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Some details about the US election campaign.

datePosted on 14:45, April 22nd, 2016 by Pablo

Coverage of the US election in NZ is pretty bad. The local media pundits are shallow at best and take their lead from US cable news services. The best analyses are either reprints or canned footage from US media outlets or in local political blogs (save the rabid frothing on certain reactionary outlets).

Since I get to vote in the elections I follow them pretty closely. Also, having been  based in the US for the twenty years prior to my arrival in NZ, I have practical experience with them, to including voting in 6 states. Because the coverage in NZ is sketchy on certain key details and because it follows the crude narrative of the Yank media, I figured I would offer a short primer on some key details leading up to the Republican and Democratic conventions in a few months.

Open versus closed primaries. 

Primary elections are held in all 50 states and US territories during presidential election years in order to award delegates to candidates pursuing the presidential nomination of their respective parties. The amount of delegates is based upon the number of registered members of a party in a given state, divided among the number of congressional districts in that state. In some states the awarding of delegates is a winner take all affair, while in others it is proportional to the number of votes each candidate receives out of the total number of people voting in a party’s’ primary. In some states there are caucuses instead of primaries, which are more consultative and informal than elections and offer greater leeway in delegate selection and commitment to candidates. Of course, like so much else in US elections, there is a fair bit of gerrymandering and dubious exchanges involved in delegate apportionment, but the general principle is as outlined.

In “closed” primaries only registered supporters of a given party may vote in that party’s primary. That forces voters to declare a preference in advance of the primary. The time frame for registering a party preference in order to be eligible to vote varies from state to state. For example, in Florida, where I am registered to vote, a person must register at least 60 days before the primary election. In New York the registration deadline is six months before the primary election date.

In closed primaries independent voters must either declare a party preference by the official registration deadline or else they are excluded from voting in the primary. This is important because the majority (40 percent) of US voters declare themselves to be Independents (the Democrats and GOP get around 29 percent and 27 percent of all registered voters). The motive for holding closed primaries is twofold: to suppress the vote in order to eliminate uncertainties on election day (since most independents either do not or cannot vote in party primaries); and to thereby allow the most committed party supporters to determine who the winning candidate will be. Although much attention has been directed at Trump and Sander’s complaints about the delegate selection process and inability of independents to vote, respectively, the hard fact is that both the Democratic Party and GOP try to control the primary voting process via closed elections in most states. The Democratic and Republican National Committees co-ordinate (some would say conspire) with state and local party officials to add just enough opaqueness to the process so that electoral uncertainty is limited while the appearance of free and fair elections is maintained.

In “open” primaries voters do not have to register prior to the election date. They can simply declare a party preference on election day or shortly before the election, the walk into the voting station with the voting papers of the party they have chosen. The only requirement for voting is that they show proof of residence in a given state. This allows independent voters to often have a decisive impact on the outcome and leads to greater amounts of strategic voting. For instance, when I lived in Virginia and later in Arizona, which were open primary states during the times I lived there, I would often vote in the Republican primary in order to vote for the most troglodyte candidate on the ballot. My hope was that in doing so I would help said candidate win the nomination because he (it was always a he) was unelectable in the general election. Unfortunately that did not always happen, but you get the general idea.

“Open” primaries are often a better indication of general election outcomes because they are less dominated by internal party logics and less “controllable” by party bosses. Conversely, “closed” primaries tend to reflect better the desires of committed party voters, something that may or may not be translatable into general election victories.

Another important thing to remember is not so much the percentages of the vote won by each candidate but the total number of votes registered for each party in a given primary. For example, in the recent “closed” New York primary the total GOP vote was around 800,000 whereas the Democratic vote was close to 1.8 million (that is, more than double the Republican vote). In conservative rural states such as those of the Midwest and South (the so-called red states), the numbers for each party are reversed (and much lower in aggregate). So a candidate winning by huge margins in party primaries that have significantly fewer voters than the opposition is no sure bet to go on and win a general election.

It is useful to keep this statistic in mind when projecting out to the general election. For example, it does not matter if Trump wins 80 percent of the GOP vote in a primary in which the GOP receives less than half of the total number of votes than that received by the Democratic Party candidates because come general election day his numbers will have to bolstered by a huge amount of independent votes (who are allowed to vote in general elections for whomever they prefer). Since most Independents tend to vote Democratic in general elections, that means that not only will he have to have a historic turn out by Republican voters in his favour (again, at just 27 percent of the general electorate), but he will also have to overcome a deeply rooted historic Independent voting trend if he is to win. That is a big ask.

Brokered or Contested Conventions.

Most national party conventions in US presidential election years are more a coronation than a nomination. Usually the preferred candidate has the winning threshold of delegate numbers pretty much in hand by May or early June, so the conventions (which are always held in July or early August in order to be able to dedicate at least three months to the national campaign) are mere formalities that have become increasingly garish and circus-like in recent years. Long on style and short on substance, these uncontested conventions are designed to show party unity and promote patriotic appeal in the eyes of uncommitted voters.

“Brokered” or “contested” conventions are a whole other kettle of fish. In these type of conventions no candidate has the winning number of delegates on the day the convention opens. That leads to a series of ballots amongst delegates until one candidate emerges with a 50 percent plus one vote majority. The first ballot is a so-called “loyalty” ballot in which delegates vote for whom they are pledged to (the saying is that you vote for the person who brought you to the big dance). Since the first ballot only serves to confirm the lack of a delegate majority by any candidate, then a subsequent round of balloting occurs until a majority candidate is decided upon. That is where things get interesting because after the first loyalty ballot delegates are released from their pledges and can support whomever they think has the best chance of winning the general election (or at least presumably that is the logic at play. It is entirely possible that some delegates may play to lose by selecting an unelectable presidential candidate in order to eliminate him or her from party politics after the defeat).

Balloting continues until a candidate is selected. That not only brings intra-party conflicts out into the open. It also is where the backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms, the backstabbing, horse trading and sausage-making all come into play. It is an ugly process that often leads the winning candidate battered and bruised rather than sanctified, which in turns leads to a weakened position heading into the general election–something the opposing party candidate will pounce on.

If I recall correctly, the last brokered convention was in 1979, when Ted Kennedy challenged sitting president Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention. Carter won the party nomination, only to be trounced by Ronald Reagan in the general election. As people noted at the time, if an incumbent president could be challenged at his own party convention, why should voters think that he was worth re-electing?

Brokered or contested elections are bad news for the parties in question. That is why both the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Republican National Committee (RNC) are doing everything they can to derail the campaigns of the two “outsiders” in the race, Sanders and Trump. Remember that Bernie Sanders has never been a Democrat. From his days as mayor of Burlington, Vermont to his Senate career, he ran and served as an Independent until the time he entered the Democratic presidential nomination campaign. The DNC fears and loathes him, a sentiment made worse by the fact that he has derailed what was supposed to be Hillary Clinton’s inevitable and uncontested  march to the presidency. Now, the path to coronation is not so certain. Clinton needs to win 66 percent of the remaining delegates in order to secure the nomination. With states like California, Oregon, Maryland and Pennsylvania still in play, that task is not going to be easy. Even if she does win enough delegates to secure the nomination before the convention (and the selection of special interest group “super delegates” was designed to ensure that), she will have to make concessions to Sanders’ policy platform if she is to retain the support of his followers (who otherwise will not vote for her even if they fear a Trump or Cruz presidency). This complicates things for her as well as for her largest patrons, since Bernie has his sights firmly focused on Wall Street and other corporate lobbies like Big Phrama that have donated massively to her campaign. And if Clinton does not secure 66 percent of the remaining delegates, then a contested convention is in her future.

As for Trump, well, he is the fly in the RNC ointment. If he gets the necessary amount of delegates by the time of the convention, then the GOP will be forced by their own rules to award him the nomination. If that happens there is some talk of the GOP running an “independent” candidate against him so as to distance their brand from his name in an election that they expect to lose.

If Trump does not secure the necessary number of delegates before the convention, then a brokered convention is likely. The RNC both fears and wants that to happen. Fears, because it most likely will lead to defeat in November. Wants, because it could be the only way to prevent Trump from winning the nomination. If the convention is brokered or contested it is probable that Trump will be denied the nomination in favour of a “compromise” candidate even if he has the most delegate votes in the first round of balloting.  If so, it is likely that he will not go quietly and may mount his own “independent” campaign. Either way, the GOP is doomed in the general election because whoever runs an independent campaign on the Right will divide conservative voters and forfeit the chance of success against Hillary (with or without Bernie’s supporters).

Trump displays his lack of political understanding when he rails about delegate selection and how the person who gets the most GOP votes nation-wide should win the nomination. He fails to understand that, as with the Electoral College and the Senate, delegate selection is specifically designed to put the brakes on demagogic or populist appeals and mass influence over party politics. Moreover, he claims that even if he comes up short (say, by a hundred or less delegates out of the 1237 needed to win the nomination), as the leader in pledged delegates entering the convention he should be given the nomination much in the way a conceded putt is given in golf.

In doing so  he evidences exactly the disdain for institutional rules and procedures that the party elite is most concerned about. His rhetoric has already trashed many GOP sacred cows, so his push to circumvent or change its convention rules is seen as a major step towards the party’s demise (at least in its present form). Add to that his ignorance of even the most elementary notions of separation of powers and Executive Authority, and you have a GOP disaster-in-chief in the making. Heck, Trump as president (or Cruz for that matter) could well make Dubya Bush look positively Churchillian in comparison. Hence the RNC desire to snuff him out, and the only way to do so short of assassination is to force a brokered convention or run an “independent” candidate against him even if it ensures a loss in November.

 Campaign Financing.

I will not get into the intricacies of US campaign financing laws save for a couple of items. Individual contributions to candidates are limited but contributions to so-called Political Action Committees (PACs and Super PACs) are not. Under US electoral law corporations and lobbying groups are considered to be the same as individuals (i.e. there is no ceiling on contributions to PACs). PACs have been created as a way to circumvent the limitations on contributions to candidates and often serve as thinly disguised fronts for individual campaigns. Most of the money used to buy advertising, pay campaign staff and conduct the street level, grassroots get-out-the-vote work is channeled through PACs.

However, there is a twist. Before the national conventions, the DNC and RNC are prohibited from donating money to the campaigns of individual presidential candidates. Conversely, individual candidates can fund raise for themselves but not for others. This is an important detail because much fund-raising done by candidates like Hillary Clinton is done to channel money to so-called “coattail” candidates, that is, people in her party running for non-presidential offices who can benefit from the trickle down effect of her star power. Remember that in a presidential election year it is not just the presidency that is at stake. The entire House of Representatives (elected every two years) and one third of the Senate (elected every six years) are up for grabs as well, as are host of state and local offices.  This year 34 Senate seats are being contested and a shift in six seats would restore a Democratic majority, something that is almost as important to a Democratic presidency as is the person who holds it.

Therein lies the rub. None of the candidates are legally allowed to hold coattail fund-raisers and neither of the party national committees can help fund their candidacies until the nomination is secured. The Sanders campaign has cried foul after Hillary mentioned that her fund-raising was designed not just for herself but for other candidates, but the DNC has dismissed her slip of the tongue as inconsequential. In any event the practical solution to campaign financing is to channel all funds through PACs, which can then be instructed to finance campaigns for political offices up and down the ballot.

This is where, again, Bernie and The Donald have problems. The DNC and RNC are clearly channeling PAC money away from them and towards their rivals. Their own fund-raising efforts are focused on themselves without coattail-inducing support. Bernie has raised millions in small donations from individuals and some (mostly union) money, but is virtually devoid of serious PAC support. Trump is self-funded and it is debatable as to whether the RNC will reverse itself and direct money towards him in the event he secures the GOP nomination. If it does not, even his millions may not be enough to counter a well-financed, PAC-driven Democratic campaign with coattail effect, or even an “independent” GOP campaign focused more on securing the non-presidential positions on the ballot rather than the presidency.

In summation, once you strip away the dog and pony show aspects of the US election campaign, what you get is a contest run by two major parties that are authoritarian and hierarchical at their core, where both attempt to control voting outcomes from above rather than below, and which use electoral frameworks, convention rules and circuitous campaign financing to achieve that end. In that regard, the prospects for victory in November clearly lay on the Democratic side, whereas the prospects for an open party rupture is patently evident in the GOP.

Let the circuses conventions begin!

 

I have had a professional interest in torture since my days doing human rights work in Latin America. As part of that work I talked to victims as well as perpetrators of state terrorism and subsequently wrote professionally about its usage in Argentina. Later on I consorted with members of the US counter-intelligence community who were responsible for interrogations of suspected spies and other bad people. They helped me understand the difference between coercive (as opposed to passive or sympathetic) interrogations and torture. The combination of experiences made clear to me that torture is more about punishment and collective deterrence through fear than it is about timely and sensitive information-gathering.

When the US started using its “enhanced interrogation techniques” after 9/11, descending into the medieval weirdness of Abu Ghraib and camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay, I tried to make sense of it.

In recent years the US Congress and the CIA have conducted investigations into the enhanced interrogation program. The bottom line is twofold: enhanced interrogations did not work any better than “normal” interrogations in extracting valuable information from terrorism suspects; and the justifications for using them was specious and deceptive at best. The best way of garnering valuable intelligence, as it turns out, is through a combination of timely signals collections working in concert with old fashion human intelligence gathering on the ground.

Now along comes Donald Trump claiming that not only does torture work but that he would “do worse” to suspects than water boarding in order to extract information from them. By now it should be clear that he is a blithering idiot on foreign relations, military affairs, intelligence operations, and pretty much everything else when it comes to public policy, to say nothing of being a serial liar with the purest case of narcissistic personality disorder seen since Narcissus himself (and were it that he could only suffer the same fate).

Heck, he makes Al Gore’s claim about inventing the internet look like a child’s fib in comparison!

In any event, Trump is dangerously wrong.

In an interview with a NZ business publication, this is what I had to say bout Trump’s remarks.

The destruction of brand Trump.

datePosted on 11:37, March 13th, 2016 by Pablo

As readers may be aware I am delighted by the Trump candidacy because it is destroying the Republican Party and will pave the way for an epic defeat in the November general elections. Not only will the GOP lose the presidential race because none of its candidates will be able to muster the votes needed to overcome the Democratic advantage (be it Hillary or Bernie who lead the ticket). It could well lose control of Congress on the negative coattails of the presidential race (the entire House and 1/3 of the Senate are up for grabs, with the Democrats needing to win 4-5 current Republican seats in order to gain control of the Senate). It does not matter if Trump is the GOP presidential candidate or if he or another Republican go independent in the wake of the convention, which itself promises to be a bloodbath. The vast majority of swing voters and independents, who tend to vote on the Left in any event, will be galvanised to vote against whatever the Republicans have to offer, Trump in particular. For all his bluster about bringing out new voters on the Republican side, what he really has done is bring out new voters on both sides–most of whom are against him. As a result, the GOP is doomed and could well split into Tea bagger/populist and “moderate” right parties in the wake of what is looming as an electoral  catastrophe of historical proportions.

A tipping point has been reached this week with the escalation of protests against Trump at his rallies and the retaliatory violence of his supporters and campaign staff and security against those who dare confront him on his xenophobic bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric (and one has to ask why local law enforcement and the Secret Service act as his praetorian guard when removing peaceful protesters at his behest. After all, they are not in his employ and are not legally authorised to detain, handcuff and arrest people exercising their right to protest in public spaces just because he wants them forcibly removed).

The cancellation of a Chicago rally because of protests will only encourage more of them, and they will be increasingly large and organised in nature. That in turn will enrage Trump, who does not have the good sense (or even basic ability) to moderate his venom, which will bring out the full nut case element in his support base (which has already started to appear more and more frequently). Unfortunately, it is now a very real possibility that someone will be killed or seriously injured at a Trump rally, and the perpetrators will be his supporters, not his opponents.

When that happens, the wheels will come off the Trump political cart.

By then the damage to the GOP “brand” will have been irretrievably done. But what I find just as wonderful is that Brand Trump itself is now irreversibly damaged as well. However illusory, it used to represent luxury, opulence, quality, style and the excess that comes with success. It had global recognition. It was synonymous with capitalist high rolling, only in part because of his obsession with casinos.

In the wake of this presidential campaign, that image has been replaced by something less illusory and much darker. “Trump” is now synonymous with racism, xenophobia, buffoonery, demagoguery, narcism, sociopathy, chauvinism, misogyny, war-mongering, bullying, cheating, lying, senseless violence, stupidity–the list goes on. Whatever people may have done by way of word association with the name Trump in the past, my bet is that the first thing that now comes to mind when his name is mentioned is some of the negative terms mentioned above.  In fact, the word Trump may well become an adjective or verb, as in “that old white dude went all Trump on me when I said that Obama was not a Kenyan,” or “that reactionary fool is just plain Trumped in the head.” It could even be used as a noun, for example, as in “Trumpster:” n.: an idiot, fool, dolt, ignoramus, numbskull, someone who is gullible, slow on the uptake, blindly naive or prejudiced in the extreme.

His tarnished brand may survive in the US, perhaps in red neck resort destinations like the Florida panhandle and the coastal Deep South and/or parts of Appalachia. But many Americans, and not just “ethnic” Americans or Democrats, will shun his products, services and anything with his name on it. There may be boycotts and protests organised against them. And with the possible exception of Putin’s Russia (given the mutual admiration society he runs with Trump), as a global brand it is finished. Think of the Arabs, Latin Americans, Asians and even Europeans that Trump has scapegoated and insulted. Any current or potential Trump business partner or investor now has to wonder if they will be tainted by association with him and whether their business will suffer as a result. Given daily revelations of his less than salubrious past business dealings, profound dishonesty and myriad failures that have ruined others much more than it has hurt him,what foreign governments other than those of tinpot dictators are going to want a bar of him as an investment partner? Even better, increased scrutiny of his business dealings may well result in criminal charges being laid against him, which will only add to the tarnish on the brand.

The hard fact is that the Trump campaign will prove deleterious for Trump business holdings, which explains why his managerial minions, “the best people” in his words,  are currently in the process of putting legal and PR distance on him. The trouble for them, however, remains embedded in that ubiquitous name.

This is the silver lining in the Trump cloud. Not only has he exposed the ugly side of US politics. He has exposed himself and his illusory brand in doing so. He is taking the GOP down along with him, and neither it or his brand will survive the fall intact.

That is truly a good thing.

Seditious stupidity.

datePosted on 07:58, February 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

To state the obvious, things have gotten pretty crazy in the US this election year. The GOP presidential campaign is a clown car driven by Donald Trump that has a trunk full of gun worshiping liars, opportunists, neophytes, xenophobes, war mongerers, ignoramuses and bigots (except, perhaps, Kasich). The GOP Senate majority are threatening to not even hold hearings on the replacement for the recently deceased and unlamented Antonin Scalia, he of the view that corporations are citizens and contraception is bad because sperm is precious. But to get a real sense of how bonkers the right side of the US political table has become one need go no further than this. I urge readers to peruse the comment thread and other posts on that site in order to get a full idea of the lunacy at play. My favourite comment from that particular thread is that Obama has removed US flags from the White House and replaced them with “Muslim Curtains” (presumably to match the prayer rugs he has installed), but there is much more in that vein. More recently I watched an interview with a white middle aged woman at a confederate flag rally in South Carolina the day before the GOP primary held there. Her answer as to why she was voting for Trump is mint: She is voting for him, she said, “because he is a self-made man and he says why I think.”  Ah, to be a fly on the wall at her dinner table conversations…the stupid must be very strong there.

Views such as those espoused by that woman and on that reactionary thread would be laughable except for the fact that a) about 15-20 percent of US citizens apparently hold them; and b) the GOP controls both chambers in Congress and believes that catering to the lunatic base can win them the presidential election. After all, as Trump himself has said in the past, Republican voters tend to be stupid so that is the party to affiliate with if one wants to hold elective office. The fear and paranoia of the stupid and deranged is palpable–and politically bankable.

The real trouble, though, is that not only is this voting minority stupid or crazy, but they are also seditious, as are their representatives in Congress.

Longer term readers may recall my writing in 2009 about the disloyal opposition in the US. The bottom line is that disloyal oppositions in democracies are those that focus on thwarting anything the government does in order to bring about its collapse. This is what happened to  Allende in Chile and if Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had his way, this would have been the fate of Obama during his first four years in office (McConnell famously said after Obama’s election that it was his duty to see that Obama become a one term president). From then until today, both Senate and House Republicans have engaged in a pattern of systematic “obstructionism” (as the Democrats quaintly call it) in an effort to stymie every policy initiative advanced by the White House. Fortunately, they have largely failed, although the cost in terms of political gridlock, brinkmanship and federal government closures has been high.

The stupid is also strong in the Republican National Committee, which got suckered into allowing Trump to run for president under the GOP banner even though he had only recently joined the party (in 2009) and had a history of non-conservative views on matters of social policy such as abortion (he was openly pro-choice until 2011). The RNC thought that it could bring Trump to heel and instead what they now have is a rogue candidate who has pulled the entire campaign into tea bagger land and who can win the nomination outright or force a brokered convention in which his ideas on matter of policy will become part of the nominee’s platform even if he is not that person. Worse yet, his candidacy could well irretrievably fracture the GOP into establishment and tea bagger camps, leading to either a split and emergence of a third rightwing party or the destruction of the GOP as a viable political organisation for years to come.

So not only are a significant minority of US voters patently stupid or crazy, but a fair bunch of the GOP representatives are as well if we accept that the definition of stupidity or insanity is doing the same unsuccessful or desperate thing over and over again. But there is something more sinister at play as well, and that is the seditious nature of the disloyal opposition mustered by the GOP, its media accomplices and the variegated assortment of nut cases who are the target of their appeals.

Broadly defined, sedition is any act that encourages rebellion or undermines the lawful authority of a State. That includes any action that foments discontent, disorder or which incites resistance, revolt or subversion against duly constituted authority or government. Although the concept is broad and has been the subject to a number of interpretations (the general rule being that it is more broadly defined in authoritarian states and more narrowly defined in democratic states), in the US sedition is  rather narrowly defined (as “seditious conspiracy’) and sits with treason and subversive actives in 18 US Code Chapter 115.

The reason why the actions of the rightwing disloyal media and GOP opposition are seditious is that they actively encourage resistance to the lawful authority of the Obama administration and federal agencies charged with enforcing laws under it, and actively conspire to undermine the Obama administration at every opportunity. This can range from acts such as the occupation of an Oregon national bird sanctuary by armed militiamen (covered explicitly in 18 US section 2384 on seditious conspiracy, which includes “by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof,” punishable by jail terms of 10-20 years), to refusing to hold Senate hearings on judicial nominees in a timely fashion as the Constitution prescribes.

The gamut between the two poles runs wide, as evidenced in the lunatic thread linked above, but the intention of those engaged in all of these acts of disloyal opposition are clearly seditious in nature. Add to that the regular interpretative abuse of the 2nd amendment by the NRA, gun manufacturers and gun fetishists, and the tilt towards armed defiance is near complete (and in some cases has been completed, as the Oregon standoff and conclusion demonstrates). No wonder that the federal government has moved carefully when dealing with armed rightwing groups since Waco and Ruby Ridge, less the seditious narrative become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For all the insanity now on display, the real craziness will begin after November’s election. If Hillary or The Bern wins, it is very possible that rightwing seditious speech will turn into actual seditious conspiracy, aided and abetted by conservative media and politicians. The threat of violence cannot be discounted. On the other hand, if Trump or Cruz win, there is the real possibility of protests, demonstrations and even riots in many areas in which those targeted and scapegoated by these candidates are located. They may not be the fully auto, full metal jacket resistance of the right-wingers, but these protests are bound to be (low level if wide scale) violent as well. So the real action will begin after the election, barring the possibility that Kasich or Rubio win the nomination and presidency (in which case most Democratic supporters are likely to adopt a “wait and see” attitude). My hunch is that things will get ugly come Inauguration Day.

Whatever the outcome I am glad for one thing: better than I watch events unfold from here rather than there.

The US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem.

datePosted on 15:50, December 6th, 2015 by Pablo

The latest spate of mass murder in the US has again demonstrated the hypocrisy and bigotry of right-wingers on the subject. When the murderers are white Christians such as the Colorado Planned Parenthood assassin or the  Charleston South Carolina church gunman, the Right speaks of them being “unstable” or psychopathic. Yet when Muslims commit acts of mass violence such as that in San Bernadino, it is always considered by the Right to be an act of terrorism.

We need to cut through the BS and see things for what they are: not all mass murders are terroristic in nature. In fact, given the easy access to firearms, mass murder is as American as apple pie and almost as common. In most cases it matters less what drives US perpetrators to murder than it is their unique yet common ability to make a statement by murdering in numbers.

Let’s begin with the definition of “problem.” A problem is something pernicious that is persistent, continual and hard to resolve, counter or ameliorate.

Mass murders can be serial, sequential or simultaneous in nature depending on the perpetrator’s intent and capabilities. Most mass murders are motivated by personal reasons–revenge, alienation, stress, and yes, mental illness. The term “going postal” was coined in the US because of the propensity for workplace conflicts to lead to mass bloodshed. In fewer numbers of mass murder cases the killers express support for or involvement in political or ideological causes, such as the Colorado, San Bernadino and South Carolina events mentioned above.  In a fair number of cases personal and political motivations combine into mass murderous intent. In many cases mentally ill people adopt extremist causes as an interpretation of their plight and justification for their murderous intent. The Sydney cafe siege instigator is a case in point. Whatever the motivation, what all the US killers share is their ability to kill in numbers. Given its frequency, that is a particularly American way of death.

We need to be clear that not all politically motivated killing is terrorism. The murder of US presidents, public officials and political activists of various stripes was and is not terroristic in nature. On the either hand, the murder of blacks and civil rights workers by the Klu Klux Klan was clearly terroristic in nature because it was designed to do much more the physically eliminate the victims. Although they were all politically motivated one can argue that the Charleston killings were not terroristic but the Colorado and San Bernadino murders were. The Boston marathon bombing was terroristic, but was the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy McVeigh also terroristic in nature or was it just a case of lethal lashing out by a disgruntled loser? What about today’s London tube stabber and the Palestinians who kill Israelis with knives? Are they really terrorists or just lashing out in murderous anger? Could not the same be said for all of the events mentioned here?

Terrorism has a target, subject and object. The target is the immediate victims of an act of politically motivated lethal violence, the subject is the larger body politic, and the object is to influence both the general public and decision makers to bend to the will of the perpetrators. This can be done by getting the latter to desist from doing something (say, joining in a foreign conflict) or by getting them to overreact in order to exacerbate tensions or contradictions within the subject society itself. Not all mass murders extend beyond the target, and even then most are not driven by a desire to shape the will of decision-makers or public at large. If we review the cases mentioned earlier, how many of them properly fall into the category of terrorism?

The currency of terrorism is irrational fear and panic. It has a paralysing or galvanising effect depending on the nature of the subject. But the key to differentiating terrorism is that those who perpetrate it seek to manipulate panic and fear to their advantage. They may not always calculate right and and up losing, but that is their intent.

Taking that criteria, it is clear that the US has a mass murder problem, not a terrorism problem. The answer to that problem lies in effective gun control, to be sure, but also involves backing away from the culture of violence into which US citizens are socialised. That includes reducing the amount of everyday exposure to militarism, jingoism, mindless patriotism and violence glorified in popular culture.

That will be hard to do because violence and the fear that it brings sells, and selling violence and playing on fear makes money for those who know how to manipulate it in order to take advantage of the opportunity. Not only does it sell guns and increases the profits of arms manufacturers big and small. It also sells electronic games, movies, toys (!), television series and any number of other appended industries. It helps further political careers. Violence is exalted, even reified as the preferred method of conflict resolution by a mass media industry fuelled by fear mongering and funded by war-mongerers. There are many vested interests in maintaining a culture of violence in which mass murder thrives. Yet these are not terrorists, by definition.

Rather than confront this thorny issue, the US Right prefer to selectively apply the word “terrorism” to mass murders committed by Muslims whether or not they are inspired or directed by a known irregular warfare group such as Daesh. Daesh knows this and along with al-Qaeda has urged supporters in the US to take advantage of loose gun laws to commit so-called “lone wolf” or small cell attacks on everyday targets. Although it is as much an admission of Daesh and al-Qaeda’s inability to confront established states like the US or France directly, the strategy has the virtue of making the threat of Islamic terrorism in the West seem much bigger than it really is, thereby eliciting the type of response called for by the Right–bans on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance and profiling of Muslims, etc. That serves to increase the alienation between Muslims and non-Muslims in the West, which suits the Daesh narrative about a clash of civilisations to a “T.”

This is not to say that we should disregard the threat of terrorism, Islamic or otherwise. But what it does suggest is that the focus should be on the penchant for mass slaughter in the US regardless of cause. Once that is addressed the real threat of terrorism can be addressed in proper context and without the ideological opportunism that currently drives debates about guns and extremism in the US.

In summary: Mass murders are extraordinarily common in the US when compared to pretty much everywhere else (not just the “developed” world), specifically because US mass murders are carried out by individuals rather than state forces or irregular armed groups or criminal organisations. The overwhelming majority of US mass murders are not motivated by political or ideological beliefs. Of those that are,  few can be properly considered acts of terrorism and should be seen instead as acts of lethal retribution, retaliation, or striking out at society and authority by individuals with personal as well as political grievances.

This does not make them any less dangerous. Yet  it does help clarify the unique US mass murder phenomena in order to more sharply focus the search for preventatives that address root rather than superficial causes as well as strip that search of the normative baggage many pundits, politicians and the general public currently carry into it.

Go The Donald!

datePosted on 15:25, September 1st, 2015 by Pablo

I am lucky to be able to vote in the US as well as NZ, and very much relish the opportunity in both countries. In the US I am registered as a voter in Florida, which is a closed primary state. “Closed” primary states are those in which a voter has to declare a party preference prior to the primaries in order to vote in them. For years before and after I established a residence in Florida I listed my political affiliation as “Independent,” something that allowed me to choose a primary to vote in the “open” primary states where voting preferences did not have to be declared prior to primary season (they only have to be declared and ticked off on the day at the balloting station). In 2008 I decided to switch my declared affiliation to Democrat so that I could vote in the Florida Democratic Party primary given that not only were Obama and Hillary running for president, but there were races for the US House, Senate and local seats that needed to see Republicans defeated.

This year I am going to switch affiliation to Republican. Why? Because that way I can vote for Donald Trump in the Republican primary in the hope that he makes it to the GOP National Convention next July. It has been a very long time since either major party has had a brokered convention where several candidates are in the running for the presidential nomination, and should The Donald survive until then the craziness will be well and truly on. Since he is totally unqualified to be dog catcher much less president and unelectable in the general election, it is my sincere hope that he hangs in all the way to the convention and either becomes the GOP candidate, determines who is, or runs a third party candidacy after losing out in the convention to one of the others. The only thing better would be for Kanye to join that gaggle of fools and trolls but, alas, he is going to wait until 2020 to run.

Already The Donald has become to the GOP what Miley Cyrus is to pop muzak: a wrecking ball. The Republican National Committee must be choking on their Cohibas (illegal until the recent diplomatic reopening with Cuba) and dying a slow death every time he speaks or when they read the polls. Because let us be clear: Trump appeals to the stupidest, xenophobic, economically illiterate, racist, bigoted, misogynist, white cultural supremacist elements in US society. He follows in a long line of populist demagogues that extends back through Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan, George Wallace and Huey Long.  He may purport to speak unvarnished truth but in fact what he says is most often non-sensical rubbish that fails to address reality much less the intricacies of democratic governance with a division of powers: he is going to “do the deal” with whomever; most Mexicans are rapists and drug dealers; he will “build a wall and make Mexico pay for it” (along 1,900 miles of topographically challenging terrain that includes numerous sensitive ecological zones and wildlife corridors); he will deport “illegals ” and their “anchor babies,”  (all 14 million of them); he will simultaneously confront China, Iran and Russia; he will make the US military “great” again so that no one will “mess” with it (forgetting that the US spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined–US$610 billion or 20 percent of US federal spending and 3.7 percent of GDP–and still has people “messing” with it); he will provide better women’s health care in spite of gutting Planned Parenthood and removing health care for “alien” women because he “cherishes” women in general (ignoring the fact that two of his wives were not citizens when he married them). Everyone in politics but him are incompetent or idiots. His speeches are endless repeats of these and other inane mantras interspersed with self-congratulatory self-praise and personal insults directed at his rivals, all other politicians and anyone who disagrees with him.

The truth is that he has no plan, has no policy agenda, has no friggin’ clue what it is like to deal with the complex issues that confront the US. And that is why the rednecks and dimwits like him. He makes the hard seem easy.

What is great about this is that he is forcing the other GOP candidates to respond to him, and they have stepped up to the plate in predictable style. Among other gems, Ben Carson (the neurosurgeon) says homosexuality is a choice because men go to prison straight and come out gay; Scott Walker just suggested that building a 3,987 mile wall on the Canadian border is worth looking into; Jeb Bush wants to abolish Planned Parenthood and believes that the invasion of Iraq “turned out well;” Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio want walls and deportations even though they are children of recent immigrants who were legally documented after, not before their arrivals. They all claim that the US military and its veterans have been crippled by Obama even though it was Bush 43 who ordered them into two simultaneous wars while cutting back veterans benefits as well as the budget for post-combat trauma rehabilitation. They all claim that ISIS is an Obama invention even though it was Dubya’s purge of Saddam’s army that provided the leadership material for what became ISIS’s fighting forces. They all oppose gun control and climate change science and all support hacking, fracking, drilling and spilling regardless of environmental consequence. They all oppose abortion and gay marriage even if some of their past records indicate otherwise. The list of idiocy goes on but should not surprising given that Rick Perry, Rich Santorum, Mike Huckabee and several snivelling weasels remain in contention.

As things stand now, the GOP primary is a circus. There may not be any juggling or animal acts, but there sure are a lot of clowns, and The Donald is the ringmaster. Even if the number of viable candidates drops to 2 or 3 by the time of the GOP convention, it will be Trump who sets the Right’s narrative for the general election. Yippee!

It looks like the US media has decided to sit back and watch the circus unfold. Fox News tried to undermine him in the first debate that it aired, but his nasty personal attacks on the female panelist only strengthened his support among the troglodyte crowd and has forced Fox to backtrack and give him coverage as the Party favourite. All other outlets are content to watch the train wreck proceed while offering the mediocre tedium that passes for informed analysis by the usual spectrum of pundits. As a result, the GOP favourite, Jeb Bush (or “Mr. Low Energy,” as The Donald calls him) has seen his coverage slip to the sidelines along with the other yokels. Likewise, for all of the Fox News chest beating, Hillary Clinton is getting a general pass by the press because her sins are run of the mill when it comes to DC politics and her campaign is about practicable policy, not theatrics.

The key to the outcome will be seen in January when the first GOP primaries are held. If The Donald does well in them he will be hard to stop. So the RNC has to find a way to do him in either before then or to go all out nuclear on him should he prevail in Iowa or New Hampshire. That is when the questions about his draft dodging, drug use, association with organised crime, commercial racism, trust fund baby status, adultery, academic record embellishment and a host of other peccadilloes and not-so-small sins will find their way into the mainstream media. But even then he may be too big a juggernaut to derail in time for the GOP to coalesce around another candidate who may stand a chance in the general election.

I cannot begin to express how delighted I am to watch this unfold. The Donald may well force the GOP to split into two, with the Tea Baggers on one side and the corporate sponsors on the other.

Either way, he is single-handedly killing the US Right as a unified political force.

For that I have one thing to say: Go The Donald!

EveningReport.nz is a new NZ-based online media outlet that among other valuable things offers in-depth interviews on matters of public interest.  As such t is a welcome addition and antidote to corporate media soundbites and frivolities.

I was fortunate to feature in one such interview (there is also one by Nicky Hager), which explores the latest revelations that the GCSB does a heck of a lot of spying on New Zealand’s friends and partners as well as on so-called rogue states, and it does much of this on behalf of the the US and other Five Eyes partners rather than as a matter of national security. The ramifications of the revelations about NZ’s role in 5 Eyes are one subject of the discussion, but there are other items of interest as well.

The discussion, hosted by Selwyn Manning, can be found here.

Perhaps not yet a Cuba Libre, but an opening nevertheless.

datePosted on 14:55, December 19th, 2014 by Pablo

In a previous life one of the US government roles I played was as co-team leader of the OSD/JCS Cuba Task Force. That was a combined team of officials and officers from the US Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) tasked with exploring contingency scenarios for Cuba, including refugee flows (then ongoing) as well as possible civil unrest and regime transition scenarios in the wake of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to the island nation and the increasingly geriatric nature of its original leadership. My co-team leader was a Cuban American political appointee, with the idea being that my academic experience studying authoritarian regime transitions and knowledge of the Cuban approach to irregular conflict would be balanced by his sensitivity to the domestic political implications of  any moves we proposed to undertake.

Although I cannot reveal much of what we did, I can say a few things about the process that has now led to a normalisation of diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba.

First, almost everyone in the US government realised that the embargo was a failure. However, the Cuban lobby is on a par with the gun and Israel lobbies when it comes to single issue fixation and willingness to spend money for the cause. This made Cuba a thorny political problem for any US government trying to improve relations with it, as the usual suspects would (and still do) immediately hurl the “soft on communism” and “appeasing dictators” invective as part of their negative electoral campaigning. This placed the issue in the “too hard” basket as far as most politicians were concerned, especially given the myriad of other issues at play and the trade-offs they involved. As a foreign diplomat said in my presence when asked about the US approach to Cuba: “That is a domestic matter, not a diplomatic one.”

Secondly, from the 1980s to the present day, every former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly called for an end to the embargo and resumption of full diplomatic relations. One would have thought that the weight of conservative military leaders and the leading business organisation in the US would hold some sway, but in fact their views were trumped by the lobbying efforts described above. Episodic attempts have been made to launch US business initiatives in Cuba (for example, in agricultural machinery), but the legal and monetary costs of circumventing the embargo by using off-shore subsidiaries, etc. simply proved too much given the limited nature of the potential returns.

Third, as of the early 1990s the Castro brothers increasingly delegated authority to second generation leaders, who now have been replaced in large measure by third generation revolutionary cadres (people in their 40s and 50s). In fact, both the Cuban exile community as well as the revolutionary leadership have seen the physical decline of the so-called “dinosaurios” (dinosaurs) and their replacement with younger, often more moderate leaders who were not present during the revolution and who therefore do not all have personal scores to settle stemming from it. My co-team leader was second generation and not fuelled by the rabid thirst for revenge exhibited by many of his parent’s generation (some of whom I got the dubious pleasure of meeting). Now that second generation’s children are coming to the fore. This has opened the door for initiatives focused on normalising relations.

But the issue remains complex. The end of the Cold War and fall of the USSR actually reinforced the view in some US policy circles that an embargo could, given the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba, bring the Castro regime to its knees.  On the other hand, the increase in non-US foreign investment in Cuba after the Cold War (mostly but not exclusively in tourism) was seen by some in the US as making the embargo counter-productive when it came to promoting US business interests in its near abroad. Overlying these views was a persistent belief that Cuba continued to logistically and intellectually support Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups in Latin America (including those that drug trafficked) as well as rogue regimes such as North Korea, Libya, Syria and Iran (to say nothing of Nicaragua and Venezuela). As a result, foreign policy opinion in the US after the Cold War remained very divided on the question of what to do with Cuba given the embargo and rudimentary diplomatic relations.

Yet given the demographic changes mentioned earlier, the question about Cuba the last twenty years has mostly been one of political timing: when is the opportune moment to make the move towards restoring normality to the bilateral relationship? Conventional wisdom on US presidential politics states that only during second terms can presidents get away with bold foreign policy initiatives, and even then they have to be popular and presiding over a strong economy in order to do so (since voters tend to ignore foreign policy issues when their pockets and bellies are full). However, owing to the perverse ideological evolution of the Republican Party, only Democrats would even contemplate doing so after 1990, which meant that it was left to Clinton or Obama to be bold (recall that Nixon opened the relationship with China and Reagan encouraged glasnost and perestroika, even if both Republican presidents did so for self-interested reasons).

I have little doubt that Clinton would have normalised relations with Cuba in his second term if he had not been hamstrung by the Lewinsky scandal, which helped turn the Elian Gonzalez saga into a Republican battle cry (Elian Gonzalez was a little Cuban boy who washed up on US shores in a raft in which his mother died. After weeks of to- and fro-ing between the US government and exiled members of the boy’s family, he was forcibly repatriated to Cuba to live with his divorced father. Sensing that Clinton was wounded by the Starr investigation into Cigargate, the GOP turned the boy’s ordeal into an anti-communist political circus, which effectively ended the quiet efforts Clinton’s administration had initiated with an eye towards opening up the Cuban relationship).

Now it appears that Obama has seized the moment to undertake a little glasnost of his own, perhaps because he senses that he has little to lose given the disloyal nature of the opposition (which will rant and rail at anything he does), perhaps because the US economy is doing well enough for him to feel immune on some aspects of foreign policy even after the adverse results of the midterm elections, and perhaps because, like gay marriage and medical marijuana, the US public has simply changed its views on Cuba over the years.  In fact, it is likely a little bit of each, as the GOP and Fake News blowhards may not want to waste political capital on a dead issue that will gain the GOP no electoral traction. As it turns out, with the exception of some posturing clowns like Marco Rubio and the braying jackasses on conservative media outlets, the reaction from the political Right has been fairly muted.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years. Back when I was dealing with Cuba, the word from their side was that everything was negotiable except for two pillars of the revolution: health and education. That is to say, the vaunted Cuban health and educational systems were sacrosanct and could not be touched in any post-Castro environment. Beyond that, market forces could dictate how Cuba would re-insert itself in the global economy. With an extremely literate, healthy and underemployed work force, it would seem that Cuba would be ideal for any number of value-added export commodity production ventures (textiles and pharmaceuticals have already become targets of foreign investor interest).

The other issue, left unresolved during my time working that beat, was the role of the Communist Party. It is clear that the Cuban political elite have been watching the transitions in the former socialist world, be it the USSR, China, Vietnam or Eastern Europe. They have also watched the experiments in indigenous socialism in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia. It is pretty clear that they would prefer to do a China-style transition to state capitalism under one party rule.

The trouble with that preferred picture is that it is only a partial transition, with the political regime remaining largely the same while the economy changes. That may be possible in a huge country like China but is problematic in a small country like Cuba, especially when it is so proximate to a formerly adversarial super power and has a number of expatriates with ideas about Cuba’s future that do not include a dominant role for the Communist Party, much less its continued sole rule.

Thus the conundrum for the second and third generation Cuban Communist Party leadership is whether to embark on a sequential transition (first changing the economy then the political system, or, less likely, vice versa), or  to go all in and mount a simultaneous transition of the economic and political systems. From the standpoint of keeping things peaceful and orderly, the best hope scenario is a sequential transition in which economic change precedes political change. Opening Cuba for business will present a formidable challenge for the Communist Patry, and the social and cultural influences that will come with diplomatic normalisation and economic opening will be hard to contain, much less stop. So whether by design or by the forced pace of change, it is likely that the Cuban political system will open up as a result of the economic transition and its superstructural ramifications.

The key is for the Cuban political elite to realise that the Chinese transition model is not possible for them given the circumstances, and that the days of one party rule will either come to a natural end or be overturned by force. In that light the best thing to do is to prepare a timetable leading up to multiparty competitive elections somewhere down the road, with appropriate guarantees put in place to preserve key revolutionary gains and to safeguard the institutional position of entities like the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR).  That will take some doing, and could well take a fair bit of time given the current makeup of the Communist Party leadership (in which Fidelistas still hold significant influence along with Raulistas).

The question remains as to what will happen with the two pillars of the revolution in a market-driven economy. It also remains to be seen as to how Cuban society will respond to the introduction of full market logics on the island. Things like the elimination of food subsidies and introduction of merit-based employment criteria in and outside the public serve could prove painful for Cuban society. It could also lead to  criminal opportunism in what some observers have already characterized as an increasingly amoral and feral civil society no longer wedded to the revolutionary ethos of the original 26th of July movement. If one thinks of where Cuba is spatially located in relation to drug trafficking corridors, the downside possibilities should be obvious.

Even so, the resumption of full diplomatic relations is a welcome development and hopefully followed by a formal end to the US embargo (not a certain thing, given opposition by GOP majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives). There still will be many hard days ahead as Cuba comes to grip with its post-revolutionary future, but at least the range of potential outcomes will be expanded relative to those extant up until a few days ago. As for the US, it demonstrates that sometimes diplomatic face-saving on foreign policy is a waste of energy and the better self-interested choice is to admit mistakes and move on. As the old Korean saying goes: a rich uncle can afford to be generous.

Whatever its motivations, Uncle Sam just was.

 

Repost: The torture-terror doctrine.

datePosted on 11:07, December 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Release of the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA “enhanced interrogation” program has once again brought to the fore arguments about the ethics and efficiency of torture when used as part of interrogations. The ethical question reduces to a lesser evil versus greater good argument: as a lesser but necessary evil torture is used to prevent a greater evil in defense of the public good. Hence, torturing someone who knows where a bomb with a fifteen minute timer is planted in a shopping mall is both necessary and good because it will save countless lives.  Torture of someone who is believed to have rigged a car bomb outside a Kabul hotel is seen as unfortunate but just if lives are saved.  The issue is one of tactical urgency, and the value is in the tactical intelligence obtained under duress: the location of the bomb.

However, even if torture might work in some instances in extracting real-time tactical intelligence that saves lives, it is of little use in obtaining strategic intelligence on longer-term of broader based events.  Given the cellular nature of irregular warfare operations, torturing someone to get information, for example, about Osama bin-Laden’s whereabouts is simply time and resource wasting. Instead, what is required is a long-term piece by piece build up of plausible scenarios based on the corroborated evidence provided by multiple sources. Torture simply cannot provide that. And as it turned out, it was old fashioned human intelligence “gumshoe” work that revealed bin-Laden’s hideout.

As for efficiency, the record on torture as an interrogation tool is poor. Hardened zealots would rather than die than betray their comrades. Innocents and weak-willed individuals will say anything to get the punishment to stop, which means wasting time and resources (and risking exposure) tracking down spurious leads.

So why did the US resort to torture after 9/l11? I have written a fair bit about this in the past but have a hunch that its use was much more about punishment than it was about obtaining information.

I have not written much about the subject here on KP. The one essay that addressed it centrally can be found here.  However, in 2005 I published an essay that explored the symmetry between torture and terror in post 9/11 US security doctrine as part of my late “Word from Afar” series in an on-line media outlet .  Although if written today I would make some modifications to the argument and the conclusions, the thrust would remain pretty much the same. Hence I have re-published it below:

“The Symmetry between Torture and Terror.”

(First published April 21, 2005 in Scoop.co.nz)

Revelations about torture of political prisoners held in US prisons in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Iraq and the lower fifty have sparked debate about what is permissible in grey area, irregular conflicts such as the fight against Islamicist terrorism. Brutalisation of terrorist suspects and sympathisers is allowed by a raft of post 9-11 legislation that also authorises their indefinite detention without charge and the practice of “extraordinary rendition” (whereby those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities are refouled to the country of charge or origin, to be detained, interrogated and juridically administered under local conditions).

President Bush explicitly stated in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks that the US would stop at nothing to locate, bring to justice or eliminate those who organized, sponsored, supported or in any way collaborated in the planning of those events, as well as previous assaults on US interests around the globe. He was roundly applauded at the time by the shell-shocked US public, and it was in that environment that the legal framework for handling terrorist suspects, along with the Patriot Act and Department of Homeland Security, were born.

Subsequent divisions over the use of torture in US detention centres have surfaced along the intersection of practical versus ethical considerations. Torture is considered to be a forced necessity imposed by the ungentlemanly nature of the opponent, or is seen as a moral indictment of the US approach to the “war on terror” that descends into the barbarism that it purports to fight. The subtext of the ethical debate swings both ways. Zealotry and unilateralism in the Bush administration are seen as evidence of both moral elevation or moral decay. Faith in the moral virtue of the current US leadership prevailed among its voting public in the November 2004 national elections (by 52 to 47 percent), something not that dissimilar from the vote totals received by Richard Nixon at the time of his re-election in 1972. Then and now it is comforting for the voting majority to know that the United States Government is legally justified in authorising acts that violate international conventions on the rules of engagement. For Nixon, legal justification of the secret extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia was grounded on such a means-ends rationale, and so it is with today’s US approach to the war against Islamicist irregulars and jihadis.

Politicians, jurists and pundits are left with the unhappy task of morally justifying inhumane acts committed against suspected enemies or ideological criminals. Myriad others have reason to wax indignant about the perversity of such arguments. Yet, beyond the pressing ethical dilemmas posed by the use of torture against suspects, there are very organic reasons for doing so. These reduce to a question of symmetry in war and the reciprocal utility of torture as a weapon.

Military planners prefer their wars to be symmetrical. Symmetrical wars are those in which opponents are arrayed along a roughly comparable range of force, with similar weapons and tactics. Although contested, the political objectives of symmetrical wars, as well as the strategic rationales used in their pursuit, are grounded in shared understandings of the limited utlity of war. Generally comparable military capabilities and comon expectations of combat and post-conflict behaviour define the physical boundaries of the armed engagement. That leads to the adoption of norms governing the behavior of belligerents, resulting in, among other things, the Hague Convention on Laws of Warfare and the Geneva Convention regarding treatment of prisoners of war. It is adherence to a general set of conventions regarding the conduct of combat operations within bounded levels of force that determines the difference between so-called “conventional” and “unconventional” or “regular” and “irregular” conflicts.

The use of force is conditioned in conventional or regular wars by its relative symmetry, which serves to reduce chaos (and the reach of combat) by providing rules of the game that serve as the ethical and legal foundation for the formulation of military policy and application of armed force in pursuit of political objectives. Incremental qualitative gains and relative quantitative advantages in weapons and troops constitute the physical parameters of war. Within those lines elements of comparative resource base, collective will and technological innovation determine military victory. Adherence to ethical guidelines for wartime conduct is expected of all belligerents.

Asymmetrical wars are those in which the military capabilities of opponents, defined as weapons systems, logistical infrastructure, troop numbers and other indexes of armed might, vary markedly. One side dwarfs the other, militarily speaking. Of itself, that is not what makes such wars unconventional. What does is the combination of ideology, interest and tactics used. If the ideological motivation of opponents is diametrically opposed (say, a choice between submission to secular infidels or defeat by medieval heathens), where the weaker actor is fighting for its national, cultural, religious or ethnic survival whiles the stronger actor is not, then the strategic rationales used by military adversaries will differ considerably. This brings in issues of pure and situational ethics, and the tactics used in pursuit of them.

Guerrilla wars are the highest expression of asymmetric wars. They are fought unconventionally by highly motivated volunteer irregular troops against conventional militaries (often those of nation-states or foreign occupiers, and in many cases paid professionals). In these types of war the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, symbolic versus military targets, and offensive versus defensive operations is deliberately blurred and often reversed by the weaker party (of which there is often more than one, which requires tactical, if not strategic coordination between them–an obvious Achilles Heel). For the weaker party contestation of territory is of secondary importance. What matters is cultivation of popular support and weakening of the opponent’s determination to continue to fight in pursuit of its political interests in a given geographic area. The Iraq conflict is a microcosmic distillation of that fact.

Conventional military planners prefer that force asymmetries be in their favour, understood as superior military technology, training, organization and tactics brought to bear within a given continuum of force on an enemy that agrees to play by the “rules.” For the irregular warrior, the object of the exercise is to use time, tenacity and psychological impact as instruments to wear down the will of the militarily superior opponent. Symbolic acts figure very highly in the guerrilla strategist’s tactical priorities, and terrorism against so-called “soft” civilian targets is central among them because it is designed to produce paralysing fear and a desire to acquiesce among the enemy’s support base. This extends the conflict outside the purely military realm into the area of social cohesion.

The firebombing of Dresden and atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were designed to do more than kill the thousands that they did. The bombings were designed to demoralise the German and Japanese human reserve and erode civilian support for continuing the war. So it is with suicide bombers in vehicles or on foot, even if they operate in wars that are undeclared. The difference is that in one instance a warring nation-state utilises terror by extending the non-military reach of conflict via conventional military means, whereas in the other case a non-state actor uses non-conventional methods to do the same thing.

Against an agile and elusive opponent who refuses to fight in conventional symmetry, a militarily superior actor is muscle-bound. Naval fleets, strategic airpower, armoured divisions and thousands of troops are of little use against terrorists operating in dispersed, decentralized fashion in and among civilian populations. If used, they are overkill when confronted by the networked cells that are the organizational latticework of transantionalised terrorism. Sometimes overwhelming force is simply too much force given the character of the opponent and the contextual circumstance in which she is engaged. Should the irregular, unconventional actor refuse to be drawn out into conventional symmetry, the only option for a stronger conventional actor is to engage on her terms. This is the realm of Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC), which in US practice has evolved new features in the form of CIA para-military squads and contract interrogators not beholden to the rules of engagement governing military intelligence and police.

This is what lies behind the US resort to torture. Along with the deployment of special forces teams and CIA squads in areas in which Islamicists congregate, the US is attempting to get down to the level of its Islamicist opponents in order to bring symmetry to the conflict. The operative belief is that if Islamicists want to play “dirty” by terrorising civilians world-wide, then the US government will demonstrate that it can bring to bear all of its power and resources on those terms. It does so by using the legal, military, administrative and political assets of a superpower to expand the range of allowable state and para-state violence while justifying and institutionalising extra-judicial treatment of terrorist suspects. Legal vetting of the wording of a variety of coercive interrogation techniques that require cabinet-level authorisation is emblematic of the US approach in that regard.

That the US releases many suspected terrorists without charge is beside the point. The objective is symbolic and systematic, or phrased differently, to terrorise in return. Those subjected to the new standard of detention and interrogations who gain release will inform others. They will detail the cruelty as well as the seemingly endless bureaucratic procedures required to seek redress, and they will expound upon their fear. What will be impressive about their stories is the banality of the reciprocal evil practiced in pursuit of “freedom,” and the sense of hopelessness and despair they felt while in its embrace. That condition of atomised infantilisation, whereby the subject is physically isolated, punished and scared while being powerless and utterly dependent on the whim of the captor, is a state of terror.

Torture of Muslims in US detention centres may inflame passions amongst Islamicist hard -liners (defined as those who will commit bodies to the conflict given sufficient provocation). Their mobilisation is justified as an acceptable variant on the honey trap theme, whereby an attractant (or provocation) prompts passive al-Qaeda cells to attempt further terrorist attacks. At that point they can be identified and hunted down, although some will wreak damage before doing so. In the scheme of things, that is held to be an acceptable cost of victory.

More importantly, public dissemination of the torture-terror doctrine will serve to dampen the passion of other would-be jihadis, and deter many who thought to join the Islamicist cause. The point is to demonstrate to the unconventional enemy and its supporters that the superpower, as well as other states, can well fight irregularly and systematically as well, if not better. After all, the most common–and effective–type of terrorism in history is state terror, not that practiced by today’s Islamicists.

This explains the why of using torture-terror as a combat weapon against terrorism. What it does not address is the issue of objective. If the objective of using torture on terrorist suspects is to extract valuable strategic and tactical intelligence from otherwise uncooperative subjects, the results have been poor. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff amid the hundreds of desperate stories told under duress by US detainees has been a difficult process, with relatively little valuable intelligence garnered from it. Thus, as a information gathering technique torture has not been a panacea for the US intelligence community, and given media exposure has become a public relations liability for the US–at least in the West. However, an alternative objective might better explain the rationale as well as the pragmatic criteria upon which to choose it.

If the objective is to wear down the will of jihadis to persist in their global armed challenge while at the same time removing their recruitment base, the systematic use of legally-sanctioned torture-terror by the US may bear fruit. In the measure that it achieves symmetry, it raises the costs of the engagement to the jihadists. In the measure that it turns the tables and weakens the will of the Islamicist irregulars to continue to fight, it will prevail over the long term. In the measure that it prevails it re-establishes the relationship between the West and “the Rest,” especially the Muslim world. In doing so it reconfigures the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East and elsewhere by extending the cultural boundaries of Western influence to the necessity of recognizing the need for symmetry in war. That, it seems, is the political syllogism underpinning the torture-terror doctrine.

Lying, clueless or incompetent.

datePosted on 15:45, October 15th, 2014 by Pablo

A meeting of the unformed military leaders of 22 countries involved in the anti-Islamic State coalition gathered today at Andrews Airforce Base outside of Washington DC. The participants included the 5 Eyes partners, Denmark, Germany, France, Italy and Spain, seven Arab states, other NATO countries and Turkey. New Zealand was represented by the Chief of the Defense Forces Lt. General Timothy Keating.

John Key says that this is just a regular annual meeting of military heads. I think not.

First, regular annual meetings of uniformed defense leaders are highly symbolic affairs with much protocol, pomp and circumstance. When hosted by the US they are held at the Pentagon, which has a ceremonial entrance (the East steps) and E-Ring conference rooms for such events (the E Ring is the outer ring of the Pentagon where the Secretary, Joint Chiefs and military service leaders have their offices). The meetings are generally regional in nature as befits the concerns of the chiefs involved. I know this because I was involved in organising such meetings for Latin American defense chiefs in the early 1990s and know that the protocols are the same today.

Working meetings of US-allied military leaders are subject specific and sometimes inter-regional in nature. They are held on military bases with minimal ceremony. They generally address the specifics of carrying out assigned roles and missions within a policy framework established by the political leadership of the countries in question. They usually do not include Defense Ministers, presidents or prime ministers because they are about implementation not authorisation.

The meeting at  Andrews Air Force Base has four interesting features:

1) President Obama addressed the coalition military chiefs. That is highly unusual because it means he is expending political capital and his reputation on the event. He cannot walk away empty-handed because he will suffer a loss of face and credibility and home and abroad, so something substantive has to come out of the meeting;

2) That mainly involves Turkey. Turkey has not committed to the fight against IS until it has two demands met: the removal of the Assad regime by the coalition and acceptance of Turkish attacks on Kurdish (PKK) forces on the Syrian-Turkish border (in a two birds with one stone approach). The other coalition partners do not want to accept these demands, at least until IS is defeated, so the stage is set for some serious wrangling over Turkish involvement in the coalition. Without Turkey fully on-board, it is quite possible that the coalition will unravel and a reduced number of countries will have to go it alone without close regional support (which could be a disaster);

3) The presence of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE is important. The meeting may signal the first time that they agree to commit military forces and fight together in the Middle East against a common enemy. Their presence gives the coalition credibility in the Muslim world;

4) New Zealand is represented at the meeting, yet is the only country that publicly maintains that it has not yet decided to contribute  troops.

This is where the PM’s remarks are odd.

If New Zealand was still negotiating its participation it would have sent a contingent led by a senior diplomat, not a military officer. The negotiations over participation would not take place at Andrews Air Force Base or the Pentagon but at the State Department or White House.

The Islamic State is not  only about to gain control of the Syrian Kurdish border town of Kobali, but have advanced on the outskirts of Baghdad. It controls Mosul, Kirkuk and Ramadi. It is a clear and present danger to the territorial integrity of Iraq. To avoid the partition of Iraq action against it must be taken immediately. Yet Prime Minister Key says that he would like to defer a decision until sometime before the APEC meetings next month. That simply is too late to wait to make a decision given the circumstances.

It turns out that Mr. Key did not know that President Obama attended and addressed the meeting. He says that General Keating will report back on what was discussed, which Mr. Key says will cover a wide range of topics. But the Pentagon has stated that the meeting is solely focused on hashing out a military strategy with which to defeat the Islamic State.

It beggars belief that Mr. Key did not know that Obama was going to be at the meeting, or that he thinks it is one of the regular shmooze fests that pass as senior leadership meetings. So one of three things is possible:

Either he knows full well what the meeting is about and is deliberately lying to the NZ public about NZ’s role in the coalition; he is clueless about the nature of the meeting but does not care; or he is simply incompetent and unsuited to be Minister of National Security.

Take your pick.

 

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