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Crumbling Walls and Simultaneous Transitions.

datePosted on 19:10, November 10th, 2009 by Pablo

Among the celebrations and self-congratulations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps it is worth mentioning the process involved as opposed to the event. Contrary to what some may think, this was not exactly a full triumph of freedom orchestrated by a Ronald Reagan-led US in the space of ten years. Instead, it culminated a long process of decay within the Stalinist camp that was the result of internal contradictions that analysts of regime change have seen in other forms of authoritarianism. Not to belabor the point, but authoritarian regimes tend to fall for the same reasons even if their specific ideologies may differ. Defeat in war is one such reason, but where the regime is long-lived and institutionalised, the source of decay is from within the regime itself. Institutional sclerosis and lack of responsiveness are to key measures of authoritarian regime decline. Short of war, the role of external agents in authoritarian demise is marginal, at best serving as an accelerant for long-standing trends. That was clearly evident in the Soviet bloc, and once the repressive apparatus decided not to increase its support for Stalinist regimes in the face of rising socio-economic unrest, it was only a matter of time before they fell. Yet, interestingly enough, none of the Sovietologists in Western academia or intelligence agencies foresaw the inevitable until events were already unfolding (something that reflects the nature of their training, which is now evident in US approaches to MIddle Eastern and Chinese studies. To put it bluntly: studying countries from an adversarial viewpoint often leaves analysts unawares of both the broad and narrow nuances that make or break a given form of rule).

Be that as it may, it is not the subject I wish to address here. Instead, I simply wish to note that the post-collapse era in the former Eastern bloc has been a mixed blessing rather than an unqualified triumph for democracy or capitalism, and that is largely due to the nature of the regime transitions themselves.

Students of regime change note that the transition to capitalist democracy from socialist authoritarianism occurs in one of two general ways involving three specific processes. The first two processes of change  are called sequential transitions, where either change in the economic structure is followed by change in the political structure or vice versa. For example, China is undergoing a long transition whereby its economic bases have moved from socialist to capitalistic, yet it retains one-party rule while the transition is ongoing. Here structural change precedes political change. With some variances, this is what Cuba and Vietnam are doing today, and was also the case in Chile in the period 1973-1990, where the market-oriented economic base was cemented under dictatorial rule, which was followed by a period of authoritarian regime liberalisation leading to the restoration of democracy.  More broadly, the sequence holds true for a number of countries: e.g. South Korea, South Africa, the Philippines and Taiwan all fostered capitalism before they embraced democracy. It is important to note that political liberalisation leading to democracy is not often the stated intention of the liberalising authoritarian elite, but becomes an increasingly possible outcome once command economies are dismantled simply because of the proliferation of private actors and decentralisation of economic decision-making that ensues. At that point the genie is pretty much out of the bottle–but not always.

Conversely, political change towards democracy can precede economic change towards capitalism, although it is generally believed that such a sequence is more difficult to achieve because democratic politics allows subordinate groups to organise electoral resistance to economic dislocations caused by a shift to market-oriented macro-economic policy. This was seen in Argentina in the 1990s and Mexico in the early  2000’s. Generally speaking, students of regime change agree that economic change ideally should precede political change simply because the latter occur after populations have gotten used to the new economic facts of life. That counsels for so-called “top-down” transitions where authoritarians control the timing and tempo of sequential economic and political changes leading to democracy. Put differently, once the new (diminished) threshold of economic consent has been established, elections can be held. This is in contrast to “bottom-up” regime change whereby the masses rise against the authoritarians before the latter are  able to schedule an orderly transition sequence, often leading to political conflict and economic stagnation. Although there are (semi) peaceful forms of bottom-up change (such as Argentina after the Falklands War or the People’s “revolution” in the Philippines), social revolutions are the most intense form of “bottom-up” change, and it should be noted that in most modern instances they result in the imposition of a new form of authoritarianism rather than democracy.

That brings up the second general transition path: simultaneous transitions. Analysts concur that, due to the myriad complexities involved, simultaneous transitions from socialist authoritarianism to democracy and capitalism are the least likely to succeed. In some sense, they are directly contradictory in that they involve the opening of the political franchise while at the same time narrowing social redistribution networks, pubic goods and other socialist “entitlements” (noting here that the trade off in authoritarian socialism was supposed to be diminished political voice in exchange for increased social egalitarianism and welfare). The general line is that a country can do one sequence or the other with some chance of success, but in trying to do both at the same time it is almost guaranteed to do neither. That, however, was something that Western political elites ignored or did not care about in their headlong push to “open” these former Stalinist societies to Western economic and political influence.

Ergo, the Fall of the Wall. Never mind that  Polish dockworkers began the slow crumbling of European Stalinism with their strikes in 1980, that Glasnost and Perestroika accelerated it, and that the Berlin Wall came at the end rather than the beginning of the process of Stalinist decline. Or that the fall of communism in Romania was violent and resulted in a different Stalinist cadre taking over. Or that the result of the implosion of Yugoslavia was genocide at the hands of Serbians that required repeated NATO military interventions. Instead, let us note that the entire Soviet bloc, from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Caucuses and into Central Asia, endured simultaneous transitions with very mixed results. Some countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary,Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia, for example–managed to weather the transition process and are now doing remarkably well as market-oriented democracies. Others–Georgia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and all of the Central Asian “stans,” are governed by mixtures of elected authoritarians and oligarchs, to which can be added the centre piece, Russia. In many of these countries the transition to market capitalism has also been thwarted, and instead has turned into variations of crony-capitalism, mafia-capitalism, oligarchical control and/or state capitalism in strategic industries (especially energy resource extraction). In fact, in most of the former Stalinist world there is neither democracy or markets at play in the lives of the average citizen. In many countries pre-Soviet ethnic-religious divisions have come back to the fore, and in some of these countries conditions are worse than they were before (Chechnya). Ultra-nationalist movements have gained ground in many former Soviet republics, and in response Communists have started to regroup.

The broader reasons for this are multiple and deeply rooted in social, political and economic authoritarian legacies that cannot be changed or dismantled in a generation, much less overnight. But the precipitating reason lies in the simultaneity of the transitions themselves: absent a historically rooted culture of democracy, social tolerance and market exchange, most of the former Soviet bloc became a field of play for economic opportunists and demagogues rather than democrats and entrepreneurs. What is most striking is that, once having realised the difficulties in simultaneously pursuing democracy and market economics in post-Soviet contexts, both Western as well as local elites have apparently made the decision to support markets (even in their quasi-capitalistic versions) rather than democracy in most of that world. Whether by choice or chance, there is no elective affinity between democracy and market economics in these contexts.

Thus, we should view the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a jaundiced eye. On the one hand, it marked the death of European Stalinism and liberated millions of people from that scourge. On the other hand, for many it did not deliver on its promise of freedom and prosperity, and is still far from doing so in many parts of the non-European former Soviet bloc. More generally, authoritarian regime transitions may be a universal good, but only if they lead to something better. That has not always been the case in the Post-Cold War world. Less self-congratulation and more reflection would therefore seem to be in order.

Legal Utu in a Colonial Court?

datePosted on 21:30, November 6th, 2009 by Pablo

A little over two years ago the so-called ” anti-terrorism” raids were carried out by the Police against activists in Ruatoki, Wellington and Auckland. The media frenzy that immediately followed focused on reports of “paramilitary” training camps, where, according to Helen Clark, “napalm” bombs were being made, weapons training was ongoing and plots were being hatched against a  variety of political figures, among them George W. Bush. Police affidavits were leaked to the press that detailed the “evidence” collected by covert means, and profiles of the more flamboyant of the defendants were splashed over the tabloids, radio and television. Almost immediately, multiple charges were laid under the Firearms Act 1983, but a few weeks after the raid the Solicitor General decided against laying charges under the Terrorism Suppression Act (TSA) because he deemed the TSA to be “unworkable.” This was a blow to the government’s case because much of the surveillance done in the build-up to the raids was authorised under provisions of the TSA. Even so, the government pressed ahead and in the months that followed arrested 3 more people and (a year after the raids) charged five of the original defendants with the additional count of  “participation in a criminal gang” (Tame Iti, Rangi Kemara, Tuhoe Lambert, Emily Bailey and Urs Signer). What all of the defendants have in common is that they are well-known and often outspoken critics of the NZ state, the US and capitalism in general. Beyond that they are a mixture of anarchist, environmental and indigenous sovereignty advocates (and at least one unhinged individual) united by their common disdain of the status quo. For background on the events and immediate response to the raids, see the trilogy I wrote for Scoop in the weeks that followed: here, here, and here.

With no terrorism angle to report on, the media lost interest and the story died. But what has become of the Urewera 18? (2 of the arrested have been discharged without conviction or had charges dismissed). Here I shall provide a brief update and make note of some ironies.

The Urewera 18 are represented by 14 barristers and numerous solicitors, with Rodney Harrison QC (of Zaoui case fame) recognised as lead counsel and Annette Sykes given special status by the Court with respect to the tikanga of Tuhoe and implied license. Proceedings have dragged on for more than two years, and like the Zaoui case, it is likely that they will continue for at least another year (reports are that the first available trial date is in 2011). Given the numbers of defendants and legal counsel involved, this means that the taxpayer bill for the prosecution of the case will dwarf the NZ$2 million spent in the futile attempt to refuse Ahmed Zauoi political refuge. The cost for the defendants, emotional as well as material, is similarly high.

As for the substance of the case against the Urewera 18, let us begin with the charges. Other than the criminal gang accusation and a common charge of possession of restricted weapons (presumably related to incendiary devices), all else fall under the Firearms Act of 1983. After some legal wrangling, the charges have been bundled together as ‘representative’ charges so as to make the number of charges more manageable. In other words, in early depositions each defendant was charged with possession of each gun at each camp, resulting in hundreds of charges. That has now been amended to a single charge for possession at each camp (.i.e. each individual visit to the Ruatoki bush camp resulted in one firearms charge). As an example, when arrested one defendant originally faced 3 charges, then at depositions the number of charges  rose to 13, but now has returned to the original 3 charges. Even so, the number of individual charges is in the dozens.

With regard to bail. Remember that in their original statements the Police were opposed to bail for the accused, citing the imminent threat they posed to the community. That has all changed. The most onerous bail conditions have been lifted and travel restrictions relaxed although not completely removed. It is my understanding that Tame Iti will again travel to Europe this summer to perform more Shakespeare (Iti was allowed to travel abroad earlier this year in order to participate in theatrical productions in Europe) and Urs Singer has been allowed to visit his ailing parents in Europe as well (the irony of Tame Iti doing Shakespeare in European theaters–as a sort of cultural ambassador, if you will–while on trial in NZ is not lost on me, but I shall avoid mentioning that in my summation below simply because there are other ironies worth noting. But it does point to how serious a threat to the security of Aotearoa he is considered to be by the government).

Then there is the issue of the means by which the case was constructed, to wit, the human and electronic surveillance and wiretaps used to monitor the accused. The Solicitor General’s decision to not invoke the TSA proved to be problematic for the government’s case, since much of the means by which the activists were tracked and evidence gathered were only allowable under the TSA. With no TSA charges on the menu, the admissibility of the evidence collected under its provisions was open to legal challenge. That soon came.

In August, applications  were made by the defense that all search warrants, in-person covert surveillance (conducted by the Police Special Tactics Group) and stationary covert cameras were illegal. By and large, the defendants won that part of the argument. In September the presiding judge declared at least 6 of 9 warrants illegal, specifically declaring illegal all in-person covert surveillance and stationary cameras. The latter was deemed illegal because the police trespassed onto private land in order to install the cameras (it is not currently possible to get a warrant for surveillance cameras on private property in NZ). The Police Special Intelligence Group tried to justify its actions by claiming in retrospect that they sought judicial oversight in doing so (presumably with reference to the TSA). In reality, they knew at the time that they couldn’t get warrants for such activity without the TSA, but did so anyway. Now that evidence is inadmissible. Even so, the government won on excluding text messages, and it remains to be seen whether the defense will challenge that ruling in the Court of Appeal. (A good summary of the decision is available here).

 The second stage of this application was heard in September and a decision is still pending. Under Sec 30 of the Evidence Act, in order for evidence to be ruled inadmissable, it must be found to be both illegal and unreasonable. This differs greatly from the US where it follows quite logically that activity which is illegal is by nature unreasonable, but the police in NZ are given a much greater benefit of the doubt on this matter. This is an important distinction, because that means that even if the evidence is deemed to have been illegally obtained, it still can be ruled admissible in a NZ Court if it is deemed “reasonable.” QC Harrison has consequently made submissions about why inclusion of this evidence was unreasonable. The main thrust of his argument is that the police’s trespass was sustained, deliberate and knowing. It happened over a period of nearly a year on land that was clearly private property. The judgement is still pending on this part of the defense motion. Whoever loses is very likely to appeal because the case could well hinge on the disputed evidence.

In the last weeks  the defense has making an application for a stay of the proceedings based on pre-trial publicity. In essence, that the case has been so prejudiced that the Urewera 18 cannot get a fair trial. Interestingly, the most recent  precedent for such an application was made by the same two lawyers on behalf of the two suspected Mossad agents who
were arrested for attempting to procure false passports in 2005.

The defendants are next due to appear in court in Auckland in mid-December. For those interested, the hearings are open to the public but those attending should expect increased security measures and the possibility of Crown objections to their presence if it is considered injurious to their case (the Crown has already objected to filming of the hearings for documentary purposes).

So what are the ironies of the case so far? Well, for starters there is the parallel with the Zaoui case. In both instances the government began by throwing out unfounded accusations of “terrorism,” only to see their case for it crumble under legal scrutiny.  For all the talk of terrorism, it was the Police Special Tactics Group, not the counter-terrorism component of the NZSAS or the specifically-trained Counter Terrorism Tactical Assault Group (CTTAG) who conducted the surveillance and led the raids (which indicates that the government did not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough to justify use of the forces designated for that role). The money spent on the prosecution and legal defense of both cases is also on a par, if not more in the latter instance.

Another irony is that the arms dealer who (allegedly) supplied information to some of the defendants about how to construct silencers, on how to modify a starter’s pistol into a real weapon, and who allegedly provided instruction on how to convert flare grenade launchers into the real thing, has not been charged with a single offense (reportedly due to his being a Police informant).

For its part, rather than strengthen criminal law to deal with politically-motivated criminal conspiracies in light of the “unworkability” of the TSA (thereby avoiding the authoritarian penchant to create a different category of “political” crimes labeled as “terroristic”), National has re-introduced a Search and Surveillance Bill first proposed by Labour last year in which powers of search and surveillance would be expanded dramatically (to include warrantless searches, eavesdropping and tapping of computers and phones) by a broader range of government agencies–including local administrative authorities! The irony is that, rather than use the Urewera case as an example of how NOT to conduct a criminal investigation against political dissidents, the government has instead moved to relax legal restrictions governing covert monitoring of suspects, including on private property (i.e., the exact practices that were deemed illegal in September by the presiding judge in this case).

But the ultimate irony may be this. According to defendant Omar Hamed, “October 15 was a reminder that the state is not our friend. It is a violent, colonial, racist institution that serves the interests of the corporations and the ruling class. Well organised, anti-statist, defiant communities pose a threat to the state and colonial capitalism…” (taken from a passage included in the exhibition catalogue for the Arts auction “Explosive Expression” held to raise funds for the Urewera 18 on October 16, 2009 in Wellington). And yet it is this purported colonial, racist and corporate justice system that has allowed the Urewera 18 to formulate and fund a defense that has successfully challenged the case against them so far. It would seem that, at least in this case, utu  (as both justice and revenge) does in fact come in colonial garb.

My view is that by the end of the process a majority of the defendants will be acquitted and only a handful will be convicted of minor firearms violations. It will be left for the NZ public to decide whether the entire affair was worth the effort, and whether indeed, if ever, there were the makings of a terrorist plot percolating in the Ureweras.

PS: I have some inquiries out at the moment that might allow me to update the status of the case. If so, I shall do so post haste and append a notification at the end of this post.

PPS: This post has been updated to reflect my remembering of another irony regarding the government response to its failures in this case (see irony #3 above) as well some fine points regarding the charges.

Blog Link: Disloyal Opposition in the US.

datePosted on 13:34, October 27th, 2009 by Pablo

For some time I have watched the opposition to Barack Obama and his administration with growing unease. Having some familiarity with Latin American politics, I began to see parallels between the traditional behavior of conservative Latin American oppositions to Left-leaning  democratic governments and that now manifesting itself in the US. I have now pulled my thoughts together into this month’s Word from Afar essay over at Scoop. The essay has more of a polemical tone than usual, but that is a reflection of my contempt for, and concern over, such behaviour.

I have often wondered what sort of person becomes a human resources manager or corporate employment lawyer in New Zealand. Now, with the cases of Sean Plunkett and Jim Salinger in front of the ERA, coming on the heels of my own experiences, my beliefs are being confirmed. This is what I believe.

NZ HR managers are hired for their sociopathic and bullying tendencies. They are devoid of compassion, understanding and basic human decency. They take delight in the flaws and failures of others, and many are pathological liars (witness NIWA HR accusations against Dr. Salinger that he was “sparse with the truth” (i.e.a liar),  or, in my case, my employer’s HR toadies attempting to fabricate a case of prior warnings and incidents (there were none relevant to the case in question) and then accusing me of falsifying leave forms (which was not only irrelevant but which other administrator’s contradicted). In the Radio NZ case Plunket had no contractual restrictions on his writing a column elsewhere yet he was threatened with dismissal for doing so. It appears that a personality clash with his boss (which is what was really at the heart of my case) is the real issue, with the boss attempting to control Plunkett’s behaviour outside of his contractual obligations. Dr. Salinger and myself received no formal warnings prior to our respective (in my case legally unjustified and in his case surely unjustified) dismissals. In both of the latter cases, relatively minor breaches of protocol got us summarily dismissed without warning or attempts at compromise or conciliation. Basic notions of fairness would indicate that in all these cases the employer acted in bad faith and then vilified the employee to cover up their own lack of ethics and adherence to procedure. Basic understanding of democracy would reveal why this is not only unacceptable as a social practice, but in fact inimical to the democratic form. After all, New Zealand is supposedly a robust democracy, so its labour relations framework should be quite different from that of China, Singapore, Iran or Saudi Arabia. Alas, on the essentials, it is not.

In general, HR types and their hired employment lawyer guns basically use the strategy of character assassination and deep pocket spending to outlast and break down the employee (and, in some cases, his/her union). When settlements are reached, they often reflect employee financial constraints or psychological trauma regardless of the positive merits of their case (and in which, in the case of both NIWA and Radio NZ as well as mine, the legal fees and/or the (eventual) settlement offer of the employer were/will be paid by taxpayers).

In fact, I wonder when do defamation cases apply in employment disputes? How can HR managers knowingly and deliberately make blatantly false accusations of employee dishonesty and malfeasance in open hearings that are reported on by the press, and yet escape legal action against them for defamation or slander? In my case all of the accusations against me were proven false, and yet the stain on my reputation has remained ever since (and prevented my securing alternative employment in my profession). Although I have no doubts that Dr. Salinger and Mr. Plunkett will win their cases or receive settlements, I wonder if Dr. Salinger will be able to secure employment in his chosen field with another government agency or private firm in NZ ? (Mr. Plunkett has the advantage that he has not been fired so does not have to look for work). Where is the justice when an employee wins a case but is not allowed back into their field of work (and in my case forced to leave NZ), and/or where his/her character has been impugned in the pubic consciousness?

In any event, I have noted in the past that there is a sort of mean-spirited aspect to the NZ character, something that emerges in politics, the corporate world and in education (among other fields). I am now coming to the belief that not only do HR managers (and employment lawyers working for firms) epitomize these nasty traits, but in fact are hired precisely because of them. The reason? Given the structure of employment law in NZ, these traits serve a useful purpose for employers regardless of the costs inflicted on employees and those that chose to represent them.

PS: To be clear. I am not referring here to small business employers, who do not have the money to hire HR teams or corporate lawyers to do their dirty work (or at least dismiss their useless workers). The lack of litigation money and legal funds makes small business owners  more vulnerable to adverse ERA or Employment Court decisions,and therefore more cautious when approaching dismissals. The large corporates (state or private) have no such concerns, given that employment law favours the structurally powerful rather than fairness under the law.

The False Promise of Asian Values.

datePosted on 14:28, October 19th, 2009 by Pablo

The country that I live in is a major exponent of the so-called “Asian Values” school. This school of thought argues that Western notions of liberal democracy are not applicable to Asia because Asian values are different than those of the Anglo-Saxon world and therefore attempts to impose Western-stye democracy are ill-suited to local conditions and, what is worse, a form of cultural imperialism.

So what do Asians value? According to the official line, they value the primacy of collective rights over those of the individual, order above freedom, material security over political voice, and economic efficiency over egalitarianism. The private sphere is reified while the public sphere is circumscribed. Family and community take precedence over the individual or narrow social group interests. These are held to derive from traditional “Confucian” values. Hence civil society is not a spontaneous expression of variegated social interests but a state-structured (and state-supportive) amalgam of overlapped sectorial agents in which “volunteerism” is imposed as a social obligation rather than freely given. Conformity is enforced as the means by which to achieve upward mobility, and although meritocracy is given rhetorical championing by the state, in practice it is often subordinated to the requirements of playing along, following orders and not challenging the status quo as given. Needless to say, this reverses most of the priorities of Western liberalism.

Asian values exponents will argue that the proof of the superiority of their system is in the pudding: individually and collectively Asia is a region of rising economic powers, with their growth only checked by foolhardy attempts to impose western-style democracy on immature populations not yet ready to accept the fact that with expanded political rights come an equal amount of social and political responsibilities. They point out the “chaos” of democratic society in the West and where democracy has been attempted in Asia, as opposed to the order found in the “traditional” East. They see social hierarchies as natural and exploitation as inevitable, with attempts to ameliorate this “natural” order of things contributing to social unrest and instability. The latter are considered to be primordial dangers to “good” society, and to be avoided or suppressed at all costs. 

What I find interesting about these claims is that they mirror claims made about Latin American societies in the 1950s through the 1980s–that they operated under a different (Catholic) social code that was authoritarian, patriarchal, racially and economically stratified, state-centric, community- and family-oriented, and was therefore more naturally amenable to authoritarian forms of rule. And yet Latin America has by and large democratised with no ill-effect other than to give space to populist demagogues along with sincere politicians (as happens virtually anywhere political competition is opened up to mass appeal). But in terms of social stability, economic growth, etc., Latin America has not been discernibly hurt (or improved) by the move towards social and political freedom. It has simply evolved in a more open direction.

So what to make of the Asian values argument? Well, living in the epicenter of its practical implementation it would appear that “Asian Values” are no more and no less than the philosophical justification for developmental authoritarianism. These values are no more natural in the East than they are anywhere else–all societies put value on family, kinship, order, efficiency and stability. It is in the imposed and contrived ways in which “Asian Values” are reproduced–from the top-down, through the State and its agents, rather than spontaneously welling up from the cultural grassroots of society at large–that we see its real purpose. The Asian values argument is in reality just a cover for the maintenance of an authoritarian status quo that otherwise would be susceptible to challenge from those that it purports to represent.

Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

John Rides the Fence

datePosted on 21:55, October 1st, 2009 by Pablo

Besides serving as a prop for some Letterman piss-taking, John Key’s visit to the the UN allows us to finally see the contours of National’s foreign policy. It can be captured in a neat phrase: firmly straddling the fence.

At the UN Mr. Key made all the right noises, speaking about fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions, supporting multilateral approaches to conflict resolution and nation-building, promoting free trade and economic transparency. But his actions elsewhere speak volumes about what National really intends, at least in core areas of international relations. I shall break them down in order of importance to NZ.

On trade, NZ is gradually but decisively shifting to an Asian/Middle East orientation. National clearly sees that NZ’s competitive advantage lies in its traditional comparative advantage in primary good and derivative exports rather than value added manufacturing (except in niche industries such as weapons componentry). The bulk market for primary goods and their derivatives is in the East not the West, and even if certain NZ niche export industries such as wine prosper in the advanced liberal democracies, National’s future bet is with consumption growth in Asian and Middle Eastern autocracies. The recent championing of the growth in NZ-PRC trade since the 2008 bilateral FTA was signed demonstrates that National cares less about the after-entry effects of the FTAs (to say: labour market conditions, environmental standards, corporate responsibility to share holders and the general political climate in which export/import Kiwis make their money) and more about profit generated from trade volume growth.

On aid, NZ is privatizing the lot. The recent NZ$1 Million disaster relief assistance offered to Samoa and Tonga notwithstanding (already in the NZAID budget formulated by the Fifth Labour government, and directed to an afflicted area where the cost of recovery will run into the US$ 100 millions), the focus of NZ aid assistance under National, as Lew mentioned in a post a while back, is to promote private entrepeneurship and trade rather than poverty alleviation and social welfare. Moreover, the broader philosophical instinct betrayed by this approach is the National disbelief in nation-building efforts. Now it is clear that National believes that nation-building is a self-help issue: no matter if there are intractable pre-modern conflicts at play, or the  prospects for peace and security for millions are at stake, the answer is to promote capitalist entrepeneurship. In other words, the pursuit of profit trumps all humanitarian concerns when it comes to National’s approach to using taxpayer dollars to provide foreign aid. For National market approaches and trickle down effects are all that is needed to make the world right.

(I should note that this market fetish is now reaching deep into university planning schemes and in efforts to attract foreign fees paying students. As I have experienced directly, the impact on quality of instruction is negatively impacted by the rush to profit from ‘bums in seats.’)

Then, of course, there is national security. Here market logics may or may not apply. National has ramped up its commitment to play the role of Australia junior, which is to say a role in which it actively participates in the foreign military missions of its traditional partners. Afghanistan is the testing point for this re-orientation, because National has re-committed the NZSAS to front line combat duties while at the same time signaling its intention to withdraw the NZDF nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) contingent in Bayiman province. Something tells me that the costs of the NZSAS re-deployment will largely be borne by others (which makes it affordable),  whereas the PRT came mostly at NZ expense (whcih makes it unaffordable in spite of its excellent work). It appears that cost-cutting without principle abounds in these NACTIONAL daze. Given National’s downplaying of nation-building efforts in favour of market-driven logics, the Bayiman PRT is gone-burger (incidentally, the majority of the people who inhabit Bayiman are traditionally the slaves/servants of Pushtuns, so they are natural allies of UN/NATO reconstruction efforts).

So, on security issues National wants to curry favour with Australia, the US and the UK. On trade grounds it wants to curry favour with China, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to mention just a few favoured trade partners. At the same time it appeases the UN with platitudes about environmental protection, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is a three-sided foreign policy that is designed to be all things to all people divided into selected audiences. Although professional diplomats will work admirably to overcome the difficulties in reconciling these positions under the “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy stance that has obtained since 1990, one has to wonder–beyond the ridicule incurred by not even getting an invite to sit down and talk with the host on the American TV show but instead agreed to lip-read a bunch on American written deprecatory one-liners– if John Key’s loins not were chaffing under the strain of keeping a straight face while enunciating what is basically a  (N.8) wire-top foreign policy for the next three years.

PS–the NZ bid for a rotating Security Council seat is another case of splitting the difference. NZ will clearly be western on security matters but as a small state with an Asian trade orientation, will toe the multilateralist, non-interventionist “open border for trade” policy line, all the while getting to have a temporary say in how threats to the international community are perceived. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. That places its trade orientation at odds with its security stance (since Iran has become a major export destination). Presumably MFAT has thought this one through and contingency planned accordingly.

On the possible merger of NZ spy agencies.

datePosted on 23:43, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I originally posted this as a comment on Kiwiblog, but it is worth elaboration. I am not so much interested as why  sensitive documents somehow managed to be dropped on a public street into the path of a journalist, which, if interesting, is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. The real issue is the proposed, or at least potential merger of NZ intelligence agencies. From a democratic standpoint, I believe that centralising all intelligence-gathering and analysis in one agency is a recipe for disaster, or at least political manipulation. A core tenet of democracy is the decentralisation of power, evident in a system of checks and balances, particularly in its security component. I fear that NZ has lost sight of this tenet. In that light, here is my brief (excerpted)  thought on the matter of NZ intelligence agency mergers:

(With regard to the potential merger of the GCSB and NZSIS) I shall limit myself to pointing out two problems, one external and one internal to the intelligence agencies involved. Externally, the GCSB manages the Echelon stations in NZ and passes along foreign derived signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the SIS and Police where necessary, as well as monitor NZ signals traffic where required (this is a minor part of its operation). It is therefore more of a foreign-oriented intelligence collection agency rather than a NZ-oriented one. That spells potential conflicts of interest with larger intelligence liaison partners in the event that it is subsumed under or within the SIS. NZ intelligence requirements do not always run in concert with those of its larger partners, although it gains a measure of insurance and protection for providing its soil for the eavesdropping stations (another reason why NZ will never be invaded without a fight, since the stations are extremely valuable to the Echelon partners).

Internally, the SIS already has to handle external and domestic espionage and intelligence analysis along with counter-intelligence duties. This with a total complement of less than 200 people, a quarter of whom are clerical staff. That means that all of the human intelligence that gives NZ primary source or primary-derived information, plus the analysis of intelligence derived from the GSCB, NZDF, NZ Police, contract assets and liaison partners, has to be done by 150+/- people. It is a tall task already, and adding the SIGINT duties to it can complicate the management of intelligence flows and result in turf battles between the SIGINT and HUMINT branches and their respective analytic units (to say nothing of the fact that foreign nationals are heavily involved in the operation of the Echelon stations and therefore answer first to their foreign masters. Allowing them into the SIS could therefore compromise NZ national security even if they are erstwhile allies).

It is also generally believed that in a democracy it is best to separate domestic from foreign intelligence gathering, and SIGINT from HUMINT so as to avoid the monopolisation of intelligence flows and advice in any one agency, which could be politicised to deliver “intelligence” that is more politically-motivated spin than actual fact (as occurred with the Zaoui case under the previous SIS Director). Unified intelligence agencies can operate in democratic systems (such as in Canada), but that requires strong parliamentary oversight authority, something that does not exist in NZ.

The EAB is an intelligence client that undertakes foreign-oriented assessments rather than a collection agency, so a move to merge simplifies the intel streams coming its way. The same goes for the Police and the NZDF (which have their own collection branches), Treasury, other Ministries as well as the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG). But one of the good points of having different sources of intelligence collection and analysis is that it avoids “group think” (and mistakes) by getting independent vetting of sources, methods and interpretation. Under the merger plan intelligence will be reduced but not completely centralised, although the question remains as to whether a merged agency can competently handle all of the responsibilities that entails.

All of which is to say that the merger idea may be economical but it may not be efficient.

Chickens, scooters and dogs.

datePosted on 13:02, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I have done a fair bit of traveling, including to some underdeveloped parts of the world. I recently took a short trip to such a place from my SE Asia redoubt, and while enjoying the respite from phones, TV, radio,  newspapers etc., I got to thinking about human development indexes and how to score an area or community on a scale of economic, social and political development. I am not an anthropologist, so am not equipped to propose a real index, and for the purposes of this note will eschew social and political factors. What I am simply offering is my short-hand guide to underdevelopment, or for lack of a better phrase, the Pablometer of relative economic development.

You know that you are in an underdeveloped part of the world when there are scrawny chickens and skinny stray dogs wandering about, and where scooters or bikes outnumber cars by a factor of at least 10 to 1. In some parts of the world a pig in the yard is an added touch, whereas in others a goat substitutes for its porcine counterpart (since both of these animals are excellent organic rubbish disposal units). In some places, donkeys, burros, mules, cows, horses, yaks, water buffalo or sheep are added to the mix, but this represents a form of upward mobility since all require paddock, pasture or open country to graze (the latter most often pertaining to (semi) nomadic societies). 

As for mechanised transport, the rule of thumb is that the number of scooters on any given road will outnumber cars in excess of 10 to 1, and that adherence to road codes decreases in equal measure to the increase in the scooter-to-car ratio. In parallel, the scooter dominance is buttressed on one side by the use of collective transport vehicles, with the rule being the more open to the elements the rider compartment/platform, the more underdeveloped the place. On the other side of the transport divide, the number of human-power conveyances sharing space with scooters and lorry/bus/truck collective ridership alternatives is a good indicator of the recent arrival of popularly accessible mechanised transport.

There is, of course, the indoor plumbing factor. I shall spare the readers of the indelicacies of my surveys of this particular field, but suffice it to say that, for the Western visitor,  sitting is preferable to squatting, tile or porcelain is preferable to wood, indoors is better than outdoors, flushing is better than gravity and paper or water is better for personal hygiene than dirt or sand. The issue of potable water, of course, is a major determinant of where you are: water tanks with down pipe filtration is a sign of progress; water tanks without filtration is not. Water tanks with critters swimming in them are a sign of gastrointestinal trouble ahead (see above). Being able to use tank water for bathing, as opposed to bathing in rivers or streams, is a step up on the Pablometer scale. Being part of a reticulated water system is, by definition, a step out of underdevelopment and thus does not qualify for the Pablometer rating.

As for energy, it is assumed that being on a power grid disqualifies the locality from consideration by the Pablometer index. Instead, the ranking is determined by whether power is generated by generators (the noisier the better), whether these are communal or household, and whether they run for more than 4 hours daily. Depending on the geography, wind and water-powered generators may prove to be effective substitutes for the fossil fuel-driven alternative. Hand-cranked generators and paraffin lamps, etc., are lower on the scale.

Needless to say, there is more to the (under)developmental scale and I invite readers to add their own thoughts on the matter so that I can develop a more comprehensive Pablometer. I also invite readers to ponder whether (or better said where) in NZ there are places that can be considered for this index, and if so, why is that.

One final point is worth mentioning. If the people you are interacting with under such conditions have no interest or conception of the “tourist trade” or how to make money off of strangers in their midst, you are not only in an underdeveloped part of the world–you just might be in paradise.

Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?

datePosted on 15:11, September 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?

I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.

To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy.  That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.

The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of  the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.

I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here:; and here:>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<

The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?

I shall leave the answers to you.

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