Archive for ‘Uncategorized’ Category
Browse:
Uncategorized »
Subcategories:

The political rope-a-dope.

datePosted on 12:39, April 10th, 2018 by Pablo

Older readers will remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing title. Held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, the contest pitted the undefeated champion Foreman, a beast of a man whose stock in trade was brutal early round knockouts of people such as Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and other contenders of the time (the uppercut punch that KO’d Norton earlier in 1974 actually lifted him off of the ground) against an ageing Ali, well past his prime after lengthy suspension when his concientious objection to the Vietnam War was ruled invalid and he was convicted of draft-dodging.

In the build up to the fight Ali pushed the line that he was going to take the fight to Foreman with his superior speed and agility. But Foreman and his trainers knew, based on the workouts Ali allowed the public and media to see, that his hand, head and foot speed were no longer what they used to be, and he could no longer “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The Foreman fight plan was therefore simple: bear down on Ali, cut off escape angles and corner him in the corners and on the ropes, then expose and exploit his slowness in a ferocious and relentless beatdown.

As readers will know, that did not happen. Ali privately trained to absorb body blows and using the lax rules of the boxing federations sponsoring the fight, was able to get the ring ropes loosened to their maximum extent (which allowed up to 12 inches of slack from the bottom to the top rope). Come fight time, this allowed Ali to lean back against the ropes, absorb Foreman’s increasingly frustrated and reckless body blows while dodging the occasional head shot and in doing so conserve energy by not punching himself out in a toe-to-toe brawl.

 

By the eighth round Foreman had thrown hundreds of punches. He was staggering around the ring in pursuit of Ali and physically spent, punch drunk and arm weary from throwing jabs, roundhouses and uppercuts rather than taking them. Once his hands dropped and stayed at his sides Ali pounced, using a series of jabs and hard rights to knock him down and out. It remains one of the greatest sporting upsets–and spectacles–of all time.

I mention this anecdote because it seems to me that we are witnessing a variation on this theme in US politics today. Although it is blasphemous to say so, think of Trump as Ali, his civil and political opposition and mainstream media as Foreman, the courts as the referee and the Republican party and rightwing corporate and social media, including state-sponsored trolls and disinformation purveyors, as the ropes.

In a straight up contest between Trump and the US constitutional system of checks and balances, it would be no contest. The courts, Congress and independent media would prevent Trump from slipping the boundaries of executive responsibility, would hold him to account and would punish him when he transgressed. Given his background and behaviour, he would not make it out of the first round.

But in the US today he has a support cushion in the GOP and rightwing media. Like the rules governing the tension on boxing ring ropes, the strictures governing partisan behaviour and truth in reporting have been stretched to their limits. Every blow he is dealt by the institutional system–the “swamp” as he calls it–is absorbed and countered by a chorus of hyper-partisan hyperbole and media ranting about “fake news,” conspiracies and the “Deep State.” This allows Trump to deflect, weave, dodge and counterpunch his accusers, questioning their character, motives, looks and heritage as if these were somehow equivalent or worse than the activities he has and is engaged in. The courts can only enforce what exists on paper, and since what exists on paper regarding presidential conduct is predominantly an issue of norms, custom and mores rather than legal accountability, there are limits to what they can do as referees in battles between Trump and other institutions.

Put another way: Normally a wayward president could not stand toe to toe with the institutional system of checks and balances without taking a beating. But that assumes that the limits of executive power are codified in law and not subject to manipulation. This turns out to be untrue. Much executive power does in fact answer to the law, at least in terms of how presidential decisions affect others. But much of it is also a product of precedent, practice, custom and tradition, not legislation, particularly when it comes to the president’s personal behaviour. In turn, the limits of presidential behaviour has always rested on the assumption that the incumbent will honour the informal traditions and responsibilities of office as well as the nature of the office itself, and not seek to manipulate the position for pecuniary and political self-advantage and/or personal revenge.

Trump has done exactly that. He regards the presidency as a personal vehicle and has disdain and contempt for its traditions and norms. He realises that he can play loose with the rules because the political constraints that bind him have been loosened by his corporate, congressional  and media supporters. He and his allies are willing to play dirty and use all of the tools at his disposal to thwart justice and destroy opponents.

This is the great irony of US politics. For a country that provides itself on constitutional protections and the “rule of law,” the framework governing presidential behaviour is little more than the ropes on a boxing ring.

For those interested in a return to civility and institutional norms this is problematic but is not the only thing that parallels the “rumble in the jungle.”  Like Trump’s attacks on those investigating him in the FBI and Justice Department, for months prior to the fight Ali poisoned the well of good will towards Foreman. Ali lost his prime fighting years to the suspensions levied on him by boxing associations after he refused to be inducted into the US Army in 1967. Although he never spent time in jail and became an icon of the anti-War movement, he resented the five lost athletic years and those who profited by stepping into the ring during his absence. He particularly loathed Foreman, who he considered to be the white man’s favorite because of his quiet, polite and compliant demeanour out of the ring. He publicly labeled Foreman an “Uncle Tom” and “House Negro” who turned his back on his fellow people of color. Although none of this was verifiable, Ali’s charges resonated beyond boxing circles.

When Ali arrived in Kinsasha he held public training events that were part sparring, part evangelical preaching. He railed against colonialism and imperialism, averred his faith in Islam, lauded African nationalists like Mobuto Sese Seko, then-president of the host country Zaire (and not one known for his affinity for democratic rights), and generally carried on like a bare-chested revolutionary in shorts and gloves. Foreman, for his part, stayed quiet, trained mostly in private and had his handlers speak for him. When they entered the ring on that storied night, the 60,000 strong crowd crammed into the national stadium was overwhelmingly on Ali’s side.

Perhaps Ali’s mind games were designed to help sway the judge’s decision in the event that it was close. Perhaps it was to intimidate Foreman himself. Whatever the motive, there is a parallel to be drawn with Trump’s attacks on his critics and investigators on Twitter, at press conferences and at campaign-style rallies. His ranting serves to raise public suspicion about the critical media and federal law enforcement much in the way Ali’s insults about Foreman had the effect of raising questions about his ethnic identification and personal integrity, something that eventually turned African opinion against him. Could the same happen with Trump’s support base and undecided voters in the US?

It is too early to tell if Trump’s “rope a dope” political strategy will see him triumph over his adversaries. But that leaves pending an open question: is there a person out there that can play Leon Spinks to Trump’s Ali? And if so, is that person named Robert Mueller, or could it turn out to be Stormy Daniels?

One thing is certain. Trump is a big fan of the WWE and likes to fancy himself as a tough guy willing to take on all challengers. However, in this contest, unlike the WWE, the outcome is not pre-determined and the blows are both real and far from over.

New Zealand goes it alone.

datePosted on 18:47, March 28th, 2018 by Pablo

The New Zealand Labour government’s refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing. The 27-nation solidarity coalition expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from their soil includes all of New Zealand’s major security partners as well as important trade counterparts. New Zealand is a member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, so it has better knowledge than most as to what evidence the UK has to indicate that Vladimir Putin’s regime ordered the hit on Skripal. New Zealand is an extra-regional NATO and EU associate, and like the majority of the members of the coalition, it is a democracy. New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic interlocutors in what is largely a symbolic gesture of repudiation of Russian misbehavior abroad.

The decision was made all the more quixotic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that there are “no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives” in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone. She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that was the case, even though MFAT has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer, declared or undeclared (that is the job of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)). She later changed her story to saying that her advice did in fact come from the SIS, but without acknowledging her original misstatement (which happened during a RNZ interview so is recorded for posterity). Her repeated comments that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about her competence when handling security matters.

Discussion in New Zealand about the issue has been muddled by the PM’s remarks. The minor aspect of the story is about whether there are Russian intelligence operatives in NZ and whether they should be expelled. The answers to that are “yes” and “possibly.” “Possibly” depends on the answer to the major aspect of the story: the reasons why NZ decided not to join the so-called “expulsion coalition.” I shall focus on the latter but suffice it to say that all of the 150 Russian personnel expelled by the coalition hold diplomatic passports so by definition are not working undercover as spies without diplomatic immunity. Nor were all of those expelled intelligence officers working under official cover (i.e. with diplomatic immunity).

The detour into what constitutes an “undeclared intelligence agent” was unnecessary and unhelpful in clarifying the reasons behind NZ’s decision to reject the UK request to join it in repudiating the Russian assassination attempt. That reasoning continues to remain unclear at present. Claiming that the decision to not adhere to the collective expulsion action is because there was no one who met the definition of “undeclared intelligence agents” operating in New Zealand is a diversion from the underlying rationale because it puts the focus on the instrumentalities of response rather than the reasons for it.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate, or perhaps better said, alienate itself from its traditional allies and major security partners? To be sure, members of the coalition have their own histories of foreign skullduggery and intrigue, to include extrajudicial killings abroad. Moreover, diplomacy is often no more than hypocrisy masquerading as self-righteousness standing in defense of principle. Perhaps the Labour government wants to give the lie to the posturing of its most important allies.

Even so, pragmatic assessments usually inform foreign policy decisions, particularly those involving choosing sides in international disputes. That is particularly true for small states when confronted with the demands of quarreling powers to take a position in favour of one side or the other. This “Melian Dilemma” is an unavoidable part of being small in a world dominated by competing great powers, so Lilliputians such as New Zealand usually think long and hard before taking an unpopular stand—particularly amongst its friends.

New Zealand’s decision not to participate in the solidarity coalition was made in the face of a direct request from the May government and in spite of the fact that the collective action is largely symbolic. Although Russian intelligence operations will be adversely affected in places like the UK, US and Germany, many of those being expelled are “normal” diplomats who can be recalled at some future date. So the downside to joining the coalition would seem relatively small even with Russian threats of retaliation, and the upside in terms of being seen to be a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms could well outweigh whatever the Russians can respond with.

Perhaps there lies the explanation. New Zealand’s foreign policy in recent years has been trade obsessed and speculation has it that members of the foreign policy establishment see the possibility of advancing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia in the vacuum left by the trade sanctions levied on it in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and annexation of Crimea. New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards. Official advice from the foreign ministry is that violating the sanctions regime to try to exploit a possible window of opportunity vis a vis Russia is counterproductive at best.

But talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not. Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, or that it interfered in US and European elections, and has refused to name Russia as the perpetrator of the attempted Skripal hit, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its “independent and autonomous” foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government’s rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners. Given the animosity felt towards Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Teresa May) amongst Labour supporters as well as those of its coalition partners (New Zealand First and the Green Party), this is a way of playing David versus Goliath(s) for domestic audiences.

New Zealand could also be signalling the international community. After all, over 140 nations did not sign up to the collective action, including major trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. No Pacific Island nation (other than those represented by France, the UK and US) signed on to the deal. So in terms of demonstrating its sovereign resolve to remain out of great power conflicts when and where possible, this Labour government may be channeling the spirit of independence championed by David Lange during the 1985 nuclear showdown.

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short and long term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia. By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin’s regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits even if it does not interfere with the daily business of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the Five Eyes and other security partners.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favor with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences. The play is both short and long-term in nature, with the question being will a short term move of this sort translate into longer term benefits or losses.

In the diplomatic world the shadow of the future hangs heavily over present decision-making. Sequels are uncertain and memories are elephantine in nature. The consequences of being shortsightedly contrarian are determined not by the contrarian but by those refused support on a matter of international consequence and foreign policy alignment. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may risk the wrath of those slighted but win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian (even if principled)  stance?

A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

NZDF links in the Iraq “kill chain.”

datePosted on 11:27, February 27th, 2018 by Pablo

When discussing military activities we often hear about the “tip of the spear.” The analogy is a bit overdrawn but points to the fact that the killing head is a relatively small part of the enterprise, and there is not only a long logistical line behind it but also elements of will, volition, intelligence, targeting and discipline in the use of the weapon.

In the modern military vernacular, the process behind the application of lethal kinetic force is known as the “kill chain.” It is worth disaggregating its core elements, starting from the spear tip.

Combat roles are those involving the direct application of force. This involves those pulling triggers on the enemy: infantry, armour, artillery, naval gunnery, tactical and strategic air strikes, special operations reconnaissance, forward air control and hunt and destroy missions. All of these roles involve engaging the enemy by kinetic means.

Combat support roles are those that directly facilitate the application of force. Intelligence collection and analysis, including that which leads to the preparation of target “packages” (usually consisting of a small array of priority and alternative targets and the suggestions about preferred kinetic means to be employed) are key combat-support roles. So are armorers. transporters and tankers providing the weapons, food, equipment and fuel to be deployed in theatre. Likewise, military mentors serving in “advise and assist” roles where they go into the field with foreign partner units are key combat-support roles that often morph into combat roles in the heat of battle. The same applies to combat search-and-rescue units. The key distinction from combat roles is that while they are not designed for or tasked with immediate involvement in the application of force, they are essential to doing so and are in close proximity to or overlapped with those who do. They are the eyes, ears, mind and body that inform the moment when the spear is thrown or trigger is pulled.

Non-combat roles are those that are not involved in the application of force on the enemy. These can be training units operating “behind the wire” in secure installations, mess hall and logistical services away from conflict zones, non-combat search-and-rescue, recruiting and foreign liaison duties, military diplomacy, unarmed humanitarian operations, military band and parade duties and other “meet and greet” PR exercises. Although all helpful to combat missions in an indirect way, none of these roles are absolutely required for successful completion of them. That is what differentiates non-combat from combat-support roles.

Many readers may find all of this obvious and not worth belabouring. But I do so because in New Zealand the  distinction between these roles appears to have been overlooked in official staments about what the NZDF is doing in Iraq (and previously in Afghanistan). From the moment NZDF troops were committed to the fight against Daesh in Iraq in May 2015, the government and military command have defined the mission as a “non-combat” training role. But there appears to be more to that mission that what has been acknowledged, and the NZDF has either been disingenuous or has deliberately misled the public on the true nature of it.

It was only last year that the National government admitted that NZDF personnel were engaged in  “advise and assist” roles and were operating on bases other than Camp Taji, the main training facility north of Baghdad. To this day its successor has refused comment on the nature of NZDF operations outside the training role (now into its fourth year). More tellingly, especially in view of the fact that there are credible reports of NZDF and civilian intelligence personnel being involved in the collection and analysis of actionable tactical intelligence at forward bases in northern Iraq and elsewhere in the regional theatre as well as NZSAS involvement in the fight for Mosul and attendant operations, both the former and the present government continue to maintain the line that the NZDF mission in Iraq is of a non-combat nature.

Not only does that dichotomise and oversimplify what are in fact a range of overlapping military operations, it serves as a semantic trick that, by using a very narrow definition of “combat” and a very broad definition of “non-combat,” reduces the former to only those who pull triggers and the latter to everyone else in uniform. Since combat-support roles are the largest part of the “kill chain,” this false dichotomy hides the very real possibility that the NZDF is in fact very actively involved in and around combat operations in northern Iraq (and perhaps Syria). Much like what eventuated in Afghanistan, it seems that the NZDF has, for its own reasons, decided to hide or misconstrue the multifaceted  nature of the deployment in Iraq and successive governments have gone along with the deception.

I am not sure why this is so.  Other than the Greens and some pacifists in Labour, no political party is going to oppose what the NZDF are doing in Iraq because the general consensus amongst the political elite and public is that the fight against Daesh is just. New Zealand is fulfilling an international obligation by joining in that fight (remember that “price of the club” remark made a few years ago by a senior decision-maker), and its soldiers (all volunteers) gain experience of real battlefield conditions and joint force operational integration with foreign military partners. Daesh already knows about the NZDF role in the so-called “Crusader Coalition” and has called for attacks on NZ soil. So on moral-ethical as well as practical grounds, it would seem that it is safe for the NZDF to be honest about what it is doing abroad.

Of course, as I wrote in a previous post, denying involvement in combat-support and combat roles allows the government and NZDF some measure of plausible deniability in the event that thing go wrong. But if that is the case, then why allow the mission in Iraq to broaden into roles that might incur that chance? Beyond what has been reported about NZDF activities in Iraq in the foreign (including allied military) press, circumstantial evidence at home indicates that the NZDF brass are very deliberate in their concealment of the facts on the ground. How else to explain the extraordinary secrecy demanded of deployed troops even upon their return, to include not telling their families of basic aspects of the deployment, when other members of the anti-Daesh coalition allow their troops to speak freely about non-sensitive operational matters?

A basic tenet of leadership is that responsibility for taskings is assumed by those making decisions. Why has the NZDF decided to engage in combat-support (and likely combat) operations but deny responsibility via the misleading claims about the NZDF non-combat role? Is that not a dereliction of duty and an abdication of command responsibility? Evidence is mounting that NZDF personnel are being put in or near harm’s way and yet the NZDF leadership insist that they are not. Why the continued NZDF  adherence to this ruse, and why does the new Labour government continue to tolerate it?

One thing is certain whether the NZDF and Labour government care to admit it (and with apologies for the mixed analogies): when it comes to the kill chain being used on Daesh in Iraq, the NZDF link runs the full length of the spear, from throw to catch.

Spare a thought for grumpy old men.

datePosted on 13:11, February 23rd, 2018 by Pablo

At an early age, I knew that I was going to be athletic-minded. I used to say to my father “I am immortal until proven otherwise!” and, much to his consternation and that of my mother, set out to prove the point by engaging in a number of risk taking (read: stupid) activities. More constructively, from the age of seven I played sports, lots of them. I played team sports and I played individual sports. I ran, I swam, I rode bikes and I raced around fields throwing, catching and kicking balls. Those balls were big and small, oval and round, and I waved an assortment of sticks at them when duty required.  Heck, I even tried ice hockey even though I could not skate: the team made me a maskless goalie on sneakers while I learned to skate until I realised that was a losing proposition.

I  boxed and I tried judo. I was a gym rat that lifted weights and even tried body-building for a decade or so. I loved to run trails, desert washes and beaches, preferably barefoot on the latter. I enjoyed the camaraderie of team sports and the solitude of the long distance runner. I got hurt a fair bit and I lost more than I won, but it was the act of competing, of testing my limits, that I most enjoyed. As I say to my kids, there is honour in losing so long as you make the other guys work hard for their win. After I had to give up team sports I endurance raced in order to justify my (compulsive) training, was a referee/umpire and coach in a couple of sports for a while and even surf lifeguarded to hone my open water skills and contribute to the community in which I now live. I also was able to engage in physical activities connected to government service before I moved to NZ, something that complemented my sports-minded approach to life.

Although my physical decline began with injuries dating back to the 1970s, things really began to unravel about ten years ago when I had a near-death experience that ended my competitive endurance racing life. Five knee surgeries had already given me a noticeable limp, and osteoarthritis in my feet, knees and shoulders made doctors comment that my X-rays looked like that of an 80 year old rather than a 40/50/60 year old. I ate aspirin like cereal and served as a involuntary guinea pig for the testing of assorted balms, lotions and other muscle and skeletal ache remedies.

With weight bearing activities no longer possible, I switched to indoor machines and eventually set up a home gym with stationary bikes, a rower and an elliptical machine. I spun, I glided and I rowed to the tune of thousands of songs, something I would never do when training outdoors. I was determined to make the most of what I had left in me, and enjoyed being able to use music as an external displacement/disassociation  training method rather than the internalisation/association techniques that are the stock of endurance athletes (where you go inside yourself to monitor your body’s performance rather than diverting attention into things like music).

While rowing two years ago I felt a twinge in my hip. I rested for a week, then resumed, only for the twinge to come back, this time a bit more sharply. Over the course of the next months that twinge turned into a constant sharp pain in my left side. It eventually started to affect my gait, as it became difficult to walk uphill or downhill (particularly the latter). I eventually stopped gong to the pool, not because I could not swim but because the walk from the parking lot was too painful and I was too unsteady on my feet on the damp surfaces of the pool decks and changing rooms.

Based on what I described, my GP prescribed industrial strength ibuprofen and paracetamol, but that only dulled the pain. Eventually, I had to stop trying to exercise as inevitably something would tweak and I would be immobilized for days. The more I was unable to exercise the more I put on weight while my legs atrophied. It was a vicious circle.

A few weeks before leaving to the US last July and at the insistence of my wife I told the GP that I was in fact barely mobile because of the hip pain. She ran some basic tests and said something to the effect of “your hip is munted.” The trouble was that my family and I were leaving on a five month sabbatical to the US and so there was nothing that could be done until we got back to NZ other than to eat painkillers. And so I did.

What I did not anticipate was that I would continue to deteriorate exponentially. I was walking with difficulty when we arrived at our place in Florida. A month later, when we moved to Boston, I could barely walk two blocks without having to stop and rest. A month into the Boston stay I couldn’t walk more than 100 meters, and a month after that I could not go even 20 meters without having to stop and do pain management. My wife bought me a walking cane and I began to use it. It was not enough.

All the meticulous planning for the division of labour while we were in Boston, where I was the designated support person, evaporated once we got there. I could not use pubic transport to shoulder my responsibilities as the primary caregiver, since even with the cane I could not get to the nearest bus stop in order to take the kid to the twice weekly pre-school we enrolled him in. Nor could I shop at the local grocery without assistance from strangers. By the time we left Boston I could not push a mop without having to take multiple breaks. That left everything in terms of domestic chores to the person who was there to do research and write, and that was not me. My physical condition became, and is, a family problem.

As part of the sabbatical we had a number of pre-booked domestic flights to take (we wound up taking 10 flights and spending 51 hours in the air during that trip).  By mid-October I could no longer walk through airport terminals even with the cane and started having to be wheeled from the check-in counters to the gates. Not only did I find that humiliating and a tremendous burden on my wife and four year old, but I discovered that many people simply do not see or dislike disabled folk and consider them nuisances or obstacles in their way. Making inter-terminal and rental car transfers were a nightmare, and contrary to popular belief, not all of my wheelchair bound passage was expedited by the TSA security people. Sometimes I got waved through, sometimes I was made to stand and go through the regular screening process, sometimes it was a little bit of both.

It was heartbreaking to see my old US friend’s faces when they set eyes upon me. The had images of me in my “prime,” and instead they got a hobbled shell of the guy that used to be. Although mellowed by experience, I still have the same persona, the same ideas, the same outlook on life as twenty or even thirty years ago, but the shell is not the same. It pained me to see how distressed my old friends were at the sight of me bent over on a cane at their doorsteps.

In December I presented myself to NZ Immigration in a airline-supplied wheelchair with a grumpy kid and a heavily backpack laden, sleep deprived Mom in tow. The arrangement with Air NZ, as far as I can tell,  is that they wheel people to the arrivals terminal greeting space. After that things are by private arrangement, including disposition of the the service chair in parking lots.

By the time we came back to NZ the hip pain had spread to the other side and lower back (it turns out that is typical of “end state” hip osteoarthritis). The day after we got back I saw my GP, who referred me for X-rays the next week. They showed that my left hip has no cartilage left and is bone-on-bone with spurs growing in the joint. The right hip is half as bad. Armed with that information, I was referred to a hip replacement specialist. I am now scheduled to have hip replacement surgery sometime in the next month or so.

When I saw the orthopaedic surgeon in early February the pain was constant and continues through the night. I was prescribed Tramadol, which again dulls but does not eliminate the pain even when taken in combination with other non-opioid pain relief. The hip is now structurally failing at inopportune times such as stepping from the porch to the footpath leading to the garage, to which can be added regular knee buckling when I overcompensate by putting most of my (over) weight on my right side.

There is no getting around the pain and structural failures. Consequently, we have curtailed our social activities away from home because I have great difficulty in accessing venues, and even disabled parking places are often too far from the destination for me to walk without stopping or assistance (I have a temporary disabled placard for the car, something that has introduced me to the special type of lowlife known as the able-bodied disabled parking space squatter). I try to avoid too many trips to the kitchen or bathroom because it hurts to get up and do the short walk to them. In effect, I am trapped in my body and pretty much homebound, using the car as wheelchair, the cane as a prop and relying on family and friends to help with simple chores. That sucks.

The real issue and the point of this post is pain. Pain robs one of the joy of life and even, after a while, of the will to live. Pain makes one timid, fearful that the next step will bring more injury and worse pain. Pain makes one irritable and short-tempered for no apparent reason. My ever patient and long suffering wife says that my smile is more often a wince these days. Pain makes one cynical, gloomy and pessimistic. Pain is an energy-sapping, tupor-inducing drain on life. It robs personality spark and it cripples spirit. If it cannot be stopped by medical intervention, it invites remedy by other means. Ever-present, pain is an all-encompassing, quality of life-ruining curse.

It ruins lives in many ways. I find myself getting short with my four year old when he is just being a kid and snap at my wife over silly or minor things. I increasingly dislike noise. I am mean-spirited more often than not. I feel envious of the able-bodied and am frustrated that I cannot chase my boy around the paddock or no longer do some funky chicken dance with him to the tune of the old roundtable or Mom’s CDs. The sum effect is to sink into a funk, although I am lucky in that I, for reasons known only to the goddess, have more of an optimistic than depressive personality.  But that does not mean that I am fun to live with in my current state. Because I, my friends, am a grumpy old man.

Hopefully all of that will end once I have the hip emplacement surgery. I am relatively young and am told that the pain goes away immediately, and that after the physical rehabilitation work I should be back to near-normal (that is, no more Ironman but I will be able to throw and kick balls with the kid and yes, trot after him when doing so). I sure hope so, and hope is my friend at this point.

But for others not as fortunate as me, hope may not be enough or no longer be possible. So please spare a thought for grumpy old men and women. Be it as a result of sports injuries, hard physical labour, chronic illness or accidents, many senior people are not irritable by choice. They too, are products of their pasts and they too are trapped in bodies that bear the physical consequences of lives spent in something other than splendorous leisure. Showing them empathy and compassion may not take away their pain, but it will at least show them that you share the understanding of what it does to them.

That is the best palliative of all.

In the US, what is needed is a Broad Front.

datePosted on 11:03, February 20th, 2018 by Pablo

The mass murder of 17 high school students and teachers in Florida at the hands of a deranged gunman has once again prompted public outcry about the need for better gun control in a country where gun-related violence is at epidemic levels. Foremost amongst those leading the charge for legislative reform in and around the 2nd amendment are teenagers, led by classmates of those killed and supported by a legion of kids nation-wide who have decided that they will do what their parents could or would not do: confront the National Rifle Association and the politicians in its pocket on the issue of who should have access to firearms, and which firearms should be made legally available to the citizenry.

Sadly, noble intentions notwithstanding, I fear that their efforts may be in vain and the movement will whither and die before any significant change can be made. Think of it this way. In this instance we have a mentally ill teenager kill other teenagers and staff at his former school. Teenagers are largely good if difficult to deal with, but there are enough of them (such as the killer) who push the boundaries of acceptable social convention for nothing more than self absorbed thrills. So one could say that not all of them are the precious flowers they are now being made out to be and that the loss of some teenagers (even if not these), while tragic, does not actually represent a complete waste of untapped human potential. I do not mean to be insensitive or cruel, but instead am trying to put things into context.

Because there are those other incidents to consider. For example, what about Sandy Hook? There 20 primary school kids were murdered along with six staff. These were little kids, still innocent, still wondrous, still untouched and untainted by the distractions of teenage life and attractions of the adult world. And yet, even as then president Obama tried to get the Republican controlled Congress to do something when it came to mentally ill people having legal access to semi-automatic weapons, nothing–as in zero–got done. A movement in their memory was started and yet it failed to gain wide-spread traction across the country. Little kids–precious, innocent kids– were murdered and nothing was done. So why do we think that the deaths of some teenagers will suddenly change the terms of any national discussion about guns?

I suggest that it will not change unless the teenage #NeverAgain movement joins forces with other social movements in what can be called a Broad Front (or, as the Maoists used to say in its original incarnation, “United Front”). The objective is to join together otherwise seemingly disparate groups in common cause. That is because if the #NeverAgain crowd go it alone they can be isolated and divided from, if not against, other mass based collective actors seeking systemic and institutional reform. This type of stove-piping or siloing makes divide and conquer tactics on the part of the status quo easier to accomplish, especially when the teenagers in question are not monolithic on the subject of gun control and may not have the type of national reach that they aspire to (say, for example, amongst adolescents in North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia or Wyoming, where the gun and hunting culture is ideologically hegemonic).

Instead, what the kids in the #NeverAgain movement need to do is establish links with groups such as Black Lives Matter, the #TakeaKnee anthem protesters, the Women’s March on Washington, LGBT groups, unions and professional associations (including those that represent professional athletes, musicians and other artists), student governments, Hispanic, Arab, African-American, Asian and other identity organisations, religious entities, political organisations, pacifists and peace advocates, medical and psychiatric associations and lobbying groups, chambers of commerce, even local governments. The common cause is rejection of the existing gun culture and the agents of death that represent it in politics, to include the NRA and the media types and politicians who parrot its lines. The Broad Front can then rally around a few simple, good sense-based propositions regarding the who/how/what and whens of gun ownership in a diverse and democratic (as of yet) society. The unifying thread in both facets is the belief that the mental, physical and social costs of the current gun ownership regime far outweigh whatever benefit it may have in terms of personal and collective safety, and that since most of the costs are paid by taxpayers while the benefits are accrued by weapons manufacturers and dealers, the interest groups that represent them and some individuals rather than society as a whole, the current gun culture is reactive rather than proactive in its approach to commonweal costs and biased in favour of death merchants rather than children.

Interestingly, there is a parallel and example provided by the Argentine “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) movement that emerged from the ashes of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s and which grouped a wide swathe of organisations in the effort to find justice for those victimised by the junta and to put an end to the culture of impunity that led to the so-called “dirty war” in which so many innocent lives were lost. In name and in broader intent, this is exactly what the English hashtag eponym movement is all about.

Organizing a Broad Front around the #NeverAgain movement will be hard to do but that is what collective action is all about–organizing people by making them think outside of their own personal circumstances and in terms of the collective good. For the #NeverAgain movement there has to be a conscious, deliberate and systematic effort to reach out and establish horizontal solidarity ties with other mass-based organisations and collective agents with agendas for change. There are few subjects that can unite a wide array of ideologically diverse and often narrowly-defined interest and activist groups in a heterogeneous society such as that of the US, but if there is one that can do so, it is the issue of gun control.

And a Broad Front can be made from that.

Peddling drivel.

datePosted on 12:05, February 10th, 2018 by Pablo

As an admirer of the eloquent written word and nuanced argument, occasional op-ed writer and someone who grew up reading the editorial pages of major newspapers in several countries, I have long seen the editorial pages of newspapers as places where public intellectuals debated in some depth the major issues of the day. Those who appeared on them came from many walks of life and fields of endeavour, with the common denominator being that they were thoughtful exponents of their point of view and grounded in the analytic, philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the subjects that they discussed. Unfortunately, at least in NZ, that is no longer the case (if it ever was).

Over the last decade or so there has been a pernicious two-track trend in NZ media that has not only resulted in the dumbing down of the “news” and public discourse in general, but the substitution of informed and considered debate by shallow opinionating by celebrities and charlatans.

The first trend is the move toward consolidation of media “empires” (in NZ, mostly Australian owned), in which previously autonomous entities in television, radio and print are amalgamated into one parent entity with several platforms. As with all media enterprises, the parent entity seeks profit mainly through advertising (as opposed to subscriptions), including digital advertising promoted by so-called “click bait” and sponsored “news ” (i.e. stories paid by entities seeking brand publicity). In NZ the two big players are Mediaworks and NZME. The former controls TV3, Radiolive and various pop culture radio stations. NZME controls Newstalk ZB, the NZ Herald and various pop culture outlets. It has connections to TV One (at least when it comes to newsreaders), while the Mediaworks TV News platforms appears to episodically share personnel with Prime News. Fairfax Media is also in the mix, holding a portfolio of print and digital vehicles.

Because the NZ media market is small and saturated, the “race to the bottom” logic for getting readers/viewers/listeners in a shrinking print advertising market is akin to the “bums in seats” mentality that pushes academic administrators to demand easing up of marking standards in university courses. Although in the latter instance this creates a syndrome where unqualified people are admitted, passed and receive underserved (and hence meaningless) degrees, in the media realm this means that scandal, gossip, “human interest” and other types of salacious, morbid, tragic and otherwise crude and vulgar material (think of terrorism porn and other prurient non-news) have come to dominate the so-called news cycle. This is accelerated by the presence elf social media and 24 hours global news networks, which makes the push for original content that attracts audiences and therefore advertising revenues increasingly focused on sensational headline grabbing rather than in-depth consideration of complex themes. Among other things, this has led to headlines that trivialise serious matters in favour of witty one-liners, e.g., “kiddie fiddler put in time out.”

In the editorial opinion field what we are increasingly subject to is the often inane and mendacious ruminations of celebrities, “lifestyle’ gurus  or media conglomerate “properties” who are used to cross-pollinate across platforms using their status on one to heighten interest in another. That squeezes out op-ed room for serious people discussing subjects within their fields of expertise. What results is that what should be the most august pages in a newspaper are given over to gossipy nonsense and superficial “analyses” of current events.

Consider what we get these days: two NZME “properties,” a married couple who do back-to-back morning shows on NewstalkZB (and previously worked at TV One), are now filling daily column inches (at least in the digital version) at the Herald with their thoughts on things such as high housing prices  and deporting families (he thinks the former is good because it means that everyone is doing well and the latter is good because to do otherwise is to “send the wrong message”) or relations between school students and displaying breasts in public (she thinks the former are good but the latter bring consequences). Given their ubiquity this “power” couple apparently are renaissance-like in their command of subjects and thus worth the daily attention of the masses, although it is also clear that their views only cover already established news stories and are presented along strictly gender lines–he addresses “serious” issues while she covers topics usually found in women’s rags. The Herald also offers us the received (and sponsored) wisdom of lifestyle bloggers  (“how to have the best sex at 60!”) and buffoons such as the U Auckland business lecturer who poses as a counter-terrorism expert (she of the advice that we search every one’s bags as the enter NZ shopping malls and put concrete bollards in front of mall entrances), gives cutesy pie names to the (often sponsored) by-lines of real scientists (the so-called “Nanogirl,” who now comments on subjects unrelated to her fields of expertise) or allows people with zero practical experience in any given field to pontificate on them as if they did (like the law professor who has transformed himself into a media counter-terrorism and foreign policy “expert”).

Fairfax is less prolific in its use of “properties” to sell product, but instead have opted to fill newspaper space with lifestyle and other “fluff” content at the expense of hard news coverage and informed editorial opinion.

The pattern of giving TV newsreaders, radio talking heads and assorted media “personalities”  column inches on the newspaper op ed pages has been around for a while but now appears to be the dominant form of commentary. Let us be clear: the media conglomerates want us to believe that the likes of Hoskings and Hawkesby are public intellectuals rather than opinionated mynahs–or does anyone still believe that there is an original thought between them? The only other plausible explanation is that the daily belching of these two and other similar personages across media platforms is an elaborate piss-take on the part of media overlords that have utter contempt for the public’s intelligence.

The trend of consolidating and regurgitating extends to the news. Most of the international news stories on NZ newspapers, TV and radio are obtained from overseas sources, particularly media outlets owned by the Australian based investment funds that control Fairfax, NZME and Mediaworks. There are few international correspondents left in the NZ media scene other than “properties” who share views on multimedia platforms such as the single “news” correspondents assigned by NZME to the US, UK and Australia. Some independent NZ-based foreign news correspondents still appear in print, but there too they are the exception to the rule.

The evening TV news and weekend public affairs shows are still run as journalistic enterprises, but the morning and evening public affairs programs are no longer close to being so. “Human interest” (read: tabloid trash) stories predominate over serious subjects. The Mediaworks platforms are particularly egregious, with the morning program looking like it was pulled out of a Miami Vice discard yard and staffed by two long-time newsreaders joined by a misogynistic barking fool, all wearing pancake makeup that borders on clownish in effect. Its rival on state television has grown softer over the years, to the point that in its latest incarnation it has given up on having its female lead come from a journalistic background and has her male counterparts engaging as much in banter as they are discussing the news of the day. The TV3 evening show features a pretty weathergirl and a slow-witted, unfunny comedian as part of their front-line ensemble, with a rotating cast of B-list celebrities, politicians and attention-seekers engaging in yuk yuk fests interspersed with episodic discussion of real news. Its competitor on TV One has been re-jigged but in recent years has been the domain of–you guessed it–that NZME male radio personality and an amicable NZME female counterpart, something that continues with its new lineup where a male rock radio jock/media prankster has joined a well-known TV mother figure to discuss whatever was in the headlines the previous morning. What is noteworthy is that these shows showcase the editorial opinions of the “properties” on display, leaving little room for and no right of rebuttal to those who have actual knowledge of the subjects in question.

These media “properties” are paid by the parent companies no matter what they do. Non-affiliated people who submit op ed pieces to newspapers are regularly told that there is no pay for their publication (or are made to jump through hoops to secure payment).  That means that the opinion pages  are dominated by salaried media personalities or people who will share their opinions for free. This was not always the case, with payments for opinion pieces being a global industry norm. But in the current media environment “brand” exposure is said to suffice as reward for getting published, something that pushes attention-seekers to the fore while sidelining thoughtful minds interested in contributing to public debate but uninterested in doing so for nothing. The same applies to television and radio–if one is not a “property,” it is virtually impossible to convince stations to pay for informed commentary.

To be sure, the occasional “deep thinker” comes along to share their ideas and opinions in print or audio-visually. Some, like good ole Chris Trotter, still pound their keyboards and pontificate on radio and television for a handful of coin. There is even some young talent coming through. Blogs have begun to substitute the corporate media as sources of intelligent conversation. But people of erudition and depth are increasingly the exception to the rule in the mass media, with the  editorial landscape now populated in its majority by “properties” and other (often self-promoting) personality “opinionators” rather than people who truly know what they are talking about. Rather than a sounding board for an eclectic lineup of informed opinion, editorial pages are now increasingly used as megaphones to broadcast predictably well-known ideological positions with little intellectual grounding in the subjects being discussed.

With over-enrolled journalism schools churning out dozens of graduates yearly, that leaves little entry room and few career options for serious reporters. The rush is on to be telegenic and glib, so the trend looks set to continue.

This is not just an indictment of the mass media and those who run and profit from it. It undermines the ability of an educated population to make informed decisions on matters of public import, or at least have informed input into the critical issues of the day.

Perhaps that is exactly what the media and political elites intend.

Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

datePosted on 07:34, January 5th, 2018 by Pablo

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

A matter of insubordination and contempt.

datePosted on 14:00, December 22nd, 2017 by Pablo

In her latest annual report, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) Cheryl Gwyn detailed that the NZSIS unlawfully collected Customs data on thousands of travellers from 1997-2016. This bulk collection was not done under warrant and was instead done on industrial scale: anyone who passed through New Zealand ports of entry during this time period can assume that their personal data was “harvested” by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) for its own purposes. Current NZSIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge defended the practice as a necessary part of fighting terrorism (which presumes that SIS concern with terrorism started in 1997 if her claim is correct) and maintains that legal advice at the time made the SIS believe that the practice of bulk collection was lawful. Think about that–warrantless indiscriminate collection of the personal information about thousands of people was deemed, if we are to believe the Director, lawful by the best in-house legal minds within the NZSIS. This happened even though the NZSIS Act was revised several times during the time in which the unlawful bulk collection occurred, so it is clear that when it came to warrantless access of traveler’s personal information, be they citizens, visitors, immigrants or officials, the senior staff in the agency thought that it was fair game–or at least thought that they could get away with it. One gets the impression that this is the same legal team that thought it was lawful for the GCSB to spy on Kim Dotcom after he gained permanent residency–a practice clearly prohibited in the GCSB Act in force at the time of the illegal wire-tapping. Perhaps it is time for these legal geniuses to step down.

IGIS Gwyn also noted that the NZSIS refused to cooperate, impeded and/or raised obstacles to her search for primary documents related to the unlawful monitoring of travellers as well as on other issues. Let’s be clear on this: New Zealand’s primary human intelligence agency deliberately impeded the work of the main oversight officer to which it is responsible. This, in spite of legal requirements to do so. The answer to this contempt for their statutory obligations may rest in the fact that under the current SIS Act the maximum penalty levied on the NZSIS for unlawful acts (of which obstruction is one) is NZ$5000–payable by the agency, not the individuals who authorised the unlawful acts or who refused to cooperate with the IG’s requests.

Although I find it very hard to believe, let us assume that SIS managers who authorised the mass tapping of Customs data were doing so in good faith while under the impression that the practice was lawful. If that is the case, they should be reprimanded and counselled on their statutory obligations. But those who obstructed or impeded the IGIS’s work need to be fired. In fact, if they are not, then Director Kitteridge needs to either resign or herself be dismissed. That task falls to Andrew Little, the Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security. Yet, although he has made some noises to the effect that he expects the agency to comply with IGIS requests, he has made no moves to punish those responsible for this blatant disregard for and defiance of the intelligence oversight process.

It is now abundantly clear that even though the IGIS is better funded and staffed and has better powers of proactive as well as post facto investigative authority (ostensibly including the powers of legal compulsion) than her predecessors, her office remains effectively marginal, if not subordinate to the bureaucratic logics internal to the agencies she oversees. These logics are founded on a deliberate opaqueness when it comes to transparency and statutory compliance and a deeply ingrained disregard for external advice, scrutiny or oversight. The old boys club will do as it sees fit to do regardless of the arrows slung by nosy outsiders. They are the gatekeepers and guardians of the secrets, and it is they who decide what is proper and what is not when it comes to legality and oversight adherence. Perhaps in this particular case the SIS managers do not like Ms. Gwyn or her somewhat unconventional career path on the way to becoming IGIS, but even if that is true their personal feelings have no place impeding the effective discharge of her duties.

The problem of ineffectual oversight of the NZ intelligence community (NZIC) highlighted by the IGIS’s frustrations with SIS obstructionism is rooted in a bureaucratic culture of impunity within the SIS and GCSB and in the lack of strong parliamentary oversight. The Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) remains a highly partisan paper tiger devoid of real compulsion or enforcement authority. For their part ministers responsible for intelligence and security such as Andrew Little are all to often reluctant to confront spies about their excesses, when not prone to “bureaucratic capture” by them (a situation where an ostensible overseer becomes captivated by the logics and rationales of  subordinates with specialised expertise in a given policy field, leading to a lack of critical appraisal and independent review of actions taken in that field). Some of this may be due to the history of politicization that surrounds the SIS, which often appears to serve the government of the day rather than the common interest (in which case Mr. Little’s soft response has a politically opportunistic basis). But most of the oversight failures when it comes to the NZIC is grounded in the lack of effective and enforceable legal authority granted to the IGIS and the SCIS.

The only answer to this culture of insubordination and contempt within the NZIC, in this case specifically the SIS, is to hold individuals legally accountable for their actions. For example, rather than levy paltry fines on the SIS for its unlawful activities, the fines should be increased 20 fold and levied against the individuals who either knowingly ordered the illegal project(s) and/or who deliberately obstructed, concealed, tampered with or otherwise impeded the IGIS investigation into their activities. Likewise, the SCIS needs to become a dedicated organ of Parliament with its own professional staff and dedicated funding so that it can be come an independent research and investigatory arm answerable but not subordinate to the government of the day. The political appointments at the top could remain as stands (five members, the PM and two members nominated by him/her plus the Leader of the Opposition and his/her one nominee). Or it could be revised to include leaders of parties who reach a significant electoral threshold (say, ten percent of the popular vote). Either way, the SCIS should be provided powers of compulsion under oath, arrest and other means of legal enforcement of its oversight mandate so that the NZIC understands that it answers to the people of Aotearoa via elected officials as well as the IGIS, not the other way around.

The new Labour government has a golden opportunity to promote effective reform of the NZIC armed with the justification provided by Gwyn’s report on the SIS. Much like rot, there is a culture of contempt as well as impunity amongst at least some senior staffers in the NZIC that needs to be extirpated and replaced by those who understand that in a democracy it is not the spies who determine what is lawful and what is not (or for that matter, what is secret and what is not), but instead it is the specialized oversight agencies entrusted by the people and grounded in law (such as when it comes to definitions of national security threats) who do so. But for that to be the case, the oversight agencies and mechanisms need teeth, and it is exactly that which continues to be missing from the current oversight scheme.

Goodbye to a good soul.

datePosted on 04:44, December 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

Yasmine Ryan died this past week in Istanbul. She was only 34. She was an intrepid, dedicated, courageous and honest journalist, someone who unlike so many others vying for attention in the New Zealand media landscape, went out and did the type of serious investigative reporting that is now all but absent in her country of birth. Her death is not only a loss to her family and friends. It is a loss to the journalistic profession as well as New Zealand’s reputation for providing impartial perspectives on matters of political and social import world-wide.

Yasmine was a student of mine when we were at the University of Auckland. She went on to work at Scoop here in NZ, then Al-Jazeera and other outlets in the Middle East. Before her death she was working for TRT World, the Turkish international television news service. Her articles appeared in many important publications, including the Guardian, Independent, Sunday Star Times, Washington Post, LA Times, New York Times, Middle East Eye and Foreign Policy, and she was a contributor to outlets such as CNN, CBC, NZ National Radio and NZ TV One News. She co-authored a book about the Ahmed Zaoui case in New Zealand, helped produce three documentaries on contemporary Arabic politics and society and was a 2016 World Press Institute Fellow in the US who most recently had been elected to the board of the International Association of Women in Television and Radio. Fluent in French and English and well versed in Arabic and Spanish, she lived in France, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia before her move to Turkey a little over a year ago.  She traveled exhaustively and had a global network of friends and professional contacts who are now left to mourn her loss and the void that she left behind.

Yasmine was and is a special inspiration to women entering the journalistic profession. Her desire was not to work her way up to talking head status on the local news by reporting on cats in trees and celebrity sightings. She was not interested in cozying up to politicians, yukking it up on breakfast shows and posing on red carpets at awards shows.  Instead, her focus was on providing an outlet for forgotten voices and views seldom aired in mainstream Western outlets, and to offer in-depth analysis of events and trends that often received no more than cursory coverage outside of the places in which they occurred. Endowed with great personal courage, she left the comfort of her homeland to become an freelancer in a region not known for its encouragement of independent women in that profession. Her writing about what became known as the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath cemented her reputation as a first-rate reporter in North Africa and the Middle East, and her subsequent work confirmed that she was an extraordinary talent even at such a young age. That makes her departure all the more difficult to understand.

A GiveaLittle page has been set up in her memory in order to help her family cover the expenses of returning her home. It can be found here. Please consider donating.

May your eternal rest be a peaceful one my friend. You made a difference.

123... 161718Next