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Seven years after the US invaded Iraq, the last of its combat troops have withdrawn across the border into Kuwait. Left behind are 50,000 troops whose mission is to continue limited counter-insurgency operations while providing security training and advice to Iraqi security forces along with helping in civilian reconstruction projects. President Obama has been cautious in his framing of the end of the combat mission, noting that the “job” in Iraq is not yet done. No “mission accomplished” banners have been unfurled, and no staged military fly-ins to congratulate the troops have been organised. For the US, the end of combat in Iraq is a transition to another phase of its occupation, one that has seen an escalation in sectarian violence in parallel with the withdrawal of the bulk of US forces from the country. The future of Iraq remains unclear.

With that in mind the question of the moment is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community? Was US intervention in Iraq a success?

In this post two opposing views are offered. I offer the case against the US invasion as a strategic success. Sagenz from No Minister offers the case in favour. The rules we have agreed on is that we both state our basic position without rebuttal, then invite the readers to argue the merits of each case. As the host I open the debate.

Con: The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is a strategic failure.

It is an axiom of military strategy that wars are fought for political reasons. The famous Clausewitz dictum that “war is politics by other means” is a hallmark of modern strategy, because even if fought for immediate reasons such as resources, territory, access to sea lanes or diplomatic leverage, the ultimate motive for war is a strategic calculation made by government elites that political advantage can be accrued by the use of force. Be it born out of necessity or discretion, wars are measured by the political outcomes they produce.

If we accept that achievement of political objectives are the reason for war, then the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a strategic failure. Let me summarise why, starting with what the US sought to accomplish with the invasion.

Using the pretext of preventing Saddam Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction, the US sought to remove his regime in order to install a secular, pro-US democracy that would host forward bases for US troops drawn from obsolete commands in Europe and controversial bases in Saudi Arabia. This would reinforce Iraq’s traditional role as a buffer state between the Sunni Arab world and their traditional Persian enemies in Shiia Iran while at the same time placing a US military presence on the Syrian border. The idea was to use the post 9/11 rationale of fighting Islamicist terrorism to bring the fight to the region in which it was incubated while intimidating those like Iran and Syria who are believed to provide weapons, training and safe havens for the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Coupled with the US military presence in Afghanistan, the installation of permanent US military bases in Iraq would act as a pincer on Iran and a check on Syria and Iranian proxies while allowing the US to more rapidly project massed force into failed states such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen where Islamicists congregate.

The invasion was also sold as bringing democracy to Iraq and as a means of re-opening Iraqi oil supplies to the world after more than a decade of embargos and sanctions. The erection of a pro-Western democracy on the ashes of the Baathist one-party authoritarian state was seen as a model for other Muslim Arab countries to emulate, and therefore a vehicle for change in the Sunni world. The re-opening of Iraq’s oil industry would help undermine the Saudi monopoly on oil pricing within OPEC, since full capacity Iraq oil production would be the third largest in the world (after Saudi Arabia and Russia). Breaking the Saudi ability to price fix the petroleum market would lead to a reduction in crude prices, thereby stimulating economic growth and consumption in the West in the measure that disposable income for corporate investment and consumer spending in non-energy related areas was freed up. With fuel costs down Western economies could push out of their post- 9/11 doldrums.  

Breaking the Saudi lock hold on oil pricing would also accelerate reform in the Kingdom as it was forced to diversify its economy and become more competitive in its core export industry. That would and encourage and reinforce incipient democratic movements as well as economic diversification throughout the Middle East, under the assumption that a move towards competitive economic diversity would promote political pluralism as well. The sum total of these repercussive effects would be to enhance US prestige and power in that part of the world while curtailing that of regional adversaries. Or so the neoconservative architects of the invasion thought.

In practice, this is what has happened: when compared to the Saddam regime, Iraq is more politically unstable, less of a buffer, virtually defenceless on its own, and just as anti-American, if less autocratic than before 2003. It may hold elections but it is by no means democratic, especially when examined at the sub-national level where traditional political hierarchies and forms of patronage still obtain. It has yet to convene a central government six months after the last parliamentary elections due to profound and often violent divisions between Sunni and Shiia parliamentary blocs. Corruption remains endemic, even worse than under Saddam due to the influx of foreign money for reconstruction and pacification projects. Compared to 2003 Iraq is more susceptible to Iranian influence in its internal politics, most visibly via Moqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army and other militias that dominate Shiia political representation. In fact, the US has had to court the favour of the very Baath Party members and Sunni tribal elders that were the backbone of Saddam’s regime in order to counter Shiia dominance of Iraq politics, with a Kurdish-Sunni alliance now seen as the only means of balancing the numerical advantages held by Shiia political factions (the same formula that Saddam used to bolster his regime). The goal of representative democracy has been abandoned as completely as was the search for WMD—what matters now is staving off Shiia domination of the Iraqi political process. The irony is that is exactly what Saddam was useful for in the 1980s—countering Persian and Shiia influence at home and abroad.

Although the volume of terrorist attacks has diminished from the high point of 2004-07, car bombings, assaults on mosques, markets, police stations and community centres, assassination of community leaders, kidnappings, murders and other basic measures of criminality have all increased exponentially when compared with the Hussein regime. On virtually every human security index—health (infant mortality, average life span, infectious disease rates, access to primary care), education (literacy, access to post-primary schooling), access to electricity and potable water—Iraq is worse off today than before the invasion. It is no longer a secular republic, but instead a country in which behind a facade of constitutional government religion permeates politics from the local to the national level. It is a country in which women used to populate senior positions in the health, education and diplomatic bureaucracies, but which now sees the burqa imposed on the streets of conservative neighbourhoods. In sum: the country is fundamentally broken as a result of the invasion, and this was not a case of having to break eggs in order to make an omelette. It is a case of breaking eggs with hope but without a p(l)an.

The Iraqis have refused to allow the US permanent basing rights, so thoughts about using  the country as a forward platform for US regional force projection are no longer possible. That leaves Iraq virtually defenceless, since its national army is weak, corrupt, and focused on internal security while its air force and navy are for all intents and purposes non-functional. In fact, once the remaining US troops are withdrawn by 2014, Iraq will be at the mercy of its neighbours, Iran in particular (which may be a reason why US troops may stay beyond that deadline). In order to counter that possibility, Iraq is making overtures to Syria and Turkey and the wider international community in ways that do not conform to the US preferred approach to those countries (for example, by courting Russian and Chinese investment in oil infrastructure). Rather than a beacon of pro-US democracy in an otherwise authoritarian landscape in the Middle East, Iraq looks at best—in the event that it does eventually develop a stable central government with authority over the whole country—to become a civilianised version of Saddam’s regime, with a Shiia twist.

As for the oil logic, the results have been poor. Iraq oil production is years away from pre-1990 levels and those who will benefit the most from its resumption are the Chinese and Rusisans whose contracts for infrastrructure development have been accepted by the Malaki regime. The Saudis are unmoved politically or economically by the invasion and occupation–they still dominate international oil pricing and they still play both sides of the fence when it comes to the so-called “war on terror.”  Energy prices throughout the West have not come down to anything close to pre-2003 levels, so whatever the intention, the results of the invasion have been counterproductive on both the political and economic dimensions. Saudi Arabia is still the dominant economic and political force in the Arab world, and another regional power has benefitted from the invasion in unexpected ways.

To put things bluntly, the biggest beneficiary of the US invasion is Iran. In terms of regional power balances, Iran has been strengthened by the invasion. Having US forces tied down in Iraq as well as Afghanistan made it less possible for the US to credibly threaten large-scale force against Tehran. Having borders on both Afghanistan and Iraq allows the Iranians to leverage their support for anti-US irregulars in both countries while at the same time continuing support for proxies further afield such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Its influence in Iraq has increased to the point that it is a major power broker in that country, which has allowed it to start a process of “Finlandisation” of Iraq whereby the latter no longer serves as a buffer state but instead as a forward line of defense for Iranian interests. Using great power balancing to its advantage, Iran has successfully played off Russia, China and the West on matters of common concern in Iraq and elsewhere while cultivating broader international ties with countries like Brazil and Venezuela.  

All of this gives Iran space to manoeuvre with regards to its suspected nuclear weapons development program and overall military expansion while providing it with shelter from armed response to its openly anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-British rhetoric. That has increased Iranian prestige within the Muslim world while undermining Sunni Arab elites who are seen as appeasing of Western interests. By all measures, and despite internal dissent, Iran’s world position is stronger today than it was in 2003. It has consequently gotten bolder, expanded its range of influence and placed its Western antagonists under more pressure than ever before.

The US strategic position is weaker as a result of the invasion. Although it is true that ten years of continuous fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere has made the US military (especially its land forces) the most combat experienced in the world today, it has been stretched thin by its ongoing deployments and is therefore no longer able to mount large scale land assaults in other theatres of operation for anything other than short periods of time. Since air and sea power do not secure ground, this leaves the US unable to respond to military contingencies in the measure that it could have had it not gone into Iraq. The 2008 Ruso-Georgian War is illustrative in that regard. Moreover, the debacles of Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo have reduced US moral authority and prestige world-wide while encouraging anti-US sentiment throughout the Muslim Diaspora. Thus, by no measure can it be said that the US is stronger today than it was on the eve of the invasion in March 2003.

Hence, when considering the outcomes of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the overall picture is one of strategic failure. The US did not achieve any of its goals other than the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Perversely, the rivals it sought to weaken have been strengthened while the position it sought to establish has been abandoned. Rather than consolidate US superpower pre-eminence it has opened it to question. It has left the Middle East geopolitical landscape less rather than more stable, and it not diminished Islamicist influence in the Muslim world or its capabilities to strike at targets outside of Iraq. What successes have been achieved in dismantling al-Qaeda’s core leadership and large scale operational abilities have occurred in spite of rather than because of the Iraq invasion.

Perhaps the longer-term picture in Iraq will turn out to be more favourable to US interests. But if that does happen, it will be due not so much to the invasion and occupation itself as it will be to the as of yet unknown actions of Iraqi and other international actors in the wake of US military withdrawal. Only then will a strategic victory be snatched from what is now a strategic defeat masquerading as a military drawdown.

Pro: Seven years after Saddam, It’s too early to tell.

The question is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community?

Pablo has succinctly put the case for the view that the invasion of Iraq is a strategic failure.  I put the case for the invasion being a qualified strategic success.

To analyse whether the world is in a better or worse place because of the invasion we must consider three things.  Has America achieved its strategic objectives, what the alternative would have been and what was the strategic context for the invasion? 

Addressing those in reverse order the strategic context for the invasion can be traced to the US withdrawal from Lebanon after losing 200 marines, the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in place after the first gulf war, Clinton cutting and running from Somalia after losing 17 Rangers followed by the international community washing its hands in Rwanda and being too slow to protect European Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Aden and the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1992-3 were further indicators to Osama Bin Laden and the Islamists that the West had grown corrupt, weak and lacked the will to defend themselves.  911 was intended to cause a reaction from the US.  What Al Qaeda expected was a weak response that would kill many Muslims and bring more to the cause.  The air war on Serbia was perhaps their foremost example of an America unwilling to put boots on the ground. 

Although many will not accept the premise of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations it is clear to any serious observer that Islamists reject Western culture and are prepared to use violent means to replace it with a caliphate.  To suggest that the invasion of Iraq caused otherwise completely peaceful Muslims to become insurgents would be fatuous.   Western mistakes have certainly provided recruits to the cause but the likes of Abu Hamza were preaching their hatred long before GW Bush took office.

Having invaded Afghanistan after 911 the US was faced with a strategic choice.  Double down and try to convert part of the Middle East to democracy or manage the situation.  Having chosen not to occupy Iraq in 1991 the US had seen the result.  A dictatorship contemptuous of American power and an enemy prepared and able to bring the war to American soil.  It is relevant that there have been no further successful attacks on US soil since September 2001.

America and their allies chose to take the fight to the enemy.  That the invasion lacked UN legitimacy was only down to a late change of mind from the perfidious French more concerned with their Iraq weapons sales than morality.  To believe that America must occupy Iraq to control its oil is to completely misunderstand the international oil market.  Even now, Venezuela supplies a large amount of crude to US refineries.

Moving on to address the likely present if the invasion had not happened.  Without the invasion of Iraq, the Islamists would have had only one front to fight on and all recruits would have headed to Afghanistan.  The difficulties faced by the coalition there from a divided enemy would have been nothing compared to the full force of an Al Qaeda not distracted and then defeated in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein would have long broken the will of the international community to keep up sanctions.  He was more able to accept the damage to his own people from them.  Iraq had the technology to reconstitute chemical weapons any time they wished to and would now be well on the way to being nuclear armed as Iran and Iraq along with other countries scared by that prospect engaged in a regional arms race.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of Qusay or Uday Hussein would certainly have required US intervention.

Iraqi leadership do not quite understand yet that the US is serious about leaving them to their own devices.  It is now apparent that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan with the American military providing  a stable guiding hand rather than the Pakistani military.  Both countries require a leader to emerge before they can expect genuine stability.  Does the fact that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan make Iraq a success or Pakistan a failure?

Has America achieved its strategic objectives?  On the face of it Pablo makes a strong case that the current situation is a strategic failure for the US on the basis of the objectives he identifies. Certainly the Islamist insurgents fought more determinedly than anybody thought likely.  Abu Ghraib and other incidents are a stain on American honour and its moral leadership.

However, the core strategic objective for the US to invade Iraq in 2003 was and remains its own security.  Islamist terrorism had challenged the status quo and American power.  The only way to ensure America had peace was to bring that peace to the rest of the world.  Hence the development of the Bush doctrine.

Can anybody now doubt that America is prepared to use force to protect its strategic interests.  Although the insurgents have developed tactical IED that cause losses to coalition forces,  the insurgents lose when they confront coalition forces directly.  By contrast, the US has highly developed drone technology that is proving highly effective at targeting and destroying enemy leadership. It’s military has learned the hard lessons of counter-insurgency doctrine.

“Peaceful” Islam must go through its own enlightenment before it ceases to treat its women so barbarically and joins the modern world.  The sight of democratic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq has de-stabilised theocratic Iran.  Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons for decades, that is not new.

America has taken the fight to the enemy and won a military victory on its enemy’s fields.  To expect nations with decades of dictatorship and conflict to easily turn into stable democracies within a decade was never more than wishful thinking.  The flow of foreign recruits to Iraq insurgency was stemmed and Iraqi insurgents chose to take a more peaceful path.  In the new world of counter insurgent warfare there is not an army to defeat on the field, but the absence of a large number of insurgent combatants is an indicator of success.

As America withdraws its combat troops it can only look forward to many more years of Islamist containment but it has demonstrated to the world in general and Islamism in particular that it has not lost its determination and ability to react when provoked.  It has left behind a country that is corrupt, poorly lead, but practicing self determination. That constitutes a qualified strategic success.

Events in Afghanistan this week prompted me to write on them as well as their implications. This is the full version, which did not appear in the mainstream press.

Until this week the 140-troop NZDF mission in support of the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province was considered the “softer” of the two NZDF deployments in that country. Given their status as elite combat troops, the 2001-05 and post-2009 NZSAS missions in Afghanistan have received more attention as the presumably “hard” edge of New Zealand’s military contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) charged with bringing peace and stability to that failed state. The death of Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell has changed that view.

Lieutenant O’Donnell was killed while on routine patrol northeast of the city of Bamiyan. NZDF patrols are undertaken daily as part of the PRT’s responsibilities, which are to provide security and undertake civil reconstruction and nation-building projects such as the construction of schools, roads, medical clinics (including the combat medics to staff them), water treatment facilities and other infrastructure required for local governance to operate efficiently. Although Bamiyan province is largely populated by the non-Pashtun ethnic Hazaras (a Shiia minority elsewhere in Afghanistan) who are generally friendly to ISAF forces because they were discriminated against under Taliban rule, the Taliban presence, although not as dominant as in Helmand or Kandahar provinces, has remained as an ever-present threat that has increased over the last two years. In fact, the ambush in which Lieutenant O’Donnell died was preceded by at least three similar attacks in the last 14 months, all using the same combination of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire.

Despite the previous attacks, the NZDF did not vary its operational routine and continued to use three or four vehicle convoys for its patrols along well-established routes. The vehicles in question were US-provided reinforced Toyota Hiluxes and armed “uparmoured” Humvees in which electronic counter-measures (ECM) were reportedly used to thwart electronic pulse-detonated IEDs (UPDATE: official details are sketchy as to whether the convoy was a mix of vehicles or all of one or the other, but non official reports suggest that Hiluxes have not been used on those patrols for 18 months and the vehicles in question were all “uparmoured” Humvees). Although state of the art, such ECMs cannot prevent a command wire or pressure plate detonated IED (especially at night), one of which was apparently used in this latest attack.

In previous instances the Hiluxes suffered minor damages in IED attacks, but this time the IED was much more powerful. No NZDF Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVIIs), out of an inventory of 106, were provided to the NZDF/Bamiyan PRT because their characteristics were deemed unsuitable for the Bamiyan AOR because most of it is single track dirt paths (even though the NZSAS has two available for operational duty in Kabul and the US has deployed ECM-equipped and reinforced armoured Stryker (the name it gives to the LAVs) units in the Afghan theater of operations). Although very agile in rough terrain (especially in its 6×6 version), the 321-strong NZDF Pinzgauer Military Utility Vehicle (MUV) fleet was not requisitioned in Bamiyan even though it fulfills the NZDF Light Operational Vehicle (LOV) role, most likely because even in its “uparmoured” version it remains vulnerable to combined small arms assaults and is underpowered when traversing steep terrain in its uparmoured version.  Unlike in previous instances, air cover was not able to respond to the latest attack due to bad weather conditions in the area. The official line is that the patrol was able to find cover and establish a defensive position while returning fire, leading to a prolonged firefight before the assailants were repelled. In all likelihood given Taliban  hit and run tactics, the actual firefight was quite short and most of the damage to men and machines was done by the IED rather than the ensuing exchange of small arms fire. Whatever the exact circumstances, this combination of contributing factors proved to be lethal for Lt. O’Donnell and injurious to his comrades.

The ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is a macrocosmic reflection of what the PRT mission is in Bamiyan. It conducts counter-insurgency operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in order to physically secure the country and prevent the re-establishment of both Taliban rule and al-Qaeda safe havens and training camps within it. In parallel, it attempts to train Afghan security forces and provide the infrastructural conditions so as to consolidate the control of the Western-backed Karzai regime centred in Kabul. As with the Bamiyan PRT, success in the first task is deemed necessary for success with the latter two.

In many ways the death of a Kiwi soldier was inevitable given the balance of the conflict. ISAF has not succeeded in routing the Taliban even if it has denied them and their al-Qaeda allies much territory and space for maneuver. Its nation-building efforts have been thwarted by endemic corruption by the Karzai regime and a motley assortment of tribal warlords and drug barons. For all its rhetorical commitment to supporting the ISAF mission from its side of the border, Pakistan remains a suspect ally, if not a covert adversary in the conflict. Given the announced timetable for a US troop drawdown and ISAF withdrawal beginning in July 2011, the Taliban have increased their attacks in order to raise the costs to ISAF, undermine public support for the mission amongst coalition partners (such as the Dutch, who have just exited the theater), and thereby hasten the inevitable. In fact, both ISAF commander General David Petraeus as well as US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Millan have said that ISAF casualties will increase over the next months as coalition forces push into Taliban strongholds in a final effort to degrade its ability to mount effective guerrilla operations against Afghanistan police, Army and ISAF targets.

However, true to form, the Taliban have responded with a classic guerrilla tactic when confronted with superior military forces: they employ a “balloon” strategy whereby they retreat from areas in which they are being squeezed by superior ISAF forces and regroup in areas in which the ISAF presence is relatively thin on the ground. The key to their success is to respond to mass with maneuver, avoiding the friction of large conventional forces via fluidity of movement towards areas in which the odds are in their favour. In other words, the Taliban like to” hit ’em where they ain’t.”

One such area is Bamiyan, which means that there is nothing soft about the NZDF/PRT role there. The hazards are not just military. Given the Taliban resurgence and the inevitable withdrawal of ISAF forces, it is prudent and rational for the Hazaras (as much as all other tribal groups throughout the country) to begin to look the other way when it comes to Taliban movements in Bamiyan, if not cooperate with or simply accommodate the insurgents. After all, the Taliban will be a armed and political presence long after the ISAF forces are scaled back or gone. That makes the NZDF position in the Bamiyan PRT harder to maintain the closer it approaches to the announced ISAF withdrawal date. In plain terms, without reinforcement the NZDF/PRT position becomes more tenuous given the shift in local loyalties as the withdrawal deadline approaches, and tenuous in military terms means a high probability of increased casualties as the adversary grows in confidence and receives more support or acquiescence from the local population.

The National government has reaffirmed its commitment to the Bamiyan PRT mission through September 2011 and is considering extending thr NZSAS deployment past its scheduled March 2011 end date. But the possibility of further fatalities now haunts its commitment. The larger question is whether the New Zealand public has the stomach to support continuing NZDF participation in the Afghan conflict in the face of increased casualties. That will be a critical juncture in New Zealand foreign relations, because public support is essential to maintaining the political will to continue fighting—and dying—in support of broadly defined foreign policy objectives. Since the measure of a military commitment is ultimately taken in blood, it behooves New Zealand’s political leadership to make a strong case as to why Kiwi lives are worth sacrificing in a seemingly futile conflict in far off place that appears, on the face of things, to have little strategic value to core New Zealand interests. It is also incumbent upon the opponents of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan to make an equally convincing case as to why Kiwi lives should not be risked in Afghanistan in pursuit of vanity, favour, treasure or ephereal benefit.

Out of that debate a true public consensus can be formed that gives clear direction to the government’s approach to the ISAF commitment in the year leading up to general elections.

*A short version of this essay was published in the New Zealand Herald on August 5, 2010 under the title “Death makes it clear Bamiyan not “soft” option.”

It must be my week for thinking about small states in personal terms. I only took an interest in the specific dynamics of small states when I moved to NZ, having previously written mostly about larger states (although I did write a bit on Cuba and Uruguay before moving to NZ). Living in NZ exposed me not only to the political dynamics of a small democracy, but the social dynamics as well. Things like the 2 degrees of separation that make putting distance on ex-partners very difficult. Things like the rapidity with which one’s personal life becomes the object of professional speculation, and how quickly rumors in one dimension transfer to the other. Things like blacklisting, sinecures and shoulder-tapping.

I write this more as an open question to readers. My question rests against the backdrop of NZ being proclaimed as the least corrupt country on earth by one polling outfit, and the general consensus that it is one of the more successful liberal democracies in existence. But if liberal democratic success is defined as the absence of corruption in and ascriptive rationales for social advancement, plus the universal presence of merit, equality and transparency in public and private upward mobility, can we really claim that NZ is a “success” on those terms?

I may stand corrected on this, but it strikes me that for a democracy NZ has an unusually high incidence of shoulder-tapping and sinecure-mongering. Shoulder-tapping is the practice of rigging a competition by pre-selecting the favorite candidate or outcome, then going through the motions of a transparent and equitable process so as to disguise the pre-determined choice. As an example, consider this from NZ academia. A well-known academic with international credentials is encouraged by the Director of a university research centre to apply for a newly opened position. The invitation is accepted, letters, resume and referee names forwarded, only to have the application rejected within weeks. When asked for the reasons why the application was rejected after the applicant was encouraged to apply, the Director stated that internal competition for the position was fierce and better candidates emerged. Months later it is revealed that weeks before the “search” began for a candidate, an academic at another NZ institution with ties to the Director was approached for the job and eventually awarded it. The international candidate “search” in other words, was a cover for the selection of the shoulder-tapped individual.

In another instance drawn from academia, a search committee was formed to find suitable candidates for a specific disciplinary sub-field. Unbeknown to two of the committee members, the other three members, including the Chair, as well as the external faculty representative, were all co-authors of  a husband-and-wife candidate duo vying to be short-listed. Not surprisingly the duo were listed as the best candidates out of ten finalists by their four co-authors. No conflict of interest is declared. When one of the other committee members discovers the connection and complains to the Faculty Dean about the clear conflict of interest involved in the search process he is given a warning not to disparage the professional integrity of his colleagues. But his protestations continue. The search ends with a compromise candidate being selected, but in the next year the Chair resigns and joins the husband and wife team at a foreign university while the whistleblower winds up being (as it turns out unjustifiably) dismissed on another matter in which one of the committee members with a conflict of interest played a decisive role . The Lesson? Interfere with a shoulder-tapping exercise at your peril.

This are just two illustrations from one profession. I have been told of or have seen myself dozens of other cases–including in such places as my old surf lifesaving club–where the shoulder-tap, with or without a wink and a nod, is used as a means for advancement under the cover of ostensibly “fair” elections, tenders and searches. Sports associations, voluntary organisations, service societies, public bureaucracy, the education system, unions, the media, local councils, the legal profession, political parties, a wide swathe of private businesses and business interest aggregators, perhaps even the Police and Fire Services, hopefully not the military–is there any part of NZ society in which this is not part of the unwritten norms governing career and personal advancement? My question then is: am I wrong in seeing something amiss here? Am I exaggerating the extent to which this occurs?

Likewise goes for the issue of sinecures. A sinecure is a position offered to someone that entails little actual responsibility and is awarded not on merit but as a form of patronage or reward for services rendered. In NZ there appears, again to my uninformed mind, to be a lot of sinecurism in virtually every walk of life. Ex-politicians, ex-bureaucrats and ex-ministers get comfy senior positions in state entities and private boards regardless of their backgrounds or records in a given field. Individuals with much private wealth but little other distinction serve on boards, committees and trusts. There is an affirmative action sub-type in which persons from ethnic minorities are awarded well-paid “honorary” positions or those mentioned previously regardless of their qualifications. From local councils to national-level politics and enterprise, sinecurism seems to be endemic.

NZ is not alone when it comes to such practices, so my question is whether these are just more obvious in a small (democratic) state when compared to a  larger one, or is the practice itself more frequent in small democracies, NZ in particular? 

It needs to be noted that these practices are not equivalent to clientalism. Although shoulder-tapping and sinecurism are seemingly endemic in NZ and can be considered to be institutionalised, they are not recognised as such and in fact occur beneath the mantle of egalitarianism, transparency and merit. They are therefore informal, nepotistic institutional practices that operate under the cover of a rationalist meritocratic Weberian ideal. Clientalism, on the other hand, is a formal institutionalised practice whereby political or personal networking lines combine with merit-based criteria into channels of upward mobility. Such is the case in the small state in which I live, where political allegiance to the dominant party is a requirement, along with professional competence, for career advancement in both the public bureaucracy as well as in state enterprises. In the private sector personal networks outweigh political ones in the clientalist scheme, but here too there is an overlap between the personal and political.

What is different is that in clientalist systems patronage is based on the combination of relative merit and political or personal connections. In the sinecure and shoulder-tap system patronage has little or no relationship to relative merit–it is in fact a non-meritocratic form of favourtism based upon ascriptive rationales of social advancement and mutual entitlement.

As I said before, I could be all wrong about this and am merely extrapolating widely from my own personal observations and experience. Nor would any of this matter if NZ were not a liberal democracy supposedly committed to fair play, social justice and equal opportunity. But since it is, and because Kiwis tend to think of themselves as being better on these dimensions than most other democracies, then my questions about the role shoulder-tapping and sinecures play in NZ society are worth consideration.

I shall leave for another post the prevalence of professional blacklisting in NZ, but suffice to say that I have some experience with it.

It is not our custom here at KP to do anything other than somewhat serious socio-political analysis, but from time to time we break from custom and address lighter topics. Since I am undergoing some post-travel downtime and decompression, I thought that I would write up a few notes about some of the travel experience involved in the Greek trip.

Transportation: We flew Qatar Airways from Changi International to Doha to Athens and back. Changi is the best airport I have ever encountered, with an ease of transit and conveniences that put US and European airports to shame. The long-haul flights to and from Doha were on an Airbus 330. The plane is roomy in the Qatar airlines configuration (we flew economy class), the food is decent and the service prompt, efficient and courteous. The flight attendants were mostly female and wore stylised uniforms that were a mix of office professionalism and traditionalist throw-back (that is, not as functionalist as Western uniforms but nowhere close to the eye candy efforts of the so-called Singaporean Girls who are the cabin crews on SIA). Toilets in economy class were relatively spacious, well-equipped and kept clean by the cabin crew (a major plus given the different cultural approaches to toilets on the part of the wide assortment of nationalities that travel on that airline). The seat back entertainment systems was the best I have ever encountered. I listened to classic jazz for most of the 7 hour trip,  plus watched a new release movie and some sports and comedy TV.

The flight from Doha to Athens and back on an A320 were more cattle-car like (3 abreast on either side with two toilets in the back). Food and service were OK but there was a distinct downgrade in the overall experience. The in-flight entertainment was limited to a movie on overhead screens and a limited amount of music (although I did take the opportunity to listen to Arab and Indian pop musak as well as sung versions of Koranic verses, which–I kid you not–are available on channel six of the audio on both flights). I think that the diminished service on th Athens-Doha flights might have to do with the fact that the route appears to be a shuttle of sorts for workers going to and from Doha, whereas the long-haul flight to Singapore is used more by leisure travelers and more upscale busness types. In general, though, the Qatar airline experience in the air was a good one, although it is discomfiting to hear the pilot say that Inshallah (“God willing”) we would arrive at our destination on time. I personally would prefer that the machine and the operator, rather than God, handle the schedule.

There was a less than stellar point during the trips and that was Doha airport. If the Qataris want to emulate the UAE and become a major tourist destination and transport hub, they need to think about that airport. Services are limited, no alcohol is served, security is a joke (consisting mainly of people being made to take off belts while computers and assorted other large packages are sent through the xray machines with nary a glance from disinterested monitors), and although modern in appearance the toilets are medieval in fact (no loo paper, irregular cleaning leading to accumulated evidence of people standing on toilet lids, assorted nasty rubbish littering the stall and pools of black water from washing hoses accumulating in and around the stalls, groups of people using the wash basin areas as socialising points).  The terminal is one long concourse with limited internet access zones. Passengers are ferried to and from planes by buses (somewhat like the shuttles at Dulles international), but these buses often stop on the tarmac and wait for anywhere up to 20 minutes before disembarking passengers (which, since there are standing crowds on the buses can be a nightmare for people with small kids and/or  physical disabilities). Access to planes is via old-fashioned staircases and there is no evidence of regard for disabled passengers (who presumably get hoisted up on the service access platforms).  Thus, while the hub and spoke nature of Qatari Airlines operations makes for efficient on-time arrivals and departures (barring a mechanical at one of the spoke destinations), the overall airport experience was so-so.

I will say that as far as people watching experiences go, the Doha airport was quite fascinating. The full gamut of Arab culture is on display, and the fact that Qatar airways has direct flights to places such as Kabul and Kathmandu makes for a variegated passenger demographic to say the least.

By contrast, the Athens airport was a bit like being caught in a 1970s time warp (even though it was opened just before the 2004 Olympics). Flat, spartan, also using buses from the terminal to the plane, it was clean, efficient but somewhat lackluster in comparison to, say, Auckland or Sydney. It was not terrible by any means, but it did not stand out for any reason other than that it has good Metro/train access and a small archeological museum that has a sampling of Greek artifacts dating back to 500BC.

While in Greece we used taxis, the Metro, a suburban commuter train, a tram (to the near-Athens beaches), a rental car, ferries and Olympic Airways. Although Athenian taxi drivers are notorious for being thieves, we encountered the two honest ones coming from and heading to the airport upon arrival and departure. 35 Euros is a fair price to pay (higher from the airport due to airport taxes and higher if one calls a taxi in advance). Taxi drivers will often refuse fares for a variety of reasons, but will almost always take an airport fare because of the money to be made (the airport is 25 K outside of town and the meter rate is 10 cents per 1/10K, so an operating meter looks like a slot machine on speed). They also have a habit of trying to add passengers to already existing fares, a custom we declined to indulge.

The Metro is pretty efficient and runs from the airport to the port of Pireus (where the ferries are) as well as downtown and the East, West and Northern suburbs. However, while the number 2 and 3 (red and yellow) lines are modern, timely and relatively uncrowded, the number 1 (Green) line, in existence since the 1900s, can be irregular in its service and an absolute sardine can of pushing, shoving, sweating humanity. To that can be added ongoing track works that have closed stations at several points on the route, forcing passengers to use buses between the affected stations. Since our station was one of those so affected, we often opted to walk a kilometer to a number 2 (red) line transfer station rather than waste 20 minutes riding the number 1 (green) line in the other direction in order to catch a downtown train.

The tram was a waste of time. It takes over an hour to reach the end point from downtown Athens, a total of less than 15 kilometers. The tram literally crawls along while still in Athens–heck, we saw people walking faster between stations than we were going! The suburban trains are fast and on schedule albeit graffitied. The best part of the urban mass transit experience is that we could buy a 10 Euro weekly pass that allowed us to travel anywhere on the Metro or tram lines for an unlimited amount of rides–excellent value for money.

Olympic Airways was on-time with good service. We flew over in a 30 seater to Samos and enjoyed the service (we went to and from the airport on that trip by using a combination of the number 1 Metro and suburban train, at a cost for the two of us of 12 Euros each way). On Samos we used a rental car, which was fine except that unannounced road detours into small town side streets quickly saw us trapped in maze of cobblestone alleyways that were too narrow for cars to transit. Let us just say that the rental car was the worst for the wear after that particular trip, but that the all-inclusive insurance we purchased (for a total rental cost of 29 Euros/day) covered the costs of the remedial panel beating. Road signage on Samos was minimal once off the main (two lane) roadways. In Athens street signs on surface streets other than main arteries or highways are small and poorly placed or obscured by vegetation and man-made structures.

The ferries are many, large, fast and slow, and go to every Greek island as well as Italy, Croatia and Turkey. We opted for a fast ferry to Santorini (4.5 hours) with stops in Naxos, Ios (party central, apparently) and Paros. The cost per passenger on the Hellenic Seaways fast ferry was around 75 Euros one-way (we chose business class, which quite frankly at 10 Euros more than regular class was not worth it). Slower ferries cost less but the travel time is much longer–the trip to Santorini would have been 8.5 hours, and a trip to Samos would have been 12.6 hours one-way. We met some Australians who had taken a Blue Star slow ferry to Santorini from Mikonos and it took them 12 hours sitting on an outside deck under a tarp on wooden deck chairs, an experience they chose not to repeat. The ferry we traveled on was comfortable, but we learned not to travel on Sunday afternoons because the entire Athenian middle class apparently ups and leaves for the islands on the weekends, making the return on Sunday evening an experience in maritime mass dynamics. Overall the fast ferry experience was good. We traveled to and from the ferry terminals in Pireus by the number 1 (green) Metro line, which involved one of those Metro-to-bus transfers mentioned earlier. It took about an hour each way with the bus transfer included, and would have only been 30-40 minutes without it.

Living Conditions: Athens is a large sprawling city with 4+ million people in it. We lived in a decaying lower middle class neighborhood with many immigrants (mostly illegal). Although the tourist and downtown areas are kept clean, the near-suburbs such as our (Agios Nikolas) are very dirty and crammed with vehicles parked haphazardly anywhere space can be found (including street corners and footpaths). Due to the dryness of the climate and the Athenian lack of concern with vehicle aesthetics, dust-covered cars are parked everywhere, often in damaged condition. No one seems to mind and their is no enforcement of parking codes (should they exist). The same goes for the illegal street fairs every Saturday. Gypsies (Roma) and assorted other street level entrepeneurs appropriated the streets adjacent to a legal street market in order to sell their (literally) rag-picking wares. One of them was ours (as mentioned in a previous post). Although neighbours complain and the cops periodically roust them the street fairs continue because they serve a market function. The proof of this is that crowds throng to them.

Large rubbish skiffs outside of buildings serve as collection points (rather than individual rubbish collection bins), which normally are collected 2 times a week. However, during times of strikes the collection schedule is disrupted, which meant that on a couple of weeks they were filled to overflowing and beyond. That, coupled with the fact that people disregard the specially designated recycling bins and throw anything into both types of container, led to a couple of weeks where garbage literally filled the streets. On top of that people walk dogs without picking up after them and many males have a penchant for urinating in the streets, so the street atmosphere can get a bit dodgy from an aesthetic, if not  hygienic standpoint (to the point that my partner used to wash her shoes or leave them outside of the living area of our apartment). Traffic is chaotic, with few if any rules of the road applying, so crossing streets can be a life or death issue for the unawares or uninitiated.

We had two small supermarkets within 100 meters of the apartment building and a Metro stop 60 meters way. Food and wine was relatively cheap and we splurged on olives, cheese, yogurt and red wine, which are very affordable and of good quality. Most apartment buildings are four to ten story walkups, with most of the pre-1980 buildings having no elevators (ours was built in the 1950s). Tall buildings are either downtown or in suburbs further outside the city centre, and what homes we saw in the near suburbs tended to be semi-detached rather than free-standing. City blocks such as ours are full of small businesses–a locksmith, electronics vendor, fish mongerer, a dairy, a small medical clinic, plus a flower, veggie and bottle shop as well as  a small restaurant were located on our block alone (and this may not be the full list).

The climate is wonderful in spring, warm and very dry (that means infernally hot in summer and unusually cold in winter). Temps in late April-mid May ran from 15-30C and we saw just two spatterings of rain while there (4 weeks). Because there is relatively little industry in Athens, air pollution was surprisingly low and confined to vehicle emissions from what we could tell. We had a nice balcony outside our apartment (which itself was a nice small one bedroom that we found on-line), so we enjoyed al fresco breakfast and dinners while watching either blue or starry skies. Much as in Latin America, middle and working class people like to hang caged songbirds on their balconies or windows, so I, as a Latin American-raised bird fancier, found that continued tradition to be both quaint and enjoyable (especially since the songs of canaries and finches helped mitigate the street noise). People on the street were a bit cold but most service staff were quite friendly in spite of our limited Greek communication skills (mine were limited to saying “excuse me” (used mostly on the Metro),  “hi,” “good morning,” “good afternoon,” and “thank you very much”). Many people speak English so we never had a real problem communicating. Although perfectly safe by day, we did see a deterioration of the street scene at night, to the point that we saw few females on the street after 10PM (which was proportionate to the number of drunks or shifty-looking males we saw). Greeks tend to be very loud, and we were consequently treated to a variety of arguments and domestic disputes wafting up the and down the apartment blocks. No one seemed to mind and no one intervened.

All in all, although the neighbourhood had clearly seen better days, the overall living experience was quite bearable, if at times a bit gritty.

Two points worth noting, one as a curiosity and the other as a warning. First the curiosity. For some reason Greeks do not throw loo paper down the toilet but instead place it in rubbish bins after use. We heard various explanations for this practice, usually either due to culture or narrow plumbing. Now, I have lived in some very primitive places and was raised in Latin America in the 1960s. Nowhere, absolutely nowhere I have lived have I seen anyone use rubbish bins for toilet paper disposal when there was access to working flush toilets. Nor can I imagine that the modern (post 1948)  Greek state would permit the construction of antiquated, prone-to-backup sewage systems. Thus I find it hard to believe that the custom has its justification in plumbing. And yet in airports, hotels, restaurants–pretty much everywhere– we saw signs advising against flushing toilet paper down the loo. I shall spare you the details of the hygienic reasons why this is not a good practice, but suffice it to say that it made using public conveyances something of an ordeal and added a whole other dimension to the street rubbish bin experience. We were told that the Turks have the same custom. Could this be the real Mediterranean Ethos?

Secondly, a warning about street crime in Athens. The economic crisis has its impact at this level. Mostly blamed on immigrants (who I do not think are solely to blame), street-level crime has risen markedly in recent years. While there I had someone attempt to pick my front shirt pocket on a crowded number 1 (green) metro train. Using a jacket draped over his arm as cover for his working hand, the thief was working with a partner, who attempted to distract me when I grabbed the pickpocket’s fingers (he obviously was not a skilled pickpocket). They then both dug their elbows into me from either side (the train was packed) as I spoke loudly to my partner that I was having my pockets picked. Concerned about their possible use of knives in very close quarters, I merely elbowed back until the next station, at which point they got off and blended into the crowd. The point to note is that these type of thieves work the tourist traps served by the Monteseraki and Omonia stations, especially on the number 1 (green) line, which tends to be more crowded and has easier on and off access than the more more modern lines. Plus, as our landlady noted, the thieves have expanded their targets outside of tourists, so particular care must be taken when riding crowded trains (they do not like to operate on the less crowded lines because of the lack of concealment opportunities).

In retrospect I remembered how they had jumped onto the train at the last moment and positioned themselves besides and behind me as the crowd crammed in. I also recall a young woman followed us at the preceding stop (Monteseraki) after we got on as we moved down the carriage as the crowd pressed in, and that she was standing on the other side of the pickpocket as he leaned into me. I now think that she was the spotter for the team and had signaled her partners at the next station (Omonia) as to who the target was. In any event, our response was to practice heightened situational awareness while on trains or in tourist areas, dress more like the locals (conservatively) and travel light with limited cash well concealed.

That is not all. On the morning that we took the ferry to Santorini we decided to walk (at 5AM) down to the next Metro transfer station rather than deal with the out-and-back issues produced by our nearest station’s partial closure due to track work (we had a 7:30 ferry). As we walked in the cool stillness of the early morning on a side street along the tracks we saw ahead two individuals who appeared to be breaking into cars. Since we were both carrying backpacks (which hindered escape) we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and opted from a block away to  divert back onto a more trafficked and well-lit street. That proved fortuitous, as the individuals we spotted a block away did the same thing upon seeing us, quickly moving to intercept us on the better-lit and traveled street, only to be thwarted by a man who had come out of his apartment and walked alongside us as we made our way down the centre of the street (the street being well-lit but the footpaths not so). As the presumed thugs approached and passed us it was clear that the presence of the other man was an impediment to action. The point being that in a neighbourhood with no tourists we provided a convenient target of opportunity (with our backpacks signaling our vulnerability) to  (presumed) street hoods already plying their trade with impunity. Although you had to be there to test the case, for those who might think that I was just paranoid in my reactions, let me just say that I am the type of person who is not shy of walking away from a fight….but I also know when the odds are against me.

All of which is to say that the Athens experience can be very interesting and fulfilling, but that due caution is advised when in the restroom as well as outside of it.

There is more to the story but this sums up the main points in broad strokes. Should readers have other inquiries I am happy to oblige as much as I can.

My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).

At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.

If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent.  Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.

Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”

What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.

This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.

That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped.  Instead,  the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal  lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).

Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light.  Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).

In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek “me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power.  For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).

To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts  and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.

That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.

And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established  criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised “outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.”  Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas  and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of  a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.

And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others.  Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.

All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.

Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.

Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.

PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.

A chronicle of deaths foretold.

datePosted on 04:02, May 11th, 2010 by Pablo

On Wednesday May 5 there was a general strike in Greece. It was much publicised and anticipated, with posters hung throughout Athens in the week before calling for a day of “action” in protest against the IMF/European Central Bank austerity regime required for the approval of US$141 billion in bridge loans to the financially beleaguered Greek government. The general strike was called for the day the Greek parliament, controlled by the ruling PASOK (nominally centre-left) party, would vote on the financial rescue package. Athens was therefore the epicenter and focal point of the day of ‘action.” In Greek political parlance a day of “action” means a day of ritualised and raw violence against the status quo. Everyone knows this and prepares accordingly. The transportation workers were kind enough to delay joining the strike until 11 AM (with a return to work at 5PM) so as to accommodate the needs of the demonstrators looking to head downtown (ticket monitors declined to enforce paid passage on the day).

For unions and other disgruntled groups the strike meant preparation of their cadres and organisation of their marching columns, to include stockpiling improvised weapons and going over marching discipline. On the day itself communist (KKE) party-affiliated unions manned the perimeter of their columns with large tough men, since the columns include pensioners and families while unaffiliated provocateurs attempt to infiltrate the ranks (see below). The toughs move to the front of the column once the destination of the protest is reached (in this case, Parliament), where they provide a buffer between the security forces and the leadership while the support masses supply voice, placards, medical aid and replacements for the front line stalwarts.

Other counter-hegemonic factions, particularly anarchist groups and Marxist-Leninist militants such as those in the “Revolutionary Uprising” group, organise more furtively. Unwelcome by the KKE unionists and virtually all other protest groups, these radical elements trail the larger union columns wearing hoods and tear gas masks while carrying pavement stones and petrol bombs. Comprised less of proletarians and more of disgruntled middle class and unemployed youth, they organise into small group cells so as to infiltrate the rear of the union columns where the KKE toughs are less visible, and they use the shelter of the larger columns to stage hit and run attacks on symbols of government or capitalist authority. Their actions are not coordinated with the KKE or other groups, and are designed to inflame the situation so as to provoke a violent police response and wide spread chaos.

On the day of the general strike tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on the Syntagma (Constitution) square outside of Parliament. The unions intended to disrupt the vote by storming parliament. The riot police understood this and protected the building. Other groups filled the square in support for the union vanguard, and by noon there were full-frontal clashes between demonstrators and riot police on the parliament steps. These clashes were remarkable for their restraint–the demonstrators threw small stones and an assortment of wooden objects, plastic water bottles and other light projectiles while grappling with the police over their riot shields. The police responded by episodically using hand-held tear gas dispersal units (rather than grenades) at close quarters when the mob threatened to overwhelm a point in the police line. In sum, there was much shouting, pushing and shoving but it was all rather stylised and everyone made their point (it is widely believed that the Police and unions have an understanding about how these demonstrations should proceed, particularly under PASOK governments).

All of that changed at 1:30PM when hooded youths firebombed a branch of the Marfin Egnatia Bank a few blocks from the square. Located in a century old building lacking fire escapes, the bank branch was shuttered but its door left unlocked because its employees had been ordered to work in spite of the strike (leaves were apparently cancelled or not taken). Of the twenty employees inside the branch when the firebombs came through the door, three died of smoke inhalation as they scrambled up a stairwell to escape the toxic fumes of the burning bank lobby. The others were rescued from second floor balconies as smoke billowed from the windows and doors behind them. The rioters on the street below prevented would-be rescuers from entering the front entrance and pelted arriving firefighting units with rocks and Molotov’s. Among the dead was a pregnant first time mother.

The deaths of three innocent Greeks cast a pall on the country. Everyone, politicians and unionists alike, agreed that storming parliament was fair game, but murder was not. The hunt is now on for the perpetrators, who escaped, and the blame game is in full swing.

The government blames the anarchists and other usual “agitators.” Most of the country appears to agree with this view because the bank bombing was part of a larger orgy of violence in which private vehicles, storefronts, media vans and assorted other private property and government offices were stoned, torched or otherwise vandalised. The KKE and most of the union movement chose to blame government policies and its kowtowing to foreign financial interests for setting ther stage for the tragedy. Others blame the bank workers for not shuttering the front door once the mob on the street outside morphed from a well organised column into random groupings of armed youth. Others blame local government regulations that allow the use of old buildings for housing and commercial purposes without fire prevention or escape retrofits. But so far one culprit has remained unscathed by criticism–the bank itself.

Marfim Egnatia Bank is the largest majority Greek owned bank. It controls the Greek Investment Bank and has stakes in a number of commercial enterprises including the likes of Olympic Airways. It borrows heavily from foreign financial institutions in order to maintain and expand its commercial presence. Its Board of Directors is entirely Greek. And yet this bank ordered its workers in downtown Athens to report to work on a day when all of Greece knew that it would become a low intensity conflict zone. No banking business was (or could have been) done at that branch on May 5. But 20 workers, clerical staff and branch management alike, were told to effectively risk their lives and keep ther front door open as a sign that Marfin Egnatia supported the government decision to accept the terms of the bailout and as a symbol of rejection of the general strike. But it was not the Board of Directors or upper management who were going to make that stand. Instead it t was the retail (mostly female) foot soldiers who were made to face the much anticipated wrath of the disaffected children of the bourgeoisie, unemployed working class and assorted lumpenproletarians.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem of Greece. An utterly contemptuous corporate (often hereditary) elite that indulges the political classes and orchestrates oligopolistic control of the national economy from the comfort and safety of the Athenian north and western far suburbs. An elite that weekends in the islands and watches the strikes on TV. An elite that will, by all measures, be singularly unaccountable or untroubled by the austerity regime now imposed on their fellow citizens.

Their disgrace is paralleled by that of the murderous hooded street thugs who enjoy violence for violence sake, and who take advantage of the Greek indulgence of ritualised confrontation to pursue their anti-social agendas, agendas that have zero political purpose other than to demonstrate contempt for the status quo. Both the Marfin Egnatia Bank bosses and the hooded street thugs who threw the firebombs into the bank knew that innocent, working people were being placed in the line of fire.  And in both cases, they simply did not care.  In their contempt for others, it turns out that  Greek elites and street cretins are alike.

That is why the deaths on May 5 were so quintessentially Hellenic: avoidable, unnecessary, preventable, pointless and yet palpable as well as inevitable.

PS: For those interested in English language news coverage of Greece, check out www.ekathimerini.com (but be aware that it has a right-centre orientation).

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.

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