Archive for ‘History’ Category

The unwanted jihadist.

datePosted on 11:31, March 6th, 2019 by Pablo

It turns out that Kiwi-born Mark Taylor, known as the so-called “bumbling jihadist” because he left the GPS tracking feature on his phone while he made pro-Daesh videos (including one where he burns his NZ passport and another where he calls for jihadists to stab police and military officers at ANZAC Day celebrations), has surrendered to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish peshmerga alliance that is part of the mostly Western military coalition fighting Daesh under the name “Operation Inherent Resolve.”

He was fortunate or smart enough to surrender to the Kurds, who respect the laws of war and Geneva Convention when it comes to captured jihadists, something neither the jihadists themselves or the Syrian Army are in the habit of doing. This means that he can be transferred to other, Western members of the coalition for juridical administration. He is merely being held by the Kurds after he admitted who he was and that he was a member of Daesh. As far as the Kurds are concerned he has committed no specific crimes under their laws (beyond, perhaps, criminal association), so he is taking up space in a cell reserved for more unpleasant characters.

The issue of what to do with him has become a political football in NZ. The PM says that there is little the government can do for him because it has no diplomatic representation in Syria, much less the East Syrian conflict zone. But she then says that as a NZ citizen he is “our responsibility” even if NZ cannot help him where he is. The Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister says good riddance to him, in part because he turned his back on his birth country and in part because he is a bigamist. The Opposition and Right-wingers of all types set to xenophobic baying about his betrayal of his home country, the risk he poses and the amount of taxpayer dollars that would be wasted on his return both in terms of travel as well as monitoring and incarceration of him.

The PM went so far to say that NZ has “no relationship” with “the forces” fighting in Eastern Syria even though it is well known that US, UK, Australian, French and German forces are fighting alongside the Kurds and NZ SAS troops are rumoured to be doing so as well. The NZDF has senior officers on the Joint Task Force staff assigned to Operation Inherent Resolve, so the notion that NZ has “no relationship” to those fighting in Syria (the same forces who drove Daesh out of Mosul and westward into Syria) is disingenuous in the extreme.

What is worse, the Australian journalist who interviewed Taylor in the Kurdish jail claims that Taylor told him that he was interviewed by NZ intelligence officers (presumably SIS) shortly after his capture/surrender in December. If that is true, then the government has not only known for a while about his whereabouts but is claiming no possibility of contact with him even though he has had face-to-face meetings with NZ agents. Be that as it may, I am still of the opinion that he may have some useful intelligence value left in him, as questioning in a Kurdish jail in winter is a bit different than interrogations conducted in a NZ detention centre at any time of year.

Given the amount of dissembling and ignorant ranting going on, I thought that I would clarify some of the issues at stake.

On the matter of whether or not Mr. Taylor has NZ citizenship in light of his renouncing it: Only a State can confer and withdraw citizenship. A person claiming to renounce citizenship without State sanction is just stating intention, not deed. Burning a passport (a token of sovereignty) just prevents one from legal inter-State travel. Citizenship is conferred by birth or by application and only lost when the State withdraws its recognition of it. That has not happened with Mr. Taylor. He remains a NZ citizen.

Under international law undocumented criminal suspects, including terrorists, are to be returned to country of birth if known. If an undocumented suspect is captured in battle or surrenders to an allied belligerent in a recognised conflict, s/he is a POW and must be treated as such. This includes irregular non-State belligerents captured by non-State actors like the SDF working alongside State militaries during an internationally approved (in this case UN-sanctioned) conflict against a common (in this case non-State) foe.

If possible, captured undocumented enemy POWs must be returned to their known country of origin to face justice. They can be kept in allied and home country military custody during transfer. There is no need for consular assistance or travel docs if they remain in military custody, just access to legal advice during process. Conversely, the military can transfer the prisoner to a location where his country of origin has diplomatic representation, whereupon he can be issued emergency travel documents. NZ has representation in both Iraq and Turkey, both of which have ties to the anti-Daesh coalition. It is therefore relatively easy to move Mr. Taylor out of Kurdish custody, into Western military custody and onwards to a location that either has NZ diplomatic representation and /or NZDF presence to whom he can be delivered (think, for example, of moving him from Kurdish-held Eastern Syria to Camp Taji in Iraq).

Should Mr. Taylor be returned to NZ he can be arrested and charged at the border under the Terrorism Suppression Act for being a member of an internationally-designated terrorist entity. To that can be added other charges depending on what he is suspected of having done while with Daesh and the evidence compiled of him doing so. At a minimum he could receive a 6-7 year jail term for aiding and abetting a criminal organization. At a maximum he could he found guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity if he is found to have participated in atrocities or collective acts of violence against civilians (such as the enslavement of Yaziri women and girls as sex slaves. He has admitted he would have liked to have had a sex slave but could not afford one, so the question remains as to whether he participated in any act of kidnapping or enslavement while in Syria). NZ has legal authority to prosecute its citizens for war crimes and even though it does not have the death penalty (except, apparently, for treason), a guilty verdict on a war crime could result in life imprisonment.

Concerns have been voiced that if he returns home the leniency in the judicial system could see him freed and out on the streets. There is a possibility of this if his defence attorneys ask for psychiatric evaluations that prove that he is not mentally competent to stand trail. He clearly is intellectually sub-par (an uncle of his claims that he suffered brain damage as a toddler during a fit of some sort), and his actions over the years indicate that he may be a bit of a lost soul. Even his co-religionists at the mosque that he worshipped at in Hamilton say that he was more interested in companionship and a sense of belonging than in waging jihad.

If he is released he undoubtably will be monitored closely, not only by the security services but members of his own religious community. In fact, I would not be surprised if he is shunned by the latter because of the disrepute he has brought upon them. So as far as posing an on-going risk to society if he returns and is freed, I would hazard the guess that it would be very low.

The more likely scenario is that he will return in custody, be held on remand during the time he is on trial, be found guilty of terrorism-related crimes and sentenced to a significant period in prison. Some believe that if that happens he will then work to radicalise fellow inmates, as is often a common practice in US and UK jails and which has some precedent in NZ. But the truth is that Mr. Taylor is a follower not a leader and does not have the cunning and agile thought processes that would make him a convincing jailhouse preacher. So here too my reckon is that he will not pose a threat of radicalisation to other inmates. If anything, other inmates will pose a threat to him (think white supremacists, gang members and others who make take a dim view of his citizenship renunciation and embrace of Islam and jihad).

There is question as to whether he has wives and/or children in Syria. That is a humanitarian concern because arguably they are innocents caught up in his mess. If it turns out that he does in fact have family in Syria, the question is then what to do with them? If they have no connection to NZ it is perhaps best for them to return to their hometowns, but that is a question that refugee resettlement and immigration officials will have to address in the event that he is returned to NZ.

The most sorry aspect of this is that the fate of Mr. Taylor has become yet another pawn in the partisan bickering in Wellington. The truth is that the case is straight-forward: he is a NZ citizen and member of a terrorist organisation who was captured by allied forces. His return is mandated by international law. NZ law requires that he be arrested, charged and tried according to provisions in the Terrorism Surpression Act and perhaps other related laws. Anything other than this is an abdication of responsibility by the NZ government and a denial of his democratic rights to a fair trial and legal defence (because even bad guys have legal rights in democracies).

For NZ there is opportunity in this process. Returning him and putting him on trial demonstrates that NZ is a responsible international citizen that assumes the burden of dealing with its own when they misbehave (because let us be clear: membership in Operation Inherent Resolve is not just about contributing to the military campaign against ISIS in the Levant; it is also about accepting responsibility for deciding the fate of coalition member citizens who joined ISIS and lived to tell the tale after capture). It gives the Crown an opportunity to test the TSA after the fiasco of the Urewera 18 case (the so-called “dog’s breakfast” case that saw seven people eventually tried on firearms, not terrorism charges). It shows that NZ is a a nation where the rule of law supersedes political cynicism and popular sentiment. It serves as a cautionary tale and possible deterrent to other home-grown would-be jihadists. And it keeps at least one foreign fighter from returning to Daesh any time soon.

The Bully’s gambit.

datePosted on 12:54, February 28th, 2019 by Pablo

It has been an open secret in US foreign policy circles that Donald Trump wants to go to war with Venezuela. He has said as much on a number of occasions, not always disguised by the “all options are on the table” rhetoric his advisors urge him to use. In his recent book former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe mentions that Trump asked his national security team “why can’t we go to war with Venezuela,” claiming that it should be easy to do so. He may soon get his wish.

Let’s be clear on why Trump wants to wage war on a southern neighbour. It stems from the fact that he is an ignorant bully who believes in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (or as much as he is told of it, especially the part about being the Western Hemisphere’s police force) and pines for the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and gunboat diplomacy. He covets Venezuelan oil even though its decrepit pumping and refining infrastructure, US oil surpluses and relatively low oil prices make his notions of “controlling” it a bit more complicated than his simple mind can grasp. But as a deep-seated xenophobic racist he hates Latinos in any event, and the corruption and incompetence of the olive-skinned Venezuelan leadership led by Nicole Maduro feeds into all of is prejudices about them. Add to that the fact that, even though he himself is a draft-dodging silver-spooned coward who has no real comprehension of the sacrifices and costs of going to war, he revels in it and the bloodlust it incites amongst the MAGA morons who follow him.

What he is not interested in is the plight of the Venezuelan people or the nature of Maduro’s rule. After all, he heaps praise on Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin-Salman, Rodrigo Dutarte and Vladimir Putin, so respect for human rights, providing for the common good and freely-chosen open government are not high on his list of priorities. Instead, the Venezuelan crisis, which essentially is an economic crisis brought about by government mis-management, corruption and incompetence that evolved into a national humanitarian crisis and now a political crisis–or what Gramsci called an organic crisis of the State–provides Trump with a window of opportunity for him to act out his fantasy of being a war-time president.

The machinery for going to war appears to have been switched on. Since I have been involved in such things in a past life, let me explain how it works.

The move to war starts with the White House via the National Security Council (NSC) asking the Department of Defense (DoD) to draw contingency plans for an armed confrontation with Venezuela. The request is conveyed to the regional units responsible for Latin America, in this case the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Interamerican region (OSD-ISA-IA). The request is also sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its directorates responsible for war-planning in Latin America (especially J2 (Intelligence) and J3 (Operations)), as well as the Undersecretary of Policy and Plans (OSD-US-PP). These agencies often combine resources into a Joint Task Force (JTF) that games out a number of scenarios.

Military intelligence agencies such as the DIA are tasked to gather actionable intelligence on key targets, and the regional military command responsible for Latin America, the Southern Command based in Miami, is assigned the role of drawing up battle plans. The US Special Operations Command in Tampa will also be involved, and between these commands and the JCS the specific mix of airforce, naval and ground forces will be calibrated, then activated (the US favours an air-sea-land approach to conventional warfare, especially if special operators are involved). This will include units with regional focus such as the US Atlantic Fleet and 12th Air Force, as well smaller detachments like Special Boat Units and Air Force special operations wings.

Strategic planners in DoD will narrow down feasible options using multi-level cost/benefit analyses. Interagency working groups will be formed in order to coordinate information flows and policy feedback across affected bureaucracies (for example, the State Department, Homeland Security, Treasury and Customs, since all are involved in the pre-and post conflict response). US military attaches will be ordered to liaise with their Latin American counterparts in order to gauge reaction to any hostile US move (and explore the possibility of cooperation in operations in the case of Brazil and Colombia) and diplomats will be dispatched throughout the region to shore up support for the US and explore the possibility of material assistance from individual countries.

The CIA, NSA and DIA will assign regional and country specialists to the planning and covert assets and signals specialists will increase their reporting on the Venezuelan regime’s internal dynamics and its military’s behaviour, movements and communications. In a case like Venezuela’s where the regime is under siege and the US backs the opposition, the CIA will facilitate backdoor talks between exiles, opposition figures, disgruntled military personnel and US officials so as to ensure that all are playing off of the same page in the lead up to war. If needed, a cover plan–say, the need to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to desperate people as requested by the US friendly opposition–is drawn up in order to pre-position assets and material in preparation for hostilities.

All of this has already been or is being done by the US with regards to Venezuela. Reports have it that numerous flights operated by a CIA-front air charter service from a civilian airbase adjacent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home to US Army special forces) have departed for Colombia carrying humanitarian aide. The US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, and the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Interamerican Affairs traveled to the Colombian-Venezuelan borders last weekend to meet the Opposition leader Juan Guaido and oversee the unloading of provisions destined for Caracas (a move that was blocked by Venezuelan National Guardsmen). Cuban authorities have reported that US special forces have deployed to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in a pre-positioning move (the Cubans have their own reasons to make such claims but their intelligence is very often accurate).

If plans are in an advanced stage, contact with opposition resistance groups in the Venezuelan capital and other population centers will have been made and perhaps weapons supplied. A plan to neutralise the regime leadership and its intelligence networks will be readied. A provocation ploy (say, murder of a US-backed Opposition figure) or excuse for action plan (e.g. threats to US citizens) may be drawn up should it be required as a justification for war.

These things take time, so it is safe to say that if by this point the battle plan is well developed, Trump gave the war order very early in his presidency. DoD and JCS cannot refuse the president’s request even if they oppose it; their duty is to comply with what the Commander-in-Chief has requested. This may not preclude them from approaching Congress about concerns regarding the proposed operation. After all, this is would not be a war of necessity but rather one of opportunity (if not vanity), and the costs involved may not justify what is achieved even in a best-case scenario. But with people like Senator Marco Rubio baying for regime change in Venezuela, the congressional mood to resist the president at this stage is mixed at best, so military concerns about it may not find a receptive audience on the Hill.

In any event, the CIA and US Air Force planes ferrying supplies to Colombia land and take off from the town of Cucuta, located on the Venezuelan border and the site of a violent confrontation last weekend on the transnational bridge linking the two countries. Abrams flew in a USAF aircraft to that town’s airport, which is home to an Army mobile infantry brigade and conventional infantry brigade (largely made up of counter-insurgency companies). This reminds the Venezuelans that Colombia is the US’s closest Latin American military ally, having fought decades together against drug traffickers, the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Colombia is signalling that it will, at a minimum, allow the US to stage and pre-position forces on its territory, even if just on military bases. The Colombians have despised the Bolivarian regime since Chavez’s times, and now their ideological enmity has been practically reinforced because the crisis has seen a mass refugee migration from Venezuela into Colombia at the same time that increased smuggling flows head in the other direction. Social cohesion in border regions has been negatively affected and the public purse is being stretched by the need to provide for the refugees as well as maintain public order and border security. The Colombians have had enough.

Usually the Brazilian military would be reluctant to allow the US to stage and deploy military forces from Brazilian territory. But the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who explicitly modelled himself on Donald Trump during the 2018 campaign, means that things have changed. Bolsonaro is keen to cultivate the White House’s good graces, and offering forward positioning rights along the Venezuelan border is one way of doing so. Brazilian and US commandos will welcome the opportunity to hone their skills together in a real operational environment. Here too ideological enmity dovetails with practical necessity, as Venezuelan refugees have fled into Brazil in increasing numbers over the past few months. It is therefore likely that Brazil has agreed to a US military presence on its border with Venezuela.

As the crisis accentuates and the impasse continues, US military planners will pour over maps and powerpoints, then hammer down the details of the means, methods and tactics to be used, as well as Plan B and C scenarios. Assets will be discretely transferred to staging areas and liaison with host militaries and resistance groups will be established. Strategic targets such as oil derricks and refineries will be given special attention.

Trump has a short term reason to activate the war plan: the 2020 elections. His political rationale in the upcoming election year is to influence the outcome via manipulation of nationalistic sentiment at home. This comes naturally to him given his vulgar political mind, and he sees Venezuela as an easy nut to crack. Aided by his allied media outlets, the drumbeat for war has been banging loudly for the last few months and is getting louder. Given the potential results of the Mueller investigation as well as those of several Democrat-controlled House Committees (such as the Michael Cohen hearings now underway), to say nothing of his failed summits with Kim Jong-un about denuclearising the DPRK (as if that was a realistic prospect), Trump might not be able to wait to pull an “October Surprise” even this year (they usually happen in the month before the election, not a year before). So we can expect that the pace of war preparations will increase over the next weeks to months.

For the Maduro regime, the issue is simple: raise the costs to the US (and possibly others) of any armed intervention in the country while either exhausting the opposition via attrition or negotiating a transition pact with it. The military will need to use stealth, manoeuvre and cover against a superior force, hoping to prolong the conflict so that Trump begins to pay a price for his folly. In this it will have the help of Cuban advisors skilled in the art of guerrilla warfare, including proficiency in tunnelling (learned from the Vietnamese) and the use of tactics such as helicopter trapping (where attack helicopters are lured into range of anti-aircraft weapons by small arms fire). If the conflict can be prolonged and US soldiers begin to die in significant numbers, then the bully gambit may just backfire on Trump.

I may have omitted or erred on a few details, but this will be the general thrust of things should Trump decide to pull the trigger that starts a war. I have not included post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building scenarios, but I assume that State Department planners, including those from the Agency for International Development (AID, already on the ground in Cucuta) will be hard at work figuring out post-conflict plans (although truth be told the US is not very successful at producing post-conflict outcomes that are clearly favourable to it). The matter of “what happens next?” once the war is over remains open to conjecture.

The bottom line is that a lot of preparation and resources go into contingency planning for war even against a relatively weak opponent, and even if the costs and fallout are uncertain and multidimensional in nature. This is true even if war is avoided: the costs of the preparations alone are monumental. One thing is therefore certain. The US path to war with Venezuela would have to have started some time ago and the costs are real even if battle is not joined. And if it is, the consequences will be felt for a long time to come way beyond Caracas.

Legacy investments versus speculative investments.

datePosted on 14:01, February 22nd, 2019 by Pablo

Among the arguments about instituting a capital gains tax in NZ (common in many parts of the developed world) is the claim that much property is family residence or inheritance in nature. The argument goes that it is unfair to not differentiate between the sale of a family home, granny flat or holiday residence by middle and working class people and the sale of properties bought by developers and speculators with the intention of “flipping” them for a profit. The first category are long-term, emotionally laden investments whereas the second is simply about making money.

I see merit in the argument for differentiation of property investment categories. In particular, I see a difference between legacy investments and speculative investments. Legacy investments are those where property is bought for family use over time. These can be the main family home but more often are second, smaller flats or holiday homes that are passed on between the generations (think of the archetypical bach or a crib). The emotional as well as financial investment in such places is not based on eventually securing returns but on preserving collective experiences and traditions from generation to generation and giving off-spring the chance to acquire a property stake without the exorbitant financial costs associated with the contemporary real estate market (for example, an equity share in a family bach may help towards securing a first time mortgage loan). It specifically excludes using family members as fronts for speculative purchases (say, of a family farm).

Speculative investments are just that: property investments that are designed to be on-sold in a relatively short period of time in order to secure a positive financial return. Here the intention is to make short-term money off of the buy/sell transaction.

I would suggest that a capital gains tax is appropriate for all speculative investments. They become another cost of playing the real estate flipping game and will eventually be incorporated into the real estate price architecture. On the other hand, I do not think that capital gains tax is appropriate for legacy investments. If a family property is on-sold within blood lines or divided into part ownerships to children and grandchildren, it seems to me that the less financial burden imposed the better for all. People get to keep their properties within the family and share in the collective benefits over time and generational change. That includes rental income from family owned property subject to the requirement that the property must be used by family members for given periods within a specified time frame (this would allow seasonal rentals and other short-term lease arrangements to non-family).

The system would work if there is a legacy declaration made on a property at the time of purchase. Again, this may be less appropriate for a main family home that could likely be on-sold to strangers as the family demographic shifts. There a capital gains tax would apply. But it very much should not apply to properties that families hope to preserve within the bloodlines for posterity. Here on-selling to relatives should not incur capital gains taxes.

On-selling under the legacy clause will require verification of family lineage, and any sale to non-family voids the legacy declaration and makes the sale subject to capital gains tax. Those who try to cheat the system and are caught will be subject to heavy financial penalties in excess of the tax otherwise to be paid.

I am not an economist much less a taxation expert but it seems to me that distinguishing between legacy and speculative investments in the property market strikes a good balance between profiteering and homesteading. I admit to not having thought through all of the implications inherent in this proposed scheme so if any readers want to illuminate me please feel free to do so.

I have no doubt that clever devils will immediately try to game the system and seek out ways to turn legacy homesteading into profit-driven speculation. But with a detailed code of compliance and robust enforcement regime in place, it is possible for this approach to split the fair difference between an all or nothing capital gains tax on property and one that reflects the nuances in property buying preferences. Or perhaps that is simply too much to ask in an ideological climate where the very idea of taxing something other than salaried income, business earnings and consumer purchases and services is considered sacrilegious by the Right.

PS: I have been informed by the smarter adult in my house that this is a silly idea and unworkable. She also points out that trusts already allow for inter-generational transfers of wealth/assets without being subject to tax on the transfer. I am not familiar with trust law and am not going to risk savaging by pointing out that family trusts are something more likely to be created by the well-to-do rather than the middle class, so must accept the scolding and move on. If anyone is familiar with the intricacies of trusts, please feel free to explain.

Is Israel Democratic?

datePosted on 10:41, February 13th, 2019 by Pablo

An interesting thing happened after I wrote last week’s first blog post about Venezuela ( http://www.kiwipolitico.com/2019/02/on-the-venezuelan-mess/). A gentleman from the Israel Institute of New Zealand wrote me at my business email address to request a correction or retraction for something I had written in that post. The objectionable phrase was my reference to Israel as “semi-democratic.” He pointed out that Israel ranked just one point away from France as a “flawed” democracy in the latest Economist democracy ratings, not far behind Germany. In that post I characterised France and Germany as Right-leaning “advanced democracies” so he reckoned that I had slighted Israel when I labeled it as “semi” democratic instead.

We backed and forthed on the subject for a day or so. I told him that I based my characterisation on the fact that Arab Israelis are treated as second class citizens. I told him that I would leave it at that and not get into the subject of settlements on occupied land, the drift rightwards towards extremism and intolerance in its politics under the Likud Party (created by those paragons of democratic virtue Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon and now led by Benjamin Netanyahu), the corruption of its government under Netanyahu (and his predecessor), its approach to Palestinians etc. He countered by pointing out that Arab Israelis have all rights given to non-Arabs, that they do not have to do compulsory military service but can vote and that a High Court judge who will hear Netanyahu’s corruption trial is an Arab.

I explained to him that I do not take the Economist’s ranking as gospel. In fact, I think that they are flawed due to an Anglo-Saxon bias and formal procedures and frameworks rather than substantive interactions (for example, I believe that New Zealand is ranked too high and Uruguay is ranked too low in the Economist list). I pointed out that I had an academic background that included writing about democratic theory (and democratisation in practice), so understand democracy to involve procedural (free and fair elections), institutional (impartial application the rule of law), societal (toleration, equality as mass values), and economic (fair distribution of productive wealth) dimensions, all of which I believe are deficient in Israel. He replied that Israel fulfilled the first three criteria. I also told him that I was raised in a strongly pro-Israel household and that I understood its unique security and geopolitical conditions as well as the fact that, when compared to pretty much every other nation in the Middle East, Israel was the most democratic of them. But that is just damning it with faint praise.

Perhaps I expect more of the Israelis, but its behaviour in the last two decades (and more) leads me to believe that it is no longer (if it ever was) a liberal democracy. Just because people have formal, de jure rights on paper does not mean that they have de facto rights on the ground. It may not be apartheid but in its treatment of Arab Israelis, African migrants and other non-European Jewish peoples, it falls very short of the “equality for all” mark that I would expect of a truly substantive democracy and well short of most European, North American and Antipodean democracies. This is not to say that the latter are all healthy and above reproach. It just means that Israel does meet even their lowered standards.

We agreed to disagree. I did not print a reaction or correction. I invited him to explain his views in a comment on the thread but he declined. After our correspondence I found myself thinking about how KP readers would classify Israel. I realise that given the ideological leanings of the blog many will be firmly in the anti-Israeli camp, but I wonder what, upon honest reflection, readers think about Israel’s form of governance. In other words, what argument do readers make to themselves about where they stand on Israel?

So here is an invitation for readers to express their views on the matter, formally posed as this question: is Israel democratic? . That way we can get a sense of how intelligent (mostly Left and Kiwi) readers see the Jewish state. But first a few rules:

No anti-Semitic anything. One can be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic (as an example, see this). One can criticise Israel without running nasty alt-Right tropes. One can defend Israel without resorting to false charges of anti-Semitism against those who oppose it, and one can defend Israel without making bigoted or other prejudiced remarks about Arabs, Palestinians etc. No re-litigating history. Israel is here to stay regardless of what some might prefer. And, as other democracies have done, it has behaved ruthlessly towards its enemies. So please, do not go down the worm-hole of who did what to who first.

IT goes without saying but is worth repeating nevertheless: No personal attacks on other commentators. Keep the discussion polite, rational and on-topic. I say this because any time Israel is mentioned people tend to lose their senses when confronted with contrary views. It really is a hot button issue.

I shall moderate the comments section a bit more vigorously given the subject matter. But by all means have at it because I am genuinely curious as to how people come to form their opinions on Israel.

The Venezuelan mess, again.

datePosted on 10:37, February 6th, 2019 by Pablo

I continue to watch developments in Venezuela with interest, including the reaction of the international community to the crisis. Increasing numbers of democracies are lending their support to Juan Guaido’s presidential challenge, including 11 of 14 members of the Lima Group convened to facilitate negotiations on a peaceful resolution. Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Latvia and Lithuania joined the UK, France and Germany (and Canada!) in siding with Guaido after the Maduro government refused to call for new elections within the eight day deadline demanded in an ultimatum issued by the EU members. It seems that much of the Western democratic world is now openly opposed to seeing Maduro continue in office.

That got me thinking more about Juan Guaido. How could this young (age 35) man emerge so quickly and be received so warmly by so many democracies? What I found out is interesting.

Guaido is a former student activist and industrial engineer who received post-graduate training at George Washington University in Washington DC. He got into politics when the Chavez government closed down the most popular private TV station in Venezuela and proposed constitutional reforms that strengthened the presidency at the expense of the other two government branches, and has reportedly spent time since entering public life at several Right-leaning think tanks in the US and Europe. After his introduction to politics he came under the wing of the well-known anti-Chavista Leopoldo Lopez. Lopez, now under house arrest, is a neoliberal economist by training (he has degrees from Kenyon College and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard). He is the son of a former president and former mayor of Caracas himself, so his elite credentials are impeccable (he even did his high school education at an exclusive private boarding school in the US). Reportedly a friend of Elliot Abrams (see previous post), he was a leader of the 2002 abortive coup against Hugo Chavez and spent several years in military prison as a result. In 2014 he led another failed uprising against Maduro, getting house arrest rather than popular support for his efforts. He agitates from his home, where he uses social media and encrypted apps to communicate with foreign and domestic allies and uses his telegenic wife to serve as his spokesperson.

In 2009 Lopez and Guaido formed the Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) Party. Although it claims to be a Social Democratic Party affiliated with the Socialist International, VP gained notoriety for its uncompromising, hardline anti-Bolivarian orientation and direct action street tactics. Although some of its thuggery was in response to that of Bolivarian militias and para-militaries, the strategy employed by VP was essentially a two-track approach: work within the institutional framework as given by contesting elections for the National Assembly and presidency; and use direct action on the streets to foment mischief and undermine Bolivarian attempts to establish law and order.

Under an agreement with Lopez, Guaido became VP’s parliamentary leader while Lopez retained the party chairmanship. First elected as an alternate delegate in 2010, Guaido was elected to a full National Assembly seat in 2015 and, given that more senior party members were either under arrest or exiled, named Opposition Leader in 2018. Under the power sharing arrangement in the National Assembly, Guaido assumed the rotating parliamentary leader’s position on January 5 of this year. A week later he declared his presidency, arguing that Maduro’s re-election was illegitimate due to massive fraud and low voter turn-out (both of which are true). Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the National Assembly leader is declared president if the elected President and Vice President are disqualified, absent or cannot serve, which Guaido claims is the case here.

There is strong suspicion that Lopez has a direct connection to neoconservative circles in Washington, and through them, the Trump administration. There is speculation that some form of material assistance is being funnelled from the US, including from Venezuelan exiles, to VP in order to support its anti-regime efforts and the Guaido campaign. Although I have no direct knowledge of this, it would not be surprising if these claims prove to be true given the quickness in which Guaido emerged on the scene, the strength of the organisation supporting him and the rapidity with which the US recognised his claim. What is confirmed is that emissaries from a number of the region’s democracies as well as the US met quietly and exchanged secret messages with Guaido and his representatives in the weeks leading to his assumption of the parliamentary presidency.

This has me wondering why so many democracies have been quick to jump on the Guaido bandwagon. They surely are not acting just out of ideological distaste for the Bolivarian regime. They surely have good information on Guaido’s background and connections to Lopez and US interlocutors. They surely must know that although Maduro and his cronies are reprehensible thieves posing as a popular government, Guaido’s connections to the US will make it very difficult for him to claim legitimacy and could in fact, spark a violent backlash from the 30 percent of the Venezuelan population that continue to support Maduro (mostly the poor and working class). They also must understand the perils of supporting a foreign-backed constitutional coup (which is essentially what being attempted), especially when the move is closely tied to the threat of US military intervention. So why would they abandon long-held commitments to upholding the doctrine of non-intervention?

Some will argue that the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela requires drastic action and that action cannot come from within Venezuela under present circumstances. Yet even the issue of humanitarian assistance has turned into a political tug of war. The Lima Group and European democracies, led by Spain, have pledged humanitarian assistance, mostly in the form of food and medical provisions, to Venezuela. The same is true for Argentina, Canada and Brazil. But they insist on having Guaido and his supporters administer the aid provision, something that the Maduro government categorically rejects. Neither contender is interested in talking to the other about jointly administering relief assistance and instead are busy staging demonstrations and claiming support from within the military (where so far Maduro has a considerable advantage).

Perhaps the show of external support for Guaido is designed to be no more than a form of pressure on Maduro to call for new elections under international supervision, and not really a vote of confidence in Guaido per se. Coupled with the redoubling of sanctions by the US, UK and others against Maduro, his entourage and state agencies suspected of money laundering, the idea seems to be that the combination of forces being applied to the Boliviarians will make them cave to the election demands. The reasoning may well be that Maduro will see this option as preferable to civil war or a coup because it gives him the chance to run again rather than be run out of town in a hearse. After all, the primary rule for coup-plotters is that the people being ousted must not survive the ouster less they come back to haunt the usurpers–something the failed coup against Chavez demonstrated in spades.

This assumes that the target of the foreign pressure a) feels it to the point of pain and b) has no other options other than to cave to it. At this moment there is no evidence to suggest that Maduro and company are close to either concern. And for all his foreign support, Guaido does not appear to have moved the dial with regards to popular support significantly in his direction.

What we have, thus, is what the Latin American political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell (of bureaucratic-authoritarianism and democratic transitions fame) once called (with reference to Argentina 1946-1983) an “organic crisis and hegemonic stalemate” where both sides can check the other but where neither can unilaterally impose its vision for arresting the national decline.

Under those conditions, it may well be external actors who play a decisive role in determining the outcome, something that does not bode well for the prospects of national reconciliation required to reaffirm democracy while returning peace and stability to Venezuelan life.

The Venezuelan mess.

datePosted on 14:35, February 1st, 2019 by Pablo

WARNING: This post is long and somewhat meandering, as it gathers several strands of thought about the issue.

There has been some concern voiced about New Zealand’s refusal to take a side in the power contest now being waged in Venezuela, where the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, has declared himself interim president in opposition to fraudulently re-elected Nicolas Maduro, the successor to Hugo Chavez in what is known as the “Boliviarian Revolution” that started in 1999. The Maduro administration is notoriously corrupt and incompetent and has driven Venezuela into the ground, to the point that millions are starving and more than 2.1 million have fled the oil-dependent country in the last two years (the largest refugee crisis in Latin American history). The reasons for this human-made disaster are many and will not be covered here. Instead, let’s start with the NZ reaction and proceed to how things might eventuate over the next weeks and months.

When first asked about US support for Guaido (the US recognised his presidency a few hours after he made his claim public) and whether New Zealand would follow suit, Prime Minister Arden said that NZ supported “neither side.” That sent the NZ political right into paroxysms of indignant fulmination, with politicians and commentators claiming that she supported Maduro, communism, evil-doers in general and people who kick their dogs. Not surprisingly, her ad-lib was followed shortly thereafter by a more measured comment by Foreign Minister Winston Peters that NZ does not choose between foreign political parties and contenders and prefers to allow them to settle differences on their own.

Coming after the PM’s comments (which reminded me of her “there are no undeclared Russian spies in NZ” remark in March 2018), Peter’s tidying up was appropriate. Although the Maduro regime is odious, it is less repressive than many other authoritarian regimes that NZ recognises and trades with (its major flaws are grotesque corruption and incompetence). NZ also has a long-standing public commitment to the principle of non-intervention and support for peaceful constitutionally-driven political change. The Maduro regime is now being confronted by an externally-backed constitutional coup in the form of the Guaido challenge (and no one elected him to be anything other than an opposition National Assemblyman. He only assumed leadership of the National Assembly in December as part of a rotation-in-office deal with other opposition coalition parties). Guaido and his supporters are not necessarily democratic champions themselves and their promises to hold new elections in a timely fashion are vague at best, so immediate recognition of him as “president” is more an act of faith or cynicism rather than a demonstrable fact of his democratic inclination. In that context Peter’s statement strikes a good diplomatic balance.

With some notable exceptions most of the Latin American governments supporting Guaido are right-leaning like that of Mauricio Macri of Argentina, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Sebastian Pinera in Chile, with the advanced democracies supporting his challenge also being governed by Right administrations (UK, Australia, France, Germany as well as semi-democratic Israel). Meanwhile, left-leaning democracies such as those of Bolivia and Uruguay support the Maduro government. So there appears to be an ideological bias at play in how some democracies are casting their lots on the matter. The majority of the global community have taken a stance akin to that of NZ.

The usual clustering of dictatorships and semi-democracies that are backing Maduro such as the Cuba, PRC, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria have hard-nosed geopolitical as well as ideological reasons for doing so. Cuba gets the majority of its oil from Bolivia at discounted prices and has propped up the Boliviarians with both civilian and security assistance. Russia has cultivated Venezuela as an anti-US bulwark with weapons sales and military aid. China has spent billions investing in Venezuelan infrastructure. Iran and Syria have both benefitted from the Boliviarian’s alliance with Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards. None of them may be particularly enamoured of Maduro but they have serious investment stakes in the game.

As for the NZ response, think of the PRC’s potential reaction to New Zealand siding with the US after its “choose a side” demands, particularly in light of the Huawei imbroglio. Think of the US response if it sides with Maduro. In other words, the diplomatic consequences of taking sides are not positive regardless of which side is chosen. That is why Peter’s statement is judicious–it annoys no one.

In summary, NZ is correct to not choose sides in the Venezuelan crisis, both for principled as well as pragmatic reason

With regards to the crisis itself, the solution has to be internal rather than externally imposed. They key is for the military–the 130,000 troop Army in particular since it will have to do the repressing–to drop support for Maduro in favour of a transitional government that schedules elections in the near future (the Navy has a limited land presence and along with the the Air Force can only support or resist what the Army does, but neither can prevail on their own no matter which side is chosen). To this end, Guaido’s emissaries have been working hard to establish a dialogue with the armed forces, something that, at least with regard to the Venezuelan high command, so far has been rebuffed.

Venezuelan flag rank officers are Maduro cronies who are deeply corrupt and incapable of leading troops in battle. Instead, they have been siphoning off “tax” from the ministries and border commands that they control (which cover drug, people, petrol and arms smuggling routes). The ones that are the key to what happens next are field grade officers (Colonels, LTCs, Majors and Captains) and NCOs who command the enlisted soldiers with the guns. That means bridging the division between constitutionalists (those who swear an oath to protect the constitution no matter who is president) and nationalists who see themselves as saviours of the nation in a time of need–but those include both pro- and anti-Maduro factions. The move involves mending horizontal (between service branches and ideological factions) and vertical (between ranks or military school graduating class) cleavages, something that often involves intra-institutional violence as a precursor to what follows.

In this type of scenario, the military is subject to what are known as “push” and “pull” factors. The “push” factors are those internal to the military that compels them to intervene in politics. These can be a loss of combat readiness or military discipline and professionalism, overt politicisation of the officer corps, rampant corruption etc. All of these are present within the Venezuelan military.

“Pull” factors are external events or conditions that draw the armed forces out of the barracks and into politics. They include armed challenges to military monopoly over organised violence (say, by paramilitaries, guerrillas, criminal organizations and the like, all of which operate with some impunity in Venezuela), and what is known as civilian pleading. Civilian pleading refers to calls from civil society for the military to act. This includes appeals by business groups, unions, religious and community organizations as well as external actors such as Venezuelan exile communities and foreign governments and organisations such as the OAS.

The sense of compulsion is reinforced by the personal experiences of troops when not in uniform. Militaries do not exist in a vacuum and in fact are reflective, in their own way, of the society from which they are drawn. Venezuela has a volunteer military and many of its personnel return to their families and homes after a day’s work. So they are living the crisis both as uniformed personnel as well as citizens.

In short, the Venezuelan military is getting an earful from many sides and has internal, “corporate” reasons to act in order to preserve its position as the pre-eminent institution responsible for managing organised violence in that society. Whether it adopts an arbitrator or governing role once it does so remains to be seen, but it is now the primary determinant of the nation’s political future.

If the field ranking officers and NCOs abandon support for Maduro he is finished, although his loyalists in the Cuban-dominated intelligence and police/paramilitary services will resist the move. It is also likely that, barring massive defections, the 70,000-strong National Guard (which is the agency primarily responsible for domestic repression and which has gained a reputation for brutality) and 150,000 strong National Militia will continue to side with Maduro. The scene is then set for mass violence and prolonged resistance (remember that the Cubans have helped Maduro create thousand of small-scale neighbourhood militias that are trained to use guerrilla tactics against any superior force, foreign or domestic. Along with National Guard resistance that could protract the conflict and drag foreign forces into another long-term ‘pacification” campaign).

The military could opt to simply lay down their weapons, but that is unlikely given the presence of loyalists in the ranks and the National Guard still loyal to Maduro. Or the military can unite around Maduro and ward off US interference by getting Guaido to back down on his presidential challenge, possibly in exchange for new elections and/or constitutional and political reforms. That is the most peaceful option but it does not solve the underlying economic and social problems or the issue of a potential US military intervention if Maduro remains in power (it is highly unlikely that any Latin American country will contribute troops to any US-led intervention force, although it is feasible that Colombia and Brazil might allow US forces to forward deploy and stage in their territories).

So the likely scenario is that Maduro is removed by force, be it threatened or actual. While inevitably bloody, a pro-Guaido military coup will be better than an external military intervention, where many erstwhile opponents of Maduro will rally against armed foreign interference, especially from the US. If it is revealed that Guaido and his supporters have been receiving advice, money and logistical help from the US, that could backfire hard on his military and civilian allies and increase as well as prolong the bloodshed.

In order to avoid civil war the military will have to be united in its support for one or the other presidential contender and willing to demonstrate its resolve. That is easier over the short term if the field officers and NCOs side with their superiors in defence of Maduro, but given the circumstances that is unlikely to hold over the longer-term and could lead to a direct confrontation with US forces should the Trump administration determine that it is expedient (say, as part of a declaration of “national emergency” that includes emergency funding of the border wall by Executive Order) to sacrifice lives in order to see him ousted (the annotation of “5000 troops–>Colombia” on John Bolton’s press briefing notes this past week may or may not be a real statement of intent but certainly signals that “all options are on the table,” even if they are not well thought out. After all, 5000 troops are not enough to control all Venezuelan territory and will have difficulty subduing militias, guerrilla groups and nearly 1 million strong volunteer military that even with defections and intra-service clashes will dwarf the invading force coming across a well defended land border. Which is to say, armed intervention by the US will involve a lot more than a brigade and a lot more than a land assault from Colombia).

It is telling that the person nominated to lead the US Venezuela task force is Elliot Abrams, of neocon Iran-Contra, death squads and the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez fame. His “skill set” is a dark and narrow one, so his appointment pretty much reveals the foundation of the current US approach to the crisis. The irony is that Abrams was originally a “never-Trumper,” who was initially blacklisted from any administration job. But with fellow neocon John Bolton as NSC advisor, the time for redemption is apparently at hand. It will be the Venezuelans who pay the price for that. 

Foreign supporters of Maduro like to claim that US sanctions imposed on his government are a large part of why the country was crippled. This ignores the fact that the sanctions targeted Maduro administration officials and state-controlled firms suspected of money laundering and pilferage. The sanctions did not target economic activities connected to the provision of basic goods and services, nor did it target average citizens. The loss of basics such as food and medicines is not due to sanctions, but to the rampant thievery and incompetence of what now can only be called a kleptocracy as well as the response by the private sector to it.

On the other hand, the Venezuelan political opposition, when not in-fighting, have behaved less than honourably towards the Boliviarians even before Chavez began to tighten his grip after the 2002 coup–a coup that business elites, domestic political opponents and the US government were quick to support even before his arrest was made public (he was freed and launched a counter-coup just hours after being detained). Business elites have largely liquidated assets and decamped the country rather than accept increased taxes on individual wealth and corporate profits. Since 1999 political opponents have schemed and plotted with the ex-pat community and other Latin American rightwing groups to overthrow the Boliviarians. So there is much blame to spread around and choosing between Maduro and Guaido will not necessarily solve the underlying fundamentals of the national decline.

Let us be clear on a key point: if Maduro and his associates had one shred of decency and honour they would have resigned rather than rig last year’s election. They have managed to squander Chavez’s already diminished legacy, allied themselves with some rather unsavoury foreign actors, alienated most of their regional counterparts and overseen the collapse of what once was a prosperous country. Some of that may be due to the so-called “oil curse,” where countries dependent on fossil fuel exports almost inevitably succumb to authoritarianism and the vicissitudes of commodity booms and busts (as has happened in Venezuela). But the blame for what Gramsci would call an organic crisis of the Venezuelan state lies squarely on the shoulders of Boliviarians, not imperialists and domestic reactionaries. The extent of their perfidy and ineptitude is outlined here.

Guaido is believed to have offered Maduro and his associates (including the military leadership) amnesty for their crimes in exchange for abdication. There are reports that he has offered safe passage into exile for regime leaders along with much of their ill-begotten assets. There are rumours of secret talks between his representatives and field rank officers. His supporters have gathered outside military bases clamouring for the troops to lay down their arms or join with the opposition. It is clear to everyone that the military holds the key to what happens next, but the question remains open as to whether the military will choose a side, fracture or simply remain neutral while the civilian actors negotiate or fight for political control. So far the military leadership remains loyal to Maduro, but defections in the ranks are commonplace (including the military attache to Washington, who defected and requested asylum).

It is unlikely that Guaido would have made his move spontaneously or without the encouragement and support of the US. It is very likely that US representatives worked with him in the weeks leading to his challenge for power, and it would not be surprising if the US has provided logistical and material assistance to his campaign. It is also likely that discrete overtures have been made to military officers by the US, if nothing else then to ascertain the mood of the troops. The emergence of a right-leaning political bloc in Latin America provided Guaido with a favourable geopolitical context in which to make his move (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica all have right-leaning governments at the moment). This has translated into Organisation of American States (OAS) support for Guaido, something that breaks with a long-standing tradition of promoting non-interference in the sovereign affairs of its members.

The bottom line is that Maduro’s position is increasingly untenable but Guaido is somewhat tainted by his association with the US. The solution to the impasse rests in the hands of middle and junior rank Army officers and NCOs, who must choose to defend Maduro or opt to support an election-based political transition to a post-Bolivarian regime (that may or may not be led by Guaido or Maduro if the elections are genuinely free and fair). That requires a public move one way or the other from within the Army as a signal of intent. There is likely to be violence involved with either choice, both within and between armed service branches, paramilitary organisations, intelligence agencies and guerrilla cadres connected to civil society and political parties. But that will be the lesser price to pay if the alternative is US military intervention.

In the meantime the international community can do its part by marshalling humanitarian assistance for the Venezuelan people. The UN and OAS can lead those efforts and the contending political factions can broker an interim agreement on priority needs and the means and methods of conveying that aid, something that could lessen factional and partisan tensions and set the stage for more substantive negotiations on the terms and conditions for the political transition that, one way or another, is an inevitable part of Venezuela’s future.

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On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

It’s over.

datePosted on 14:01, December 27th, 2018 by Pablo

Media coverage of the Trump administration is like a group of people standing around the bedside of a terminally ill person. Instead of dealing with the fact that the person is soon to depart this earthly coil, they linger on the details of her illness, the early symptoms that remained undiagnosed, the downhill course of her trajectory, the therapies used to prolong her life, the deterioration of her body and the awfulness of it all. That is all well and true but the bottom line is that for the person in the bed, life will soon be over and no amount of picking through her medical history will change that.

Whether it be out of morbid curiosity or driven by ratings boosts linked to the politically macabre, the US media fixates on Trump’s every action. He fuels their addiction to administrative chaos with his inane tweets and moronic statements. Truth be told, the press cannot get enough of it and many a pundit has made his name off of analysing the Trump train wreck. But all this ignores the larger picture, which is that, whether it happen in days, weeks, months or a year, the Trump presidency is finished. Done. Dusted, Kaput. Finis.

The disaster that is his presidency is too obvious to recount in sordid detail here. Suffice it to say that people are being fired or leaving the administration in droves, and many jobs remained unfilled or have been taken by intellectual lightweights. Trump lashes out and reacts impulsively across a range of issues, with suspicions emerging in print that he is addicted to the prescription stimulant Adderol (which is a 25th amendment grounds for removal). He is besieged on several legal fronts, both at the federal as well as state level. Congress is soon to see Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives (which means his legislative agenda is all but finished), and his own Party is not wiling to blindly follow his policy leads. His foreign policy is in tatters, his border wall will not be built and the Mexicans certainly will not pay for it, North Korea still has nukes, his trade war is hurting the states where is electoral base is strongest, the Russians and others laugh at him to his face, his children are in legal jeopardy, and his cabinet has an increasingly feral character to it. Daily scandals, lies and inanities are a constant soundtrack of his presidency. Absorbing all of that, Wall Street, which had been so opportunistically bullish when he entered office (and for which he claims credit), is now moving beyond skittish into full bear territory (for which he blames the Federal Reserve). As New York state prosecutors pointed out with regard to the Trump Foundation, his administration is basically an on-going criminal enterprise rooted in fraud and corruption posing as a government. His lying acolytes are no longer able to keep straight faces when spinning the White House narrative and many of his supporters in high places have simply gone to ground. Even Fox News and rabid rightwing radio personalities are breaking ranks with him. The exact precipitant and method of exit remain unknown, but one thing is clear: He is isolated, incoherent and irrational. He will soon be irrelevant.

That is why the media would be better off ignoring him and focusing on the line of succession and other aspects of institutional continuity. The era of president Mike Pence is at hand, and if it turns out that he played loose with the Russians during the campaign (as is claimed), then he too may be shown the door. That brings the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, into the Oval Office, and if he is unfit to serve, then Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House follows in the line of succession. If Pence is not indicted or otherwise tainted by his association with Russians during the campaign, he is free to choose his own Vice President (subject to Senate confirmation).

It behooves the US political elite to be working with Pence on transition scenarios. Pence is a religious freak and troglodyte on gender and sexual issues, but as a former congressman and governor he knows what it takes to get things done in DC and he is rational in a hyper-conservative way. Although he will likely return to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy and continue to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, reproductive choice and race relations, he will be, after the lunatic steps down, positively easy to deal with. The same goes for Pompeo, who served in Congress before being named CIA director and then Secretary of State.

The institutions themselves need to develop transition plans. Already defence strategists openly worry about Trump going rogue and trying to launch a nuclear strike somewhere as a diversion or as a act of petty revenge on his successors. They point out that he can do so on his own and that there are no formal institutional checks on him (he is only supposed to consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defence and National Security Council as well as other cabinet officials, but he is not obliged to do so or to heed their counsel). Even if senior officers refuse his orders to launch a nuclear strike, he can work his way down the nuclear chain of command until he finds a compliant one. There is consequently a move to get Congress to re-write the law governing nuclear weapons use, but in the meantime DoD and the service commands need to consider the very real possibility of having to refuse a presidential order to use the arsenal. There is precedent for this under Nixon (during Watergate) and Reagan (after his Alzheimer’s became apparent), so it is not an unimaginable task.

The same can be said across the federal bureaucracy. Although Pence will not roll back all or most of Trump’s policies (say, on the environment), he will want his own team at the helm of federal agencies and will want to impose his own stamp on the policy-making process. In order for that to happen in an orderly fashion, planning must be done in anticipation of the change-over. It would be best for career public service managers to prepare contingency plans with an eye towards moving out from under Trump’s political appointees, particularly in contentious portfolios like Education and Homeland Security.

The bottom line is that the obsessive focus on Trump obscures the inevitability of his demise and the need to prepare for a change of administration. Because his downfall of itself will not right the ship of state. For that to happen a plan of action must be in place, something that requires congressional and executive branch coordination even if done without the knowledge of the political moribund in the White House.

Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

Respect, fear and laughter.

datePosted on 12:48, September 28th, 2018 by Pablo

This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.

When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.

According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China.  Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.

The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.

World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.

Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.

Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.

So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.

Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.

Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.

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