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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.

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.

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.

About that “Deep State.”

datePosted on 06:57, March 22nd, 2017 by Pablo

One of the distressing things about the ascendance of a worldwide politically retro (aka “alt-“) Right is the role played by conspiracy theories, alternative narratives and ideological appropriation. The so-called alt-Right, which is not just a US phenomenon but was instrumental in Trump’s electoral victory, basically adopted many of the maxims of the postmodern and conspiratorial Left when espousing a political, social and economically white Christian nationalist agenda. This as true in Poland as it is in the UK, Australia or the US. Realizing that in an age of social media the promotion of alternative “news” once exclusively purveyed by tabloids like the National Inquirer and gossip magazines can now have real weight in political and social debates, the alt-Right drew upon the Left in order to make its pitch. Using a steady stream of Left originated conspiracies such as the assassination of JFK and 9/11 being “inside jobs” and the moon landing never happening to push a counter-hegemonic agenda, the alt-Right introduced its own version of the proper order and the reasons why it was under siege  (assuming that one accepts that liberal hegemony based on principles of fairness and equality has increasingly been the norm in recent times, something the proponents of the alt-Right clearly believe even if a comparative examination of global political culture paints a very different picture).

To the use of Left conspiracy theories as a basis for re-imagining an alternative Right reality is added appropriation of the worst of post-modern theory: that there is no such thing as “objective” truth or rationality, that everything is subjective, contextual or inter-textual, and that all views are equally valid. This latter school of thought, with its rejection of Enlightment reasoning, would have us believe that a rationality that defends and legitimizes foot binding and clitoral excision is equal to feminism, to say nothing of giving equal weight to rejections of larger theorizations about universal human rights, medicinal science and practice, climate science, psychology, market behavior and political participation. This is particularly seen in the field of sub-altern studies, where the “noble savage” premise is as condescending as it is strong, to say nothing of just plain wrong.

It is one thing to give voice to the dispossessed. It is another, less honourable thing to give equal interpretative weight to the voice of socio-cultural relativity, subjectivity and “alternality” when it comes to matters of truth, objectivity and factual evidence. Because that is what has allowed the alt-Right to turn things on its head: victims become oppressors, fair becomes foul, white becomes black, and truth becomes fiction. “Facts” do not matter, just feelings and opinions do.

This is not a revelation. The alt-Right appropriation of Left generated absurdism has philosophically entrenched roots. Like National Socialism, the theoretical foundations of the alt-Right may be shallow at best, but as been pointed out elsewhere, the alt-Right is about whinging and being mean, not about being analytically deep, correct or corrective.

The point is not to criticize post-modernists, whose original cadre enriched social thought. Instead, the concern here is with how the focus on social relativity, subjectivity and victimization has been combined with conspiracy mongering in an alt-Right worldview where the propagation of “fake news” and “alternative facts” is the new normal.

That brings us to the subject of the so-called “Deep State.” Like many conspiracy theories, it has a grain of truth in it, but the original truth has now been conceptually stretched to the point of distortion.

The concept of Deep State refers to an unelected, politically unaccountable permanent national security bureaucracy involving key actors in the military, intelligence, national police, economic and broader internal security communities. Civilian and uniformed personnel are involved and often collude with organized crime and/or business interests in what amounts to a marriage of convenience when it comes to steering the ship of state. Administrations and even regimes may come and go, but the Deep State remains.

The original notion of the Deep State was associated with authoritarian regimes or countries with histories of fragile electoral rule alternating with episodes of dictatorship. Praetorian military and intelligence services constituted the core of the Deep State, which was charged with ensuring that vital national interests and orientations were maintained regardless of the vicissitudes of politicians, strongmen or the voting public.

The initial take on the Deep State purportedly came from Turkey, where part of the Kemalist legacy was a permanent bureaucracy inherited from his reign that was tasked with perpetuating his secular-nationalist political legacy. It has been associated with countries with histories of political instability like Argentina and Pakistan, where shadowy forces are believed to operate unchecked by elected authorities and who, in fact, are suspected of manipulating political institutions and processes for their own ends. And it has been associated with countries with long authoritarian cultures and traditions that currently operate under electoral veneers, such as Russia. The common denominator is that the Deep State not only serves as a shadow government but more importantly as the guarantor of certain vested interests—economic, geopolitical, social and ideological—regardless of the public face of governance.

In the conspiratorial view the Deep State is subversive of consolidated democracies. It is also part of international capitalist/imperialist networks often dominated by Zionists and others who wish to usurp the “real” will of the people. It has its hands in all facets of governance and yet is invisible to the electorate and unaccountable to those they install in office.

That is exactly what Steve Bannon and his co-religionists are preaching from the White House. They claim that a Deep State populated by Obama/Clinton supporters is operating to undermine the Trump presidency by promoting uncertainty, doubt and mischief with selective leaks and “fake news.” These views are echoed in Left-leaning outlets like Salon and The Intercept, where numerous stories make reference to the nefarious machinations of the US Deep State at home and abroad. Many in the US and elsewhere have taken them at their word.

The truth is different. Although there is certainly a career civil service and military/intelligence bureaucracy that serves as the permanent staff of the federal state apparatus and which have institutional interests of their own, these do not quite amount to a Deep State. For starters, they do not have the degree of ideological cohesion and shared material stake required to operate undetected over time. They are constrained by laws and regulations governing the federal bureaucracy, to include whistleblowing protections, that make it difficult to set up secret networks within core agencies. They are subject to oversight mechanisms and turf battles that impede inter-agency collusion in pushing a hidden collective agenda of any magnitude. The size and scope of the state apparatus makes improbable that a secret network of bureaucrats could translate undetected their common desires into effective State action. Finally, the vagaries of the political process, with its impact on policy-making and staffing under different administrations (for example, from Reagan to Clinton to W. and Obama), make it difficult for even a small cadre of well-placed idealogues to develop the resource base and operational control required to run a Deep State.

To be sure, intelligence agencies and the military undertake secretive operations that push the envelope of what is legally permissible. Civilian agencies often attempt to whitewash or bury scandals. Cover-ups of official malfeasance is commonplace. Businesses and interest groups collude with state agencies in rent-seeking behavior. But these do not amount to proof of the existence of a Deep State. In fact, one can argue that if there were a Deep State in the US, it would have ensured that Donald Trump was never elected.

What Trump is encountering is the natural blowback occasioned by his attacks on the integrity and purpose of key agencies and his attempts to diminish, replace or dismantle some of them. For example, since the Environmental Protection Agency is charged with doing just that, it should come as no surprise that its staff react with hostility to the appointment of a fossil fuel industry advocate as Director, especially when he doubts climate science and has stated his intention to loosen air, water and land pollution standards while pushing for an overall downsizing of the agency and its budget.

Similarly, the intelligence community (IC) has not reacted well to Trump’s accusations that it is incompetent and acts like “Nazis” when it comes to the subject of Russian interference in the US elections. It finds problematic that Trump has his own non-vetted “intelligence” group led by Bannon that now has access to the combined product of the IC via the daily briefs to the president and the NSC.

The armed services have been attacked as well, with Trump saying that he “knows more” than the generals, that they are incompetent and that the US military is in disrepair. He uses the Joint Chiefs of Staff as props in political theatre events such as his first address to Congress. He says that he has a plan to defeat terrorism but then demands that a plan be drawn immediately by the very generals he has derided.

The list of aggrieved agencies is long (pity the Department of Education!) and the depth of bureaucratic resentment is deep. But bureaucratic pushback is not synonymous for or evidence of a Deep State at work. To claim otherwise is simply to indulge in a form of post-modern conspiracy theory, even if the claim comes out of the West Wing.

It is ironic that we have some on the Left to thank for that.

I shall leave for another time discussion of whether there is a Deep State in New Zealand. What is true is that the New Zealand intelligence community has a degree of operational autonomy and history of non-accountability that could allow for the formation of a cabal of intelligence “insiders” who carry on as they please. This is especially true given the absence of parliamentary and ministerial oversight, paucity of public interest, ignorance of security matters on the part of MPs and the  traditional weakness of review mechanisms such as the Inspector General of Security and Intelligence. To some extent, the same is true for the NZDF and the Police. The question is whether this has resulted in bureaucratic capture by these agencies of their ostensible political and judicial overseers, or has it led to the formation of a Deep State within the state bureaucracy.

The answer, it would seem, is a matter of perspective.

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.

War for war’s sake?

datePosted on 13:28, January 17th, 2017 by Pablo

An article in a US magazine about the Senate confirmation hearings of US Secretary of Defense nominee General (ret.) James Mattis struck a chord. The author pointed out that the hearings basically involved patsy questions that were designed to elicit the standard responses about the US having the “greatest” military on earth but (somehow, given that it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined) needed much more money to counter myriad threats. That allowed Senators to push weapons programs being built in their home states such as the F-35 fighter jet and the next generation of nuclear submarines (all of which Mattis said the US needed and the acquisition of which he supported). The sense one gets from the hearings is that it was a stitch up so long as Mattis threw the usual sops to the usual pork barreling crowd.

No questions were asked of Matthis as to why the US goes to war and why, after being constantly embroiled in wars big and small for a quarter century and currently involved publicly in at least eight conflicts (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan), the US has failed to achieve a victory in any of them. What is the point of going to war if the result is inconclusive (Libya), a stalemate (Afghanistan) or a defeat (which Iraq can be considered if one looks at the national and regional situation before and after the US invasion)?  Or is the purpose now simply to feed a military-industrial complex that increasingly occupies a vanguard position in the US economy (even more so than when Dwight Eisenhower warned against the dangers of the complex that led him to coin that phrase)?

It seems that the answer is the latter. But it is worth delving into the backdrop to war-mongering for war and profit’s sake.

There are wars of necessity, wars of opportunity and wars of convenience. Justification for war is usually made on the grounds that they are fought defensively for existential purposes, in the face of grave threats to the nation-state. This is the basis of Laws of War (Jus ad Bellum) arguments. Even so, larger powers may engage (“expeditionary”) wars of offensive opportunity or convenience, most often against smaller or weaker states, if they feel that they can produce an outcome that enhances their international position or achieve a specific goal (political, military or economic). The US invasion of Iraq was a war of opportunity, as the neocons leading the US security apparatus thought that they could redraw the post 9/11 political map of the Middle East by removing Saddam and placing, as it was referred to at the time, a land based aircraft carrier full of US troops in between Iran and Syria that would intimidate both of them. Afghanistan may or may not have been a war of necessity. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan itself did not pose an existential threat to the US, but its aiding and abetting of the 9/11 conspirators, to say nothing of the repercussions of the attacks themselves, advised in favour of a strike against the al-Qaeda safe havens located in that country. Then the conflict morphed into something else. Nation-building, peace enforcement, counter-insurgency, regime support–you name it, but all of these renamed conflict justifications have one common theme: no victory or end in sight.

Russia’s incursions into Georgia and the Ukraine were and are wars of opportunity that have allowed it to reinforce its border buffer areas, something that has been a tenet of Russian geopolitical thought dating back to the Czars. Likewise, Russian involvement in Syria is opportunistically designed to defend the Alawite regime (with or without Assad at its helm), protect Russian interests in Syria (including 100,000 Russian citizens as well as the naval base at Tartus), and increase Russian influence throughout the Middle East in the face of US reluctance to commit significant force in Syria during the Obama administration.

China has claimed that any move to deny it possession of the disputed artificial islands it has built on reefs in the South China Sea will be seen as an existential threat leading to a major regional war. Whether a bluff or not, it is clear that China has used the opportunity provided by US reluctance to confront it early in the island-building process as a means of expanding its littoral claims in accordance with the “three island chain” or “string of pearls” maritime strategy it has long promoted but until recently has not been able to implement (and in which the South China Sea is considered to be Chinese territorial waters within the first or innermost island chain).

Generally speaking, the syllogism upon which wars are fought goes like this: geopolitical position (including diplomatic, economic and security partnerships)–> threat environment–> strategic orientation–> force composition–> weapons acquisition–> tactical orientation–> force deployment–> operational tempo. Depending on the specific nature of this syllogism, nation-states wage wars of an existential, convenience or opportunistic sort. For example, as a small isolated maritime nation New Zealand should, by virtue of the logic embedded in this syllogism, have a naval dominant defensive force structure that emphasis anti-access/area denial capabilities over its littoral waters and sea lines of communication.

However, in practice the NZDF is an Army dominant force with limited blue water naval projection, no air supremacy component and a special operations branch (the SAS) that mainly serves in overseas expeditionary roles that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland. The reason is that force composition is not just product of physical defense needs but also of alliance commitments and international politics, something that has seen the NZDF deployed in foreign combat zones that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland since the end of World War 2.

That returns us to the US and its penchant for continuous war without victory. Regardless of what US politicians say or how “great” its military is, the US is a declining super power transiting from unipolar dominance to great power status in a multipolar world. Yet even when it was the international hegemon it was not clear that it had a full grasp of the need to have strategic coherence before it went to war. For example, for the entire post Cold War period and existing yet to this day, the US claims that it has a “2.5 major regional war” fighting capability (2.5 MRW). That is, it can simultaneously fight two and a half (whatever that means) major regional wars unassisted and prevail in all of them. But the reality is clearly not the case. The US not only cannot fight and prevail in the 2.5 MRW scenario, but it has needed multinational assistance to fight (and still not decisively prevail) in those that it has fought in the last 15 years.

The US makes weapons procurements that are designed to counter a mix of threats without establishing a hierarchy amongst them. The US spends more money on weapons technologies than any other country by a far stretch. In fact, US “defense” spending and the justifications for it are akin to the arguments about the US health system–and the results are similar (high costs tied to corporate manipulation, much technological innovation, excellent high-end delivery systems but less than desired outcomes across the board for the nation as a whole).

US strategic incoherence is rooted in broader disagreements about the thrust of US foreign policy.  Realists, neo-realists, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists compete for foreign policy dominance, yet no single school of thought has prevailed since the mid 1980s (idealists and constructivists had a brief moment in the sun under the first Clinton administration but were soon smothered by the weight of international events). Both the political elite as well as the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies are rendered by divisions amongst these competing theoretical camps, something that has made impossible a coherent approach to the application of armed force in foreign theatres (let it be noted that the US foreign policy and strategic approach has largely been guided by liberal interventionist precepts since the Bush 43 administration, but not to the extent that it has coalesced into a comprehensive theoretical framework for the conduct of US international affairs).

That is the crux of the matter. It is not just, as vulgar Marxists would say, that the military-industrial complex dominates US foreign policy because of its neo-imperialist imperative. There is something to that, but the real bottom line is that without a coherent strategic vision that connects the resort to war to the national, as opposed to corporate interest, then the latter will step into the vacuum and prevail in discussions about national security.

Wrap those discussions in nationalist/patriotic rhetoric festooned with flags and military paraphernalia at everything from car dealerships to football games, add incessant rhetoric about valour and sacrifice defending “freedom,” “democracy” or the US “way of life,” push the uncritical veneration of a “hero” or “warrior” military culture, and you have, in the absence of a genuine strategic rationale for going to war, the trumped up (yes, I did go there) reasons for turning the US into an incessant but ineffectual war machine. Glorification of war as a PR exercise over the course of decades and commercially tied to the minutia of American life is the opiate that feeds public delusion that the US should be the world’s laws enforcement agency and can in fact win any war.

The result is that the US increasingly looks and acts like a jumped up version of the former USSR–a steroid-jacked muscleman with deteriorated internal systems having trouble coping with anger management issues. Yet unlike the USSR, which tested its muscles selectively and avoided constant physical engagement in wars of convenience (and still fell), the US is a muscleman that is always looking for trouble. And trouble it has found.

The strategically incoherent yet endless resort to war in pursuit of profit is one major reason for the US decline. I shall address others in a post to follow.

Darkness at heart.

datePosted on 17:22, January 5th, 2017 by Pablo

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?

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.

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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