is needed for security policy to be effective, this marrying of political interests has begun to look suspiciously like incipient “praetorianisation” of the NZDF. Rationales for foreign deployments, operational requirements, assessments of legal authority and liability, weapons procurement policy, justications for alliance commitments–in virtually every sphere of corporate interest the NZDF leadership appear to be taking their cue not from the objective requirements of the security environment in which NZ operates but from the political necessities of the government.

Although the Clark government manipulated the NZDF for its own purposes, this trend towards praetorianism has become amply evident with National in power, particularly in its reaffirming of security ties to the US (which is now confirmed by a “strategic partnership” codified in the Wellington Declaration of November 2010). This relationship certainly has benefits for the NZDF but it also has potential drawbacks in the measure that NZ is now tied to US (and Australian) strategic interests that are not necessarily those of NZ or which do not enjoy public support within it. There may be good reasons for this, but if so they have not been well enunciated and defended by the NZDF on autonomous grounds. Instead, without public consultation or debate, the government has agreed to the strategic partnership and the NZDF has followed the party line. The same is true for the Defence White Paper issued this past year, which rather than reflect a broad public consensus on the orientation and configuration of the NZDF given the security environment of the next decade, has arguably responded more to the internal logics of the defence establishment and the government (in other words, the public consultation process was ritualistic window-dressing on what amounted to the adoption of largely pre-determined decisions). None of this conforms to the military professional ideal in a democracy.

The politicisation of the NZDF leadership became acutely apparent in the response to Jon Stephenson’s article on the SAS in Afghanistan. The commander of the NZDF, General Rhys-Jones, parroted John Key’s slanderous denigration of the reporter and refused to consider the possibility that his predecessor, Sir Jerry Mateparae might have overlooked or whitewashed reports that the SAS were handing over prisoners to agencies involved in torture and violations of the Geneva Convention. There may be convincing reasons why this happened, but instead the NZDF closed ranks around Mateparae and Mr. Key, the former apparently out of corporate solidarity and the latter out of political obsequiousness. The trouble is that while the NZDF leadership and civilian policy-makers may find common defense in public stonewalling on matters of contentious security policy, it leaves troops in the field exposed to criminal accusations and undermines the professional ethics of the force as a whole.

That is not good. Although the NZDF is a long way off from being a coup-mongering praetorian military, the increased politicisation of its leadership is a troubling development. Obviously enough military leaders need to have good diplomatic skills and political sensitivities in order to ascend the ranks and interact with their civilian counterparts. There are certainly many–the majority–of NZDF officers who are full professionals. But for some in leadership roles to “spin” the military perspective to suit the political interests of the government of the day is a step too far, as it not only violates the responsibilities of the leadership to the troops that serve under them, but also the duty the military has to the nation as a whole as part of its commonweal orientation.

Perhaps the root of the problem of military politisation in NZ is more fundamental.  Because NZ does not have a constitution NZDF uniformed personnel do not swear an oath to a foundational charter. Instead, they swear a loyalty oath to the Government and the Crown (“Crown” presumably referring to the State but which could also be taken as reference to the Queen given NZ’s ongoing allegiance to the monarchy). Little wonder, then, that the corporate logic of the NZDF parallels that of the SIS, because at the end of the day and regardless of the rhetorical commitment to the nation as a whole, its sworn loyalty is less than universal. In other words, rather than a commonweal organisation at the service of the State and Nation, it is merely a tool of government, with all of the partisan implications that entails.

A Film Worth Seeing.

datePosted on 14:44, May 30th, 2011 by Pablo

Now that I am back in NZ and have replaced elevator riding with wood chopping, I am starting to think “local” again. To that end I am pleased to inform readers who may not be aware that the documentary on the October 15, 2007 “Operation 8” raids and their aftermath (“Operation 8: Deep in the Forest”) will be playing in and around in Auckland in June. The film is an important examination of the abuses that occur when the State is given unbridled authority to define and prosecute national security threats unchecked by public or parliamentary accountability. Whatever one thinks about the Urewera 18 themselves, the film raises important questions about legitimate dissent, the manipulation of threats and the machinations of NZ government agencies and politicians in the post 9-11 era.

Go see it!

Auckland, Rialto – Newmarket – Starts 2 June
Auckland, Bridgeway – Northcote – Dates TBC
Auckland, Academy Cinema – Starts 16 June
Devonport, Picture Palace – Starts 16 June

One axiom of mediation is that the parties sincerely want to settle their dispute and realise that mutual concessions will have to be made in order to do so. Another is that the mediator has to be procedurally and substantively neutral–s/he has no interest in the specific terms of the result and is bound to procedurally enforce the rules on negotiations as well as externally enforce the settlement (which in effect makes the latter a contract between the disputants).

This is why Barack Obama’s latest attempt at mediating the Israel-Palestinian conflict is doomed.

In order to establish a semblance of neutrality, he proposed that Hamas recognise Israel’s right to exist in exchange for Israeli acceptance of the (post-conflict) 1967 borders as the basis for negotiations on a two-state solution. He said that mutually agreed upon land swaps would form the basis for the contract. Neither Hamas or the Israeli government accepted the offer and instead rejected it outright. Although it is possible that Obama’s initiative is just the opening gambit in a more delicate elaboration, it is also quite possible that this was his best offer, which is now dead in the water.

The problems with the proposed deal are many. With regards to the US, it is clearly not an impartial mediator. Whether the administration of the moment wants to or not, the power of the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s strategic connections (intelligence sharing, weapons acquisitions and covert political maneuvering) ensure that the US will support it as the default option. To that can be added the fact that the US has designated Hamas as a terrorist organisation and openly supports Fatah as the legitimate representative of Palestinian interests even though the latter lost its electoral mandate to Hamas some years ago. By any measure the US is not impartial, neutral or objective, so its role as a mediator is reduced to pressuring Israel to engage limited concessions in the hope that Hamas will take the bait and offer significant concessions of its own. That will not happen. And yet no other country has offered to step into the breach, and it is doubtful that any other country (the UK? Germany? France?) would be acceptable to both parties.

As for the principles, they have no real interest in cutting a deal that binds them over the long-term. Politics in Gaza and Israel are dominated by fundamentalist discourses that see the conflict as a zero-sum struggle where the “other” is seen as sub-human and inherently evil. Both governments are divided and weak, the Palestinians visibly so but the Israelis no less so in spite of their veneer of unity. Corruption has become a major problem on both sides, which delegitimates their standing as honest interlocutors and representatives of their respective constituencies.

Moreover, both Israel and the Palestinians have foreign partners who overtly or covertly work to prolong the impasse and low intensity warfare because it is seen as serving their geopolitical objectives (Iran and Saudi Arabia come to mind). Then there are the weapons merchants and others who see profit in fighting and who do not wish to see the source of that profit end. One might argue that there even are NGOs and humanitarian agencies that have a vested organisational interest in an unresolved armed standoff that provides them with the opportunity to “do good.”  In other words, the constellation of interests that favour the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict outweigh those that sincerely seek a durable peace.

Which is why Obama’s initiative will not prosper. But there is a factor now at play that may make the US role irrelevant and actually force a hole in the diplomatic logjam obstructing resolution of the Palestinian “question:” the Arab Spring. Although it has yet to result in democracy anywhere in the Arab world, the groundswell of popular protest against authoritarianism has been a game-changer (of sorts). The change is in the acceptance of non-violent mass resistance as the preferred method of voice and redress. Not only does this strategy explicitly turn its back on jihadism. It also forces regimes to either up the ante and engage in mass repression (such as in Syria), or attempt to reform-monger in a way that maintains elite interests while offering more avenues of representation and service to the populations in question. Most importantly, though, it forces the Arab world to reappraise the regional status quo, specifically with regard to the status of Palestine, in such a way that it will make it increasingly less tenable for Israel to continue its policy of illegal settlements and armed force. With popular demands for a harder line on Israel emerging in places like Egypt, the pressure is on for the “reformist” leaders to reconsider the options with regard to Palestine. In addition, the use of (mostly) non-violent passive resistance against Israel such as the Nakbar protests on the Israeli-Syrian border forces it to show its authoritarian stripes (as it did in killing a half dozen of the cross-border protesters) or live up to its supposedly democratic principles when confronting unarmed protest.

Given Israel’s current political climate, it may well ignore all democratic pretense and fire away at will against peaceful demonstrators. But that is a short-term solution. The longer-term impact of the Arab Spring will be to force increased accountability on Arab regimes, which in turn will require them to adjust their approaches to Israel and Palestinians in ways that will not uphold the status quo ante. Should that happen, then it will be Israel that will be forced to make the first significant move with or without US backing, and it will do so not out of a sense of idealism but because it has pragmatic self-interest in doing so. After all, Israel is the stronger actor in this conflict. It has less to lose and much to gain when offering a genuine unilateral concession, in the beginning of what game-theorists call a “tit-for-tat” strategy (that is, it opens with a cooperative move then mirrors the adversaries’ response). It may take a few iterations and more concessions to elicit a cooperative response from Hamas, and the outcome could still result in failure, but that is how the game will have to be played if there is any hope of reaching a negotiated compromise.

Hardline Zionist talk notwithstanding, the best guarantee of Israel’s long term security given the changes underway in the Arab world is not superior counter-force as a deterrent. Instead, the solution that guarantees Israel long-term security is diplomatic, and that involves over-riding hardline interests in pursuit of diplomatic flexibility. There will be domestic consequences when it does make the first move, which will have to involve the unilateral eviction and withdrawal of newer settlements on occupied Palestinian land (think of the precedent of violent resistance by illegal settlers to the limited evictions undertaken by the Israeli government to date), and Hamas and Fatah will have to agree on a commensurate response if negotiations are to advance to the point of establishing a blueprint for dual statehood (which is the only realistic option and where recognition of Israel’s right to exist comes in). None of this will be voluntarily generated by the elites currently in office, not will it be the US that breaks the impasse and brokers the deal. Instead it will be the extension of the Arab Spring into Gaza and Israel that may offer the best hope for a diplomatic opening in pursuit of a durable peace, and should that opening come, it will be endogenous rather than exogenous in nature.

Although it is hard for the Obama administration to do given the imperial hubris that infects US domestic politics and foreign policy, the best thing it can offer is to quietly encourage the Arab Spring, openly condemn repression, seek broader international consensus and let events take their course. Or, as a senior Israeli intelligence official told me a few years ago (and I roughly paraphrase from memory here), “although conditions are not favorable to negotiations at the moment, there will come a time when both sides realise that theirs is an unhappy marriage, but it is for the children’s sake that they stay in it and make it work.” That moment may shortly be upon us, and it will be the “children” who force the issue.

The countdown (to the return) begins.

datePosted on 20:34, May 14th, 2011 by Pablo

As an antidote to some of the heavy discussion occasioned by Lew’s recent posts, I figured that I would interject with a mention that two weeks from today my partner and I return to NZ. The definitive return was delayed six months by an offer of a teaching position in Singapore, but that has now finished. All of the marking has been done, and other than a videoconference lecture by me, a brief holiday in Bintan and packing, we are done in Singapore. Although it has not always been the most pleasant experience, it has been interesting in many ways and we have learned from our stay. I expect that either individually or together we will write at least one scholarly essay about the place, simply because analyses of things like the gross exploitation of foreign low-skilled labor and domestic workers needs to be more widely exposed. We also have in a mind a comparative project using Singapore and Cuba as case studies–two one party authoritarian island states whose regimes were born of traumatic circumstances that were originally led by charismatic leaders, now in a slow process of political liberalisation in which the original leadership cadres are being replaced by a third generation of less battle-hardened and dogmatic cadres, and in which the attitudes of the younger generation of citizens are not shaped by the origins of the regimes in question.

There is more to the comparison–the state-centric nature of the economies is a structural likeness that defies the clear differences in macro-economic approaches–so it will be interesting to delve into the subject in greater analytic depth. I also have an interest in studying the role of the third generation Singaporean Armed Forces in the process of regime liberalisation, as its role as regime defender is being challenged from within and without the SAF by a new generation of “professional” officers more interested in meritocratic and technocratic advancement than cultivating political ties to the PAP, and who find echo in young professional in the civilian bureaucracy who are not as interested in joining the PAP patronage networks that underpin the supposedly “meritocratic” criteria for promotion to senior ranks.

I think I have a fair grasp on these subjects. My post on the Singaporean elections, along with the version on Scoop, got a lot of play in Singapore, most of it favourable. This a good sign because (especially Chinese) Singaporeans have a good deal of anti-foreign sentiment and reject being told, in spite of what economic growth and government propaganda lead them to believe, about the flaws in their system of governance and culture (for example, the endemic racism against Malays, Indians, Filipinos and Tamils by the dominant group that is codified in not-to-subtle legal jargon, as well as the simmering resentment of Anglo-Saxons in spite of the fact that the country can not operate successfully without them). The fact that I was not pilloried in the coverage of my essay indicates that, written in the appropriate manner, some of what I/we propose to research could provide a contribution to debates within Singapore about the future of the country. We shall see.

In the meantime we are looking forward to wearing sweaters and jeans, enjoying cool weather, breathing clean air and resuming the existence on the western slopes of the Waitakeres from whence we came. That, and contributing in our own ways to political and social debates in the land of the long white cloud.

NB: In light of Phil’s remark I have amended the title less readers think that I have developed some pop idol fixation.

A door cracks open in the Little Red Dot.

datePosted on 21:51, April 27th, 2011 by Pablo

Authors Preface: Now that my departure from Singapore is imminent I no longer have to fear retribution for commenting about local politics. I was warned when I arrived in SG that foreigners commenting about SG political issues was verboten and liable to risk summary deportation or defamation charges. I do not think that what follows is defamatory in any way shape or form, and constitutes just the first in what will be a series of reflections about Singapore after having spent 3.5 years immersed in its politics and culture.

On May 7 2011, 2.5 million Singaporeans (out of a total population of 5 million) go to the polls in order to elect the next government. As a one party-dominant authoritarian state, the outcome is already assured–the People’s Action Party that has held power since 1959 will win the majority of parliamentary seats (Singapore is formally a unicameral parliamentary system). By gerrymandering electoral districts (which has led to uncontested walkover rates of 50 percent) and placing limits on opposition party rights to public expression and assembly outside of the two week campaign season (to include prohibitions on holding rallies and distributing flyers, posters or pamphlets, which has resulted in numerous defamation suits against and arrests of opposition figures over the years–the last in 2010 for a violation of the “no public assembly of more than 5 people without a Police permit” law), the PAP might match the 66 percent of the vote garnered in 2006 (a drop from the 73 percent received in 2001).  It will retain its majority hold of the (recently expanded) 87-member parliament. But there is political change blowing in the hot and humid Singaporean breeze, which is as much the result of generational and social change as it is of opposition renewal and PAP sclerosis. Although it will retain power this time, none of the trends auger well for the PAP.

Taking 25 years as the generational baseline, Singapore is in its third generation since gaining political autonomy from the Malay Federation in 1959 (independence came with its expulsion from the Federation in 1965). Led by 87-year old Lee Kuan Yew, the first generation of PAP leaders ruled with tight control until 1990, in an era when Singapore’s image as an austere and puritanical authoritarian state was forged. The second generation of hand-picked successors, who began the slow process of political and social liberalization and orchestrated the emergence of the country as a major transportation, logistics and financial hub, is singing its political swan song today. This year’s election marks the transition to the third generation of political leadership and not all has gone as planned for the PAP.

Voting is mandatory in Singapore. Yet spoiled ballots and non-voters amounted to nearly 10 percent of the 2006 electorate. In other words, the signs of discontent were already present five years ago. This year there has been a resurgence of political opposition led by the Workers Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. In marked contrast to previous elections, 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats will be contested. Among the ranks of the opposition are defectors from the PAP, former government-sponsored overseas scholars (who usually pay their scholarship debt by returning to assume bureaucratic positions and joining the PAP), former Internal Security Act detainees (the ISA allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without charge and some of the current opposition candidates have spent periods in confinement as a result of it) as well as political exiles.

Most of the new candidates are in their mid 20s to mid 40s, thereby representing a coming of age for their generation of free thinkers. In response, the PAP has trotted out the usual ensemble of former bureaucrats and politicized retired military officers, interspersed with a handful of younger neophytes (including one whose qualifications for office apparently are that she is the wife of the Prime Minister’s executive assistant and has a penchant for shopping–the latter being Singapore’s national pastime). What is most revealing is that the PAP is no longer able to hide its internal divisions, with leading officials, Ministers and even the Minister Mentor (how’s that for a title?) Lee Kuan Yew himself openly disagreeing about issues of politics, policy and social construction. Perhaps sensing a shift in the public mood, some PAP candidates have withdrawn from the election (“retirement” being the most common reason). All of this underscores something that the Minister Mentor said last year: that the PAP must rejuvenate or stagnate, and that democracy would only come when the PAP proved incapable of responding to public expectations as a result of its stagnation.

The trouble for the PAP is that the elections have come too quickly for a major re-generation of its cadres, which in a talent-thin environment such as Singapore (owing to its population size, as anyone who looks beyond the front benches of the New Zealand parliament will understand), means that the moment of political reckoning has come much sooner than the 25 years Lee Kuan Yew envisioned.

Even worse for the PAP, although the government controls all of the mainstream media in Singapore, including the Straits Times and the telecommunications giant MediaCorp, it has been unable to staunch the flow of internet criticism of its personnel and policies, or the grassroots mobilization of support for the opposition. Much concern has been voiced about increasing inefficiencies in public services, the high cost of living, the loss of white collar jobs to foreigners, and the government’s astronomical pay scales (the Prime Minister–Lee Kuan Yew’s son–is paid S$4.5 million per/year, senior ministers make S$3 million and parliamentary backbenchers start at S$150,000. In fact according to the Economist, Singapore has the second highest ratio of political leader’s pay to the country’s GDP per person, with the average salary of US$2,183,516). There is irony in the latter because it is a world first: Singapore has the most expensive government that money can buy, in a society that is image-obsessed but in which income inequality is more third world than first world.

In the face of what looks to be the possibility of losing previously safe seats amid an unprecedented wave of electoral contestation, the PAP has resorted to fear-mongering, focusing on the tired old canards of economic insecurity, Malay sedition, jihadist terrorism, unskilled foreign workers from the sub-continent and mainland China bringing crime and stealing local jobs, and gay rights (homosexuality is illegal in Singapore but as part of the social liberalization process enforcement of sodomy laws has been weak and episodic over the last decade. This has been a major concern of social conservatives, including the very large number of ethnic Chinese Christians found on the island who are a core PAP constituency). PAP officials talk darkly about “hidden agendas” and wonder why the opposition would seek “to take control of the government” (apparently ignorant of the fact that political parties are formed precisely to contest for power in order to gain decision-making authority and influence policy). Yet the more it raises the specter of Singapore returning to its polyglot swampland brothel and opium den past, the more the PAP is ridiculed for being out of touch with the wants and needs of contemporary Singaporeans.

This means that this election and its aftermath will constitute a critical juncture in Singaporean history. It will set the stage for the next critical juncture, which will be the occasion and aftermath of Lee Kuan Yew’s death.

The notion of critical juncture is important and needs explaining. Using economics-derived path dependency analysis (in which human behavior is “locked in” by past institutional practice the more that practice is routinised over time), critical junctures are historical moments when decisive choices are made within given institutional parameters that set the future course of events (the most common used analogies are the “fork in the road” and “tree branch” motifs).  Because of its internal divisions, Lee Kuan Yew’s death will be the moment when the knives come out within the PAP, with moderate reformists and liberalizers pitted against hard-line status quo defenders in what could wind up as a splitting of the party. Since the hard-line elements constitute the bulk of the deadwood and sclerotic elements within the PAP, it is quite possible, given the outcome of this election, that reformists will gain control of the party and move to accommodate moderate opposition views in a grand coalition strategy designed to help preserve their hold on power after 2016.

But that is precisely why this election constitutes a pre-conditioning critical juncture that will set the stage for the next one. Processes of authoritarian regime liberalization tend to be “two-steps forward, one step backwards” affairs. The regime opens a little, the opposition pushes further than what is acceptable to the regime, and the regime pushes back. Confronted with a rising tide of opposition success and grassroots mobilizations against one-party rule that cannot be contained with selective application of the ISA and the usual use of defamation and non-assembly laws, the PAP regime will therefore be forced to opt for one of two paths: repress or reform. Its previous preferred strategy of cooptation will no longer work.

This is important to consider because the reformists constitute a minority of the current PAP leadership. The PAP status quo–many of who have held their sinecures for more than a decade–control the levers of government and retain the loyalty of the armed forces (which have internal security and regime protection as well as external defense roles). Thus, even if there are internal tensions within the armed forces between “professional” and “political” officers (the former focused on the technical merits of soldiering and the latter concerned with career advancement via political linkages), and its leadership sclerosis is profound, the PAP can, if it wants to, halt the process of social and political opening any time it wishes. Because it still has a reservoir of support in the so-called (ethnic Chinese) “heartland,” the regime can push back without incurring major backlash.

This is not to say that there will not be any. Singaporeans are largely a passive and conformist society, so a move to repress or politically back-peddle will not be met with mass demonstrations akin to those of the Middle East today or Latin America in the past.  But even if they acquiesce to the retrogression, the third generation of Singaporean voters will not consent to a return to the days of arrests for jaywalking, fines for chewing gum and imprisonment or bankruptcy for reasonable (unarmed) dissent. Instead, they will engage in passive resistance and low-level protests with increased grassroots mobilization over the internet, including social media and other hard-to-filter communications vehicles. Since Singapore is an extremely “wired” society that depends on its telecommunications capabilities for much of its daily business, Chinese-style censorship will be very hard to maintain even though the government controls the telecommunications duopoly through which all internet access is filtered (I will not digress into the reaction of foreign actors to any such retrogression but suffice it to say that it will not be entirely supportive).

All of this means that the PAP is staring at the beginning of the end in this election. The opposition has organized, mobilized and taken advantage of the limited political space afforded to it by the manipulated electoral system. The PAP has reacted slowly and awkwardly to the opposition’s energetic display. It therefore sits on the horns of a dilemma: accept that power sharing is inevitable over the short term and rotation in government office is quite possible within a few years (or at least much sooner than expected), or use its election victory to reassert its political supremacy, by force if necessary, over pretenders to its throne. That will influence the context in which the power struggles following Lee Kuan Yew’s death will occur, which in turn will determine whether or not the slow process of authoritarian liberalization will continue or be halted. At that point the moment of truth will have arrived for a country struggling with its identity as a modern bridge between East and West.

>> A different version of the essay appears as this month’s “A Word from Afar” column at Scoop.

Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys Go Troppo.

datePosted on 15:35, April 10th, 2011 by Pablo

Who would have thunk it? The country vilified by US neo-imperialists as cowardly appeasers of dictatorship a few years ago has now morphed into an avid neo-imperialist of it own. France is currently engaged in three low intensity conflicts, in Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Libya, and has taken a leading role in two of them (Ivory Coast and Libya). All three military interventions are wars of choice rather than necessity (since no core French strategic interest is at stake) authorised by UN Security Council Resolutions that were championed by France as a UNSC permanent member (people may not know it but the resolution to enforce a “no fly” zone in Libya was sponsored by France, the UK and Lebanon. The US merely voted in favour. Although it is obvious that diplomatic machinations were/are at play, the very fact that the US is willing to take a back seat on the issue–as it did with the Ivory Coast resolution–perhaps indicates that it has rediscovered the art of diplomatic nuance after years almost a decade of Fox-news style bully approaches to international politics).

More interestingly, although domestic support for French involvement in Afghanistan is low (the French have lost 40 troops in that mission), popular approval of the Ivory Coast and Libyan interventions is high. Only minority Left and Islamic groups have spoken out against them; all others have essentially agreed to the use of force.

It is worth pondering why this is. Most analysts claim that the French military adventures were ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy as a way of of bolstering his sagging electoral support in the build up to the April 2012 national elections (a fact confirmed not only by Sarkozy’s popularity rating of below 30 percent but also by the resounding defeat suffered by his UMP party in nation-wide local elections held last month–a defeat that saw the UMP not only lose to the Socialists but also to the far-right National Front). Thus his war-mongering is seen as a way of shoring up conservative-nationalist support in the face of the National Front challenge, something also seen in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant tone of his proposed amendments to internal security and civil rights legislation.

What is also interesting is the French public attitude, which appears to celebrate the resurgence of French militarism. Perhaps it s due to a sense of re-claimed national glory. Perhaps it is due to a sense of reaffirming France’s pride of place within the European community (where it has been eclipsed by Germany once again) or even vis a vis the US. Perhaps it speaks to a sense of French manifest destiny, now re-written. But contrary to many other countries that have sizable anti-war movements protesting their government’s involvement in foreign military adventures, in France there is little enthusiasm for protest of this sort. The majority of the French, it seems, are happy to support neo-imperialism. Either that, or they may have spent too much time in the sun.

It is further of note that France’s bellicosity has not met with the wave of international condemnation that often greets US militarism. This could be due to the fact France’s armed interventions have the UN “seal of approval,”  are justified on humanitarian grounds and/or tend to occur in former colonies or where it has had a historical presence. Perhaps it is due to the relatively small scale and scope of their operations. Perhaps it is due to more international tolerance for French military adventurism than for US armed interventions. Whatever the reason, it appears that at home and abroad the French turn to foreign military adventurism has more support than is the case for other large powers.

In France, this speaks to the idiosyncracies of local political culture. In the international arena it may reflect a common belief that some nation other than the US needs to assume a global constabulary role, even if as a deputy sheriff. Whatever the reason, it looks like the French are cheese eating surrender monkeys no more. Oh, to be a fly on Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s wall!

Another locked closet.

datePosted on 00:19, April 6th, 2011 by Pablo

The old saying that the two things one does not want to see being made are sausage and legislation comes to mind given that the Security Intelligence Amendment Bill public submission hearings commence this week (the first reading on the Bill was held in December, during the usual Xmas lull in which serious media scrutiny of pretty much anything unrelated to the season is negligible). Labour and the Greens wanted the submission hearings to be held in public, but the government has knocked that back and declared that they will be held in “private” ( that is, in secret). Although submitters can disseminate their submissions as they see fit, the content of the meetings, including questions by committee members and submitters, are subject to non-disclosure provisos. 

Regardless of the  subject of the hearings, which has to do with specifying the scope of SIS authority and the warrant process involved in conducting surveillance of new electronic technologies such as mobile phones, GPS systems and other gadgets, the failure to hold public hearings is yet another sign of the ingrained authoritarianism of the political elite and its disdain, if not contempt, for the pubic at large. For example, one of the reasons for the surveillance upgrade, according to the government, is the security concerns surrounding the Rugby World Cup. To use that as a rationale beggers belief and just shows the disconnect between the thinking public and what National believes the public will swallow (the reasons why the RWC is not going to be a terrorist target are many but suffice it to say that NZ security agencies have a vested bureaucratic interest in hyping the threat. And should they come, RWC threats will be of a local dissident-protest rather than terrorist in nature, and will not require anything beyond what is already in place in terms of warrants for electronic eavesdropping).

Labour’s call for public hearings is pretty rich given that during its term in office it never held a single one when it came to SIS matters. The Greens, as always when it comes to such things, stand on principle. What is interesting is that the Maori Party and ACT, which have members on the Intelligence and Security oversight committee that will chair the hearings, have sided with National on the issue of transparency–that is, they have opted for the closet rather than the open door when it comes to airing contending views on juxtaposed issues of national security and civil rights. What this says about the Maori Party and ACT leadership, given the targeting of the former’s members by the SIS and the supposed championing by the latter of civil rights, individual freedoms and governmental accountability, I am not not in a position to say. But what I can say is this: the move to hold the SIS Amendment Bill public submission hearings in private is designed to cover the fact that the oversight committee is going to disregard submissions against the granting of expanded surveillance powers to the SIS and will rubber-stamp the legislative changes in any event. There will be no incisive or critical questions offered by committee members with regard to how the electronic spying will be carried out, under what circumstances, for what purposes and with whom it will be shared. 

Instead, there will be a collective nod and wave by the majority of the committee behind closed doors, and the SIS Amendment Bill will pass. What is being protected is not state secrets, not confidential material, or anything remotely connected to national security. The reason the hearings will be held behind closed doors is to conceal the lackey lock-step into which the committee will fall. It is about saving coalition face in an election year rather than addressing the serious concerns of intelligence service power-expansion. That shallow political PR calculation is the sole reason why these hearings will be held in secret.

So much for informed public consent and parliamentary accountability when it comes to security and intelligence in this small democracy.

Recuerdos de la Muerte (Memories of Death).

datePosted on 14:08, March 24th, 2011 by Pablo

Today (March 24) is the 35th anniversary of the coup that ushered in the “dirty war” in Argentina that cost 30,000+ lives, more than 10,000 “desparecidos”  (“disappeared,” or those who were last seen in custody but whose bodies have never been discovered), with tens of thousands tortured and exiled. Never has the dark side of the Argentine psyche been on worse display than during the so-called “Proceso de Reorganisacion Nacional” (“Process of National Reorganisation”), and hopefully the bitter lessons learned will prevent a repetition of that wretched episode in Argentine history. The hard truth is that although the September 11, 1973 golpe that ousted Salvador Allende in Chile is more well-known (as was the dictator Pinochet), and the Argentine coup followed others in Uruguay (1973), Bolivia (1974), Peru (1968), Brazil (1964) and several previous ones in Argentina itself (1962, 1966, with an internal military coup in 1970), the dictatorship installed in 1976 was the most sadistic, murderous and cruel of them all. In its brutality and efficiency it was the exemplar of South American authoritarianism.

For people like me–raised in Argentina and directly exposed to the dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s–the horrors of those days do not go away easily. For a generation of Argentines, to say nothing of their counterparts in Chile and elsewhere such as in Central America, the traumas of those years will linger forever, and it is only now, with the birth of a generation completely unaffected by the dictaduras, that the process of psychological healing can begin in earnest. While people who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s continue living, it will be impossible to erase from the collective memory the pervasive climate of fear that characterised life during those times.

The immediate result of the climate of fear was known as “atomizing infantilisation:” the body politic is forcibly stripped of its horizontal solidarity networks by the imposition of state terror, which paralyses resistance and reduces the individual social subject to the level of a child’s nightmare. Just as children fear the monsters under their beds and are powerless to stop their depredations, so too a society subjected to a systematic campaign of state terror is reduced to a sense of utter helplessness and vulnerability. After all, in the case of the dictatorships, the monsters were real and death or torture could occur at any time, for seemingly any reason. Terror appeared arbitrary but was in fact systematic, with the objective being to break the will of anyone who might oppose the dictatorial project.

The result was a condition of survivalist alienation: people just tried to go about their personal business, retreat into their immediate private lives and avoid trouble by relinquishing public commitments. The Argentines had a phrase for this: “de la casa al trabajo y del trabajo a la casa:” From the house to work and from work to home. Under such conditions there is no collective social subject. There is just submission.

It was under these conditions that the beginnings of the neoliberal macroeconomic experiments began in the Southern Cone. It was not just a matter of outlawing unions and political parties. It was about “cleaning the slate” of all those who could thwart the laboratory experiment that was the imposition of monetarist policies in South America. It was about using the climate of fear to reforge collective identities  so that the working classes would never challenge the primacy of capital again. It was about elites taking advantage of the window of opportunity provided by dictatorship to restructure the economy in a more favourable image, setting in place structural changes that would fundamentally alter class relations and the relationship of the state and society to capital in a way that the latter would always have the dominant say in social life. It was about, in the language of the time, “forcibly extirpating without anesthesia the malignancies of communism, atheism, feminism and homosexuality from the body politic” (the phrase is attributed to Argentine General Benjamin Menendez, who was one of the dictatorship’s most bloodthirsty leaders). In sum, the project was about using systematic application of state terror to sow the seeds of fear, alienation and despair in which market-driven projects could be imposed. Above that, the use of state terror was focused on social cleansing–in Chile it was about eliminating class challenges to capatilist rule. In Argentina it was about preserving an elite way of life. In either case, the dictators stopped at nothing to make their point.

These are the projects from which Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble, Ruth Richardson, John Key and the Business Roundtable take inspiration. These are the models upon which the NZ economic reforms are based. And if we think of the way in which NZ macroeconomic reform and other aspects of social policy have been “reformed,” we can see that the authoritarian example has been emulated in more than the economic realm. In other words, the NZ market “model” is a softer version of the Southern Cone dictatorial projects, absent the repression but with the same thrust.

We should also remember the climate of fear when we observe the Middle East. Populations that have been victimised, brutalised and traumatised by long-standing dictatorships are unlikely to have forgiveness and conciliation on their minds as the dictators begin to tremble. But the dictators and their allies know this, which stiffens their resolve to not suffer the retributions that they richly deserve. That does not easily make for a democratic “spring.”

All of which is to say, when it comes to contemplating the virtues of dictatorial regimes because they provide economic models or security partnerships, the answer in the first instance should be the rallying cry of the heroic Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo: “Nunca Mas!!”

NB: The title of this post comes from Argentine author Miguel Bonasso, who wrote a book by that name.

The Penny Drops.

datePosted on 16:49, February 19th, 2011 by Pablo

No matter how much electoral trapping and facade “democratic” niceties it may want to put on it, authoritarian rule is ultimately based on force. It is a limited or non-competitive form of political domination that uses the threat or deployment of organized violence in order to maintain its status quo. In times of peace the threat of force recedes into the background and is only used discretely and sporadically against those who persist in challenging the regime’s legitimacy and authority. In times of challenge and duress, it comes to the fore and is used en masse.

Amid all the optimism about what the wave of protests mean for the Middle East, this fact seems to have been lost. Even the US government initially seemed to think that by it demanding that ME regimes show “restraint” and move to democratise, they inevitably would. This type of neo-imperial hubris demonstrates a lack of understanding of authoritarian dynamics as well as of its own limited influence in fostering foreign regime change short of war. The bottom line is that so long as an authoritarian regime can retain the loyalty of the repressive apparatuses and these are united and determined in quelling protest, then it will prevail against its opposition even if it engages in cosmetic reforms.

That has now become evident in the latest evolution of the ME protests. In Bahrain and Libya the autocrats have decided to take a hard-line on protests, resulting in deaths and injuries to dozens. Jordan has followed suit, albeit with less deadly force. Weaker than the other three, the Yemeni regime has had a more difficult time marshaling its forces against demonstrators, but is now doing so.  In Egypt and Tunisia after the deposal of the executive despots, the military has adopted a more inflexible position regarding protests. In Algeria, rival power factions use armed demonstrations as inter-elite negotiating tools even as they agree to jointly repress anything that appears to be an independent vehicle for expression of dissent. The authoritarian penny has dropped.

The tipping point has come in Baihran. Situated on a island off of Saudi Arabia but with close sea proximity to Iran, a former Iranian possession with a 70 percent lower class Shiia population now ruled by a Sunni Arab absolute monarchy, home port to the US 5th fleet that maintains a carrier task force in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea at all times (in no small part because these contain the sea lanes through which most ME oil passes through, to say nothing of the geo-strategic logics at play), an unchecked Shiia uprising there is seen as a grave threat to the entire Sunni world (Saudi Arabia itself has a 20 percent Shiia population). Fears of Iranian influence in resident Shiia protests have focused the attention of the Gulf states as well as their Arab neighbours, and the larger geopolitical consequences of internal protests coupled with a more assertive Iranian presence in the region (exemplified by the sending of a small Iranian naval task force through the Suez Canal on its way to a port visit in Syria, the symbolism of which is not lost on anyone), have convinced Arab leaders that they must first revert to the authoritarian bottom line before any serious discussion of reform can begin.

As for the Iranians, they have demonstrated quite clearly that they have no qualms about violently putting down protests that they consider to be seditious and orchestrated from abroad. The regime attitude was captured this week by Iranian Majlis (parliament) speaker Ali Larijani, who to a cheering gallery of pro-regime legislators called for the execution of opposition leaders linked to the latest protests. Methinks reform is a ways off in Iran.

No wonder then, that the US and other Western powers have modified their rhetoric in recent days and called for “restraint” without coupling that with calls for “democracy” in the Gulf. As I have attempted to explain in the series of previous posts, when the choice becomes one of “turbulence” versus stability, and turbulence is caused by internal protest overlapped on regional geopolitical maneuvering, then interest in democratic reform takes a back seat to reassertion of national authoritarian control that upholds the regional balance of power.

All of which means we can expect more blood to flow in the streets until the protests are suppressed, and that the Western response will be much public hand-wringing and lamentation coupled with a private sigh of relief.

The “transitions” diachronology.

datePosted on 18:05, February 17th, 2011 by Pablo

I decided to package my posts about events in the Middle East in chronological order as they appeared, add an introduction and summary by way of framing the discussion, and send it to the nice folk at Scoop to use as this month’s Word from Afar column. By and large, I think that it holds together pretty well in light of events. It is a pity that I could not add some of the interesting discussion in the threads that followed the posts (since the essay was already at the upper word limit for an op-ed), but I did keep them in mind as I did the edit and added the bracketing material. In any case, the test of whether my analysis is right or wrong will play out over the next few months, and I have no doubts that KP readers will hold me to account in either event.

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