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NZDF links in the Iraq “kill chain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spare a thought for grumpy old men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the best palliative of all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a Broad Front can be made from that.

Peddling drivel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A matter of insubordination and contempt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye to a good soul.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanksgiving Weekend is ending here in Boston. For the first time in 15 years I spent it in the US with family and friends. It struck me that Thanksgiving is one of the few remaining symbols of common values left in the US. Independence Day, Christmas, New Years and Super Bowl Sunday all have broad appeal, but only Thanksgiving has the single unifying thread of family to keep it above partisan, religious, ethnic, racial and assorted other divisive tendencies within US society.

Buchanan family Thanksgiving table in The Barn, Holliston, MA.. Photo courtesy Kathy LaCroix Buchanan

Not that all believe Thanksgiving to be controversy-free. Plenty of indigenous people believe that the Pilgrims were complicit in the subjugation and expulsion of eastern tribes from their ancestral lands. The Pilgrims, we may recall, were 40 religious refugees (“Separatists” or “Saints”) who were among the 102 passengers from England who landed first at what became known as Provincetown (on Cape Cod), then Plymouth, Massachusetts (on the mainland) on November 11, 1620 after crossing the Atlantic from the southern English port of Plymouth on the Dutch-made merchant (“fluyt’) ship Mayflower. Originally intending to settle on the Hudson River where an earlier European settlement was already in place, the Pilgrims were thwarted by bad weather and sailing conditions and decided to seek shelter further East. Armed with a grant from the London Company and Crown for the exchange of goods for religious autonomy and self-governance, the Saints/Pilgrims and their fellow travelers were decimated by illness and harsh winter conditions, with only half surviving until the next winter.

Conventional history has it that the Pilgrims arrived in peace and interacted amicably with the native Wampanoag and their sub-tribes (mostly grouped as Alonquian peoples). They also established the Mayflower Compact as the governing framework for the new colony, something that guaranteed all male colonialist participation in collective decision-making and which is considered to be one of the foundations of US democracy. It was in this context that the first shared meal with the local Pokanoket tribe was held in 1621, something that has passed into folklore as Thanksgiving. That meal followed on the heels of the Wampanoag-Pilgrim Peace treaty of April 1, 1621, which bound the settlers and all Wampanoag tribes together against other tribes (such as the Mohawk and Mohegan).

Critical interpretations paint a less rosy picture, noting prior conflict between earlier European settlers and Eastern tribes, with the first shared meal being less an act of cross-cultural friendship than a forced terms of settlement ceremony by which the Pilgrims began a divide-and-conquer process against the indigenous people. Whatever the intent of that breaking of bread, and admitting that colonization did result in the loss of land and displacement of the indigenous majority over the next centuries, “Thanksgiving Day” entered into US mythology as a moment to pause in order to give thanks for the blessings received and ties that bind.

Fast forward to today and one can see that the divide and conquer process is now being used on the settler colonizers in an extremely effective way, yet one that is different to that used on the original indigenous inhabitants. The instrument of division is called “commercialization” and it employs retail therapy as a form of community dismemberment.

For the last decade consumer non-durable retailers have pushed the day after Thanksgiving as “Black Friday,” not so much because it is a deadly day to be avoided but because it is a day for so-called “black” sales of retail goods: everyone gets a heavy discount on whiteware, electronics, toys,clothes and other merchandise so long as they are able to get their hands on the discounted goods. This causes thousands of commodity fetishistic numbskulls to line up 24 hours in advance of opening at assorted malls and other shopping venues in the hope of snagging a 20 dollar 60 inch TV and whatever else is within grasp amongst the grappling hordes. This has caused crushes, riots and a few deaths over the years, but the urge to shop on Black Friday is now reified in the media and popular culture to the extent that the original point of Thanksgiving–to give thanks for family and the benefits at hand–has been replaced by the urge to engage in competitive shopping. This no joke: on Black Friday the retail zombies literally fight each other over bins of discounted goods less than a day after the day of thanks. The media cover the crowded malls and traffic chaos as if they were national celebrations (or disasters, depending on your point of view), with person-in-the-street interviews suggesting that for many the importance of the weekend is the sales, not in spending time with family.

Although the day after Thanksgiving Thursday is not a statutory holiday, it has traditionally been treated as the middle of a long family weekend. Football has been added to the mix, with a range of college “rivalry” games and professional football contests serving as backdrops to the reunions. In recent years it has morphed into Black Friday, which in turn has also become a weekend affair culminating in Cyber Monday: the day in which telecommunications devices are fire-sold, especially via on-line retailers. In fact, on-line sales are rapidly approaching in-store sales, which has prompted shopping outlets such as malls to turn the Thanksgiving weekend into a sales event masquerading as a cultural moment, but without the historical linkage back to 1620. Today it is all about pumpkins, autumn colors, pilgrims and turkeys as caricatures rather than historical legacies, and the vibe is about using Thanksgiving as an icon in order to sell an infinite array of product. Fathers and sons can bond over ride-on lawn mowers and ratchet sets as they undertake autumn outdoor chores; moms and daughters can get their pumpkin baking mojo going together with the latest Martha Stewart oven accessory line. Granddads and grandmas can hug the little ones as they fiddle the consoles of their Pilgrim-themed electronic games.

The commercialization frenzy brought on by Black Friday has not only eclipsed the meaning of Thanksgiving but is in fact just the start of a month-long sales push leading towards Christmas, which in turn is followed by its own returns-and-exchanges day (Boxing Day). The entire month between the two holidays is an orgy of conspicuous consumption and brand tie-ins (to the military, football, Santa Claus and whatever else can entice a purchase). Whatever the spirit of togetherness fostered by the communal offering of thanks in late November, the ensuing four weeks is an exercise is materialist self-gratification.

This extends to petty thieves. The advent of on-line shopping has led to a proliferation of so-called package thefts, whereby thieves follow delivery vehicles around and steal packages from front doorsteps. The distinctive packaging used by Amazon is particularly irresistible to the low-lifes, but the general trend is to let others do the shopping and treat doorsteps deliveries as an invitation to help oneself to the surprises that they contain. Let here be no doubt about it: there is a country-wide epidemic of this type of theft, something that is a microcosmic distillation of how the spirit of Thanksgiving is well and truly gone.

Therein lies the tale. What wars and internal political divisions could not do (even Trump was silent on Thanksgiving Day!), the consumerist mentality and grotesque commercialization of everything has done. It has further broken many of the horizontal solidarity ties that once held communities together and promoted a form of nihilist alienation that is abetted and deepened by the advent of social media and individual telecommunication devices. The result is a society of self-gratifying materialists unconcerned with and unencumbered by the responsibilities of civic engagement.

There are just 2700 Wampanoag left today and they are dependent, as is the case with so many tribes, on gambling for economic sustenance. Things might have been different had they discovered that the best way to undermine the Mayflower Compact and its historical sequels was to push commodities on the white man rather than share a meal and foster community with him.

PS: Here is the RadioLive interview counterpart to this post. It begins with Thanksgiving, then wanders into a range of other subjects: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/audio/2017/11/-thanksgiving-is-being-degraded-in-the-states—-paul-buchanan.html

Letters from America, take ten: Land of the camo people.

datePosted on 07:42, November 10th, 2017 by Pablo

I spent most of last week in Northeast Texas and Southeast Oklahoma. I have a friend from the 1970s who lives in that neck of the woods with his extended family. Since it has been 20 years since I last visited them–in fact, on the even of my departure for NZ–I decided to make the trip and introduce them to my Kiwi family. It was a great personal reunion and an eye-opening experience in general.

The region between Dallas and the Oklahoma border town of Durant is dotted with small towns separated by low rolling hills dedicated to small-scale ranching. Old oil derricks litter the landscape, and many are still in service. Much of the industry in the region is dedicated to ranching and drilling services, although larger towns like Sherman, TX  (pop 38,500) serve as commercial and entertainment hubs for the surrounding communities on both sides of the border.

The region as a whole is known as Texoma, but the contrast between the two states is significant. The Texas side is relatively prosperous in a low-key, country sort of way: people are unfailingly polite, cowboy culture is enshrined, the pickup trucks and ten gallon hats American-made and expensive, and the music runs the gamut of country and western sub-genres (I had never heard of the phrase “country pop” until I heard it on the radio while driving from the Forth Worth suburbs to Durant). Although I did see a dead deer with an arrow sticking out of it along state route 51, there was otherwise a peaceful air about the countryside. There is no personal income tax in Texas so state revenues depend on assorted value-added taxation schemes, where ranchers with oil on their land receive a percentage of (and pay taxes on) the revenues accrued from their wells. Property taxes are relatively high even if working land is taxed lower than residential or commercial lots. This helps explain why education in Texas is pretty well-funded and scholastic achievement statistics are generally good. Not suprisingly unemployment in NE Texas is low and other social stats are on the positive side.

Crossing the Red River into Oklahoma things change. The landscape remains rolling but gets more barren. Dwellings are more run-down, trailer homes more prevalent, commercial buildings are often shuttered and the people appear more hard scrabble. In the US Oklahoma has the fourth highest percentage of indigenous people living in it, and the part of SE Oklahoma where I visited is the home of the Choctaw Nation. Along with sister tribes like the Chichasaw and Cherokee, the Choctaw were removed from their ancestral lands further East in Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and Georgia by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Removal to what were then known as the “Indian Lands” was contentious and often bloody, but in then end the Choctaw and other tribes were settled on land that was largely infertile or otherwise not suited for agriculture.  This led to a steady slide into poverty on the reservations, something that was paralleled in the non-Indian communities adjacent to them. That situation has been slightly ameliorated by the promotion of gambling industries on Indian land, something permitted by federal law. Not surprisingly, the largest commercial enterprise in Durant (pop 16,600) is a casino resort operated by the Choctaw Nation, although the sum effect of its operations is as much making money off of misery as it is adding opportunity to the Choctaws. I do not gamble but stayed one night at the casino resort as part of a larger gathering. Suffice it to say that the demographic cross-section in the gaming rooms was, to my untrained eyes, a sample of despair, desperation and delusion under bright, blinking lights.

Beyond that, economy of the region is driven by small-scale manufacturing and services related to ranching and mining, public sector agencies and public goods provision and small-scale professional services such as lawyers, doctors etc.

Interestingly, unlike Texas, in Oklahoma ranchers do not control the mineral rights to the land underneath the topsoil that they own. State regulations allow commercial drilling underneath private land and what revenues are extracted from that drilling goes to the commercial outfit and the state by way of taxation on corporate profits. This includes the practice of side-drilling from one property into another and fracking, which is the mechanical introduction of highly pressurized water mixed with leaching chemicals into defunct, low yield or potentially productive shale deposits in order to force out oil and/or natural gas. Since fracking is very destructive to aquifers due to its contamination effects, the introduction of fracking spells the end of ranching on the land above it (since trucking in water is not economic for any commercially viable herd). This could well explain in part why ranching in SE Oklahoma is not as healthy as it is across the southern border.

Oklahoma also spends the least amount on education of the 50 US states. It shows. From what I gathered people’s social horizons are very limited, their knowledge (and interest in) of public affairs outside of their immediate communities is negligible, their access to a cross-section of media and opinion non-existent, and their prospects for the future mixed at best. Some people are doing pretty well, such as the remaining local ranchers in and around Durant and Ardmore, OK (pop. 32,300). Many others seem to be living a sort of Oliver Twist existence, scrambling to get by on odd jobs or menial, manual or semi-skilled labor. A large share of people are on some sort of benefit, although preference is given to those with indigenous blood lines or lacking any source of income. Unemployment in Durant is listed at 4.2 percent, higher than the surrounding Bryan County average of 3.8 percent. Yet those living in poverty in Durant amount to 25.3 percent of the population (18.3 percent in Bryan County). The dependency rate in Bryan County (those people on some sort of benefit) is at 56.6 percent, well above the national average of 49.7 percent, as is that of Durant (52.7 percent). Along with the data on poverty, that suggests that under-employment is a problem in that corner of Oklahoma, and that the official statistics hide a grimmer reality between the lines.

One such reality is an epidemic of opioid addiction. For a variety of reasons intrinsic and extrinsic to the people involved, the supply and consumption of prescription painkillers is rampant. Most of the pill trade is legal, as pharmaceutical companies have discounted the price of prescription painkillers, doctors are inclined to prescribe them even for minor ailments and pharmacies all too happy to supply them to otherwise able-bodied people. The result is a vicious circle of addiction in which the main impediment to sobriety is the incentive structure built into the supply chain. Short of a doctor refusing to prescribe more pills, patients are shuttled conveyor belt style through the assembly line of pain clinics and pharmacies catering to their vice. Even when doctors refuse to continue to write scripts for patients clearly suffering from addiction symptoms, other less scrupulous physicians will step into their place. And then there is the black market trade in opioids, which overlaps with the illicit drug trade in cannabis, cocaine and methamphetamine and which intersects with the legal trade in alcohol outside of the reservations (but available inside of the casinos, as it turns out).

I was astounded at the amount and variety of drugs prescribed, some of which I have never heard of before but which are apparently many more times stronger than morphine or heroin. Within the extended family that I visited there were two people suffering from addiction to opioids, one ostensibly for pain and the other for anxiety. Both were well down the path of chemical dependency and both had dysfunctional lives as a result of that.

The other grim reality, at least in my view, was the presence and amount of guns in that society. Every adult that we came into contact with had guns, in most cases multiple guns. They had guns for hunting and self-protection. They had guns in their homes, sheds, boats and cars. They had pistols, revolvers, bolt-action single shot rifles, multiple shot carbines, shotguns and semi-automatic military-style long arms. Some liked to collect guns, some like to target practice and some liked to hunt. At least two had shot at another person in anger(although my friend, a Vietnam War vet, had done so while in combat). These were responsible people, so the guns that they were not carrying on them were presumably locked away. But I had an uneasy feeling when interacting with strangers at places like gas stations or bottle shops that I was one misunderstanding away from getting a hot lead injection.

Although the region is also heavily religious, especially of the Protestant-Baptist variety, guns are the secular equivalent of a religion in Texoma. People worship, in fact deify guns. Some of that worship is fetishistic, but most of it is cultural. The love of guns is not driven by National Rifle Association Second Amendment lobbying or public advertising. It is driven by something much deeper, much more visceral than rights-based. That deeper root is fear.

I was struck by how much fear is layered into the lives of Texoma residents even though the threats that they face are comparatively few and relatively minor. Some of that fear is of the unknown–of Muslim extremists (none of whom live anywhere near the region), of hordes of undocumented Latinos (although the region has a long and amicable history of Mexican migration and settlement, to include generations of intermarriage with Indians as well as Anglos), of unseen liberals and “others” who want to destroy their way of life under the guise of PC mandates and forced toleration of non-Christian customs and behavior.

They also fear a known threat: the federal government. Yet, although the threat is identifiable and in the case of the Indian Nations historically grounded in fact, the degree of threat posed by the federal government to the people of SE Oklahoma seems exaggerated. Sure, there are taxation issues, but no more than any other semi-rural jurisdiction. Sure, there are complaints about federal regulations interfering with the right to make a living, but these are far fewer than those that are imposed by the state legislature and are more focused on things like environmental security than the pursuit of profit per se. Sure, there are central versus local government disputes involving decision-making about public funding priorities and levels, which are compounded by the sovereign status of Indian nations and the autonomy of reservation governance. But these are no more or less than in other states with significant Indian populations. Likewise, there are fears over federal seizure of lands, yet the possibility of this in SE Oklahoma (and the extent of federal land ownership itself) is less than in other Western states where arguments about grazing rights on federal land have descended into violence. And then there is the conspiracy side of the equation (although it is not so crazy to think if one happens to be Indian): fear of the Feds coming to take their guns and/or sending troops to impose central rule over them. Since I try to deal in practical realities of the current and immediate future, there is not much I can say to counter those concerns.

The contradictions inherent in hatred for the federal government are mulitlayered. Much of the welfare dependency of Bryan Country is tied to federal benefit programs such as social security and Medicaid (in fact, the majority of people in Durant stand to lose medical benefits should Obamacare be repealed). The fear of “the Feds” is contradicted by the dependency on them on the part of a significant portion of the local population, on the one hand, and their relative absence from daily life, on the other. Added to this is the worship of the US military by non-Indian Oklahomans, something that is attached to the gun culture and which serves as an avenue of recruitment for the military and upward mobility and mind-broadening for many local youth (recalling the adverts about “joining the military and seeing the world,” which were quickly subverted into “join the military, see the world, meet new people, and then kill them” piss takes).

In sum, fear of “the Feds” is seemingly out of proportion to the threats to local harmony, identity and prosperity emanating from Washington, DC. In other words, there is a fair bit of paranoia imbedded in what is an overall sense of false consciousness on the part of many living in that part of the country. Yet that is the reality that they perceive and live.

The combination of cultural, economic and sociological traits embedded in the Texoma demographic gives rise to what one of the family members that I visited called the “camo people”: beer and bourbon drinking, tobacco chewing, gun-toting, lower-income working and middle class, God-fearing patriotic folk who love the flag while wearing camouflage during their daily trips to the Wal-Mart down the road and to their cousin’s weddings. That is their culture and they want it to stay that way.

All of this makes for an obvious thing: Texoma is a hard red political district and it lies at the core of Donald Trump’s support. No amount of disdain or argumentation by “flyover” effete liberal coastal elites is going to change their minds or shake that support. Nor will the glaring contradictions between Trump’s words and deeds or his background and theirs. Many of them may be close to down and out or one beef jerky pack away from starvation, but they know what they fear and don’t like even if they do not personally have contact with or understand what they fear, and they know what they do like when it comes to guns, God and the pursuit of happiness unencumbered by the conventions of propriety prescribed by others.

All talk of the “land of the free” aside, it may not be an exercise in freedom as might be understood by the likes of me, but then again, what understanding of freedom they have is circumscribed by the opportunity structures to which they are exposed given the cultural, socioeconomic and political contex in which they live. If freedom is defined, as Janis Joplin once sang, as “having nothing left to lose” rather than having range of choice and control over the circumstances of their lives, then indeed many of the people of SE Oklahoma are free. If they are happy for it thanks to the power of God, guns, flag and drugs, then more power to them.

In the upper reaches of Texoma, serfs rejoice that Trump is King.

The deaths of four US servicemen in Niger has brought attention the fact that the US military operates in far more places and in far more numbers than the public, and apparently senior members of the US Congress (which supposedly has oversight responsibility for US foreign military deployments) are aware of. Estimates of US bases abroad range from 800 bases in 70 countries to 900 bases in 130 countries, with anywhere from 250 thousand to over 750 thousand troops deployed overseas a given time (the total of bases on foreign soil operated by other countries is around 30, mostly by former colonial powers). The reason that the figure varies is that the Pentagon refuses to reveal the precise number of clandestine or “lilly pad” bases (less than 200 troops on station), so the numbers publicly acknowledged are grounded in the permanent installations the US maintains in places such as Okinawa, Spain, Germany, South Korea, and the United Kingdom.  This does not include CIA paramilitary forces operating abroad, which are roughly thought to be in the hundreds.

The ambush that killed the four US Army Special Forces (SF) sergeants was staged during a routine “train, advise and assist” (TAA)/reconnaissance mission in the Southwestern border with Mali. They were part of a 12 man Green Beret team accompanying a 30 man Nigerien partner unit during a routine meeting with local leaders in the village of Tongo Tongo, part of an area in which Daesh is known to operate on both sides of the border (but which until this particular attack had not been sighted near Tongo Tongo during 29 previous patrols). The SF team was part of an 800 strong US military presence in Niger under the jurisdiction of the US African Command (AFCOM) deployed there to help the Nigerien and French militaries fight Daesh as it seeks safe havens in relatively lawless or stateless parts of Subsaharan and West Africa. The SF team/partner  platoon were attacked after they left the village on their way back to tactical HQ.

Leading figures in US Congress, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) claim that they were not briefed on the mission and have not been given answers as to what went wrong. Press attention has focused on the insensitive treatment of one widow by the President once her husband’s body was returned to the mainland, why one of the soldiers was left behind during the evacuation (he was later found dead a mile from the ambush site) and the fact that “no one knew” about the US military presence in Niger. In fact, most Americans and the President himself were unaware of what Niger was until the ambush. Now, partisan rebukes are being thrown and answers are being demanded. Yet, with only one percent of the US population directly connected to the US military as serving personnel or immediate relatives of those doing so, it is not entirely surprising that the public and corporate media are unaware of the full extent of US military activities outside of the open conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

A bit more surprising is the apparent Congessional ignorance of what is happening in AFCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) or the rules of engagement (ROEs) under which that SF team and other troops operate (that is relevant because it turns out that the ill-fated patrol had no US close air support and required French air assets to come to its assistance more than an hour after the ambush began). Since it is routine for the Pentagon to provide off-record briefs to the Armed Services Committees of both deliberative chambers on military operational matters abroad, this seems unusual unless there was a highly classified scenario being developed in that part of the world.

The surprise and arguments about the ambush in Niger–“Trump’s Benghazi,” as some are calling it–obscures an underlining fact: US imperialism is in crisis. It may or may not be terminal and it may or may not be positive for world peace, but the reasons for the crisis are worth exploring.

The crisis of US imperialism (or neo-imperialism, should one want to be pedantic) is rooted in both domestic as well as international factors. Domestically, the long era of “liberal internationalism” is over, and so far nothing as emerged by way of a coherent foreign policy and military strategic doctrine to replace it. Liberal internationalism, which emerged during the Cold War and remained as the guiding principle of the US approach to international relations until Donald Trump entered presidential office, is premised on the belief that the US has a special responsibility to engage in the international system in order to safeguard and expand a liberal democratic order based upon market capitalist principles. This was evident in the US role in creating international institutions such as the UN, WTO and IMF but also in its role as the ‘world’s policeman.” The idea was that the US, as the world’s superpower, had the responsibility to promote and maintain a system that, if not made in its image, was supportive of the liberal mores that it espoused, especially when these were challenged by actors with less noble motives. Many might disagree with both the premise and practice of liberal internationalism, but that is what guided US foreign policy and military diplomacy for almost a half century.

The liberal internationalist (some call it interventionist) consensus spanned both major parties and the foreign policy elite in Washington and in academia. But with the emergence of an economically nationalist and neo-isolationist “America First” Alt-Right led by the likes of Steve Bannon and endorsed by Trump, the consensus has broken down. Where American neo-conservatives and neo-Wilsonians, neo-realists, idealists and constuctivists could all paper over their differences under the umbrella of liberal internationalism in pursuit of US global hegemony, they are repudiated in their entirety by the America Firsters. However, other than the appeal to economic nationalism, xenophobia and a “strong military,” the latter are themselves unsure how to approach world affairs. This is seen in the Trump administration’s ad hoc approach to assorted foreign policy issues as well as in the lack of high and upper management level appointments in the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies (over 250 such positions remain unfilled ten months after Trump’s inauguration).

By way of default, the US imperial reach is increasingly maintained by the military rather than the diplomatic corps. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has decimated the upper ranks of the foreign service in favor of relying on a small cadre of trusted advisors, only a few of whom have the type of diplomatic experience that a career foreign service officer would have. In parallel, Trump has staffed the White House and Pentagon with retired and active duty generals, even in positions traditionally filled by civilians. The combination, when added to the lack of strategic vision and baseline foreign policy principles, has resulted in the conduct of US diplomacy led by military threat or fiat, as opposed to military diplomacy being subordinated to and guided by broader strategic and diplomatic objectives.

This is a major sign of weakness because the role of global hegemon requires that the majority of other states and international actors support US leadership and eventually accept and share its values as organizing principles for the international order. That is how the difference between “super” and “great” powers is drawn: “super” powers intervene in the international community in order to maintain and defend systemic interests grounded in the promotion and acceptance of shared perspectives and values, whereas “great” powers intervene in the international community to promote national interests in the absence or rejection of universal standards. Both approaches are grounded in realpolitik, but only the former is hegemonic because it relies more on diplomatic cooperation than military coercion.

Evidence that the US is declining in influence and moving from a “super” to a “great” power is seen externally. The return or rise of old and new powers has shifted the international system towards multipolarity after a decade or so of post-Cold War unipolarity. The US may still be central to the strategic equation inherent in the emerging mulitipolar system but it no longer dominates it. The endless wars since 9/11 have sapped its finances and public morale and demonstrated that its much proclaimed capability to fight and win 2.5 major regional conflicts (MRCs) was baseless in fact (the 2.5 MRC scenario was premised on the US simultaneously fighting and winning two major and one minor conventional regional conflicts alone and against any combination of adversaries. Unfortunately for US military planners and the troops that were deployed under that strategy and unlike Saddam Hussein’s forces, various enemies refused to cooperate by fighting the way they were expected to fight). And while its blood and treasure were and are drawn in dozens of conflicts such as that in Niger, other states push economic development and  military modernization as the path towards great power status.

Although it remains a potent, perhaps unchallenged fighting force under the right conditions, the impotence of the US when it comes to imposing a preferred political solution in the wake of military conflict has been noted by allies and adversaries alike. The latter now challenge the US more and more, in places both far from and near to what should be essential US national interests. They include states as well as non-state actors, and they undertake covert and overt hostilities against the US on several dimensions across multiple fronts, be they cyber, kinetic, economic or diplomatic. The US is increasingly unable to respond symetrically and effectively to these challenges even with a forward military presence spread across the globe.

The problem of US challengers acting with relative impunity in a multipolar world is not its only concern. US allies no longer see its as a reliable partner. This is largely due to the deleterious impact of the Trump presidency on the US reputation, but it is not reducible to it. Allies and adversaries can all see the political polarization within the US, the increase in racial and ethnic tensions, the growing economic inequalities, the culture clashes over traditional values, the overtly tribal nature of interest group intermediation, and the overly violent nature of a popular culture enabled and promoted by weapons manufacturers and the lobbies that use fear-mongering and mythology on their behalf to keep the culture of violence alive and growing. These internal contradictions all spell out the weakness of a society in decline. For many at both home and abroad, the US gives all the appearance of being Rome before the Fall.

It seems that the mainstream media and the public that watches it are slowly cottoning on to this fact even if the political class does not want to admit it. The lack of victories abroad, the lack of information about what the US military does and where it does it (even as the Trump administration authorises expanded CIA paramilitary operations, including drone hunts of suspected extremists), and the notion that the more the US tries to maintain its international position the more it weakens itself on the home front, appear to be gaining traction in the social consciousness. There is more open wondering about “why are we there and what purpose is being served” as opposed to the “if not us, then who” rationales that have dominated public discourse for the past decades. And even though concerns about terrorism remain strong, it is harder for people in the US to rationalize and support policies that claim that tribespeople with pre-modern social organizations in West Africa (or Afghanistan for that matter) are, through a long string of connections, a potential existential threat to the US mainland and its way of life.

Eroded from within and challenged from without, it appears that for this era of US (neo) imperialism, twilight has arrived. The question is what comes next, because if one thing is proven in history is that Empires in decline seldom go quietly into the night. And night is approaching, fast.

Postscript: The radio interview that prompted this reflection (and which covers more than this particular subject) can be found here.

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