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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.

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

From failure, opportunity comes.

datePosted on 17:19, January 24th, 2017 by Pablo

When President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the US signature from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTPA), he signed the death warrant of that multinational trade deal in its present form. The US was the core member of the TPPA and held the dominant negotiating position within it, so the decade-in-the-making, laboriously undertaken and vexing complex compact that was agreed to by the other eleven signatories is now all but null and void.

There are options, however, for the TPPA that may allow it to survive and thrive in light of Trump’s unilateral abrogation.

First, the other eleven member states can put the agreement into hibernation, wait for the 2020 US presidential election and hope that a more trade-oriented president succeeds Trump.

Second, they can hope that the Republican congressional leadership will force Trump to reverse his decision sometime between now and 2020. That would only occur if Trump is weakened by some failure and the GOP sensed that it could re-assert its traditional pro-trade stance at his expense. The Democrats would welcome the move for opportunistic partisan reasons even if some of its leading figures such as Bernie Sanders also oppose the TPPA and applauded Trump’s decision to pull plug on it.

Third, the members could look to themselves and re-draw an agreement that is less US-centric. Many of the provisions insisted on by the US could be reconsidered and even dropped in exchange for increased preferences for the interests of previously junior TPPA partners.

Fourth, the remaining TPPA partners could look to fill the void left by the US with another large market economy. The one that springs immediately to mind is China. That is where things get interesting, and where opportunity may lie.

China is already party to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) that established a regional free trade area that is the largest in terms of population and third largest in term of trade volume and nominal GDP. Some of the ACFTA signatories are also parties to the TPPA (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam). This agreement is considered to be a “true” free trade agreement in the Ricardian sense because it reduces tariffs across 7,881 product categories to zero percent, with the result being that tariffs on ASEAN goods sold to China fell to 0.1 percent and those of China sold in ASEAN to 0.1 percent in the year the agreement went into force (2010)

The non-US TPPA members could opt to negotiate an agreement with ACTFA as one course of action. That may be difficult given that the TPPA is not a “genuine” FTA as much as it is an investor guarantee agreement (IGA) in which market regulations are altered to attract foreign investors and these are protected from legal liability in the event of disputes with the host state. What is not included in the TPPA are across-the-board reductions to zero tariff, and in fact many domestic industries remain protected or subsidised throughout the TPPA membership as part of the horse trading undertaken during negotiations over its central tenets. But it may be possible to reconcile the two trade deals in an effort to create a new super trade bloc on neo-Ricardian grounds.

Another option might be to invite China to the table. It has the second largest market in the world and is continues to grow at a sustained and rapid pace in spite of the vicissitudes of the world economy over the last two decades. It is making the transition from export platform to a mixed domestic mass consumption/value-added export model, and it has previously expressed interest in joining the TPPA. The US blocked consideration of China’s membership because it saw the TPPA as the economic equivalent of the military “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, that is, as a hedge against Chinese economic, diplomatic and military influence in the Western Pacific Rim in what amounts to a new Containment Policy in the Asia-Pacific.

With the US gone, China has an opening and the remaining TPPA members have an opportunity. The TPPA will have to be renegotiated, but it is likely that the non-negotiable provisions insisted by the US will not be supported by the Chinese and can be dropped in the effort to entice their interest. In turn, China might have to accept something less than blanket reductions in uniform tariffs and agree to a tariff reduction regime that is more segmented and scaled in orientation and gradual and incremental in application (i.e. more product or industry specific and phased in over a longer period of time). That is clearly within the realm of possibility, as is Chinese agreement to other TPPA provisions stripped of their US-centric orientation.

China has already signalled its intentions in this regard. President Xi used this year’s Davos Forum to preach the virtues of free trade and global commerce, arguing against protectionism as an impediment to international understanding and exchange. China has proposed the creation of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) along the lines mentioned above with regard to an ACTFA-TPPA merger but with the provision that the US be excluded. There are many details to be ironed out but the groundwork has been laid for that to happen.

What makes the turn to a China-included trade bloc a potentially win-win proposition for remaining TPPA signatories is that the key provisions demanded by the US–changes in market regulations and preferential market entry clauses for US business interests (including changes in patent and copyright protection) and imposition of limited liability clauses in the event US businesses are sued by local governments–were those that were most resisted by domestic audiences in several TPPA member countries. Removing them not only allows the agreement to be free of those constraints but also diffuses a source of domestic opposition in countries where such things matter.

One thing TPPA states should think carefully about, especially small states like New Zealand, is the invitation to negotiate bi-lateral trade deals with the US instead of the TPPA (something just announced by the Trump administration). The historical record shows that large asymmetries in market size favour the larger over the smaller partner in bilateral trade agreements. This is due to economies of scale, market dominance, and economic and geopolitical influence derived from market size advantages. The recent track record of bilateral deals between the US and smaller states reinforces this fact. Australia, South Korea, Chile, Colombia and the Central American nations plus Dominican Republic grouped in the CAFTA scheme all have bilateral FTAs with the US. In all instances the majority benefits accrued to US-based companies and industries and the benefits accrued in the partner states were limited to specific export markets (mostly in primary goods), with little flow-on, trickle down or developmental effects in the broader national economies.

So rather than “jump on a plane” to sign a bilateral deal with the US, as one wag put it, smaller states such as New Zealand need to think hard whether the bilateral alternative with the US is more long-term beneficial than a multilateral agreement, especially when it has shown that under a certain type of administration the US is willing to renege on its commitments even if they are multilateral rather than bilateral in nature. With the Trump administration also set to review and replace the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), it is clear that honoring commitments and maintaining continuity in trade policy is not, even if just for the short term, on the US agenda.

When one widens the lens on what the Trump administration is doing in terms of its threats to withdraw from various bi-and multinational defense agreements unless the partner states “pay more” for US protection, it becomes clear that the US is not, at least for now, a reliable international partner.

The reason is that the new US attitude to trade is part of a larger phenomenon. The neo-isolationist protectionism embedded in the “America First” approach adopted by the Trump administration has ended, however temporarily, over 50 years of bipartisan consensus in the US political elite on the merits of international engagement. Be it in trade, foreign aid or collective defense, the US policy elite, both public and private, have embraced globalisation as a means of projecting US power, influence and values world-wide. That era has come to end for the time being, and so long as Trump is successful in pursing his “America First” strategy it will continue to be so.

That may or may not make America Great Again but it could well have a negative impact on those who seek mutual benefit by engaging with it. They will be asked to do more, pay more and offer more concessions in order to be granted US favour.

In the absence of an alternative, that is an unenviable position to be in. But if alternatives are available, then the current moment in US politics provides a window of opportunity to countries that have found themselves marginalised by Trump’s policy directives. The re-orientation of TPPA is one such opportunity because, if for no other reason, a US return to the TPPA fold in the post-Trump era will see it with much less leverage than it had up until now. Add to that the possibility of increased benefits via a renegotiated deal with the remaining and possibly new partners, and the downside of the US withdrawal seems acceptable.

From a smaller nation perspective, that is a good thing.

Appearances are deceiving.

datePosted on 13:25, December 30th, 2016 by Pablo

In a recent editorial in the Herald an academic welcomes what he claims is a return to New Zealand’s “independent” foreign policy. As evidence he cites the Chinese rebuke of New Zealand for siding with the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favour of the Philippines in its dispute with China over the legality of Chinese claims in the South China Sea, the remarks by New Zealand’s UN ambassador condemning Russia’s use of its Security Council veto to thwart humanitarian assistance provision in Syria, and New Zealand’s co-sponsorship of a UNSC resolution condemning Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.

I disagree. None of these examples offer proof of “independence” in foreign policy. Instead, they represent long-standing New Zealand positions and, if anything, a pro-US orientation on all three issues.

I submitted my response to the Herald but it was rejected. So I publish it here.

When New Zealand campaigned for a temporary seat on the UN Security Council it rested its case in large measure on making progress on the Israel/Palestine conflict and pushing for a halt to the Syrian civil war on humanitarian grounds. With regards to Chinese building of artificial islands on South China Sea reefs claimed by (and sometimes in sight of) other countries, New Zealand has consistently urged adherence to international maritime law, particularly rules governing freedom of navigation, safe passage and non-militarisation of environmentally sensitive ecosystems. All of these positions were firmly staked out well before the supposed return to foreign policy independence.

The New Zealand position on the three issues dovetails neatly with that of the US, and in fact it was the US abstention on the UNSC settlement resolution, in a change from long-standing practice of vetoing any resolution critical of Israel, that made the difference in securing its passage. It is likely that the US signalled this shift in advance of the UNSC vote, thereby giving diplomatic cover to New Zealand and its co-sponsors.

“Independence” in foreign policy implies autonomy in decision-making and execution.  New Zealand does not have that. Instead, what New Zealand has is a “multifaceted” foreign policy that consists of three components: trade, diplomacy (including climate diplomacy) and security. These issue areas are not treated holistically, that is, as component parts of a larger scheme. Instead, they are approached compartmentally by the diplomatic corps (also known as being “siloed” in the bureaucratic jargon).

On trade New Zealand looks East, especially but not exclusively to China, for its material fortunes. It does so pragmatically, disregarding the human rights, environmental or political records of its trading partners. Diplomatically it rests on principle, seeking to reaffirm multilateral solutions brokered by international organisations like the UN and regional bodies such as ASEAN as well as upholding the rule of law in international relations. For security New Zealand acts practically and looks West, particularly to the other members of the Five Eyes intelligence network (Australia, Canada, the UK and the US). The latter also has a strong military component as a result of historical ties to the Anglophone world and the Wellington and Washington declarations signed in 2010 and 2012, respectively, which make New Zealand a first tier security partner of the US.

The overall conceptual mix underpinning New Zealand foreign policy is one of idealism or realism depending on what issue area is being addressed. That does not make for independence, which presumably rests on a core set of principles that extend across the field of diplomatic endeavour. If anything it is opportunistic and short-term in orientation.

New Zealand’s approach to foreign policy violates a maxim of international politics known as “issue linkage” where security partners trade preferentially with each other and vice versa. In this framework, diplomatic endeavour in discrete policy areas is treated as part of a larger long-term strategic plan that is coherent across all aspects of international exchange. However, in New Zealand’s practice, trade, diplomacy and security are treated separately, without an overarching strategic umbrella binding them together.

New Zealand’s approach ignores the reality of great power competition, specifically but not exclusively that between the US and China, where New Zealand finds itself economically dependent on one rival and security dependent on the other. Already the Chinese have begun to threaten New Zealand with economic reprisals if it continues to align its approach to the South China Sea disputes with that of the US (using as a pretext investigations into Chinese steel dumping in NZ, which the Chinese have issue-linked to the maritime dispute). The US has countered China’s rise by attempting to promote the Trans Pacific Partnership as a trade hedge against Chinese economic influence in the Western Pacific (now moribund as the result of the Trump election victory) and by re-emphasising its security commitment to New Zealand, most recently evident in the visits by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State john Kerry and the port call by the USS Sampson on the occasion of the RNZN 75th anniversary celebrations.

Trading preferentially with one emerging great power while strengthening military and intelligence ties with its superpower rival does not make New Zealand “independent” unless one thinks that straddling a barbed wire fence while standing on ice blocks is a sign of independence. With the US and China on a collision course as their rivalry heats up across the spectrum of contentious areas, something that the Trump presidency is likely to aggravate, the time when New Zealand may have to choose a side may well be approaching. An independent country with an autonomous foreign policy grounded in a coherent long-term strategic plan would not have to make such a choice.

The current conundrum is the product of a turn away from independence that began after 9/11 when the 5th Labour government opted to begin the process of reconciliation with the US after the chilling of bilateral relations resultant from the 1985 non-nuclear declaration by the Lange government. Since the decision to become a model of Ricardian trade economics was made well before 9/11, the move to bilateral reconciliation with the US introduced an element of multipolarity to New Zealand diplomacy, something that has now become entrenched in its multifaceted approach to international affairs.

New Zealand diplomats will reject the suggestion that the country’s foreign policy is bipolar, multipolar or anything other than independent. They will say that the current approach allows New Zealand to put its eggs in several baskets and thereby avoid over-reliance on any one of them. That is good public relations (mostly for domestic consumption), but reality suggests otherwise.

In the current era of global politics where international norms and laws are continually violated with impunity (including those outlawing crimes against humanity and war crimes), and where international organisations have been shown to be powerless to stop even the most grotesque of atrocities, small states must increasingly chart courses of action in an arena dominated by great powers that have, in at least some cases, no interest in upholding or adhering to international norms and law, much less submit their sovereign decisions to the dictates of international agencies. That makes pursuing independence as a matter of principle perilous at best.

Perhaps the pundit cited at the beginning does not realise it (probably because he does not specialise in international relations theory or foreign policy practice), but the current international moment is more akin to a Hobbesian state of nature rather than a Rousseauian meadow. Trying to remain “independent” as a small state in such an environment is more likely to lead to the fate of Melos (which was destroyed by the Athenians when it refused to abandon its neutrality in the conflict between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian Wars) rather than national security, peace and prosperity. In that light a multifaceted approach may be the least harmful course of action if for no other reason than the fact that pursuing foreign policy independence is impossible and potentially disastrous in a context where universal rules no longer apply and great power rivalries are starting to spill into conflict (be it armed, cyber or economic).

Be it by choice or necessity, New Zealand abandoned an independent foreign policy more than a decade ago. What it has been doing ever since is to play a compartmentalised three-sided game as a hedge against uncertainty in a world in transition, choosing friends, partners and allies as circumstances warrant. As a result it is now involved in counterpoised relationships with rival great powers at a time when international law and organisations are largely ineffectual. The conceptual ice upon which its foreign policy stands in slowly melting and the barbed perils of foreign policy contradiction are approaching in equal measure. The trend is irreversible.

This is New Zealand’s Melian Dilemma.

Cross-Link: New Zealand on the UN Security Council.

datePosted on 08:11, December 13th, 2016 by Pablo

I was asked by the nice people at the Briefing Papers to write a short essay on NZ’s recent tenure on the UN Security Council. Here it is.

Key exits right (on time).

datePosted on 16:17, December 5th, 2016 by Pablo

So, John Key decided to resign rather than lead his government into an election for a fourth term. Some amongst the opposition are gloating and speculating about the reason why. As someone who did not appreciate the US Right gloating over Drumpf’s election, I would simply say to my Lefty friends that there is such a thing as decorum, and that the best thing to do now is to be gracious and plan for a hard run at winning the 2017 election.

Let’s be honest. John Key is a formidable politician. When it comes to the Opposition, he came, he saw, he kicked a** and took names, then quit while he was on top. His timing is impeccable. He never lost an election and his party never lost a general election while he was leader. He saw off Helen Clark, then dispensed with Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliff and Andrew Little. In fact, at times it seemed like he was just slapping the Opposition Leader around like a cat plays with mice. Nothing burst his matey aura and kiwi-style “aw shucks,” charisma–not inappropriate touching of women, not his his radio lechery and vulgarity, not his ineptitude when it coms to responding to natural and man-made disasters, not influence peddling by his cabinet, not his going to watch high school baseball games in the US instead of attending the funerals of NZ soldiers killed in action in an (some would say futile) Afghan conflict that he sent them to, not selling off state assets, not negotiating trade agreements against the popular will. The guy is the ultimate Teflon John.

For that reason his resignation is a huge gift to the Opposition, as National would have won easily had he stuck around. Now the issue is whether this was a long-planned move, in which case National will have a succession strategy in place, or whether it was a sudden move forced by something like a serious illness in the family. If it is the latter, then the Nats have no strategy in place and the knives will come out amongst the various factions vying for the leadership. Just think of it: Collins versus Bennet versus Joyce versus English versus Bridges versus Coleman versus Brownlee versus assorted lesser lights and hangers-on. It will be epic, but Labour needs to just let them fight it out while it develops a sound policy platform for all Kiwis (capital gains tax, infrastructure development, immigration policy, etc.).

If this is a planned move and a succession strategy and electoral agenda is already in place, then Labour and its potential allies are behind the eight ball. Whoever is chosen as next National Party Leader will want to make a positive policy impact in an election year, and with National controlling the purse strings while in government until then, it is clear that it will use the advantages of incumbency to the fullest. It is therefore imperative that Labour and other opposition parties anticipate and develop a counter-proposal to whatever is going to be offered. That is a big task.

Gloating about Key’s departure just shows a lack of class, just like going hysterical about Michael Wood’s win in the Mt. Roskill by-election is reading waaaay too much into it. The general election next year is still for National to lose, and quite frankly from what I have seen of Labour recently, it is not as if it is positioning itself as a fresh alternative with a raft of innovative policy ideas. That is why it is time to get cracking on the latter.

Not so sure what the Greens intend to do, but if the announcement of their new candidate in Auckland is any indication, they are regressing rather than progressing. Time to re-assess my party vote.

It is said that the Mana and Maori parties are in talks to merge. Cue Tui ad here.

Winston First is already bleating about sinister reasons behind the PM’s departure. I say who the **** cares? He will be gone by the time the s**t hits the fan if it in fact does, so the best course is to offer viable prescriptions for a better future rather than assign blame. But then again, that is what Winston does.

I do not much like the Mr. Key or his government. His “attack the messenger” tactics of smearing decent and honest people grates on me because among his targets are people I know, including friends of mine. His politics are retrograde and money changers are about profits rather than average people, so his was a government destined to reward the upper crust rather than the plebes. But I know a good politician when I see one, and John Key was a very, very good politician.

So lets thank him, however forcedly, for his service, recognise his domination of the political landscape while in office and concentrate on making sure that his would be heirs never get close to Level 9 of the Beehive.

PS: Key says that there is no scandal and that everyone’s health is fine. So his decision to suddenly leave was deliberate and yet done as a surprise. He has, in effect, shafted his own caucus. Some think that doing so before Xmas leaves Labour in disarray. I would argue that Labour is no worse for the timing of his announcement and instead has more time to get its election campaign platform together. For whatever reason, it is National that was the target of Key’s move. Either the lure of a lucrative Blair-type post-politics career was to too much to resist, or perhaps he just got sick and tired of his National fellow travellers.

It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

datePosted on 17:13, November 24th, 2016 by Pablo

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

Sailing aboard the SS Futility.

datePosted on 15:09, November 16th, 2016 by Pablo

The RNZN is celebrating its 75 anniversary through this upcoming weekend, with 18 foreign warships attending the events. There will be fleet review on Saturday and an open house on the ships on Sunday.  An exhibition of international naval history will be open throughout the week on the Auckland waterfront.

For the first time in three decades the US is sending a warship to NZ waters as part of the event. In doing so the US acknowledges and accepts NZ’s non-nuclear stance and the NZ government confirms that it can verify that the ship is non-nuclear propelled and armed via independent means (and quiet diplomacy). The ship in question is the USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Other nuclear powers represented at the celebration are China and India (and France and UK in lesser capacity), as well as a host of regional navies including Australia, Indonesia, Japan and several Pacific Island states. Ships from Singapore, South Korea and Canada will also participate.

The NZ Defense Industry Association is running its annual Forum concurrently with the RNZN celebrations. It gives NZ defense-oriented businesses an opportunity to take advantage of the presence of foreign military commanders in order to hawk their wares as well as exploit the opportunities provided by the NZ$20 billion in capability upgrades announced by the MoD/NZDF for the next fifteen years. Needless say, the combination of events has elicited opposition from a variety of groups.

Protestors have already blocked the venue of the defense industry meetings and more protests are scheduled for the next four days, including a flotilla on Saturday when the fleet will be on review in the Waitemata Harbour. Interestingly, some moron posing as a National MP suggested that the Terrorism Supression Act be amended to include protest flotillas as “terrorists” because they might terrorise the crews of the warships by accidentally getting run over by them. So much for intelligent representation but who knows, maybe someone at the defense industry Forum will have a marketable idea about non-lethal anti-dinghy defences that are designed to deal with such contingencies.

There seems to be several different elements in the protests. There are pacifists who are against the presence of warships of any sort as well as those who profit from the misery of war. There are those who are against the so-called “death merchants” but who do not necessarily object to naval forces (perhaps seeing them as a necessary evil). There are those who are anti-nuclear. There are those who are anti-imperialist. There are those who support indigenous sovereignty. There are those who are anti-American. There is some overlap between these factions but the core appears to be focused on two things: the defense industry Forum and the presence of the USS Sampson as symbolic of conjoined war-mongering evils.

Although one can not really argue against being opposed to “death merchants,” the reality is that like the tip of an iceberg, weapons manufacturers are a relatively small percentage of those exhibiting at the Forum (although major weapons providers like Lockheed Martin are major sponsors of it). Most of the NZ defense industry are logistics and support providers who often also have civilian branches to their businesses (for example, drone manufacturers, navigational technology suppliers and search and rescue equipment providers). At worst, one might consider them “enablers” rather than direct purveyors of instruments of death. Be that as it may, it is understandable why pacifists are opposed to the Forum. Simplistic, naive and righteous, but understandable.

The issue of the warships is a bit more complex. Although there are plenty of pacifists who are opposed to the entire notion of celebrating naval forces, many of the protestors appear to be more focused on protesting the presence of a US warship. This includes some of the ostensibly anti-nuclear types, who seem to have given a pass to the Chinese and Indians while focusing on the US boat. The same is true of the anti-imperialist crowd, who also are concentrating their attentions of the USS Sampson but seem unconcerned about the neo-imperialist ventures of other countries represented, to say nothing of the unhappy histories of places like Indonesia or Chile (whose visiting training ship Esmeralda was used as a prison for political prisoners during the Pinochet era). So that basically means that much of the protesters are anti-American more than anything else.

That stance has been made a bit harder to justify now that the USS Sampson has been diverted to do earthquake relief duties in Kaikura. After all, it is hard not to look silly when the focus of your protests is on a ship that is involved in humanitarian relief operations on your home soil and yet you ignore the authoritarian and often repressive histories of other countries represented in the visiting fleet. This is particularly true if the crowds at the naval expo, watching the fleet review and waiting to board the ships on open house day are larger than the number of demonstrators. Clearly they are not getting the message the protestors want to impart on them.

So the question is: what is the point of the protests?

If the answer is to support pacifism in its opposition to anything connected to war regardless of the ancillary civilian benefits of naval power such as disaster relief and regardless of public attitudes towards the military, then so be it. But if the answer is to selectively protest against the US and defense industry regardless of circumstance, well, that seems to be more of a futile gesture than a public education action.

The last thing the NZ Left needs to be seen as is silly and futile.

What a bummer.

datePosted on 13:02, November 13th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, THAT sucked. Myself and a zillion other pundits got the US election wrong. In fact, pretty much everyone with a Ph.D. in Political Science got it wrong as well as most veteran political journalists. The reasons are many but the moral of the story is that so-called experts armed with reams of data still cannot accurately predict the mood of an electorate that may lie to pollsters or remain undecided until election day. “Experts” like empirical data and believe in reasoned voting choices when studying well established liberal democracies, so are ill-equipped to comprehend seemingly irrational voting behaviour based on raw emotion, visceral reaction and religious belief in the false promises of demagogues. The anecdotal evidence was there from Trump’s rallies and the bluebonnet fields of Trump/Pence signs on suburban lawns. But those of us with advanced degrees and years of studying politics ignored it in favour of quasi-scientific methodologies that provided a numbers crunch to our opinions. We saw what we wanted to see rather than what was.

There is no point in trying to do a post-mortem on what happened. Plenty of others are doing so. I did find it interesting that Trump received less votes than Romney and McCain in the 2012 and 2008 elections, respectively, and that 6 million less people voted this year than in 2012 and 10 million less than in 2008. In fact, nearly 47 percent of the electorate did not vote, giving Clinton (as the majority vote getter) and Trump around 25.7-25.5 percent of the popular vote overall. The bottom line is that the absent voters, presumably those who would have voted Democratic but could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, decided the outcome by staying home.

As for those who decry the Electoral College because this is the second time in 16 years that a Democrat wins the general vote but loses the presidential election in the Electoral College: tough luck. Hillary played the Electoral College game, focusing on so-called battleground states and apparently neglecting those states considered solid Democrat such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Since the base of that presumed solidity was the rust belt white working class that Trump targeted preferentially, that was clearly a mistake (both Michigan and Wisconsin went to Trump).

Much has been made about the class angle to the election but I also think that we should not forget Trump’s idealogical appeal–the xenophobic scapegoating, the racism, the bigotry, the misogyny posing as anti-PC righteousness. Perhaps not all of his supporters are closet Klansman, but it is clear that to many in the white working and middle classes that aspect of Trump’s ideological appeal resonated strongly. The intersection of class and exclusionary ideological appeal was found in grievance and fear, and that grievance and fear transcended employment concerns. Make of it what you will.

The vaunted female and Latino vote against Trump never materialised. In fact, the defensive voting surge that I repeatedly predicted would happen never did. Instead, it seems that people just stayed at home thinking that, given the polls, others would do the job for them. Even so, had those under the age of 35 been the only voters, Hillary would have won walking away. So the future holds some promise when it comes to progressive change, but for the meantime things could get worse and, if acts of hatred and protests are anything to go by, that has already started.

For those who think that Bernie Sanders would have done better against Trump, I say think again. That is because primary campaigns are run in parallel while looking at each other. Had Bernie emerged as the Democratic nominee Trump would not have won the Republican nomination. The GOP would have made a negative issue of Sander’s “outsider” status and marginalised the outsider on its side. Money would have poured into backing a more establishment figure who could take Sanders to task for his “socialism” and his vague and unrealistic policy prescriptions. Sanders would find it hard to counter the false accusations about his supposed communist leanings because the Democratic establishment would not have backed him as strongly as it did Clinton. He may also have failed to transfer the energy of his primary supporters into sustainable support from swing voters on the campaign trail as many undecided and independent voters would react fearfully to the dark accusations of what his ideological orientation would bring for the US.

Whatever the case, this is all idle speculation. We got the matchup that we got and for most of us Hillary was a safe bet even if we had to hold our noses when voting for her (and again, I flatly reject the notion that she somehow is “worse” or more corrupt than any other contemporary politician. If people believe that they need to look at who funds the Bush Foundation and the campaign coffers of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).

My hopes now hinge on two things: 1) that once in office Trump will find his freedom of action circumscribed by the practical, legal, institutional and political realities surrounding him. This will force him to abandon or renege on many of his more outrageous campaign promises, which in turn will disappoint many of those who have vested their hopes in him but will mitigate against some of the more onerous consequences of what he could have done; and 2) that his lack of political experience and commitment to Republican principles and policies (remember that he only switched from Democrat to Republican in 2010) will lead to a serious clash with the GOP congressional leadership. That could hurt the GOP in the 2018 elections where all of the House and a third of the Senate will be up for (re) election as well as his re-election bid two years later.

Be that as it may, these are dark times for people such as myself. The Right may gloat and think that they now rule supreme (and we have had a couple of such folk appear here on KP), but I have a feeling that Trump’s victory is a crest of a wave or the last stand of the American Right. Neither demographics or policy orientation appear to favour the GOP and alt-Right over the long-term, so perhaps this is their last moment to shine.

I sure hope so.

Meanwhile, I thnnk I will have a cup of tea and a lie down.

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

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