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Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

datePosted on 01:38, May 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.

First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?  The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.

But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.

He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.

Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.

Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.

Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.

And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.

Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?

Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?  Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.

And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.  As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.

Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.

Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”

They have to want it as much as you do.*

datePosted on 06:51, April 27th, 2010 by Pablo

I spoke with an old Pentagon friend today (a person with whom I shared strategic planning duties in a specific area of concern, and who went on to far greater things than me), relating to him my early observations about Greece in crisis. I mentioned that the Greeks, who have a public sector that dwarfs the private sector, in which the public sector average wage is far above that of the private sector, have a huge sense of collective entitlement and natural rights. For example, university students (as public entitles) are currently demonstrating daily against proposed cuts in their free lunch and bus pass benefits, but not at the university. Instead, they disrupt downtown traffic. Tomorrow the seafarers, bus drivers and railway workers go on a 12 hour strike to protest wage freezes or labour market infringement  (the train and bus workers are public servants facing wage freezes and the seafarers are striking to protest non-EU ships being allowed berthing rights in Greek ports. Their combined walkout will paralyze the transportation network for 8 hours ). 

But media coverage of the issues is somewhat odd. Rather than look inward, the popular press is full of anti-German rants because the Germans will determine the conditions of the Greek debt bailout (which only delays the inevitable default), and the conditions imposed by the Germans (as majority holders of Greek debt) are considered to be the reasons why Greek workers will not get their entitled, perfunctory raises.  All the while  life goes on–the cafes and supermarkets are full, people crowd the trains, there are few demonstrations outside downtown. People do not appear to connect the impending default to their lifestyle.

Usually wages are tied to productivity, which means that if the public service is well paid it is also efficient (such as in Singapore). But in Greece it is not. From what I have observed and what my Greek interlocutors have told me, nothing gets done or it is waste of time to demand action. For example, on Saturday an illegal gypsy market spung up on the street outside our apartment building. It closed the street to vehicular traffic and vendors camped out on the apartment footsteps. The neighbours shut the front entrance doorway, which is usually propped open, out of fear of robbery. I asked my landlord if that was commonplace and she said that yes, although illegal the gyspy market had run for years because neighbours had zero success in complaining and bribes may have been paid for the authorities to look the other way (which indeed they did–I saw not a single cop during the entire afternoon the market was running).  In other words, Greek public service is as much a hindrance as a help to civil society, hence the proliferation of grey and black market activity. The curious thing is that this situation is tolerated by both of the dominant Greek parties, respectively left and right centre as they may be, because public sector employment and benefits is a common source of patronage and clientilism. Neither one wants to upset that apple cart (even if the latter is foreign debt-bought and effectively owned). 

Mind you, not that all Greek public services stink. When compared to the Auckland raillway system, for example, the Athenian Metro is stellar. There are few delays on the six inter city lines, complete integration with buses and suburban rail lines, and close integration with ferry and airport schedules. The only visible problem, from my non-expert viewpoint, is that there appears to be way too many people (or too little, depending on the station) doing nothing in pursuit of this goal. Then again, I tried the Henderson-Auckland (before and after Britomart) route for years, before and after it was privatised,  and the public-controlled Athens Metro system has it beat by a country mile.

Not that the Greek private sector is a beacon of innovation and entrepeneurship. To the contrary, it is mostly low skilled small holdings with no growth or technological ambition (think butchers, cosmetic vendors and locksmiths), and the political-economic elite (they are the same, crossing familial ties in many instances) in this rigid two party system have no interest in promoting the sort of capitalist ambition that would erode their joint lock on power. Cuba is similar in this regard, because in both cases oligarchic control supplants popular innovation as the motor of progress and majority consent is bought with public sector employment (not that I am drawing a direct line between the two regimes as a whole).

Which is to say, Greek economic backwardness is cultural, contrived and perpetuated by the Greek status quo. The elite see no need to change because deficit spending is a double edged sword, as many US banks found out to their dismay. Deficit-laden countries intimately locked into the European financial system such as Greece will not be allowed to collapse  becuase if they do the financial run is on given that Spain, Portugal and Ireland are all in the same predicament–too much debt, too little ability to pay within IMF/ECB guidlelines.  Hence, Greece may default, but it will not be allowed to financially collapse if for no other reasons than that the repercussions would be catastrophic on the European banking system itself.

Which is where my fomer Pentagon friend comes in. I noted to him that the problem with EU expansion is that the leading EU economies, France and Germany, viewed EU monetary expansion into Southern and Eastern Europe as a development project in which the lagging peripheral economies would be modernised by virtue of their connection with the European core (first via labour-intensive investment, then by value added industrial growth). The Euro giants emulated the US when it engaged Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s under the rubric of modernisation theory: just expose the backward masses to a little capitalist entrepenurialism and all will eventually be right.

Err…wrong.  As my friend noted, the locals have to want the change as much as we/you (external agents) do. And that is a cultural issue more than anything else. 

Developmentalist views such as that of the EU and US ignore the cultural component of investment climates. National preferences are different, cultural mores vary, and collective notions of rights and entitlements are not transferable across borders. The Germans and French may have thought that lending money to Greece to fund the Olympics would promote its modernisation, but like the Yanks in Latin America, they failed to understand that Greek culture–what it means to be Greek–supercedes any IMF/European Central Bank prescriptions. Hosting the Olympics was temporary; to be Greek is forever, and that is not reducible to a current deficit repayment schedule. To the contrary. It is reducible to notions of rights and entitlements crafted over milleniua and mytholoigised as such. That bottom line is not within an IMF  or European Central Bank purview.

Which is why my friend Ray’s point is well taken: an external actor can only help as much as the locals want to help themselves. There is no point in offering assistance and prescriptions if the locals do not see the need to change. Absent a local consensus on the need for change (which can be influenced by externally driven media manipulation but which ultimately has to resonate in the hearts  of the citiznery) better then  for external actors to cut bait than to engage in futile hope that the local conditions will change.

In fact, the opposite may be true: the less a country is propped up by external actors and the more it is forced to look inside itself for solutions, then the more it may eventually address the root causes of its backwardness, decline or stagnation (New Zealand could well be a case in point). In any event, only after internal failure is acknowledged that external assistance will make a difference in Greece or elsewhere, and that difference is not material but attitudinal.

 According to my buddy, that fact is as true for Greece as it is for Somalia, Irag and Afghanistan, and in the latter instances, the stakes are arguably much greater. I disagree with his summary assessment as it applies to Afghanistan (as I believe that there is more at stake than local self-realisation), but cannot help but recognise the truth in his words. At the end of the day in this age, no matter the degree of previous exploitation and subserviance, the root problem of backwardness lies within. Or to put it in my friend’s terms, “if the locals do not want to do it, it aint gonna happen.”

There is truth in that view and no amount of good intentioned external help will resolve the fundamental issue.

*Update: For a jaded by humorous view of Greek politics check this out.

The EAB becomes the NAB.

datePosted on 19:03, March 19th, 2010 by Pablo

 It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.

The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM.  It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.

Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated

In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).

This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will  now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.

Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.

As some may remember, I have been in NZ on a mix of research and personal business (truth be told, I am in NZ accompanying my partner on her research leave. The title of this post is her idea, with a hat tip to Brian Easton). As part of my project on the security politics of peripheral democracies (which has NZ as a case study), I have been interviewing a cross-section of people involved in political life both in and outside the Wellington beltway: politicians, journalists, academicians, policy analysts, community and political activists, opinion-makers, bloggers (!) and a few very smart friends. Oh, and Lew (albeit informally, over a very enjoyable lunch). Some of those conversations were illuminating, some were lucid, some were disappointing and some, well, forgotten in the haze of a very good time.

Notwithstanding the fogginess of my recollection of a few of those conversations, one coherent theme has emerged. NZ’s so-called “number 8 wire attitude,” supposedly evidence of Kiwi pragmatism and resourcefulness, is actually the logical result of a chronic and perpetual lack of planning and an ex post, ad hoc approach to policy-making. One interlocutor phrased it as “policy by anecdote,” where politicians relate stories they have been told as proof that similar approaches elsewhere can work just fine in NZ (such as the repeated mention of Singapore as a developmental model for NZ because it is a small island economy, ignoring the obvious fact that it is authoritarian, stratified and in fact a state capitalist welfare state rather than a true market economy). Others simply noted a lack of vision, or a lack of reward for innovation. Some blamed the NZ character, others colonialism and imperialism, partisans blamed their opponents, analysts blamed the politicians, politicians blamed the analysts, journalists blamed the tabloidisation of news ….the range of explanations ran the gamut.

Be they on the political Left or Right, time and time again these keen observers of and participants in NZ politics and policy-making, some with storied histories of commentary and involvement in the debates of the last 25 years, noted that NZ political elites continually re-invent the wheel, adopt quick fix or knee-jerk responses and plaster solutions to concrete problems, and generally go with the cheapest option regardless of the complexities and repercussive consequences involved. There appears to be no full appreciation of the consequences of any given policy decision (including the shift to market economics and adoption of a nuclear-free status), and whatever sucess NZ has in the global arena is more a product of luck and chance (fortuna) rather than strategic planning and foresight (virtu). The current government is no exception and in fact is considered by this select crowd to be one of the shining examples of the syndrome.

In the view of these participant/observers, the situation is compounded by the lack of political and policy talent available. Beyond those who move overseas, the problem is generally seen as a product of the dunmbing down of political and historical knowledge in schools, media disinterest in anything other than scandal, risk-adverse cultures and abject mediocrity within the public bureaucracy, a gross lack of intellectual acuity and political nous on the parliamentary backbenches, and a general attitude of the part of both policy bureaucrats and politicians that “she’ll be right” regardless of what they do. That, and a loss of ethics, principle and integrity amongst the NZ elite in general.

I invite readers to ponder and comment on this. Given the range of people I have spoken to, this is not just the comments of a small group of disgruntled personalities. At another time I will reflect on what was specifically said about those people and agencies involved in security policy–that the MoD is less than useless, that the NZDF is a bastion of short-sightedness and political ignorance, that the NZSIS is a politicised, vengeful, incompetent cesspit, that the EAB is worthless and deservedly ignored, that the Police are as much a problem as they are a solution to domestic security issues, that the advice of all of these agencies and others are routinely ignored by the politicians in government at the moment–the list of grievances is long but the consensus amongst the consiglieri is strong: NZ needs a serious change in political and policy-making culture if it is going to really “punch above its weight” rather than simply muddle along–or be relegated to the lower tiers of democratic capitalist development within the next ten years.

Like a sexual addict, New Zealand has a dark obsession with free trade. The obsession may speak to a larger issue rather than the value of trade per se. That issue may be the pathology of NZ political-economic elites fantasising about trade benefits rather than the real benefits to their constituents.

 Whatever the case, the number of free trade agreements (FTAs) NZ has negotiated is high for a small democracy (9–bilaterals with the PRC, Australia,  Malaysia, Thailand,  Singapore and South Korea, multilaterals with the Transpacific Partnership (P4) with Brunei, Chile and Singapore, and with ASEAN/Australia, as well as a regional agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) grouping several Arabian peninsular states). It has negotiations underway with India and Hong Kong  (bilaterally), on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA),  and with Australia, the US, Vietnam and Peru on joining the P4 in an expanded TPP. Further FTA negotiations with ASEAN and other partners are ongoing. NZ is an ardent champion of the virtues of free (unprotected) trade and open commercial borders in international fora such as the WTO.  In other words, if this were a sex survey, New Zealand is  promiscuous in its  approach to free trade.

To further the analogy, the pursuit of free trade under the National government is the macroeconomic equivalent of cruising for sex. It focuses on the immediate satisfaction of new market penetration and commodity exchange rather than on the potentially negative consequences of the liaison. Phrased politely as foreign market opening and reciprocal investment, the thrust of NZ’s FTAs gives much less regard to the “after-entry” (or “morning after”) consequences of sequentially engaging multiple partners with different strategic objectives born of varying cultural backgrounds, governance, resource bases and historical legacies. There is, in a word, a lack of prophylaxis when it comes to NZ’s approach to free trade.

FTAs are essentially tariff reduction, currency, investment and border control agreements. They are commonly referred to as “market opening” pacts. The focus is on the conditions and terms of entry. Although consensual, oftentimes these are largely determined by the interests of larger, dominant partners, particularly in bilateral agreements. But multilateral FTAs are like group sex–there is more room for individual manuever within the general rules of engagement, but the group dynamic may force the weaker partners to submit to advances that they may normally prefer to avoid (to bring things back to the subject, such as on issues like unorganised child or wimin’s labour, or open pit mining in conservation zones).

In either event, less concern  is placed in the rush to secure new FTAs on the environmental, labor market, gender, immigration, indigenous and security implications of trade opening. These are considered to be secondary consequences that are best dealt with based upon local market conditions.  It is the terms of the initial engagement that matters, not the morning-after effects.

This is what makes the indiscriminate New Zealand approach to free trade all the more alarming. Of  its new partners, many are authoritarian and most are bigger in size, with larger and more variegated economies of scale. The terms of NZ’s engagement with such partners, while legally equal, often leave it in a subordinate position where it is forced to accept practices that are unacceptable or contrary to community standards at home. In fact, if the analogy holds, then many of the NZ’s trade partners should have name suppression, if only becauseof their authoritarianism and systematic abuse of human rights at home.

Nor is NZs penetration of foreign markets pain-free. As Fonterra has learned, after-entry issues in foreign markets such as product quality control are not inconsequential. In fact, as far as the brand is concerned, the after-entry consequences of rapid market opening can often be devastating.

It is not just the brand that can be damaged by the rush to market opening.  Scholars have already begun to point to the negative consequences for the environment, indigenious groups, and labour rights when FTAs are negotiated without regard to after-entry consequences. I am currently working on a book chapter that highlights the security implications of the above-mentioned expanded TPP, to include its criminal and military-strategic and intelligence flow-on effects. 

For NZ, the longer term situation is not good. For example, even though NZ has opened its borders to increased aviation and martime-borne tourism, it has not increased the number of MAF or Customs dog-handlers to handle the increased volumes of tourist traffic in places such as Rotorua, Tauranga and Opua (all of the environmental security and drugs searchers have to be driven from Auckland) even though the volume of imported commercial goods has increased exponentiallyas well. This leaves gaping holes in bio-security as well as in narcotics interdiction in commercial ports of entry (think of an increase of thousands of containers worth of commercial goods entering NZ per year without the ability to scrutinise even a quarter of them). Nor have Police, Immigration or Customs resources been increased with an eye towards countering organized crime using newly opened trade borders as conduits for a bit of market penetration of their own (note recent reports of Chinese students serving as drug couriers–the PRC is the main source of the precursor chemicals for the manufacture of P). In addition, lax financial regulations and corporate registration laws contribute to making NZ an increasingly attractive destination  for money laundering ventures and business fronts originating in Asia. Again, no thought has apprently been given to these types of issues when FTAs are negotiated. 

In spite of the clear dangers of unprotected free trade, here defined as FTAs without negotiated after-entry provisos, the National government, Labour, and most minor parties believe in the mantra that the rising tide of free trade raises all economic boats. But, to continue the physical analogy, such an unprotected surge of free trade also brings with it potentially unhealthy (some might say deviant)  after-entry consequences when it comes to the socio-economic fabric of NZ society. That is why prophylaxis is necessary at the point of negotiations, not later.

John Key and Tim Groser may think of themselves as “players” on the world trading scene,  but they may be cruising for commercial love in all the wrong places, at least in terms of their choice of partners and neglect of morning- after effects.  Ill-conceived and lacking in consideration of longer-term impact beyond short-term aggregate growth, such an approach downplays overall societal welfare in favour of commerical and political elite satisfaction.  That may be exciting for the latter, but like victims of a night on the town gone wrong, it has the potential to leave the NZ political economy battered, brusied, postrate, supine and hopeless in the face of the manipulations of trade partners who seemed nice at first and promised many things, but whose subsequent behaviour proved less noble.

PS: remember, this post is about the potential negative effects of free trade. I realise that the cruising/unprotected sex analogy is a bit over the top, but I could not resist given how postively orgasmic the Key government waxes about free trade (sorry!).

PPS: In Wellington now. Went from 26 degrees and 99% humidity in AK to horizontal drizzle and wind at 15 degrees. Not quite dressed for it coming from my SE Asian redoubt. Looking forward to meeting Lew and (hopefully) seeing Anita again.

A Note on Progressive Praxis in Aotearoa

datePosted on 18:15, December 12th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent debates engaged here and elsewhere on the “proper” course to be taken by NZ Left/progressive politics has given me pause to think about the larger issue of Left/progressive praxis in a country such as this. I am on record as defending the class line-first approach, whereas Lew has quite eloquently expressed the primacy of identity politics (and, it should be noted, I am not as hostile to Lew’s line of thought as some of his other critics). But I do not think that the debate covered the entirety of the subject of Left/progressive praxis, and in fact may have detracted from it.  Thus what follows is a sketch of my view of how Left/progressive praxis needs to be pursued in Aotearoa.

First, let’s set the stage. NZ is dominated by market-driven ideologies. In its social, cultural, political and economic expression, capitalism is the primary and undisputed organising principle. Counter-ideological resistance can be found in all of these domains, but the supremacy of capitalism as a social construct is clear. Even so, when compared with the 1990s, this supremacy is not as unshakable. The global financial crisis, corporate greed, predatory lending, financial market manipulation and fraud, increasing income disparities, assorted mendacious acts of venality and corruption have all contributed to a decline in the ideological legitimacy of market-driven logics, including those espoused by its political representatives. That provides a window of opportunity for Left/progressives, even if their traditional sources of strength in the union movement are no longer capable of exercising decisive leadership of a counter-hegemonic sort. Hence the need for a different type of praxis.

The Left/progressive cause needs to be organized into two branches: a political branch and a social movement branch. In turn, each branch needs to be divided into militant and moderate wings. The political branch would encompass Left/progressive political parties such as the Greens and the Alliance as well as fringe parties willing to cooperate in a common venture such as the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like. Because Labour is no longer a genuine Left Party, its inclusion is problematic, but it is possible that its leftist cadres could be invited to participate. The idea is to form a genuine Left/progressive political coalition that serves as a political pressure group on the mainstream parties while offering real counter-hegemonic alternatives to voters in selected districts. One can envision a Left coalition banner running slates in targeted districts with strong subaltern/subordinate group demographics. The idea is to present a Left/progressive alternative to the status quo that, at a minimum, pressures Labour out of its complacency and conformity with the pro-market status quo. At a maximum it will siphon disaffected voters away from Labour and into a genuine Left/progressive political alternative. This may be hard to do, but it is not impossible if properly conceived and executed.

In parallel, the social movement branch should encompass the now somewhat disparate assortment of environmental, union, animal welfare, indigenous rights, GBLT rights and other advocacy groups under the banner of common cause and reciprocal solidarity. The unifying pledge would be that of mutual support and advocacy. It goes without saying that the political and social movement branches will have areas of overlap in the guise of individuals with feet in each camp, but their strategic goals will be different, as will be their tactics. But each would support the other: the social movement branch would endorse and actively Left/progressive candidates and policy platforms; the Left/progressive political branch would support the social movement causes. This mutual commitment would be the basis for formal ties between and within each branch. 

That brings up the moderate-militant wings. Each branch needs to have  both moderate and militant cadres if they are to be effective in pursuing a common agenda. The moderate wings are those that appear “reasonable” to bourgeois society, and who engage their politics within the institutional confines of the bourgeois state. The militant wings, on the other hand, are committed to direct action that transgresses established institutional boundaries and mores. Since this involves transgressing against criminal as civil law (even if non-violent civil disobedience such as the Plowshares action against the Echelon listening post in Blenheim), the use of small group/cell tactics rooted in autonomous decentralized acts and operational secrecy are paramount for survival and success.  The need for militancy is simple: it is a hedge against co-optation. Political and social militants keep their moderate brethren honest, which in turn allows the moderate wings to exploit the political space opened by militant direct action to pursue an incremental gains agenda in both spheres.

For this type of praxis to work, the key issues are those of organization and contingent compromise. Endongeonously, all interested parties in each branch will have to be capable of organizational unity, which means that principle/agent issues need to resolved in pursuit of coherent collective action, presumably in ways that forestall the emergence of the iron law of oligarchy that permits vanguardist tendencies to predominate. There are enough grassroots leaders and dedicated organisers already operating in the NZ milieu. The question is whether they can put aside their personal positions and parochial concerns in the interest of broader gains. That means that exogenously, these actors will need to find common ground for a unified platform that allows for reciprocal solidarity without the all-to-common ideological and tactical hair-splitting that is the bane of Left/progressive politics. The compromise between the political and social movement branches is contingent on their mutual support, but is designed to prevent co-optation of one by the other (such as what has traditionally tended to occur). If that can be achieved, then strategic unity between the political and social movement branches is possible, with strategic unity and tactical autonomy being the operational mantra for both moderate and militant wings.

On the face of things, all of this may sound quite simplistic and naive. After all it is only a sketch, and far be it for me, a non-citizen pontificating from my perch in authoritarian Asia, to tell Kiwi Left/progressives how to conduct their affairs. It may, in fact, be impossible to achieve given the disparate interests and personalities that would come into play, to say nothing of the resistance to such a project by the political status quo, Labour in particular. But the failures of Left/progressive praxis in NZ can be attributed just as much to its ideological and organizational disunity as it can be to the ideological supremacy and better organization of the Right. Moreover, Labour is in a position where it can no longer ignore groups that it has traditionally taken for granted, to include more militant union cadres who are fed up with being treated as corporate lapdogs and political eunuchs. Thus the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Left/progressive strategy and action, particularly since the NACTIONAL agenda is now being fully exposed in all of its profit-driven, privatization-obsessed glory. Perhaps then, it is a time for a series of Left/Progressive summits in which all interested parties can attempt to forge a common strategy of action. It may take time to hash out such a platform, but the political rewards of such an effort could be significant. After all, la union hace la fuerza: with unity comes strength.

The problem with spurious comparisons.

datePosted on 19:56, December 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

Reading the 2025 Taskforce recommendations as another exercise in comparative fantasising, I got to wondering yet again about why the NZ obsession with Australia, and why the constant comparisons with it. Part of my wonderment stems from the fact that those such as myself who have been trained in comparative political methodology simply do not see a valid basis for a comparison between OZ and NZ other than a shared language and ties to the UK. But Nigeria, Jamaica, Hong Kong and India can also claim those two similarities and no one thinks to compare them with OZ or NZ–or even with each other. So what is it with NZ’s constant penis envy about the continent to its West?

OZ is a mineral rich continent with 5 times the population size and well over ten times the landmass of NZ. It was settled by convicts who led generations of colonialists on a murderous campaign of indigenous cultural extermination. It has an atrocious record on race relations and endemic corruption in government, unions and business. It has a substantial manufacturing  base that now outweighs primary good experts as the mainstay of the economy. It is far more diverse in its post WW2 immigration (which has contributed to some of its race problems), far more conservative politics, an aggressive foreign security policy, allows nuclear weapons to be stored on its soil, and near catastrophic environmental problems caused by draught, over-mining, over-grazing and the cultivation of water-intensive crops. Australians disproportionately excel in a range of sports from swimming to surfing to soccer, with a little cricket, rugby and league thrown in for good measure. It is a federal republic with a bicameral national legislature. It is an aspiring middle power that seeks to be the regional hegemon serving as the US deputy sheriff in the SW Pacific. It has kept a a large welfare infrastructure intact as a cushion against the dislocations of market-oriented macroeconomic reform. It has Russell Crowe and AC/DC.

NZ is an archipelago nation more than 800 kilometers from its nearest neighbor. It has abundant water, forest and pasture. It was settled by preachers and sailors, some of whom entered into the indigenous food chain before a negotiated settlement was reached with the original inhabitants. Its climate is temperate and its politics, until recently, largely tolerant. It is a unitary government with a single legislative chamber. It has a fairly good history of race relations (comparatively, if not absolutely), much less urbanization as a percentage of the total demographic, and its export-oriented economy continues to be rooted in primary good production. It has less first generation immigrants as a percentage of the population, an “independent” foreign policy, the non-nuclear posture and an admirable record of involvement in UN arms control and peacekeeping efforts. NZ has the All Blacks, the Silver Ferns, the All Whites, the Black Caps, the Black Socks, the Tall Blacks, the Black Ferns, Black Sticks and for all I know Blackbeard as well (oh, and more than a few exceptional triathletes and endurance racers). More people per capita in NZ have university degrees than their Ozzie counterparts. It has been a laboratory rat for neoliberal experimentation since the mid 1980s under a variety of governments. It had Russell Crowe and Crowded House.

The question is, given these obvious and glaring differences, why do NZ politicians, policy-makers and the public alike fixate on OZ? To be honest, the better contemporary comparisons for NZ are countries with similar population sizes, land masses and location in the global chain of production rather than colonial ties, primary language or past ethno-religious makeup. By that contemporary criteria, Uruguay, Costa Rica and other Central American republics, small European states like Belgium, Luxemburg, Switzerland, Estonia, Latvia and the Northern Tier states (among others), and even Sub-Saharan African countries like Botswana, could all serve as a better basis for comparison than OZ (and all of those mentioned are capitalist democracies). And, using that criteria, it is possible than NZ would have a better feeling about itself rather than the perennial sense of inferiority when it comes to Australia.

One way to compare NZ and OZ is to use one of the comparative  methods I alluded to earlier. A “most similar” method seeks to isolate independent variables that are similar, then explain differences in dependent variables by highlighting the causal implications of intervening variables. Conversely, “most different” comparisons select independent variables based on differences, then proceed down the chain of causality to explain similarities in the dependent variables. It would seem that when it comes to OZ, a most different criteria is the better choice, although it is clear that the most similar comparisons based on language and Anglo-Saxon colonial legacies have been the historical norm.

Less it not be obvious I am being a bit facetious/tongue-in-cheek here, mostly in an effort to stir some argument about why Kiwis continue the non-sensical habit of comparing themselves as a society and nation to a far different place that just happens to lie 2000 kilometers to the West. Why not just concentrate on getting the most out of THIS society given its very unique national attributes? Why attempt to emulate the policies of larger nations that do not share those attributes or the specific constraints of a small, heterogeneous, trade-dependent island democracy? After all, most experts agree that it is not the size of the brush that matters, but the talent of the artist wielding it. On that count, as well as the stupidity of the 2025 Taskforce comparisons with Australia, Don Brash is no Van Gogh, and NZ has no need to measure itself against Australia now or in 15 years. What it does need, and all too often does not get, is talent in government. And that is not a matter of size.

Plagarism and Double Standards.

datePosted on 19:07, November 21st, 2009 by Pablo

I was not going to post on the Witi Ihimaera plagarism scandal, having commented under my own name on another blog that covered the matter. But as I compare my summary dismissal for writing a rude email to an unqualified and underperforming student with the lack of even a cursory reprimand for his theft of intellectual property, and then find out that apparently it is not the first time that Mr. Ihimaera has appropriated someone else’s work as his own, I find myself wondering if indeed there is a double standard at play when it comes to our respective treatment by my former employer. Let me explain why, but first point to the one consistency in the handling of both cases.

The University has, as part of its collective contract with the union representing academic staff, a series of procedures and regulations that have to be followed before an academic staff member can be dismissed for serious misconduct. This includes receiving a formal complaint detailing the misconduct, attempting to mediate the matter using the offices of the Ombudsman, handling the matter within the department, issuing two formal written warnings before dismissal is sought…the requirements are pretty detailed and in fact were made even more so after my dismissal precisely because of the controversy surrounding it. Perhaps Mr. Ihimaera is not a member of the union so other procedures were followed, but that usually mitigates against favorable resolution for the employee.

In my case none of the internal procedures were honoured other than as a facade. No formal written complaint was ever made against me, but without getting my side of the story the Ombuds(person) immediately brought the issue to the attention of my department HOD, who without saying a word to me passed it on to the Dean, who after consulting with the student as to what should be done held a series of brief meetings with me and a union rep in which he shrugged off my apologies and assurances, ignored the fact I had no prior formal warnings, and sent me packing. In fact, he and his HR advisors attempted to use a couple of unrelated events from the past (an argument with a former HOD about managerial practices and an email disagreement with a colleague about a grad student who failed to attend a class) to argue that prior warnings had been given. Those were later found to be irrelevant by the ERA.

In Mr. Ihimaera’s case it appears that, upon hearing that news of the plagarism was about to go public, the University rapidly pushed through an “investigation” of the matter apparently involving his HOD, the new Dean of Arts (who was not the Dean the fired me) and Mr. Ihimaera. No disciplinary board with colleagues outside of the HoD and Dean was apparently convened. Mr. Itimaera  gave apologies and assurances, and the case was closed.

What is consistent in both cases is that the lengthy rules and procedures for handling discipline cases involving academics were circumvented, in his case favourably to him and in my case not. This galls me not because I think that Mr. Ihimaera should be fired–I do not, and think that both of us should have received a final written reprimand about our respective transgressions–but because the University argued that I was fired because of the damage I did to its reputation. This line of argument continued after the dismissal was found to be unjustified, then into the settlement agreement by which formal reinstatement meant no actual reinstatement. But what about my reputation? Not only did the leaked email wind up on the front page of the national newspaper and then went global, but the University did nothing to prevent its release or demand its withdrawal when a student newspaper under its authority first published it (even though leaking the email was a violation of the email policy under which I was ostensibly fired). Moreover, the University knew well what the impact of the dismissal would be. As the Dean who fired me said to the ERA, “in a reputation-based business like academia, summary dismissal essentially means the end of a career.” In my case that seems to be proving true, and perhaps it was that knowledge that made for lighter treatment for Mr. Ihimaera–but I suspect not, simply because his association with academia was one of mutual convenience rather than professional necessity.

My major question is, if what I did was so injurious to the University reputation, what about Mr. Ihimaera’s plagarism? Plagarism is the single worst thing that an academic can do. Working in a genre such as historical fiction does not excuse the lifting of other’s words. Plus, being housed within an academic institution means adhering to its requirements on original work, so he was, in fact, more duty bound than independent writers in that regard. Students get failed and often expelled for plagarism. Academic staff get demoted or fired for plagarism. And Mr Ihimaera did not even merit a reprimand? Now, it seems that the case gets worse, as others have come forth to claim that Mr. Ihimaera has plagarised in his previous work. If so, and if the University knew about those previous incidents, then its absolution of the latest episode is even more alarming.

The University and Mr. Ihimaera say that his plagarism was “inadvertent” and thus excusable. Even if that were true–and it stretches credulity to think that a famous author would not know the difference between his own words and sentence structure and those of others– standard guidelines on plagarism, including those specifically used and distributed by the University to students and staff, state that inadvertent or unknowing plagarism is no excuse for it. It is the author’s responsibility to ensure his/her work is original and properly cited, and the crosses all academic fields and intellectual genres.

Some have claimed that because Mr. Ihimaera is Maori, famous and gay, he got off lightly. I initially thought that was ludicrous and that there were other mitigating circumstances at play. But the more I learn about the case and think about the differences in our treatment, the more I wonder as to why those differences. Certainly universal institutional standards need to be upheld over and above the specific identity and interests of any individual. That is what the University claimed in my case. Yet, was what I did worse than plagarism? Did my email to an individual student cause more damage to the University than the discovery by a book reviewer in a national magazine of the as of then unattributed passages in Mr. Ihimaera’s latest book? How can he not even receive a reprimand, and how can the University claim that in both cases its standard rules and procedures were followed to the letter?

The real shame is that it is not my actions or Mr. Ihimaera’s that have tainted the reputation of the University. Instead, it is playing loose with the rules and attempts to “spin” both stories in a way that gives the illusion of procedures being properly followed that sullies the brand. That has a negative impact not only on the managerial cadre that are the perpetrators of the double standard but also the staff, alumni, current and prospective students who share association with the University name. Yet, instead of being ashamed and contrite, University managers continue to obfuscate and bluster, refusing to reveal how their “investigation” of the Ihimaera case was conducted citing privacy concerns (concerns they were not so concerned about when my email went public).  It appears that management are blissfully unaware that the ship is sinking beneath them or else are confident that no matter what they do, they will not be held to account by anyone other than themselves. Since the taxpayers ultimately pay the salaries of all involved, that should be a matter of public interest.

The SIS wants us to help do its job.

datePosted on 20:21, November 17th, 2009 by Pablo

The SIS has asked for the cooperation of private industry and academia in reporting potentially suspicious activities that could be related to the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  To that end it sent out a pamphlet to universities and business where potential WMD materials are used outlining how to identify the misuse of said materials along with SIS contact numbers to report to. The main academic union, TEU has protested what it sees as an intrusion into academic freedom, arguing that such requests turn academics into “snitches” and can lead to ethnic profiling. The problem with the TEU position is that the SIS request is akin to the Police asking for community cooperation in reporting suspected criminal activity–it is a request made on citizens as part of their social responsibilities rather than a request to them as academics per se.

What is interesting is that this request comes a bit too late and acutely demonstrates SIS inadequacies in fulfilling its main responsibilities. It also demonstrates how misguided market-driven policies can come back to bite the country in the (security) posterior.

The main reason why the SIS is now asking for public help in locating potential WMD training in NZ is due to the lack of security vetting of business and student visas. Under the 5th Labour government, agreements were signed that allow for the entrance of 1000 Pakistani and 350 Saudi and UAE students to study at NZ universities. The areas of study included chemistry, biochemistry, physics, agronomy, biology, and several engineering subfields (but not political science, surprisingly enough). In none of these agreements are their provisions of security vetting of students either before or after they enroll. Given that Pakistan is jihad central and that Saudi Arabia is the source of the human cannon fodder that carried out 9/11 and numerous other terrorist attacks that is surprising, to say the least, and reckless, dangerous and irresponsible to say the worst. But Labour was intent on making NZ an educational niche market for foreign fees paying students at a time when exactly such security vetting was increasingly being required by other English language countries. Seeing a moment of profit opportunity, and disregarding the glaring security implications of the move, Labour stepped in to fill that niche.

At the time the Pakistani and Middle Eastern student visa agreements were made, I made several public statements and private enquiries of my former employer about the problems of that decision. The Labour government dismissed me as a right wing fear-mongerer and the University ignored my concerns. Now, apparently, the SIS has decided that those concerns had some basis, but lacking in the resources and personnel to monitor every business and lab where potential WMD materials and training can be obtained, have decided to ask the public involved in those industries for help. I applaud the move even though I think that SIS Director Tucker would also be advised to re-orient his troops away from  monitoring domestic environmental, Maori and anti-capitalist activists and concentrate on the very real, state and non-state foreign-connected threats that impact on NZ.

This is not to say that a NZ citizen could not join a university chemistry or physics department out of something more than a love of the discipline. What it does say is that when students, owners or employees display an unhealthy interest in anthax, radioactive and biological waste, medical isotopes, epidemiological causes and morbidity, then it would be socially responsible to advise authorities of that fact. The profiling would not be on the ethnicity of the individual but on his/her behaviour.

Until the NZ government tightens up its visa programme to include security vetting of prospective arrivals, the burden rests on after-entry detection. As it stands, business visas are issued to people with money to invest without questions asked about their past; the same lack of scrutiny is true for students. Thus, mainland Chinese and Taiwanese  students are believed to be a source of triad penetration into NZ. Business visas are believed to be conduits for money laundering from both Asia and the South Pacific. Latin American students are suspected of links with drug traffickers.

Conversely, Middle Eastern and Central Asian students and investors may be completely circumspect and “clean” in their background and intent when arriving on NZ shores. Political refugees from conflict zones like Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and the Sudan may want to start over in an safe place, and from what has been seen so far, most do. But as Ronald Reagan said, it is best to trust, then verify. Since the market-driven logic of the Labour government overshadowed the security logic of most counter-terrorism practitioners, security vetting of visa applicants can not happen before or upon entry (and to be fair, much of that is due to NZ distrust of the reliability of information coming from easily bribed or influenced local security authorities in the countries of origin). It therefore has to be an ex post exercise.

That is what the SIS is asking the public to do, as a form of community service.

The trouble is that the SIS reputation is so throughly tarnished by its past excesses and ineptitude, many if not most Kiwis have no interest in helping it to do its job. That makes for a potential double-bite on the security rear.

On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.

datePosted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo

In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are  primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).

One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.

Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas  attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).

The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be)  another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).

That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.

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