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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have agreed to provide a weekly commentary to Mitch Harris on his Night Talk show on Radiolive. In the first instalment we roamed over a series of subjects,  but the focus was on the ongoing trainwreck that is US presidential politics.

Deja Vu all over again?

datePosted on 15:26, July 2nd, 2017 by Pablo

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.

 

PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

A tacit admission of decline.

datePosted on 16:57, June 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

In international relations theory, there is one standard that is commonly used to differentiate between superpowers and great powers. Superpowers intervene in the international system in order to advance systemic interests. That intervention can maintain or alter a balance of power or systemic status quo, but the point of  the move is to tinker with the system as a whole, something that is not done out of pure self-interest but in pursuit of something bigger or long-term in nature.

For their part, great powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests. They do not have the capacity nor the desire to pursue systemic objectives outside of immediate national concerns.

Lesser powers can not make systemic changes but instead are subject to the actions of great powers and superpowers and the systemic effects of those actions.

I mention this as a prelude to a comment about the US position in the international system and Trump’s foreign policy actions to date. It has been clear for some time that the US is in decline. Once a pole in the bipolar balance of power that marked the Cold War, then the unipolar hegemon in the post-Cold War era when notions of the “American Century” and “Pax Americana” prevailed in US policy circles, the US has since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq been forced to deal with the rise of new and old powers when saddled with all of the hallmarks of domestic decline and yet remaining committed to a policy of perpetual war against non-state as well as state actors (although the form that conflict takes varies depending on the opponent and the nature of the battle space in which conflict occurs). Whereas once the US pushed liberal internationalism as a systemic virtue where international norms, regulations, law and institutions were seen as the foundations of a stable and peaceful world order, in the last decade or so the US has seen itself over-extended militarily in fruitless wars of convenience or opportunity that have eroded its international reputation and influence while its home front is rendered by decay and increased social division. Barack Obama tried to stem the adverse tide but a viciously disloyal political and media opposition undermined him at home and abroad.

No US politician can say, much less get elected or re-elected on the idea that the US is in decline and is no longer the first amongst equals in the international system. Barack Obama appeared to have understood the fact of US decline but could not admit it publicly. To this day US commentators, politicians and most of the general public believe or at least pay lip serve to the notion that the US remains an exceptional country, as the so-called “shining house on the hill” to which all other nations look for leadership as well as its role as the world policeman. They talk about defending freedom and American values as if those truly are the basis for US military interventions abroad and an increasingly coercive approach to ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural differences at home.

Enter Donald Trump, but with a twist. Trump also genuflects at the alter of American Exceptionalism. But his “America First” message, with its neo-islolationist, nationalist, monocultural and xenophobic undertones, is actually a tacit admission that the US is in decline. That is interesting because Trump was anything but tacit on the campaign trail when lamenting the state of the Union. Now, as president, he changed his tune and behaves as if the US as a nation-state is equivalent to himself in that it can buy, bully or negotiate its way to getting whatever it wants from others. That is where he is wrong, and his actions demonstrate otherwise.

By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Paris Climate Accords, refusing to endorse NATO’s notion of collective defense, demanding that other nations pay more for US “protection” (as if it was a Mafia racket), deriding international institutions and regional organisations, rejecting international law (such as those prohibiting the use of torture), threatening firms with retaliatory penalties if they do not invest more in the US and dismantling years of cross-border environmental and corporate regulatory frameworks in the supposed interest of creating US jobs, Trump has tacitly admitted that the US is no longer a super power that can manage the international system in its preferred image and in fact can no longer do anything more than what a great power in decline can do–pursue its interests at the expense of all others in order to try and arrest the slide.

It is too late for that. As one meme put it, “Trump is cancelling Netflix so that he can give more jobs to Blockbuster.” The decline of the US is not just a reversible economic phenomenon. It is ideological, political, moral and ethical in scope. It is institutional as well as material in nature. The very character of the US is in crisis, where a history of idealism and virtue has met its match in a culture of excess, greed and venality. Solidarity and an egalitarian ethos have given way to opportunism and survivalist alienation.

The US decline is also a product of advancing technologies in an age of globalised production, communications, consumption and exchange. It exists in a context where other nations no longer look to the US first for support on many fronts, and in which competitors have grasped the fact of American decline and moved to capitalise on it. It may not be exactly Rome before the Fall, but the US is in many ways starting to resemble the USSR in decline–all military muscle but with no heart, dead eyes and a silly orange comb over.

The good news for the US is that it can work well as a great power if it understands that is what it has become. The Bush 43 administration tried to reassert US supremacy with its foreign adventurism and only succeeded in accelerating its (albeit unrecognised) decline. Now that its diminution is in full sway, the US needs to address its internal contradictions, something that perhaps requires a (however temporary) retreat from systemic tinkering and intervention. This could be a good thing because international systems theory posits that unipolar systems are inherently unstable whereas multipolar systems with 3, 5 or 7 great powers balancing each other on specific strategic issues and geopolitical fronts are more stable over the long term. With the US backing away from international commitments and systemic engagement, it may be a moment for other great power aspirants to fully shine. Theoretically, that could work out for the better.

Practically speaking and whether it works out for the better or not, multipolarity is the where the international system is headed. The current moment is one of international systemic transition, and the fact is that conflict is the systems re-equilibrator under conditions of semi- or restricted anarchy (in which adherence to some international institutions and norms is paralleled by non-adhernce or respect for others). Absent uniform and effective enforcement authority, states decide which norms to follow and which to violate until such a time a new consensus is achieved on the contours and rules of the emerging international system. When universal norms are not uniformly followed, that is when conflicts occur. We are in such a moment.

Admit it or not, under Trump the US is at this transitional moment retreating into its shell and away from its superpower pretensions. For rising and resurgent powers, this is a window of opportunity that can lead to systemic realignment. And at least for the time being, for many around the world having the US out of their lives is not a bad thing.

One thing is certain: the decline of the US as a superpower may not be acknowledged but it is real.

What price for “friendship?”

datePosted on 13:34, May 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump’s classless lecturing of NATO leaders on the need to increase defense spending, and his subsequent refusal to endorse the alliance’s collective defense policy (“an attack on one is an attack on all”), should serve as a warning to New Zealand policy makers. Coming after his calls for Japan and South Korea to increase their defense spending less their security ties with the US be reviewed, Trump’s attitude towards US security alliances is a sobering reminder that New Zealand is not immune from his bullying.

Trump specifically wants US security allies to spend 2 percent of GDP on “defense.” The US currently spends 3.6 percent of GDP on military expenditures, including 14.5 percent of the federal budget. European Union countries spend 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent of GDP and central administrative expenditures, respectively, on defense. Overall, NATO countries spend 1.5 percent of GDP on their militaries, with only five member states (including the US) spending two percent or more. As for other US security partners, Australia spends two percent (and envisions future spending increases), South Korea spends 2.6 percent, Japan spends one percent and New Zealand spends 1.2 percent of GDP on defense (the same as Germany).

The 2 percent of GDP benchmark for individual member contributions to NATO’s defense was an aspirational goal first raised during the Cold War and periodically reaffirmed thereafter. In February 2017 US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the goal a requirement extended to non-NATO US security partners as well, warning that the US “would moderate its commitment” to them if they did not meet the threshold by the end of this year. This runs counter to the overall trend of the past decade, where with the exception of frontline democratic states like Estonia, Poland and South Korea, military expenditures have fallen throughout the liberal democratic world, terrorism notwithstanding (which cannot be fought by conventional military means anyway). In fact, the only regions that have seen increases in military spending over the last decade are the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, all active conflict zones dominated by authoritarian regimes.

Should Russia continue to encroach on NATO borders or hostilities between the West and China and/or North Korea increase, that might change, but the truth is that unlike the US most liberal democracies put the welfare of their subjects before war preparations, which means that they largely spend more on health, education and welfare as a percentage of central government budgets than the US does, while the US, in turn, spends more on “defense” than most of its democratic counterparts and, in fact, most authoritarian states as well (China, for example, spends 1.9 percent of GDP and 16 percent of central government expenditures on “defense”, while Russia spends 4.9 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively).

Contrary to what some US pundits allege, there is no free-riding and nothing parasitic about the contributions to collective defense of most NATO members and other US security partners–they are simply paying the amount that their priorities deem to be appropriate. The US wants to maintain its global military dominance in a world of rising new and old powers, so it spends more and wants those in its alliance networks to do likewise. But that does not mean that the latter could or should do so given their domestic priorities and threat environments. The “one size fits all” approach to collective defense does not account for the particular circumstances of individual countries, something that Mr. Trump fails to understand.

This is why New Zealand needs to prepare for pressure from the Trump administration on matters of mutual security. The Wellington and Washington bilateral agreements bind New Zealand to the US as a military ally in everything but name only. It is a first tier US intelligence partner given its membership in the “5 Eyes” signals intelligence collection alliance that includes Australia, Canada, the UK. It is a NATO associate. It is therefore likely that the US will demand that New Zealand “lift its game” to the 2 percent of GDP mark, especially given that Australia already has.

Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to New Zealand is a portent of things to come. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he once posed nude for a lady’s magazine and is an open advocate of torture as an interrogation technique, is slated to take up the post in Wellington by the end of this year, pending Senate confirmation. Given Mr. Trump’s advocacy of torture and his musing about re-opening the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site kidnapping and secret detention program, it is possible that Mr. Walker will be the bearer of bad news in the form of demands for New Zealand to increase security budgets to US satisfaction and toe the new line when it comes to extrajudicial approaches towards terrorism.

This pressure must be resisted. Although it can be argued that New Zealand’s strategic position and threat environment may not readily accord with its current security posture or spending (for example, by having an Army-centric military and limited blue water patrol capability in a maritime nation), it is also clear that New Zealand’s security interests do not uniformly coincide with those of the US and more importantly, the Trump administration approach to fundamental norms such as the Laws of War and Geneva Convention. Moreover, New Zealand’s trade position is more vulnerable than that of its larger military partners, which makes blind compliance with US security demands risky when these involve antagonizing economic partners such as China.

When the subject of the two percent threshold was raised earlier in the year, former Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee dismissed the notion that New Zealand would raise its spending in response to US demands. It remains to be seen if his assurances will hold over the longer term. As it stands, New Zealand’s spending on intelligence and security, including the NZDF, has increased over the last decade and is high when compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Current spending priorities are on cyberdefense, counter-terrorism and equipment upgrades for conventional forces. These can all be addressed for less than two percent of GDP.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s remarks to NATO and the G7 Forum, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel warned Europeans that they could no longer rely on the US on matters of security and trade, and that they needed to look to themselves when determining their fate. New Zealand needs to heed that advice. One way of demonstrating resolve in the face of US pressure is to declare Mr. Walker persona non grata in light of his support for torture and the emerging Trump security doctrine. The opportunity to do so arrives next week in the person of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will be on his first official visit to NZ. Declaring  Mr. Brown unwelcome may result in some diplomatic discomfort, but if New Zealand is to maintain its reputation as an honest broker and independent actor in international affairs, it is a small way of demonstrating that when it comes to its security the price of partnership is not up for negotiation.

A shorter version of this essay appeared as an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, June 2, 2017.

Media Irritants.

datePosted on 17:16, May 24th, 2017 by Pablo

Terrorism Porn.

Coverage of the Manchester bombing has turned into an exercise in morbid titillation. The media voyeuristically interviews hysterical parents about whether they or their children saw carnage and how do they feel about that. They blather on about the identity of the perpetrator and his ties to Daesh.  In doing so they explain nothing more than what is already obvious and feed into the extremist narrative. It is all about shock! horror! the humanity! OMG, what depravity does this?!  Meanwhile kids are wiped out on industrial scale in non Anglo Saxon places and the Western media barely murmurs. Perhaps the people at the BBC, CNN, Fox News, Newshub  or TVNZ  believe that white children matter more than brown or black ones, but I for one do not. Unless coverage is given equally to Palestinian, Syrian or Yemeni children buried under the debris of their houses bombed from above, or to those destroyed in sectarian violence in the Sudan, Somalia, India and Pakistan, then the Western media needs to spare us their crocodile tears about “innocence lost.”

Let me put it this way: Last night on a 7PM show a NZ television outlet offered a panel with a comedian, a politician and some gender balanced eye candy ready to discuss the issues of the day. After a somber cross over to the UK to discuss the bombing with a follow up by a local academic, the hosts turned and said something to the effect of “now changing the subject,” whereupon they all went into yuck yuck mode over some stupid story about something inconsequential. Again, this included a politician of some apparent import in this land. That was shameful, debased and as clear a sign of the vacuousness of NZ media (and some politicians) as one can ever get.

If the media and UK government had a shred of decency and counter-terrorism sense they would have never mentioned the killer’s name, or his motivations, or streamed imagery of panicked teens running for cover and crying parents searching for their offspring. Instead, the authorities should have just reported that a mass murder occurred in which explosives were used and that the police were investigating and offering support to the victims and family. The corporate media should have follow suit and imposed restrictions on coverage even in the face (and especially because) of social media coverage of the event. That would help take the oxygen out of the extremist story, removes fuel for copycats and nut jobs, give no credence to motivation or ideology and treats the event as what it is: a violent criminal act, no more, no less.

Instead, we get discussions of the type of explosives used (and where to find the ingredients for them) and the emotional and psychological impact of the event. Sadists, jihadists and any number of terrorism “experts” are wanking themselves with delight at the way the story has been covered but the rest of us are no wiser for it.

Iran is not the greatest sponsor of terrorism.

The US government and the Western media continue to run and parrot the line that Iran is the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world and thus the major threat to peace in the Middle East. Holding a straight face, President Drumpf recently repeated this meme at a conference of Sunni Arab oligarchies hosted by Saudi Arabia–Saudi Arabia! Those paragons of governmental virtue and human rights advocacy applauded his words and the Western press, including that of NZ, reported approvingly of the statesmanship demonstrated by his remarks.

I call bullish*t on that.

Sure, Iran suports Hezbollah, Hamas, the Alawite regime in Syria, the al-Sadr and other Shiia militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is complicit in the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s (and I, as a US Defense Department official charged with Latin American affairs at the time have some knowledge of the financial and forensic investigations that trace back to Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards). It clearly has nuclear ambitions and talks trash about Israel, but compared to North Korea with regard to the former and any Friday sermon in the Sunni world with regard to the latter, how is it appreciably worse? Seriously, does anyone with a fair and objective mind think that (Shiite) Iran is a worse sponsor of terrorism than, say, (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan (whose intelligence services were implicated in the Mumbai terrorist attacks and who continue to fund and arm extremists in India and Afghanistan, if not further afield), any of the other UAE countries or, putting aside sectarian weirdness for a moment, organised crime and –dare I say it–the US (which backed with money and weapons rightwing death squads responsible for the deaths of thousands in Latin America and elsewhere from the 1950s to the 1980s and with who covert connections are reported to continue to this day)?

Why does the media accept the US word about Iran and its links to terrorism? Why do they not question the criteria upon which this “assessment” is based. Because nothing I have read, heard or personally seen in three decades of working the interstices of unconventional warfare has led me to believe that Iran is the foremost sponsor/supporter of terrorism in the world yesterday or today. Instead, it is a revolutionary regime that has successfully stood up to the US and its Sunni allies using conventional and unconventional means, covert and overt, indirect and direct, diplomatic, military and economic. I am not a fan of the Iranian regime or its ideology, but what is so different about the way it operates when compared to other regional actors other than that it has an adversarial relationship with the US and others in the West? Iran may not be the best “behaved” country in the world either domestically or internationally, but again, compared to who and by what measure?

The NZDF are lying and covering up what happened during Operation Burnham.

The NZDF wants us to believe that contrary to all Western professional militaries, its special operators do not occasional make mistakes that result in the deaths of innocents and, moreover, do not carry cameras into battle zones, do not collect forensic evidence on those killed and need permission from the US to release video from the air cover provided during NZDF operations abroad (assuming of course, that the NZDF requests such video in the first place). Other than an intrepid few, the NZ media has just taken the NZDF word for it although it has now been caught out lying about photographic evidence taken by NZDF soldiers at the scene (“and oversight” it claims), and has generally stonewalled OIA requests for information about really happened.

I am not entirely convinced that the explanation of the Burnham mission offered by Jon Stephenson (whose reporting constitutes ninety percent of the book Hit and Run) and Nicky Hager (who took majority credit for it) is absolutely correct in all details, but I sure as hell know one thing: when it comes to the honesty, integrity and credibility of Mr. Stephenson versus that of the NZDF brass, I will take Mr. Stephenson every time. This is not about the soldiers on the ground that night. This is about who gave the orders to undertake the raid and who decided to hide what really happened in its aftermath. Were it that TV talking heads and comfortable columnists and opinionators be cognisant of that fact.

Bowing to petty tyrants.

datePosted on 15:16, May 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I just got back from a trip to my hometown, Buenos Aires. During the time that I was there, the center-right president, Mauricio Macri, made a state visit to the White House. Like Donald Trump, Macri is the son of a millionaire who continued the family business and branched out into sports, entertainment and then politics. Unlike Trump, Macri was a two-time mayor of Buenos Aires who was widely recognized as having cleaned up the city and instituted a number of important public works and modernisation projects. He is not universally popular but he is generally acknowledged as competent. Oh, and he is reported to have business ties with the Trump Organization.

I write this in order to provide background to Macri’s visit to the White House. Not so much because of what was said during his meetings with Donald Trump but because of what did not happen. It turns out that in March the Argentine official government gazette, the Boletin Oficial, published an announcement that after the state visit President Macri would be awarding Argentina’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of San Martin, to Jimmy Carter for his focus on human rights in general and the efforts he led–channeled through his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the late Patricia Derrian–to uncover the fate of the “disappeared” under the Argentine military bureaucratic dictatorship of 1976-82.

I was involved in human rights work in the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina and can personally attest to the fact that Carter and Derrian saved hundreds if not thousands of Argentine lives simply by asking the junta about the whereabouts of political prisoners. Carter was also the first US president who made the provision of foreign aid, both military and economic, contingent on a country’s human rights certification by the State Department (where the State Department investigates and evaluates a country’s human rights record before recommending for or against channelling aid to it). Although Republican presidents have tried to weaken the human rights certification provisions in US aid programs, Democratic presidents have largely adhered to the parameters first enunciated by the Carter administration.

Before Macri traveled to Washington, the Trump administration asked the Argentine government to cancel the award ceremony for Carter. This, in spite of the fact that the ceremony was not part of Macri’s state visit and was to be done outside of the official schedule of events. So, to repeat, let’s get this straight: at the insistence of the Trump administration, the US government formally asked the head of a sovereign state to not award a former US president a rare honor for that president’s championing of human rights world-wide and his specific role in opposing the murderous actions carried out by the Argentine military and its accomplices during the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

That is reprehensible. It is not only an insult to President Carter but to the Argentine government, the Argentine people and the history that they commonly share. Sadly, against the advice of his Foreign Ministry, President Macri bowed to the US request and cancelled the award ceremony.

Speculation about why he did so ranges from not wanting to get off-side with the White House, diplomatic necessity and/or Macri not wanting to jeopardize any future business ties with the Trump Organization. Whatever the reasons, Macri has justifiably been condemned for acquiescing to the request. His best option now is to invite Jimmy Cater to Argentina in order to receive the award, something that in retrospect is probably the more rightful place where to do so.

But why would Trump and his minions make such an outrageous demand? Is it because Trump hates Democrats or Jimmy Carter specifically? Perhaps. Could it be that he has no regard for supporting human rights as a matter of principle or practice? Possibly. Or is it because the Trump administration is currently in the process of cozying up to tyrants such as Dutarte, Erdogan and Putin as well as a number of lesser despots and has even spoken of being “honoured” to meet with that “smart cookie,” Kim Jun-un? If so, could it be that Trump did not want a reminder of when the US actually acted as a moral champion interfering with his value-free power politics approach to international relations? Again, whatever the reasons–and most of them reduce at best to needing any and all partners in the fight against common enemies and threats, even though the commonality of those enemies and threats is in dispute–Trump has shown himself to be a bullying coward lacking in any decency, while Macri has been revealed to be a quisling in the face of the bully’s demands.

There is a lesson here for NZ. Trump will interfere with sovereign decisions of other states under the implicit threat of retaliation. He has no moral compass and no ethical compulsion to respect another country’s decision to uphold international standards (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should he find it inconvenient to do so. Given that NZ still clings to the fiction that it maintains an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy, it likely will not be long before that claim is put to the test by the sociopath in the Oval Office. And with the defense agreements signed between the US and NZ over the last eight years, it will likely be NZ support for Trump-instigated conflicts where that test will be.

The National government has two choices in that event: like Macri, forsake national interest and bow to the bully; or prepare contingency plans for the repercussions of saying “no.” The question is whether National has the spine to even consider the second option.

Media Link: Some thoughts on “Hit and Run.”

datePosted on 13:13, March 30th, 2017 by Pablo

I have done a fair share of media interviews about the Nicky Hager/Jon Stephenson book “Hit and Run.” Needless to say, the claims in the book are damning of the NZDF, although I believe that the criticism is more focused on the command leadership rather than on the troops involved in the operation that is the subject of the book. In any event, this is a an interview I did with radio New Zealand on the matter.

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

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