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A hard rain is a’gonna fall.

datePosted on 14:16, May 22nd, 2015 by Pablo

Although I am loathe to prognosticate on fluid situations and current events, I have been thinking about how the conflict in Iraq has been going. Although I do not believe that the Islamic State (IS) is anywhere close to being the global threat that it is portrayed to be in the West, I do believe that it is an existential threat to Syria, Iraq and perhaps some of their Sunni neighbours. Unlike al-Qaeda, which has limited territorial objectives, IS is political-religious movement with serious territorial ambitions that uses a mix of conventional and unconventional land warfare to achieve them. Given that difference, below is an assessment of the situation in Iraq after the fall of Ramadi into IS hands.

Iraq’s Anbar Province, a Sunni stronghold, is now under IS control. Tikrit was occupied a few months ago, Falluja and Haditha fell some weeks ago and Ramadi was conquered a week ago. To the northeast, Mosul remains in IS hands, while Baiji (site of major oil processing facilities) and Samarra remain under siege. With dozens of smaller towns in Anbar and elsewhere under IS rule, to include a front extending south-southeast from Tikrit to the eastern Baghdad suburbs along the Tigris River basin, the advance on the capital appears inevitable. Or is it? In this post I attempt to outline the strategic situation that the NZDF has thrust itself into.

28D32BC000000578-3087517-image-a-9_1432030518818Map courtesy of the DailyMail Online (http://www.dailymail.co.uk).

First, let’s look at the positives (from the West’s perspective). There is no way that IS can physically take and occupy Baghdad. A city of nearly four million people, most of them Shiia, Baghdad is a fortress when compared to what IS has tackled so far. It has concentrated military forces , is the seat of national government and is the location of numerous foreign military and diplomatic missions. It is therefore a strategic asset that Iran, the West and Iraqi Shiites cannot afford to lose. Moreover, IS is stretched too thin on the ground in Iraq to have the numbers to engage effective urban warfare against a determined and concentrated enemy, has no air power and does not have enough Sunni support in Baghdad to make up for the lack of numbers on the ground (A digression here: IS has a Salafist ideology buttressed by Ba’athist political and military organisation. Much of its leadership is drawn from the ranks of displaced Sunni Ba’athist officials in the Saddam Hussein regime, and it enjoys considerable support in Sunni Iraq. This accounts in significant measure for its success in Anbar).

Although not located in Anbar, Mosul, Samarra and Tikrit also have Sunni majorities, so the trend has been for IS to target and conquer urban areas where its sectarian support is matched by demographic numbers. The question remains as to whether its military campaign can be equally successful in Shiia dominant areas to the east and south of Baghdad, where Iranian forces also have a presence. That appears unlikely.

On the negative side from the West’s perspective, IS appears to be engaging in a pincer movement designed to surround and isolate western and northern Baghdad from the rest of the country. If it able to control the land routes in those areas it can cut off not only supply lines between Baghdad and its allied forces in the north and west, including Camp Taji where the NZDF is supposed to be stationed (I say supposedly because I have read an unconfirmed report that the NZDF deployment are stuck in Baghdad because of the increase in IS hostilities), but it can also proceed to apply a chokehold on supplies entering Baghdad via the north and west. As part of this strategy IS will target the power grid that supplies Baghdad, the majority of which comes from its north (including the power plant at Baiji, now under siege) as well as water supplies drawn from reservoirs in the northwest and piped to Baghdad. This will not be fatal if the Baghdad government can keep its land lines of supply in the south and east open, but it certainly will hinder its ability to keep some (more than likely Sunni) neighbourhoods stocked with life essentials, which will only exacerbate their alienation from central authorities and perhaps contribute to their support for IS.

Moreover, if more difficult to achieve, IS does not need to control all of the territory to the east and south of Baghdad in order to choke it off. All it has to do is establish a thin mobile front that can gain and hold intercept points on the major highways surrounding the city (and relatively close to the city limits at that, which obviates the need to fight Shiias further afield). This includes targeting power and water supplies coming from the south and east.

In other words, IS does not have to achieve strategic depth in order to choke the arterial routes leading into the city from the south and east. Coalition airpower may be able to stave off this eventuality for a while but without ground control that allows unimpeded re-supply, Baghdad will be operating on a scarcity regime within a few months. Resupply by air, while significant, cannot substitute for land supply, and it is worth noting that Baghdad airport as well as the infamous Abu Ghraib prison (where many Sunni militants are held) lie west of Baghdad and have recently been the subject of IS attacks. In fact, in the last year both Abu Ghraib and the prison at Taji have been the scenes of major prisoner jailbreaks orchestrated by IS, with many of the escapees now thought to have joined its ranks in an effort to increase its knowledge of the local fighting terrain.

A microcosmic version of this scenario involves the city of Taji, location of Camp Taji, the huge military base that is the destination point for the NZDF contribution to the anti-IS coalition. Straddling national highway one 20 miles northwest of Baghdad west of the Tigris river, Taji is the last significant town on the run south into Baghdad. With the old Saddam-era and later US military base capable of housing a mix of 40,000 Iraqi and foreign troops (although in reality there are far less on base), and home to a 1700 meter runway and Iraqi’s armoured corps, it is now the focal point of foreign training of Iraqi troops. As such and because of its location, it is a major target for IS, which controls the territory immediately east of the Tigris (about 11 miles away from the base). Since Taji is only 30 miles from Falluja, the presumption is that IS will mass it’s force to the east, west and north of Taji, then launch offensives designed to gain control of the town and highway. That would leave the base cut off from land routes and force it to rely on air re-supply and/or fight its way out of containment. If that happens it is doubtful that the NZDF troops will hunker down “behind the wire” and do nothing else. Whatever the scenario, isolating Camp Taji from Baghdad is a primary IS objective in the next months and will be essential to any move to surround and squeeze the capital city. The good news, from the West’s perspective, is that in order to isolate the base and sever its land link to Baghdad, IS will have to mass significant numbers of fighters, artillery and armour, something that makes it vulnerable to coalition air strikes.

The bottom line is that a successful pincer movement will slowly strangle and starve Baghdad, something that it turn will force the Iraq government to seek a political settlement on terms favourable to IS. That will entail the ejection of foreign forces and partition of Iraq. IS will claim Sunni-dominant areas and merge them with the territory it holds in Syria (IS controls roughly half of Syria’s territory) to establish its caliphate. It has no real interest in Iraqi Kurdistan because it cannot defeat the Peshmerga and other than the oil facilities on its western flank, Kurdistan has no strategic assets. Likewise, Shiia dominant areas of Iraq are too large and populated for IS to occupy, plus any incursion into Iraqi Shiia border territory with Iran will invite a military response from the latter. But where IS is in control, it has already begun to provide the basic services that the Iraq and Syrian governments no longer can, which raises the possibility that partition is already a fait acompli. As stated in The Economist:

“The danger is that the IS caliphate is becoming a permanent part of the region. The frontiers will shift in the coming months. But with the Kurds governing themselves in the north-east, and the Shias in the south, Iraqis question the government’s resolve in reversing IS’s hold on the Sunni north-west. “Partition is already a reality,” sighs a Sunni politician in exile. “It just has yet to be mapped.” (“The caliphate strikes back,” The Economist (on line) http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21651762-fall-ramadi-shows-islamic-state-still-business-caliphate-strikes-back, May 23, 2015).

Thanks to the Iraqi Army abandoning their positions and leaving their equipment behind, IS has captured significant amounts of modern US made weaponry, including the equivalent of several armoured columns. It now has anti-aircraft munitions that eventually will score hits on coalition aircraft. Its fighters are a mix of seasoned veterans and unprofessional jihadis, but IS field commanders have been judicious in their use of each (for example, employing  inexperienced foreign jihadists in first wave assaults or in suicide bombings using construction vehicles to breach enemy lines, followed by artillery fire and hardened ground forces). What that means is that IS has the realistic ability to cut off Baghdad’s land access to its near north and west, which will force the Iraq military and coalition partners to stage a counteroffensive to reclaim those lines of supply.

IS relies on mobility, manoeuvre and the selective application of mass force to achieve it ends. The fall of Ramadi was accomplished by rapidly surrounding it from the north and east and focusing firepower on one garrison in it. IS also has relatively unencumbered supply lines coming from Syria, and many suspect that supplies also come from Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Iraq has land borders with those states as well as Iran, Jordan and Kuwait. There is a strong belief–which could well be confirmed by the document retrieval made during the US Special Forces raid on a senior IS financier’s hideout in Syria– that the Saudis in particular are doing more than just financing IS as a hedge against Iran). The best check against its advances is demographic density in Shiia dominant parts of the country and the fact that any adventurous move in the east or south will be met by serious Shiia militia and Iranian military resistance (Sadr City, a bastion of Shiia militias, lies on the northeast of Baghdad and Basra, a major oil refining centre and home of the so-called (Shiia) marsh Arabs, is the capital of the south).

Sanctuary

Source: Institute for the Study of War, September 26, 2014.

For those who believe that coalition air power is enough to stem the tide of IS advances, let me simply point out that history has shown that air power alone cannot determine success in a territorial conflict, especially an irregular or unconventional one. Vietnam is a case in point. In the battle for Ramadi the coalition conducted 275 air strikes and still saw the city fall to IS in the space of days. Thousands of coalition air strikes have been launched against IS and while they slowed down many IS advances and were decisive in battles between Kurdish peshmurga and ISIS forces in Syria and northeastern Iraq, they have not proven so when the forces they are supporting are too few or lack the will to fight when things get ugly. Since IS prefers to move quickly between urban areas and stage assaults from within them, the fear of civilian casualties hampers the coalition’s ability strike surgically at them in urban settings. That leaves the coalition with the task of trying to target IS convoys and garrisons, something that has proven hard to do given the dispersed nature of their campaign outside of urban areas.

It would seem that the best way to counter IS advances is to pre-emptively launch counter-offensives using a mix of foreign and Iraq troops and militias. That involves accepting Iranian military participation in concert with Western forces and requires moving sooner rather than later to at least stall IS’s progress southward. But if we take standard basic training as a guideline, then the Iraqi Army forces that have begun to be trained by the coalition troops will not be ready to fight until mid July. That may be too late to stop IS before it reaches Taji and the western Baghdad suburbs. Thus the conundrum faced by the coalition is to commit group troops and accept Iranian military help now or wait and hope that IS will slow down its advance due to its own requirements, thereby allowing training provided to the Iraqi Army by foreigners like the NZDF enough time to strengthen it to the point that it can take back the fight to IS with only marginal foreign assistance.

At worst, the latter is a pipe dream. At best, it is a very big ask.

Guest Post by Kate: Human Rights are Universal.

datePosted on 08:42, May 8th, 2015 by Pablo

On returning this week from his trade mission in the Middle East, John Key stated on Breakfast TV that countries such as Saudi Arabia have views of human rights that are “different” from our own, justifying the government’s decision to exclude human rights issues from any trade agreement that New Zealand is able to secure in the region. That is putting it rather mildly. Saudi Arabia has one of the consistently worst human records in the world. While the mainstream media is quick to focus in on a discriminatory gender regime that bans women from driving and requires them to be covered from head-to-toe, such problems pale in comparison to the treatment of the foreign workers who make up at least a third of the country’s population, or the torture, imprisonment, and death sentences handed down to Christian converts, human rights workers, activists, journalists, and other critics of the ruling elite. Unlike the distinctly Saudi approach to gender relations, it is difficult to see how the Saudis themselves could seriously attempt to justify such severe human rights abuses in religious or cultural terms.

What is especially surprising about the Prime Minister’s statement is that, if he genuinely believes that Saudi Arabian understandings of human rights are “different” rather than simply wrong, this would put him far over on the fringes of moral philosophy into the cultural relativist camp. This is a space occupied only by academic extremists who have followed the logics of social constructionism to their absolute and final conclusions (i.e. there is no such thing as truth, which makes it rather hard to speak truth to power as many of these theorists seem to want to do), or a small minority on the extreme right, which proposes that liberal values can only ever be achieved in supposedly superior Western cultures. Sticking to this line of argument means that anything whatsoever can be justified in cultural terms to the point where, essentially, nothing practised by any society at any point in history can be criticised at all. What strange company for a Mr. Moderate who usually tries to avoid coming to any conclusions that could undermine his apparently undying popularity to be found in.

Furthermore, this is not the generally shared understanding most reasonable people have of these issues. In fact, New Zealand, along with just about every other country in the world, is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the horrors of World War Two and aimed at establishing a basic set of rights and liberties that countries should do their very best to uphold. Least it isn’t clear from the title of the Declaration, most of the world believes that human rights are universal, Mr. Key, not particular.

Saudi Arabia, by the way, does not accept these principles, rejecting the Declaration on the grounds that guaranteeing freedom of religion would be detrimental to the country’s own traditions, and that its own version of Islamic law supposedly upholds a higher threshold of human rights than this or any other international agreement. By far the more important point, however, is that New Zealand is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration, which not only obligates us to ensuring that we uphold basic human rights within our own borders, but also to promote human rights abroad.

Yet when it comes to trade agreements, the explicit approach adopted by both recent centre-right and centre-left governments has been to exclude human rights from the negotiating agenda. This puts us at odds with the other members of the international “club” we belong to, to use another of the Prime Minister’s terms. Based on academic research, the World Trade Organization states that about 75 percent of contemporary trade agreements include human rights clauses, whether binding or non-binding, driven largely by the human rights promotion agenda of Canada, the European Union, and yes, the United States. It obviously cannot be assumed that these clauses always lead to substantive improvements in human rights outcomes, but they are a start.

The real reason behind both National and Labour’s exclusion of human rights concerns from the negotiation of trade deals is two-fold. Firstly, to state the obvious, New Zealand is very small in global terms, and thus cannot exercise much leverage over larger countries in the Asia and the Middle East. When countries are dependent on us for aid, absolutely do we try to influence human rights, most notably in the Pacific (which also occasionally invokes issues of culture and human rights that I don’t intend to get into here). Realistically, if we are to incorporate human rights concerns into our trade relations framework, this might more successful if done through multilateral arrangements—yet is it difficult to see human rights becoming a major concern of the kind of multilateral trade deals that New Zealand has wedded itself to, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

Secondly, the bipartisan approach reveals not only a deep ideological commitment to free trade that is not necessarily shared by other developed countries, in which the influence of large protectionist interest groups often moderates that stance, but a rather naïve belief that trade deals and trade relationships can be separated from everything else. Despite good empirical and historical evidence that trade cannot be viewed independently from other aspects of foreign policy, we do this with regard to our security relations, in which government officials cannot see the long-term problem emerging out of the contradiction between an Asia-oriented trade policy and a Five Eyes-oriented security one, and we also apparently do it when it comes to more noble causes.

So herein lies the hypocrisy not only of our current leadership, but all those sectors of our community who stress trade above all other national goals. We tend to have a rather rosy view of our country not only as an independent voice in the international arena, but as a progressive force in the big wide world. We ban nuclear ships and we save whales. We were the first to give women the vote and at least some of protested against the Springbok Tour. We think we deserve a seat on the Security Council because we are nice (alternatively, to carry on the theme, there are those who no doubt think it will help us out on the trade front). Not caring—or pretending not to care— about the worst instances of human rights abuses, however, not only threatens to undermine this aspect of our national identity, but undermines both our reputation and potential as a global player that punches above our weight on moral issues.

Fear-mongering by frauds for fame and fortune.

datePosted on 16:40, April 20th, 2015 by Pablo

So the Herald on Sunday published an article by a business lecturer from some obscure university in the UK (now apparently visiting at Auckland University) in which she claims that NZ is a  “sitting duck” for an attack on a shopping mall (I will not link to the article because the fool does not deserve any more attention). She compares the NZ terrorism risk level to that of the US, UK an Australia and says that we should emulate them when it comes to mall security, to include bag and ID checks before entering. The Herald on Sunday then followed up the same day with an editorial and a couple of other articles hyping the terrorist threat in NZ.

I will not go over the levels of idiocy marshalled up in this sorry excuse for reportage. Instead I will rephrase a comment I left over at The Standard:

 …(T)he lecturer who penned the scare-mongering hysterical piece has no demonstrable experience with terrorism or counter-terrorism, much less the broader geopolitical and ideological context. She makes a false comparison with the US and UK, acting as if the threat environment here is equivalent to those of these countries and Australia, and states that NZ should emulate them when it comes to mall security. That is simply not true.

Moreover, just because al-Shabbab carried out one successful mall attack in Kenya and called for others in the US, UK and Canada does not mean that they have the capability of doing so anywhere else. In reality, those calls have gone unheeded and security authorities in those states have not appreciably increased their warnings about attacks on malls as a result.

Let us be clear: no mall in the US (and the UK as far as I know) requires bag and ID checks in order to go shopping. So the claim that they do is a lie. I mean, really. Can you imagine the reaction of the average US citizen to being asked to produce an ID before being allowed into Walmart or any one of the thousands of malls that exist in the US? Heck, they might pull out a firearm and say that their name is Smith and Wesson!

Anyway, the costs of of engaging enhanced security measures will be prohibitive for many businesses and even if adopted will be passed on to the consumers, which in turn could drive away customers in an age when they can shop on line. So it is not going to happen. The use of CCTV, coordination with local security authorities and hiring of private security guards suffices in the US and UK, so it surely can suffice here.

I will leave aside the democratic principles at stake, one of which is that you do not restrict the freedom of movement of everyone on the pretext of stopping a potential act of mass violence. And even if you were do do so, who is to say that evil doers would not switch targets to, say, transportation hubs or entertainment districts in downtown areas. Are we going to then go on to lock down every place where people congregate? Lets get real.

In sum, what we got from the Herald was an article that used a false comparison from someone who is clueless but who somehow got interviewed by a rube reporter as if she was an expert in order to justify a call for a hysterical and impractical overreaction, which the Herald then used to write a fear-mongering editorial that contradicts what our own intelligence agencies are saying about the risk of terrorist threats on home soil. Geez. Perhaps hyping up security and sacrifice in the lead-in to the Anzac Day commemorations has something to do with it?

There is only one indisputable fact when it comes to terrorism and NZ. Joining the fight against IS/Daesh increases the threat of terrorist attack on Kiwis and NZ interests, not so much here at home but in the Middle East where IS/Daesh has a broad reach. Although the Gallipoli commemorations will likely not be affected due to the security measures put in place by the Turks (who do not fool around when it comes to security), the risks to individual or small groups of Kiwis in the ME–say, tourists, aid workers, diplomats or business people– are increased as a direct result of NZ involvement in the anti-IS/Daesh coalition. The emphasis should be on their safety, not on that of local malls.

An absolutely wretched effort by the Herald.”

The problem is bigger than the Herald going overboard with its scare-mongering in the build up to the Anzac Day commemorations. Since 9/11 we have seen the emergence of a plethora of security and terrorism “experts” (including a few here in NZ such as the poseur who featured in the Herald article) as well as an entire industry dedicated to “countering” extremism, terrorism and a host of other potential or imaginary threats. Likewise government security agencies have pounced on the spectre of terrorism to justify expansion of their budgets, personnel, powers and scope of search, surveillance and detention.

There is, in effect, an entire terrorism growth industry hard at work conjuring up threats and scenarios not so much as to safeguard their fellow citizens but to enrich themselves via fame, fortune or power. In this they are abetted by a compliant when not reactionary and sensationalist media that does not bother to fact check the claims of many of these fraudulent experts (such as the Fox News contributor Steve Emerson, who falsely claimed that there are non-Muslim “no go” zones in the UK and France, or the charlatan Rohan Gunaratna, who claimed that there were jihadi cells in NZ ten years ago without ever having visited here, and who has now had to pay serious money in damages for defaming a Tamil community group in Canada).

Together, these various branches of the terrorism industry work to mutually profit by promoting fear and distrust while curtailing the rights of the majority in the ostensible interest of securing against the potential harm visited by a purportedly violent domestic minority. And they are selective when they do so: notice that all the hype is about Islamic extremists when in fact a large (if not THE largest) amount of political violence in Western societies, including NZ, is meted out by white, Christian extremists. Yet we do not hear dire warnings about neo-Nazis and white supremacists even though they have a proven track record of politically or racially motivated violent acts.

“Esoteric pineapples,”a commentator on the Standard thread that I made my remarks on, provided this very useful and informative link on the phenomenon. Read it and weep.

It is a sad day that NZ’s leading newspaper stoops to this type of tabloid rubbish. Shame on them. But at least it seems that many of its readers are not taken in by the ruse, which augers slightly better for informed debate on the true nature of the NZ threat environment.

PS: For the record, I do not consider myself to be a terrorism or security expert. I have a background in counter-insurgency, unconventional warfare and strategic analysis among other things, and have written extensively on those and other topics. But I have largely been pigeon-holed in the NZ media as one or the other in spite of my repeated requests to be identified correctly, which is another example of shoddy journalism.

Idle chatter.

datePosted on 16:27, April 16th, 2015 by Pablo

Last year I wrote a series of posts outlining what in my view were the reasons the NZ Left was in major if not terminal decline. The posts began before and concluded after the 2014 election and can be found in chronological order here, here and here. There were plenty of people who disagreed with my take on things, with the most vocal detractor being that doyenne of the NZ Left, Chris Trotter. The second of my posts answered his original critique (link to his critique in the post) and he followed up some time later with another post in which he takes me to task for saying that the Left should not resort to Dirty Politics style tactics in order to prevail. He chided me for my idealism and noted that he dealt in pragmatics and pragmatism dictated that the Left should play dirty if it was to defeat the forces of darkness now reigning triumphant in this land.

Given that I have a fair bit of past practical experience with direct action politics, albeit not in NZ, I found the charge of idealism a bit odd. Given what he said previously about the Left’s continued viability and strength, even odder was Chris’s admission that Dirty Politics works and needs to be used by the Left if it is to succeed in the contemporary political arena. If the NZ Left were truly viable would it need to resort to playing dirty? I thought that was the province of pro-capitalist parties whose policies hurt the masses and have little popular appeal due to their elite focus.

Be that as it may, imagine then my surprise when I read this from the redoubtable Mr. Trotter. Therein Chris draws the parallel between the “clever and artistic” denizens of cabaret society in the Weimer Republic and what Dave Brown (in a comment on the post) pointedly calls the “chatterati” assembled to watch a panel discussion of media types–not all of them of the Left–gathered at a restaurant part owned by Laila Harre in order to to lament the demise of Campbell Live. Beyond noting that a well placed bomb would have eliminated the “cream” of Auckland’s chattering Left, he goes on to note the distance between them and the “very different New Zealand” that exists outside of Ms. Harre’s fine dining establishment and whose TV viewing preferences may not be akin to those sipping chardonnay’s inside. His tone is implicitly insulting of those he broke bread with as the media commentators opined about Mr. Campbell, other talking heads, themselves and the state of the NZ media landscape.

Now, I am not one to gleefully point out contradictions or reversals by others, such as that done by some Left commentators on the subject of the Urewera Raids. And I must confess that I am little more than a chatterer myself these days. But given the thrust of Chris’s latest post in light of what he has said before about the NZ Left, I have just one question to ask:

Is he still steering by the real?

Because if he is, then it appears that he has joined my side of the argument about the NZ Left and for that I salute him. Belated as it may be, it was time to wise up.

The issue now is how to move beyond the parlour talk of the chattering Left and into organizing a counter-hegemonic project grounded in effective praxis.  As I have said before that is a very big task and needs to be oriented around a discernible class line. The UNITE union is a small beacon of hope in this regard, but there is much more that needs to be done if anything remotely close to a Left resurgence is to translate into contestable politics. Labour and the Greens are too committed to centrist politics and working within the system as given to be anything other than reformists and passive revolutionaries. Real change can only come from the grassroots and rank and file, and those need to be cultivated via ideological appeals that feel immediate and achievable and which transcend the diversionary rubbish pushed by popular culture, corporate media and a government hell bent on dumbing down the quality of political and social discourse.

What is needed, in other words, is a legitimate war of position, however incremental it may have to be fought.

That is something the chattering Left simply cannot do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is not likely to happen anytime soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps not yet a Cuba Libre, but an opening nevertheless.

datePosted on 14:55, December 19th, 2014 by Pablo

In a previous life one of the US government roles I played was as co-team leader of the OSD/JCS Cuba Task Force. That was a combined team of officials and officers from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) tasked with exploring contingency scenarios for Cuba, including refugee flows (then ongoing) as well as possible civil unrest and regime transition scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to the island nation and the increasingly geriatric nature of its original leadership. My co-team leader was a Cuban American political appointee, with the idea being that my academic experience studying authoritarian regime transitions and knowledge of the Cuban approach to irregular conflict would be balanced by his sensitivity to the domestic political implications of  any moves we proposed to undertake.

Although I cannot reveal much of what we did, I can say a few things about the process that has now led to a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

First, almost everyone in the US government realised that the embargo was a failure. However, the Cuban lobby is on a par with the gun and Israel lobbies when it comes to single issue fixation and willingness to spend money for the cause. This made Cuba a thorny political problem for any US government trying to improve relations with it, as the usual suspects would (and still do) immediately hurl the “soft on communism” and “appeasing dictators” invective as part of their negative electoral campaigning. This placed the issue in the “too hard” basket as far as most politicians were concerned, especially given the myriad of other issues at play and the trade-offs they involved. As a foreign diplomat said in my presence when asked about the US approach to Cuba: “That is a domestic matter, not a diplomatic one.”

Secondly, from the 1980s to the present day, every former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo and resumption of full diplomatic relations. One would have thought that the weight of conservative military leaders and the leading business organisation in the US would hold some sway, but in fact their views were trumped by the lobbying efforts described above. Episodic attempts have been made to launch US business initiatives in Cuba (for example, in agricultural machinery), but the legal and monetary costs of circumventing the embargo by using off-shore subsidiaries, etc. simply proved too much given the limited nature of the potential returns.

Third, as of the early 1990s the Castro brothers increasingly delegated authority to second generation leaders, who now have been replaced in large measure by third generation revolutionary cadres (people in their 40s and 50s). In fact, both the Cuban exile community as well as the revolutionary leadership have seen the physical decline of the so-called “dinosaurios” (dinosaurs) and their replacement with younger, often more moderate leaders who were not present during the revolution and who therefore do not all have personal scores to settle stemming from it. My co-team leader was second generation and not fuelled by the rabid thirst for revenge exhibited by many of his parent’s generation (some of whom I got the dubious pleasure of meeting). Now that second generation’s children are coming to the fore. This has opened the door for initiatives focused on normalising relations.

But the issue remains complex. The end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR actually reinforced the view in some US policy circles that an embargo could, given the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba, bring the Castro regime to its knees.  On the other hand, the increase in non-US foreign investment in Cuba after the Cold War (mostly but not exclusively in tourism) was seen by some in the US as making the embargo counter-productive when it came to promoting US business interests in its near abroad. Overlying these views was a persistent belief that Cuba continued to logistically and intellectually support Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups in Latin America (including those that drug trafficked) as well as rogue regimes such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Nicaragua and Venezuela). As a result, foreign policy opinion in the US after the Cold War remained very divided on the question of what to do with Cuba given the embargo and rudimentary diplomatic relations.

Yet given the demographic changes mentioned earlier, the question about Cuba the last twenty years has mostly been one of political timing: when is the opportune moment to make the move towards restoring normality to the bilateral relationship? Conventional wisdom on US presidential politics states that only during second terms can presidents get away with bold foreign policy initiatives, and even then they have to be popular and presiding over a strong economy in order to do so (since voters tend to ignore foreign policy issues when their pockets and bellies are full). However, owing to the perverse ideological evolution of the Republican Party, only Democrats would even contemplate doing so after 1990, which meant that it was left to Clinton or Obama to be bold (recall that Nixon opened the relationship with China and Reagan encouraged glasnost and perestroika, even if both Republican presidents did so for self-interested reasons).

I have little doubt that Clinton would have normalised relations with Cuba in his second term if he had not been hamstrung by the Lewinsky scandal, which helped turn the Elian Gonzalez saga into a Republican battle cry (Elian Gonzalez was a little Cuban boy who washed up on US shores in a raft in which his mother died. After weeks of to- and fro-ing between the US government and exiled members of the boy’s family, he was forcibly repatriated to Cuba to live with his divorced father. Sensing that Clinton was wounded by the Starr investigation into Cigargate, the GOP turned the boy’s ordeal into an anti-communist political circus, which effectively ended the quiet efforts Clinton’s administration had initiated with an eye towards opening up the Cuban relationship).

Now it appears that Obama has seized the moment to undertake a little glasnost of his own, perhaps because he senses that he has little to lose given the disloyal nature of the opposition (which will rant and rail at anything he does), perhaps because the US economy is doing well enough for him to feel immune on some aspects of foreign policy even after the adverse results of the midterm elections, and perhaps because, like gay marriage and medical marijuana, the US public has simply changed its views on Cuba over the years.  In fact, it is likely a little bit of each, as the GOP and Fake News blowhards may not want to waste political capital on a dead issue that will gain the GOP no electoral traction. As it turns out, with the exception of some posturing clowns like Marco Rubio and the braying jackasses on conservative media outlets, the reaction from the political Right has been fairly muted.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Back when I was dealing with Cuba, the word from their side was that everything was negotiable except for two pillars of the revolution: health and education. That is to say, the vaunted Cuban health and educational systems were sacrosanct and could not be touched in any post-Castro environment. Beyond that, market forces could dictate how Cuba would re-insert itself in the global economy. With an extremely literate, healthy and underemployed work force, it would seem that Cuba would be ideal for any number of value-added export commodity production ventures (textiles and pharmaceuticals have already become targets of foreign investor interest).

The other issue, left unresolved during my time working that beat, was the role of the Communist Party. It is clear that the Cuban political elite have been watching the transitions in the former socialist world, be it the USSR, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe. They have also watched the experiments in indigenous socialism in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is pretty clear that they would prefer to do a China-style transition to state capitalism under one party rule.

The trouble with that preferred picture is that it is only a partial transition, with the political regime remaining largely the same while the economy changes. That may be possible in a huge country like China but is problematic in a small country like Cuba, especially when it is so proximate to a formerly adversarial super power and has a number of expatriates with ideas about Cuba’s future that do not include a dominant role for the Communist Party, much less its continued sole rule.

Thus the conundrum for the second and third generation Cuban Communist Party leadership is whether to embark on a sequential transition (first changing the economy then the political system, or, less likely, vice versa), or  to go all in and mount a simultaneous transition of the economic and political systems. From the standpoint of keeping things peaceful and orderly, the best hope scenario is a sequential transition in which economic change precedes political change. Opening Cuba for business will present a formidable challenge for the Communist Patry, and the social and cultural influences that will come with diplomatic normalisation and economic opening will be hard to contain, much less stop. So whether by design or by the forced pace of change, it is likely that the Cuban political system will open up as a result of the economic transition and its superstructural ramifications.

The key is for the Cuban political elite to realise that the Chinese transition model is not possible for them given the circumstances, and that the days of one party rule will either come to a natural end or be overturned by force. In that light the best thing to do is to prepare a timetable leading up to multiparty competitive elections somewhere down the road, with appropriate guarantees put in place to preserve key revolutionary gains and to safeguard the institutional position of entities like the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).  That will take some doing, and could well take a fair bit of time given the current makeup of the Communist Party leadership (in which Fidelistas still hold significant influence along with Raulistas).

The question remains as to what will happen with the two pillars of the revolution in a market-driven economy. It also remains to be seen as to how Cuban society will respond to the introduction of full market logics on the island. Things like the elimination of food subsidies and introduction of merit-based employment criteria in and outside the public serve could prove painful for Cuban society. It could also lead to  criminal opportunism in what some observers have already characterized as an increasingly amoral and feral civil society no longer wedded to the revolutionary ethos of the original 26th of July movement. If one thinks of where Cuba is spatially located in relation to drug trafficking corridors, the downside possibilities should be obvious.

Even so, the resumption of full diplomatic relations is a welcome development and hopefully followed by a formal end to the US embargo (not a certain thing, given opposition by GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives). There still will be many hard days ahead as Cuba comes to grip with its post-revolutionary future, but at least the range of potential outcomes will be expanded relative to those extant up until a few days ago. As for the US, it demonstrates that sometimes diplomatic face-saving on foreign policy is a waste of energy and the better self-interested choice is to admit mistakes and move on. As the old Korean saying goes: a rich uncle can afford to be generous.

Whatever its motivations, Uncle Sam just was.

 

Media Links: The Sydney Hostage Crisis.

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

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

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

Blog Link: Could Fiji Emulate Singapore?

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

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

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

Left in tatters.

datePosted on 12:14, September 21st, 2014 by Pablo

A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.

Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.

That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.

After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.

In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.

Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.

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