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The Hollow Giant.

datePosted on 16:42, March 14th, 2019 by Pablo

Towards the end of the Soviet Union, intelligence analysts in the US began to focus more on its social geography and less on its military capabilities (which if formidable were not keeping pace with US technological advancements). This came about because, unlike the Kreminologist bean-counters, more astute analysts saw in that technological stagnation fundamental signs of a society in decline. The simplest of the observations made during those years was this: the problem of productivity in the USSR “worker’s paradise” was in large part due to the fact that work only got done in the mornings. After a (liquid) lunch, workers simply were too drunk to put in more hours of hard graft. The problem was apparently pervasive, to include inside the Soviet military. This led to scrutiny of data on alcohol-related injuries, illnesses, deaths and other pathologies (street fighting, domestic violence) which, even if incomplete given the nature of Soviet rule, allowed the US intelligence community insight into the causes of what turned out to be a terminal malaise of the Soviet social economy.

Technological innovation is hard to come by, much less put into practice, when many of productive age prefer distilled spirits over spiritual or societal improvement. The “Socialist Man” was no more.

I say this because the US is starting to increasingly look like the Soviet Union in decline. The president just announced his 2020 budget proposal that includes US$714 billion on “defense” but cuts US$1.7 trillion from public health, education, welfare and social security allocations while decentralising and privatising nearly as much through the use of bloc grants to states and profit-oriented entities.

This is important to understand because the US is a nation with increasing numbers of elderly, fixed income residents who depend on social services to live out their twilight years with some measure of dignity and grace. It is in the midst of an opioid crisis of unparalleled dimensions, to the point that a US resident is more likely to die of an opioid overdose than in a car crash. The Trump budget does nothing to address that.

Income inequality continues to grow, with nearly 40 percent of US residents (140 million) living near or in poverty. Health indicators remain largely stagnant. While some areas improved, other declined, with geographic dispersion and income being major factors in health indicator scores nation-wide. Likewise, education statistics show a levelling off of the number of people graduating from both high school and tertiary institutions, while literacy rates are showing signs of slipping.

The point of these data source linkages is to show that while the US continues to devote huge amount of resources to its military, it is under-resourcing and therefore underachieving on major social indicators that are the backbone of a healthy, robust nation (both characteristics of the USSR in decline). With Trump in office the hollowing out process has accelerated to the point that the US has begun to cede ground to rivals when it comes to technological innovation: witness PRC advances in space exploration, Russian hypersonic weapons development and the myriad high tech incubators sprouting up everywhere from Mumbai to Buenos Aires.

This is not to say the the end is nigh, but it does indicate that if not Rome before the Fall, the US is starting to look more and more like the USSR before perestroika and glasnost.

The trouble for the US is that all of its ills are compounded by the crisis of its political system, which is not just embodied in the persona of Donald Trump and his entourage of grifters, incompetents and venal opportunists. It is also enshrined in the Republican Party, which abandoned any pretence of adhering to principle in pursuit of partisan gain and personal enrichment. That in large part is due to the profound corruption of the political system, now dominated by corporate lobbies and insider deal-making that are oblivious to the popular will. This extends to the judiciary, which far from being independent in many instances has deep ties to the private and public agencies that it is responsible for adjudicating (for example, via the appointment of corporate lawyers to state-level and federal district benches).

The USSR was fortunate to have Mikhail Gorbachev as its eighth and final leader. He knew that the pathologies mentioned at the start of this essay were irreversible under the system as given and that the USSR could not respond to, much less sustain the pace of the competitive pressures of strategic rivals pressing ahead with socio-economic and military advancements. He knew that the system was broken and had to change, not only economically, but socially and politically as well. As much as we may look back at his days as tinted with too much idealism and too little understanding of the deeply rooted authoritarian ethos embedded in Russian culture, he was able to resurrect Russia out of the ashes of the former USSR and set the stage for its return to great nation status under subsequent (and much less enlightened) leadership.

The US has no such saviour. What it has is the political equivalent of a drunken sailor lurching about after a night on the terps. In fact, to continue the analogy, the US political system is a bit like the drunk who finds himself lying in a gutter, bruised and covered in his own secretions. At that moment, he has two options: realise that he has hit rock bottom and get up and seek help; or roll over, sleep it off and continue on a bender once he can stand again. The US–or at least the Republican Party and the MAGA masses–has chosen the second option.

For Soviet workers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the turn to liquid lunches represented a quiet, passive protest against the failures of the worker’s State. It was a weapon of the weak used against uncaring bureaucrats and apparatchiks who no longer related to the everyday struggles of the Soviet Man. Used as a form of collective action, it slowly ground the Soviet productive apparatus to a near halt, thereby making it vulnerable to the pressures of its external rivals at the same time that it no longer had the internal vigor, will or stability that allowed it to defeat the Germans in WW2 and grow into a super-power. It was just a shell of its old self, a mostly declawed paper tiger that while dangerous if cornered, was in need of rejuvenation based on fundamental social, economic and political change.

In a sense the US is in the same predicament, except that it does not know it yet. Its form of capitalism has gone from cowboy (they would say “entrepreneurial”) to rapacious. It is no longer a meritocracy for all (if it ever truly was), at least if the recent university admissions pay-to-pay scandal is any indication. It still has leading edge sectors of the economy, but the bulk of GDP is located in provision of services rather than production of tangible assets. It has a political class that is decadent, venal and corrupt. And it has an alcoholic’s blindness to its own flaws and failures, instead hiding behind short-sleeve patriotism and nationalistic bluster.

Robert Mueller will not be the US’s Gorbachev. Even when Trump is removed, the systemic problems that have caused the US decline will remain. The crisis, in a word, is organic. US politics is broken, society is fractured and the economy is more brittle that it appears at first blush. Maybe the Democrats will stage an intervention in 2020 and remove the addled-minded bully from the White House along with his congressional enablers. Perhaps a new social contract can emerge from the MAGA mess that rejects its core tenets of chauvinism, xenophobia, bigotry, ignorance and greed. It is possible that the era of short-sighted economic opportunism rooted in finance capital, the military-industrial complex, social media tech and fossil fuels will finally come to an end. But if that does not happen, then the Hollow Giant will plod along like Nero in a stupor or the USSR under Brezhnev until it, too, ultimately falls.

The Bully’s gambit.

datePosted on 12:54, February 28th, 2019 by Pablo

It has been an open secret in US foreign policy circles that Donald Trump wants to go to war with Venezuela. He has said as much on a number of occasions, not always disguised by the “all options are on the table” rhetoric his advisors urge him to use. In his recent book former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe mentions that Trump asked his national security team “why can’t we go to war with Venezuela,” claiming that it should be easy to do so. He may soon get his wish.

Let’s be clear on why Trump wants to wage war on a southern neighbour. It stems from the fact that he is an ignorant bully who believes in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (or as much as he is told of it, especially the part about being the Western Hemisphere’s police force) and pines for the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s Roughriders and gunboat diplomacy. He covets Venezuelan oil even though its decrepit pumping and refining infrastructure, US oil surpluses and relatively low oil prices make his notions of “controlling” it a bit more complicated than his simple mind can grasp. But as a deep-seated xenophobic racist he hates Latinos in any event, and the corruption and incompetence of the olive-skinned Venezuelan leadership led by Nicole Maduro feeds into all of is prejudices about them. Add to that the fact that, even though he himself is a draft-dodging silver-spooned coward who has no real comprehension of the sacrifices and costs of going to war, he revels in it and the bloodlust it incites amongst the MAGA morons who follow him.

What he is not interested in is the plight of the Venezuelan people or the nature of Maduro’s rule. After all, he heaps praise on Kim Jong-un, Mohammed bin-Salman, Rodrigo Dutarte and Vladimir Putin, so respect for human rights, providing for the common good and freely-chosen open government are not high on his list of priorities. Instead, the Venezuelan crisis, which essentially is an economic crisis brought about by government mis-management, corruption and incompetence that evolved into a national humanitarian crisis and now a political crisis–or what Gramsci called an organic crisis of the State–provides Trump with a window of opportunity for him to act out his fantasy of being a war-time president.

The machinery for going to war appears to have been switched on. Since I have been involved in such things in a past life, let me explain how it works.

The move to war starts with the White House via the National Security Council (NSC) asking the Department of Defense (DoD) to draw contingency plans for an armed confrontation with Venezuela. The request is conveyed to the regional units responsible for Latin America, in this case the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Interamerican region (OSD-ISA-IA). The request is also sent to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and its directorates responsible for war-planning in Latin America (especially J2 (Intelligence) and J3 (Operations)), as well as the Undersecretary of Policy and Plans (OSD-US-PP). These agencies often combine resources into a Joint Task Force (JTF) that games out a number of scenarios.

Military intelligence agencies such as the DIA are tasked to gather actionable intelligence on key targets, and the regional military command responsible for Latin America, the Southern Command based in Miami, is assigned the role of drawing up battle plans. The US Special Operations Command in Tampa will also be involved, and between these commands and the JCS the specific mix of airforce, naval and ground forces will be calibrated, then activated (the US favours an air-sea-land approach to conventional warfare, especially if special operators are involved). This will include units with regional focus such as the US Atlantic Fleet and 12th Air Force, as well smaller detachments like Special Boat Units and Air Force special operations wings.

Strategic planners in DoD will narrow down feasible options using multi-level cost/benefit analyses. Interagency working groups will be formed in order to coordinate information flows and policy feedback across affected bureaucracies (for example, the State Department, Homeland Security, Treasury and Customs, since all are involved in the pre-and post conflict response). US military attaches will be ordered to liaise with their Latin American counterparts in order to gauge reaction to any hostile US move (and explore the possibility of cooperation in operations in the case of Brazil and Colombia) and diplomats will be dispatched throughout the region to shore up support for the US and explore the possibility of material assistance from individual countries.

The CIA, NSA and DIA will assign regional and country specialists to the planning and covert assets and signals specialists will increase their reporting on the Venezuelan regime’s internal dynamics and its military’s behaviour, movements and communications. In a case like Venezuela’s where the regime is under siege and the US backs the opposition, the CIA will facilitate backdoor talks between exiles, opposition figures, disgruntled military personnel and US officials so as to ensure that all are playing off of the same page in the lead up to war. If needed, a cover plan–say, the need to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to desperate people as requested by the US friendly opposition–is drawn up in order to pre-position assets and material in preparation for hostilities.

All of this has already been or is being done by the US with regards to Venezuela. Reports have it that numerous flights operated by a CIA-front air charter service from a civilian airbase adjacent to Fort Bragg, North Carolina (home to US Army special forces) have departed for Colombia carrying humanitarian aide. The US special envoy for Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, and the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Interamerican Affairs traveled to the Colombian-Venezuelan borders last weekend to meet the Opposition leader Juan Guaido and oversee the unloading of provisions destined for Caracas (a move that was blocked by Venezuelan National Guardsmen). Cuban authorities have reported that US special forces have deployed to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in a pre-positioning move (the Cubans have their own reasons to make such claims but their intelligence is very often accurate).

If plans are in an advanced stage, contact with opposition resistance groups in the Venezuelan capital and other population centers will have been made and perhaps weapons supplied. A plan to neutralise the regime leadership and its intelligence networks will be readied. A provocation ploy (say, murder of a US-backed Opposition figure) or excuse for action plan (e.g. threats to US citizens) may be drawn up should it be required as a justification for war.

These things take time, so it is safe to say that if by this point the battle plan is well developed, Trump gave the war order very early in his presidency. DoD and JCS cannot refuse the president’s request even if they oppose it; their duty is to comply with what the Commander-in-Chief has requested. This may not preclude them from approaching Congress about concerns regarding the proposed operation. After all, this is would not be a war of necessity but rather one of opportunity (if not vanity), and the costs involved may not justify what is achieved even in a best-case scenario. But with people like Senator Marco Rubio baying for regime change in Venezuela, the congressional mood to resist the president at this stage is mixed at best, so military concerns about it may not find a receptive audience on the Hill.

In any event, the CIA and US Air Force planes ferrying supplies to Colombia land and take off from the town of Cucuta, located on the Venezuelan border and the site of a violent confrontation last weekend on the transnational bridge linking the two countries. Abrams flew in a USAF aircraft to that town’s airport, which is home to an Army mobile infantry brigade and conventional infantry brigade (largely made up of counter-insurgency companies). This reminds the Venezuelans that Colombia is the US’s closest Latin American military ally, having fought decades together against drug traffickers, the FARC and other guerrilla groups. Colombia is signalling that it will, at a minimum, allow the US to stage and pre-position forces on its territory, even if just on military bases. The Colombians have despised the Bolivarian regime since Chavez’s times, and now their ideological enmity has been practically reinforced because the crisis has seen a mass refugee migration from Venezuela into Colombia at the same time that increased smuggling flows head in the other direction. Social cohesion in border regions has been negatively affected and the public purse is being stretched by the need to provide for the refugees as well as maintain public order and border security. The Colombians have had enough.

Usually the Brazilian military would be reluctant to allow the US to stage and deploy military forces from Brazilian territory. But the election of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, who explicitly modelled himself on Donald Trump during the 2018 campaign, means that things have changed. Bolsonaro is keen to cultivate the White House’s good graces, and offering forward positioning rights along the Venezuelan border is one way of doing so. Brazilian and US commandos will welcome the opportunity to hone their skills together in a real operational environment. Here too ideological enmity dovetails with practical necessity, as Venezuelan refugees have fled into Brazil in increasing numbers over the past few months. It is therefore likely that Brazil has agreed to a US military presence on its border with Venezuela.

As the crisis accentuates and the impasse continues, US military planners will pour over maps and powerpoints, then hammer down the details of the means, methods and tactics to be used, as well as Plan B and C scenarios. Assets will be discretely transferred to staging areas and liaison with host militaries and resistance groups will be established. Strategic targets such as oil derricks and refineries will be given special attention.

Trump has a short term reason to activate the war plan: the 2020 elections. His political rationale in the upcoming election year is to influence the outcome via manipulation of nationalistic sentiment at home. This comes naturally to him given his vulgar political mind, and he sees Venezuela as an easy nut to crack. Aided by his allied media outlets, the drumbeat for war has been banging loudly for the last few months and is getting louder. Given the potential results of the Mueller investigation as well as those of several Democrat-controlled House Committees (such as the Michael Cohen hearings now underway), to say nothing of his failed summits with Kim Jong-un about denuclearising the DPRK (as if that was a realistic prospect), Trump might not be able to wait to pull an “October Surprise” even this year (they usually happen in the month before the election, not a year before). So we can expect that the pace of war preparations will increase over the next weeks to months.

For the Maduro regime, the issue is simple: raise the costs to the US (and possibly others) of any armed intervention in the country while either exhausting the opposition via attrition or negotiating a transition pact with it. The military will need to use stealth, manoeuvre and cover against a superior force, hoping to prolong the conflict so that Trump begins to pay a price for his folly. In this it will have the help of Cuban advisors skilled in the art of guerrilla warfare, including proficiency in tunnelling (learned from the Vietnamese) and the use of tactics such as helicopter trapping (where attack helicopters are lured into range of anti-aircraft weapons by small arms fire). If the conflict can be prolonged and US soldiers begin to die in significant numbers, then the bully gambit may just backfire on Trump.

I may have omitted or erred on a few details, but this will be the general thrust of things should Trump decide to pull the trigger that starts a war. I have not included post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building scenarios, but I assume that State Department planners, including those from the Agency for International Development (AID, already on the ground in Cucuta) will be hard at work figuring out post-conflict plans (although truth be told the US is not very successful at producing post-conflict outcomes that are clearly favourable to it). The matter of “what happens next?” once the war is over remains open to conjecture.

The bottom line is that a lot of preparation and resources go into contingency planning for war even against a relatively weak opponent, and even if the costs and fallout are uncertain and multidimensional in nature. This is true even if war is avoided: the costs of the preparations alone are monumental. One thing is therefore certain. The US path to war with Venezuela would have to have started some time ago and the costs are real even if battle is not joined. And if it is, the consequences will be felt for a long time to come way beyond Caracas.

On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

It’s over.

datePosted on 14:01, December 27th, 2018 by Pablo

Media coverage of the Trump administration is like a group of people standing around the bedside of a terminally ill person. Instead of dealing with the fact that the person is soon to depart this earthly coil, they linger on the details of her illness, the early symptoms that remained undiagnosed, the downhill course of her trajectory, the therapies used to prolong her life, the deterioration of her body and the awfulness of it all. That is all well and true but the bottom line is that for the person in the bed, life will soon be over and no amount of picking through her medical history will change that.

Whether it be out of morbid curiosity or driven by ratings boosts linked to the politically macabre, the US media fixates on Trump’s every action. He fuels their addiction to administrative chaos with his inane tweets and moronic statements. Truth be told, the press cannot get enough of it and many a pundit has made his name off of analysing the Trump train wreck. But all this ignores the larger picture, which is that, whether it happen in days, weeks, months or a year, the Trump presidency is finished. Done. Dusted, Kaput. Finis.

The disaster that is his presidency is too obvious to recount in sordid detail here. Suffice it to say that people are being fired or leaving the administration in droves, and many jobs remained unfilled or have been taken by intellectual lightweights. Trump lashes out and reacts impulsively across a range of issues, with suspicions emerging in print that he is addicted to the prescription stimulant Adderol (which is a 25th amendment grounds for removal). He is besieged on several legal fronts, both at the federal as well as state level. Congress is soon to see Democrats gain control of the House of Representatives (which means his legislative agenda is all but finished), and his own Party is not wiling to blindly follow his policy leads. His foreign policy is in tatters, his border wall will not be built and the Mexicans certainly will not pay for it, North Korea still has nukes, his trade war is hurting the states where is electoral base is strongest, the Russians and others laugh at him to his face, his children are in legal jeopardy, and his cabinet has an increasingly feral character to it. Daily scandals, lies and inanities are a constant soundtrack of his presidency. Absorbing all of that, Wall Street, which had been so opportunistically bullish when he entered office (and for which he claims credit), is now moving beyond skittish into full bear territory (for which he blames the Federal Reserve). As New York state prosecutors pointed out with regard to the Trump Foundation, his administration is basically an on-going criminal enterprise rooted in fraud and corruption posing as a government. His lying acolytes are no longer able to keep straight faces when spinning the White House narrative and many of his supporters in high places have simply gone to ground. Even Fox News and rabid rightwing radio personalities are breaking ranks with him. The exact precipitant and method of exit remain unknown, but one thing is clear: He is isolated, incoherent and irrational. He will soon be irrelevant.

That is why the media would be better off ignoring him and focusing on the line of succession and other aspects of institutional continuity. The era of president Mike Pence is at hand, and if it turns out that he played loose with the Russians during the campaign (as is claimed), then he too may be shown the door. That brings the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, into the Oval Office, and if he is unfit to serve, then Nancy Pelosi as the incoming Speaker of the House follows in the line of succession. If Pence is not indicted or otherwise tainted by his association with Russians during the campaign, he is free to choose his own Vice President (subject to Senate confirmation).

It behooves the US political elite to be working with Pence on transition scenarios. Pence is a religious freak and troglodyte on gender and sexual issues, but as a former congressman and governor he knows what it takes to get things done in DC and he is rational in a hyper-conservative way. Although he will likely return to the neoconservative approach to foreign policy and continue to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to guns, reproductive choice and race relations, he will be, after the lunatic steps down, positively easy to deal with. The same goes for Pompeo, who served in Congress before being named CIA director and then Secretary of State.

The institutions themselves need to develop transition plans. Already defence strategists openly worry about Trump going rogue and trying to launch a nuclear strike somewhere as a diversion or as a act of petty revenge on his successors. They point out that he can do so on his own and that there are no formal institutional checks on him (he is only supposed to consult with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defence and National Security Council as well as other cabinet officials, but he is not obliged to do so or to heed their counsel). Even if senior officers refuse his orders to launch a nuclear strike, he can work his way down the nuclear chain of command until he finds a compliant one. There is consequently a move to get Congress to re-write the law governing nuclear weapons use, but in the meantime DoD and the service commands need to consider the very real possibility of having to refuse a presidential order to use the arsenal. There is precedent for this under Nixon (during Watergate) and Reagan (after his Alzheimer’s became apparent), so it is not an unimaginable task.

The same can be said across the federal bureaucracy. Although Pence will not roll back all or most of Trump’s policies (say, on the environment), he will want his own team at the helm of federal agencies and will want to impose his own stamp on the policy-making process. In order for that to happen in an orderly fashion, planning must be done in anticipation of the change-over. It would be best for career public service managers to prepare contingency plans with an eye towards moving out from under Trump’s political appointees, particularly in contentious portfolios like Education and Homeland Security.

The bottom line is that the obsessive focus on Trump obscures the inevitability of his demise and the need to prepare for a change of administration. Because his downfall of itself will not right the ship of state. For that to happen a plan of action must be in place, something that requires congressional and executive branch coordination even if done without the knowledge of the political moribund in the White House.

Political Market Clearing.

datePosted on 15:27, November 17th, 2018 by Pablo

As I watched the results come in on US midterm election night, it struck me that the tally was a microcosmic distillation of what democracy is in terms of preferred outcomes: no one gets everything that they want, but everyone gets something of what they want. With the Democrats regaining the lower House in Congress and the GOP increasing its Senate majority, and governorships distributed more evenly with a few Democratic wins, it struck me that this was the “mutual second best” that democratic theorists argue is the core of the democratic bargain.

Over the ensuing days it became clear that the Democratic wins were larger than anticipated on election night and that even if the GOP holds on to disputed seats in places like Florida (where I voted in infamous Palm Beach County), the erosion of Republican electoral support was significant. Conventional wisdom has it that Trump was a decisive factor in both victory and defeat for the GOP, as he galvanised his Red state base but alienated the suburban female demographic nation-wide. Women candidates, including women of colour and non-Christian cultural backgrounds, were the major winners in the congressional contests, although most of that came on the Democratic side (but even Republican women did well in places). What the results mean in practice, beyond all of the talk about investigations and impeachment (which are real possibilities now that the House is under Democratic control), is that Trump’s legislative agenda has had the brakes put on it. Unless he moderates his behaviour and reaches across the partisan aisle to secure bipartisan support for landmark legislation on health care, immigration reform, infrastructure spending, etc., then nothing will get done. And if the Democrats try to unilaterally push through their own pet projects, they may find resistance in the Senate and a veto waiting in the Oval Office.

Given that many in the GOP blame Trump for their losses and most of the new Democratic legislators are ideologically to the Left of their House and Senate leaders, the president and leaders of his congressional opposition have reason to seek each other out in an accord. That could cement their legacies and ward off insurrection within their party ranks in the build up to the 2020 elections.

Of course, Trump can just continue to behave like the unhinged bullying a-hole that he is, the GOP can continue to fracture along pro- and anti-Trump lines while Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer stifle calls for change from the Left of their party. That will lead to government dysfunction and potential gridlock, which opens the door to unforeseen and unexpected developments on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. And then there is the Mueller investigation…

All of that aside, what interests me the most at this juncture is the notion that the 2018 midterms represent a type of political market clearing in the US. As with the notion of “mutual second best” the term “political market clearing” is a conceptual transfer from economics. It refers to the moment when after a period of stress and tension in the political system there is a breakthrough that leads to the re-establishment of the system along new equilibrium points. This can entail a clearing out of old structures and individuals and their replacement with newer political agents and/or can come via a re-balancing of the political party system at the federal, state and local levels. The idea is that a watershed moment leads to a catharsis  of the political system, which then seeks a new equilibrium of power relations that is more efficient than the previous aggregation.

This is not just another way of saying political “pendulum swing.” Pendulum swings are metronomic, which makes them regular and predictable. There is nothing regular or predictable about a political market clearing, as it is born of the crisis of the previous system and may undergo several iterations before settling into a newly equilibrated status quo.

In the political market policy ideas and initiatives are the stock in trade. Some rise as others fall. For example, a decade or so ago the idea of universal single user pays health care with no exclusions for pre-existing conditions was considered ridiculous and politically impossible to achieve in the US. Today, it is at the centre of the health care debates, with the non-exclusion of pre-existing conditions being a successful Democratic talking point in the midterms. Likewise, for years the notion of limiting the type of firearms made available for public purchase was considered as ludicrous as was the notion that the National Rifle Association could be confronted directly in any election. Now both of those notions are being actively disputed, including by a few Purple state Republicans. Even the intractable issue of campaign finance reform has, thanks to Bernie Sanders and his influence on the incoming class of congressional Democrats, now been pushed onto the policy trading floor.

If policy platforms are the stocks traded in the political market, then votes are its currency.  With the shift to Democratic governors in several important states two years before the national census and subsequent congressional re-districting process (which are controlled by State governments), gerrymandered  districts that favor Republicans by atomizing non-White voting populations will cease to exist and will be replaced by those that more accurately reflect the demographic and socio-economic shifts of the last decades. That will translate into continued and perhaps more elected Democrats in state and federal legislatures and/or a move to moderation among Republicans at both levels. Voting occurs in committees as well as in upper and lower chambers as a whole, and with the shift in power last week the relative value of selected policy stocks have undergone reappraisal. This will inform any approach to bipartisan consensus on federal legislation so, for example, the sell-off of plummeting stock in the border wall policy proposal will be balanced by increased buying of the rising stocks of comprehensive immigration and health care reform.

It seems to me that the US midterms mark the deepening of a political market clearing. Although the Obama administration will be treated kindly by history, it represented the end of a political generation marked by a quarter century of increasingly polarised and partisan politics reproduced and magnified by media outlets masquerading opinion and advocacy as journalism. It culminated the end of a bipartisan consensus and its replacement with a fiercely disloyal Republican opposition in Congress that stymied any administration initiatives simply because it could. And it was under those conditions that the Trump candidacy emerged and won the presidency with its calls to drain the swamp and make America great again. Although Trump’s rhetoric is more demagogic rather than informed by the realities of the day, it marked the beginning of the US political market undergoing value reappraisal.

The midterms have shown the direction of the reappraisal and the emerging equilibrium points around which policy efficiencies will cluster. Yet the process is ongoing. The political market clearing will not fully re-equilibrate until after the 2020 elections (if then), even as the foundations for new policy efficiencies have been and will continue to be laid.

If I am correct, then we will be able to look back at the Trump era as the last gasp of a political system drowning in its lack of popular representation and elitist excess. Think about it: the racism, misogyny, xenophobia and general celebration of bigoted ignorance unleashed by the Trump effect on US politics–Trump being both a symptom and aggravator of already latent trends–is the inevitably futile last stand of a cultural, racial and socio-economic demographic in inexorable decline. The venality of its political defenders is proof of that, and  the ideological vitality of its supplanters is evidence of the sea change coming ahead. Political clinging to a mythical past that never was will continue for a while more but the trend is clear and that is where the political market re-equilibration gains strength. It is not a matter of if but when the new policy efficiencies are  balanced and a new stable political equilibrium is established.

The questions for the next few months are whether Trump has the ability to build a bridge to the congressional Democrats after demonizing them as a means of whipping his retrograde base, and whether the Democratic congressional leadership will take the bait of bipartisanship on the terms that he may offer. If this happens then the political market clearing will be stymied (which is beneficial mostly to the current political status quo). On the other hand, if the congressional Democrats impose on Trump and the congressional GOP a new legislative agenda that recognises the changing electoral demographic that brought them victory last week, then the process of policy re-equilibration in a political market clearing could well begin to take hold.

One can only hope.

Respect, fear and laughter.

datePosted on 12:48, September 28th, 2018 by Pablo

This week Donald Trump chose the wrong place and the wrong time to brag about MAGA. For its myriad faults, the UN General Assembly is probably the most objective place with which to evaluate the US’s position in the international community and the impact of the Trump presidency on it.

When Trump thumped his chest about the greatness that is his administration during his speech to it, the UNGA laughed in his face. He later said that they were laughing with him, not at him. He would be wrong on that.

According to US foreign policy lore, “it is better to be respected than feared, but it is enough to be feared.” It is now clear from the UNGA response to Trump’s chauvinistic utterances that the US, or at least the US under Trump, is neither feared or respected. Instead, it is seen as the large oaf best avoided, toyed with from afar or irritated at a distance. It is dangerous, to be sure, but it is in many ways a paper tiger much in the way that Trump is. This was best illustrated at the UN Security Council meeting that Trump chaired two days after his UNGA speech. While most attention focused on his claims that China was interfering in the upcoming US midterm election on behalf of the Democrats and his threats against Iran, lost in the coverage was the fact that Bolivian President Evo Morales, sitting in his country’s temporary Security Council seat less then 2 meters from Trump, ridiculed him to is face after Trump started going about restoring democracy to Venezuela after airing his complaints about China.  Morales reminded Trump of the US’s sorry history of interventionism in Latin America and denounced his hypocrisy in a way that few would ever had done in years gone by. But that was then and Drumpf is now.

The UN’s laughter is also rooted in the knowledge that the shift to populist governance in the US could well be the last gasp of a dying empire. The move to economic nationalism under personalist leadership and the reassertion of mono-cultural ethno-religious dominance in the face of multicultural demographic shifts and the globalisation of economic relations represents a call to a past that even if it existed (it never fully did), is no longer possible in an age of emerging great power multipolarity in which US decline as a superpower is matched by the rise of new and resurgent powers. The turn to myopic vanity (MAGA) under Trump’s brand of populism spells the end of imperial hubris, if not of imperial ambition itself. That is because in mature liberal democracies the rise of nationalist populism is a response to crisis of the political status quo but is not the answer to it. Instead it represents the last gasp of a dying empire, one last grasp at “greatness” before the cold reality of potentially terminal decline begins to set in.

World leaders also know that even if it is a temporary paralysis under Trump rather than a terminal illness, the current “America First” US foreign policy needs to be waited out or side-stepped rather than confronted. It is increasingly clear that Trump may not survive his term in office because of the Mueller investigation and the distinct possibility that the Democrats regain at least one chamber of Congress in the November 2018 midterm elections. Even if he does complete his current term it is unlikely that he will get re-elected in 2020 given the support levels he receives. If the Democrats win the House of Representatives it is probable that they will commence impeachment proceedings against him, something that will make much harder his ability to press forward with his policy agenda. If his popularity continues to slump due to the negative impact of retaliatory tariffs on exports from so-called Red States that backed him in 2016 (which is what the Chinese have done in a targeted way and which is why Trump is claiming that they are trying to interfere in the 2018 midterms), then his chances for re-election in 2020 are virtually nil as are those of any GOP candidates still trying to ride his coattails.

Unlike the Chinese Communist Party that can demand and enforce public austerity in the face of US tariffs on its exports, US politicians face electoral scrutiny on a regular basis. And when a trade war begins to bite on the US side, be it in loss of jobs or rises in mass consumer non-durable retail prices, then something will give, and what gives is electoral support for those who support the trade war. Call it the “Walmart Effect:” when cheap goods can no longer be bought cheaply at retail outlets like Walmart, then not only are consumers denied their consumption preferences but the profit margins of the retail corporations take a hit as well. And when the corporate elite see their bottom lines negatively impacted by trade wars, then they will work hard to ensure that those responsible for the loss of profit are punished accordingly. Trump and his economic nationalist supporters are therefore on a political hiding to nothing if they continue down the current path when it comes to trade relations.

Then there is what Mueller’s investigation may have in store.

So the best thing for most foreign governments to do is to laugh at or play along with but not diplomatically confront the MAGA madness. The exception to this is Iran, which has responded relatively calmly but firmly to Trump’s provocations, and North Korea, which has decided that the best way to manipulate Trump is to stroke his ego via slavish praise and flattery (while doing very little in the way of making substantive concessions to the US regarding its nuclear weapons development program). In between lies a continuum of response from making nice with him while keeping channels open with the US foreign policy bureaucracy (India) to ignoring him while concentrating on other diplomatic initiatives not involving the US (the EU). For rival powers like China and Russia, the response is to proceed with their strategic plans without concern for the US response–what can be called pulling the tail of that paper tiger. They key point is that the global community increasingly sees Trump as a temporary aberration rather than an indicator of a hegemonic long-term project.

Whatever the response, it is pretty clear that the US is coming to the end of a long political cycle. Trump is the product and symbol of it as well as its last response and manifestation. What emerges from the ashes of his administration has yet to be determined and it is possible that, having not seen what is obvious from the outside, the US political elite will continue with their partisan squabbles and corporate bankrolling while the country continues its socio-economic descent into division and strife. But it is also possible, like the drunk who wakes up in a gutter and decides to go sober (insert reference to Brett Kavanaugh here), the US political establishment will realise that they have hit rock bottom and need to change their approach to political life.

Then again, it does not appear that the GOP and some of the Democratic establishment have even woken up yet.

Unearthing the mole.

datePosted on 14:12, September 7th, 2018 by Pablo

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.

The political rope-a-dope.

datePosted on 12:39, April 10th, 2018 by Pablo

Older readers will remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” where Muhammad Ali defeated George Foreman for the heavyweight boxing title. Held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, the contest pitted the undefeated champion Foreman, a beast of a man whose stock in trade was brutal early round knockouts of people such as Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and other contenders of the time (the uppercut punch that KO’d Norton earlier in 1974 actually lifted him off of the ground) against an ageing Ali, well past his prime after lengthy suspension when his concientious objection to the Vietnam War was ruled invalid and he was convicted of draft-dodging.

In the build up to the fight Ali pushed the line that he was going to take the fight to Foreman with his superior speed and agility. But Foreman and his trainers knew, based on the workouts Ali allowed the public and media to see, that his hand, head and foot speed were no longer what they used to be, and he could no longer “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” The Foreman fight plan was therefore simple: bear down on Ali, cut off escape angles and corner him in the corners and on the ropes, then expose and exploit his slowness in a ferocious and relentless beatdown.

As readers will know, that did not happen. Ali privately trained to absorb body blows and using the lax rules of the boxing federations sponsoring the fight, was able to get the ring ropes loosened to their maximum extent (which allowed up to 12 inches of slack from the bottom to the top rope). Come fight time, this allowed Ali to lean back against the ropes, absorb Foreman’s increasingly frustrated and reckless body blows while dodging the occasional head shot and in doing so conserve energy by not punching himself out in a toe-to-toe brawl.

 

By the eighth round Foreman had thrown hundreds of punches. He was staggering around the ring in pursuit of Ali and physically spent, punch drunk and arm weary from throwing jabs, roundhouses and uppercuts rather than taking them. Once his hands dropped and stayed at his sides Ali pounced, using a series of jabs and hard rights to knock him down and out. It remains one of the greatest sporting upsets–and spectacles–of all time.

I mention this anecdote because it seems to me that we are witnessing a variation on this theme in US politics today. Although it is blasphemous to say so, think of Trump as Ali, his civil and political opposition and mainstream media as Foreman, the courts as the referee and the Republican party and rightwing corporate and social media, including state-sponsored trolls and disinformation purveyors, as the ropes.

In a straight up contest between Trump and the US constitutional system of checks and balances, it would be no contest. The courts, Congress and independent media would prevent Trump from slipping the boundaries of executive responsibility, would hold him to account and would punish him when he transgressed. Given his background and behaviour, he would not make it out of the first round.

But in the US today he has a support cushion in the GOP and rightwing media. Like the rules governing the tension on boxing ring ropes, the strictures governing partisan behaviour and truth in reporting have been stretched to their limits. Every blow he is dealt by the institutional system–the “swamp” as he calls it–is absorbed and countered by a chorus of hyper-partisan hyperbole and media ranting about “fake news,” conspiracies and the “Deep State.” This allows Trump to deflect, weave, dodge and counterpunch his accusers, questioning their character, motives, looks and heritage as if these were somehow equivalent or worse than the activities he has and is engaged in. The courts can only enforce what exists on paper, and since what exists on paper regarding presidential conduct is predominantly an issue of norms, custom and mores rather than legal accountability, there are limits to what they can do as referees in battles between Trump and other institutions.

Put another way: Normally a wayward president could not stand toe to toe with the institutional system of checks and balances without taking a beating. But that assumes that the limits of executive power are codified in law and not subject to manipulation. This turns out to be untrue. Much executive power does in fact answer to the law, at least in terms of how presidential decisions affect others. But much of it is also a product of precedent, practice, custom and tradition, not legislation, particularly when it comes to the president’s personal behaviour. In turn, the limits of presidential behaviour has always rested on the assumption that the incumbent will honour the informal traditions and responsibilities of office as well as the nature of the office itself, and not seek to manipulate the position for pecuniary and political self-advantage and/or personal revenge.

Trump has done exactly that. He regards the presidency as a personal vehicle and has disdain and contempt for its traditions and norms. He realises that he can play loose with the rules because the political constraints that bind him have been loosened by his corporate, congressional  and media supporters. He and his allies are willing to play dirty and use all of the tools at his disposal to thwart justice and destroy opponents.

This is the great irony of US politics. For a country that provides itself on constitutional protections and the “rule of law,” the framework governing presidential behaviour is little more than the ropes on a boxing ring.

For those interested in a return to civility and institutional norms this is problematic but is not the only thing that parallels the “rumble in the jungle.”  Like Trump’s attacks on those investigating him in the FBI and Justice Department, for months prior to the fight Ali poisoned the well of good will towards Foreman. Ali lost his prime fighting years to the suspensions levied on him by boxing associations after he refused to be inducted into the US Army in 1967. Although he never spent time in jail and became an icon of the anti-War movement, he resented the five lost athletic years and those who profited by stepping into the ring during his absence. He particularly loathed Foreman, who he considered to be the white man’s favorite because of his quiet, polite and compliant demeanour out of the ring. He publicly labeled Foreman an “Uncle Tom” and “House Negro” who turned his back on his fellow people of color. Although none of this was verifiable, Ali’s charges resonated beyond boxing circles.

When Ali arrived in Kinsasha he held public training events that were part sparring, part evangelical preaching. He railed against colonialism and imperialism, averred his faith in Islam, lauded African nationalists like Mobuto Sese Seko, then-president of the host country Zaire (and not one known for his affinity for democratic rights), and generally carried on like a bare-chested revolutionary in shorts and gloves. Foreman, for his part, stayed quiet, trained mostly in private and had his handlers speak for him. When they entered the ring on that storied night, the 60,000 strong crowd crammed into the national stadium was overwhelmingly on Ali’s side.

Perhaps Ali’s mind games were designed to help sway the judge’s decision in the event that it was close. Perhaps it was to intimidate Foreman himself. Whatever the motive, there is a parallel to be drawn with Trump’s attacks on his critics and investigators on Twitter, at press conferences and at campaign-style rallies. His ranting serves to raise public suspicion about the critical media and federal law enforcement much in the way Ali’s insults about Foreman had the effect of raising questions about his ethnic identification and personal integrity, something that eventually turned African opinion against him. Could the same happen with Trump’s support base and undecided voters in the US?

It is too early to tell if Trump’s “rope a dope” political strategy will see him triumph over his adversaries. But that leaves pending an open question: is there a person out there that can play Leon Spinks to Trump’s Ali? And if so, is that person named Robert Mueller, or could it turn out to be Stormy Daniels?

One thing is certain. Trump is a big fan of the WWE and likes to fancy himself as a tough guy willing to take on all challengers. However, in this contest, unlike the WWE, the outcome is not pre-determined and the blows are both real and far from over.

New Zealand goes it alone.

datePosted on 18:47, March 28th, 2018 by Pablo

The New Zealand Labour government’s refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing. The 27-nation solidarity coalition expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from their soil includes all of New Zealand’s major security partners as well as important trade counterparts. New Zealand is a member of the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection and sharing network including Australia, Canada, the UK and the US, so it has better knowledge than most as to what evidence the UK has to indicate that Vladimir Putin’s regime ordered the hit on Skripal. New Zealand is an extra-regional NATO and EU associate, and like the majority of the members of the coalition, it is a democracy. New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic interlocutors in what is largely a symbolic gesture of repudiation of Russian misbehavior abroad.

The decision was made all the more quixotic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s claim that there are “no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives” in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone. She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) that was the case, even though MFAT has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer, declared or undeclared (that is the job of the Security Intelligence Service (SIS)). She later changed her story to saying that her advice did in fact come from the SIS, but without acknowledging her original misstatement (which happened during a RNZ interview so is recorded for posterity). Her repeated comments that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about her competence when handling security matters.

Discussion in New Zealand about the issue has been muddled by the PM’s remarks. The minor aspect of the story is about whether there are Russian intelligence operatives in NZ and whether they should be expelled. The answers to that are “yes” and “possibly.” “Possibly” depends on the answer to the major aspect of the story: the reasons why NZ decided not to join the so-called “expulsion coalition.” I shall focus on the latter but suffice it to say that all of the 150 Russian personnel expelled by the coalition hold diplomatic passports so by definition are not working undercover as spies without diplomatic immunity. Nor were all of those expelled intelligence officers working under official cover (i.e. with diplomatic immunity).

The detour into what constitutes an “undeclared intelligence agent” was unnecessary and unhelpful in clarifying the reasons behind NZ’s decision to reject the UK request to join it in repudiating the Russian assassination attempt. That reasoning continues to remain unclear at present. Claiming that the decision to not adhere to the collective expulsion action is because there was no one who met the definition of “undeclared intelligence agents” operating in New Zealand is a diversion from the underlying rationale because it puts the focus on the instrumentalities of response rather than the reasons for it.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate, or perhaps better said, alienate itself from its traditional allies and major security partners? To be sure, members of the coalition have their own histories of foreign skullduggery and intrigue, to include extrajudicial killings abroad. Moreover, diplomacy is often no more than hypocrisy masquerading as self-righteousness standing in defense of principle. Perhaps the Labour government wants to give the lie to the posturing of its most important allies.

Even so, pragmatic assessments usually inform foreign policy decisions, particularly those involving choosing sides in international disputes. That is particularly true for small states when confronted with the demands of quarreling powers to take a position in favour of one side or the other. This “Melian Dilemma” is an unavoidable part of being small in a world dominated by competing great powers, so Lilliputians such as New Zealand usually think long and hard before taking an unpopular stand—particularly amongst its friends.

New Zealand’s decision not to participate in the solidarity coalition was made in the face of a direct request from the May government and in spite of the fact that the collective action is largely symbolic. Although Russian intelligence operations will be adversely affected in places like the UK, US and Germany, many of those being expelled are “normal” diplomats who can be recalled at some future date. So the downside to joining the coalition would seem relatively small even with Russian threats of retaliation, and the upside in terms of being seen to be a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms could well outweigh whatever the Russians can respond with.

Perhaps there lies the explanation. New Zealand’s foreign policy in recent years has been trade obsessed and speculation has it that members of the foreign policy establishment see the possibility of advancing a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA) with Russia in the vacuum left by the trade sanctions levied on it in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion and annexation of Crimea. New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards. Official advice from the foreign ministry is that violating the sanctions regime to try to exploit a possible window of opportunity vis a vis Russia is counterproductive at best.

But talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not. Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, or that it interfered in US and European elections, and has refused to name Russia as the perpetrator of the attempted Skripal hit, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its “independent and autonomous” foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government’s rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners. Given the animosity felt towards Donald Trump (and to a lesser extent Teresa May) amongst Labour supporters as well as those of its coalition partners (New Zealand First and the Green Party), this is a way of playing David versus Goliath(s) for domestic audiences.

New Zealand could also be signalling the international community. After all, over 140 nations did not sign up to the collective action, including major trading partners in Asia and the Middle East. No Pacific Island nation (other than those represented by France, the UK and US) signed on to the deal. So in terms of demonstrating its sovereign resolve to remain out of great power conflicts when and where possible, this Labour government may be channeling the spirit of independence championed by David Lange during the 1985 nuclear showdown.

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short and long term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia. By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin’s regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits even if it does not interfere with the daily business of intelligence sharing and military cooperation with the Five Eyes and other security partners.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favor with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences. The play is both short and long-term in nature, with the question being will a short term move of this sort translate into longer term benefits or losses.

In the diplomatic world the shadow of the future hangs heavily over present decision-making. Sequels are uncertain and memories are elephantine in nature. The consequences of being shortsightedly contrarian are determined not by the contrarian but by those refused support on a matter of international consequence and foreign policy alignment. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may risk the wrath of those slighted but win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian (even if principled)  stance?

A shorter version of this post appears in The Guardian on line, March 28, 2018.

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

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