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Archive for ‘USA’ Category

Blog Link: A Romney Foreign Policy and the South Pacific.

datePosted on 04:53, September 21st, 2012 by Pablo

For those interested in US domestic politics and the potential impact of a Romney presidency on US foreign policy with a South Pacific angle, my thoughts on the subject are gathered here.

A surfeit of services.

datePosted on 09:23, September 17th, 2012 by Pablo

My yearly sojourns to the US provide a regular opportunity to garner a snapshot of the state of the union, at least from my limited perspective. This year I returned to my old stomping grounds in the desert southwest and to the home away from home in South Florida. After a wet monsoon season the desert was lush and the 360 degree skies saturated with cumulus, cirrus and stratus cloud. It was great to hear Norteno music and Spanglish spoken in the street.

My son joined my partner and I for a trip to the old mining town of Bisbee, where we stayed at the haunted Copper Queen (est. circa 1880) and had a long night on the town that ended up in some biker/metalhead dive bar. It was great. I highly recommend the Arizona desert to New Zealanders interested in a dramatic contrast in landscapes and Western cultures.

South Florida has been less pleasant. There is a palpable tension in the air marked by hostile attitudes and unbelievably aggressive, to the point of criminally reckless, driving. The region is known for its fast pace and shallow materialism, but in this trip there is something darker about it. Some of this can be attributed to the election campaign, in which some of the local attack ads are truly astounding in their ferocity and disregard for decency (the issue is large: one-third of the US Senate, the entire US House of Representatives, and most local offices are in play). There is a buffoon Republican named Alan West running for the US Senate, and his ads make the Swiftboat and Willie Horton attack ads look tame. He says nothing about what he proposes and spends most of his time defaming his Democrat opponent. Seeing that Romney is set to lose the presidential race, the right wing talkback and television outlets have ratcheted up the hysteria and vitriol to the point that even John Stewart or Stephen Colbert cannot parody them adequately. In a word, the place is nuts.

This condition of political anomie may be compounding the sense of frustration and anger felt by an increasingly divided–the word “polarized” does not do justice to the chasm between the US right and left–polity that more than anything else is diffident in its regard for politics. Both the Republican and Democratic conventions were not as well attended and not as widely viewed by TV audiences as in previous years, and it appears that the election abstention rate is going to be very high this year. People appear to be cynical, bitter and lacking in hope for the future regardless of who wins in November. All in all, this is the sorriest state of mind I have found the US to be in since my move to NZ fifteen years ago.

That is the backdrop to the subject of this post. As readers will know, the focus of the 2012 US election begins and ends with the economy. Platitudes are proffered and panaceas are prescribed. Words like “competitiveness” and “innovation” are bandied about like lollies. But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of a root cause of the American economic malaise: its reliance on services.

The US is a country dominated by the service sector rather than true productive enterprise. Think of the variety of services now on offer: wealth and asset managers; financial advisors; PR and other “communications strategists;” personal trainers; life coaches (of which there are half a million in the US); pain management specialists (aka pill doctors); landscapers; floral designers; escorts; private alarm and security companies; fishing, hunting and tour guides; real estate agents; internet and in-store movie suppliers; credit card purveyors; nail and hair “artists;” wedding planners; a zillion types of mental health counselors and ambulance chasing lawyers; insurers; car, cat and dog groomers; dog walkers; bird, cat, dog and horse whisperers; DJs; car valets; (for-profit) drug and alcohol rehabbers; tennis instructors; beauty consultants; fashion stylists; liposuction specialists; motivational speakers; management and risk consultants; self-help gurus; personal assistants and agents, accountants; home delivery services; website designers–the list is as varied as it is endless. While one might argue that all retail sales are a service, my point is that in the US the extent of service provision is on its way to infinite, and this infinite progression dominates its economy.

The basic problem of reliance on services as the core of economic activity is that making money through facilitation is not equivalent to being productive. Nor is working hard synonymous with productivity. Americans work the longest hours and take the shortest vacations of all OECD countries. By that standard they should be light-years ahead of the democratic capitalist world in terms of real productivity. But they are not. That is because hard work and income earned in services does not, in the larger scheme of things, add real value to productivity. It may make the national quality of life better, but it does not advance the overall condition of the productive apparatus. It is the economic equivalent of silver–it is nice and attractive, very malleable, easy to buy, wear and replace, but is no substitute for the economic iron required to build and progress a nation.

What is noteworthy about the US service sector is that, at over 75 percent and growing, it is steadily occupying a bigger and bigger percentage of the national GDP (agriculture is less than 2 percent and manufacturing is at 20 percent). The creative genius involved in the proliferation of services is matched by its relentless rent-seeking: in South Florida television ads are dominated by ambulance chasers (who prefer the term “personal injury lawyers”), pill-pushers and geriatric care providers who offer relief and compensation for a myriad of ills previously unheard of or for which personal responsibility used to suffice.

The majority of US college graduates, be they from two or four year colleges, receive degrees in areas other than science or engineering (business, education and liberal arts degrees are the majority of those granted in the US). Since the bulk of undergraduates do not go on to graduate school, this leaves a labor pool full of people who cannot actually produce or add value to anything other than by virtue of their slick talk and quick uptake on the job. Since most people coming out of US universities and colleges are neither particularly articulate or quick on the uptake, their default option is to join the legion of personal service providers.

No that all services are of the silver variety. Some of these are important, such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, firefighters, police and lifeguards (I shall defer from elaborating on the public versus private aspects of the service sector, but note that what are considered public services are basically considered to be core functions of government, many of which are being privatized and downsized in the current fiscal environment). Many services are linked via supply chains to the manufacturing and research sectors. Others, such as the information technology services that spawned Google, Facebook and Twitter, create wealth but do not always really produce anything tangible or contributory to the value-added project (which in part explains the lukewarm stock market reaction to the Facebook public stock float). The vast majority of US services are, needless to say, even less contributory to the national productive apparatus.

The critical and deleterious aspect of the services domination of the US economy is that it is moving the country away from the production of real value added assets, much of which is increasingly monopolized in terms of ownership anyway. Add to that the overwhelming influence of the financial service sector, and what is left is a country that buys more than it makes (and what it makes are increasingly capital goods as much as consumer durables and non-durables), and in which people increasingly use services rather than do things or rely on themselves.

The social division of labor created by service sector dominance in the US appears to produce two distinct cultural characteristics. First–and this is very evident in South Florida and a subject that I have addressed in previous posts–is a culture of blame-assignment and responsibility-shifting where nobody is personally accountable for the consequences of their actions. Even hardened criminals commonly use the excuse that their teachers, counselors and psychiatrists failed them in the lead-up to their crimes, and in many instances this suffices to mitigate their culpability and reduce their sentences. They are not alone in this. In fact, there is an entire service industry comprised of counselors, insurers and lawyers that profits from shifting blame and responsibility, criminal or not.

The second aspect is the increasing compartmentalization and personalization of service work, which in turn produces an erosion of horizontal solidarities brought about by common insertion in the productive process. Much of the service sector is characterized by individual entrepreneurial or material pursuits. The individualization of service work, often aided by stay-at-home technologies that facilitate the rendering of such services, removes the associational and emotive ties that are part of the working experience in mass productive enterprise. This atomizes and alienates individuals as social subjects, as their material fortunes no longer depend on common identifications and sense of purpose (which occurs whether the workforce is organized or not precisely because it is a collective enterprise).

Social group associations, service group size and individual immersion in non-work related collective undertakings such as sports and churches mitigate against a complete return to survivalist alienation, but they do not fully overcome the dissociative effects of the nature of service provision. The effect of this is to reduce the ties that bind people together, which helps explain the turn to shifting blame and responsibility onto others.

Needless to say, I am only extrapolating from what I am seeing in the US during my limited time here. I recognize that generalizations are fraught and speculation based on fraught and fragmentary generalizations are to be suspected. So take this appraisal as an opinion, nothing more. Moreover, the US remains the largest national economy in the world, the largest trading nation, and the largest manufacturing economy. Its information technology, robotics, telecommunications and aerospace industries are world leaders. Its automobile and construction sectors are on the rebound. It is by no means weak in spite of what I have outlined above.

Even so, the trend is disturbing (at least for those with an interest in the US). For small countries not intent on projecting power or devoid of natural and human resources, reliance on services as the mainstay of the economy is acceptable if not advisable. Competitive advantage in services may counterweight a lack of comparative advantage in productive resources.

However, it seems to me that if a large, militarily aggressive country with a global reach relies on services as its engine of economic growth rather than on value-added production, than it will find it increasingly difficult to hold the its position over time. I might be wrong and, like (but better than) the USSR, the US can continue to ride on the production associated with an immense military-industrial corporate complex that spins off technological innovation and civilian applications as a matter of course even as the overall presence of value-added manufacturing as a component of GDP decreases. But if that is the case, it seems a risky proposition for sustained growth and global prominence given that an increasing percentage of the inputs to that type of production are derived from external rather than internal sources.

Meanwhile the life coaches continue to facilitate personal self-realization, realtors hustle properties, lawyers litigate and asset managers channel money made from services into other services. Wall Street and Washington both believe that ongoing reliance on services for economic growth is sustainable and desirable. In broad economic terms, that is like equating a merry-go-round with a wheel. It is that merry-go-round that Obama, Romney and other US politicians are trying to fix.

A White Bread Double Down.

datePosted on 12:12, August 19th, 2012 by Pablo

As is well known, the US is undergoing a demographic transition that will see the majority of the country being non-white in origin by 2030 or thereabouts (for the purposes of this essay I shall use the US definition of “non-white,” which is a person who does not have two caucasian parents. This definition is a throw-back to the bad old days but has managed to remain as a racial standard in census calculations. Interestingly, in Brazil a person is considered white if they have a single drop of white blood regardless of how dark they may look. Readers can draw their own conclusions as to why that may be). The US is also a country with more females than males as a percentage of the population. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the country is headed to a majority female, coffee-with–milk colored future in the next two decades.

The trend has motivated political parties to seek and court the new generation of dark skinned voters, be they Latino (of which there are many persuasions that do not exhibit uniform political or social attitudes), Arab (ditto), African (both continental and hyphenated new world such as Afro-Americans, Afro-Caribbeans and Afro-Peruvians), Indians (both native and from the sub-continent) Asians (of all stripes) and other “non-white” populations. Although dark-skinned populations have traditionally occupied the working and lower middle classes, they now span the gamut of socio-economic status. This has meant that what was once the preferred recruiting ground for the Democratic Party and other small leftist-oriented political groups has now been opened up to the Republicans and their smaller conservative counterparts. One can no longer look at individuals of color and automatically assume their voting preferences. This has made the non-white electorate an extremely important swing vote in national and local elections.

I mention this because one would think that the GOP would understand the importance of recognizing these shifts in its election strategy and candidate selection. In 2008 it gave a nod to “hockey moms” by nominating Sarah Palin as its Vice Presidential candidate. The Democrats saw a fierce primary campaign for the presidency eventually won by a man of half-African descent over a white middle aged woman. The mixed race Presidential candidate brought on an older white male Senator as his VP choice, and together they went on to win the 2008 election over the hockey mom and her geriatric white male former war hero-turned Senator presidential running mate.

In this year’s election the Republican primary offered some interesting twists. It included a black man and a white woman along with an assortment of white males of various Christian persuasions (I mention religion because in the US atheists and agnostics stand no chance of being elected if they state so publicly. Even non-religious people like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have to pretend to be pious church-goers, so long as the church in question is a christian denomination. It will be a while before a Jew or Muslim makes it to the White House as either POTUS or VP, Joe Lieberman’s failed 2000 vice presidential nomination notwithstanding).

However, by the end of the GOP primary campaign it was an older white male millionaire ex-governor who emerged as the presidential candidate. He had many options when it came to choosing his running mate. Condi Rice was mentioned. Bobby Jindal (of Indian extraction) was mentioned. Marco Rubio (a Cuban American) was in the mix. But who did Mitt Romney choose? A younger white male congressman who, among other things, professed to be an Ann Rand devotee until the mid-2000s, has never run a business (which the GOP claims is essential for breaking out of the Washington DC mindset) and who is considered the intellectual giant behind the GOP small government, lower taxes, less expenditure philosophy–that is, at least until it emerged that he lobbied for Obama administration stimulus funds to be directed towards his congressional district in Wisconsin.

In effect, what the GOP has opted for as a presidential ticket is a white bread double-down on an increasingly blended ethnic stew: two caucasian males, one Mormon and one Catholic, both from privileged backgrounds, preaching fiscal austerity as the panacea for US ills. Neither has foreign policy experience. Both are “chicken hawks” (pro-military without having served) and have conservative social views (although Romney appears to have a utilitarian approach to his conservatism, in that he is when it suits him to be): anti abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-welfare, anti-undocumented immigrants (I refuse to use the term “illegal alien” that is preferred by right-wing commentators in the US). That also sums up the essence of the GOP ticket: it is defined by what it is against rather than what it is for (which, as I have written in previous posts, is a bad position upon which to base any political platform).

There is more to the picture but it strikes me that this choice of candidates says more about the GOP nostalgia for a lost past rather than a vision for the US future. It does not appear to recognize the changing nature of the US demographic mosaic (which, besides the changing ethnic blend also includes a different social fabric than in the past in the form of a rising population of single parent or blended family households, a fifty percent divorce rate and a slowing overall birth rate. Both Romney and Ryan live in traditional marriages with stay at home caucasian wives and multiple children). It is for that reason that I believe that, regardless of the merits of their macroeconomic arguments (and I see very little merit in them), the GOP presidential ticket will lose in November. Because whatever Obama’s flaws and faults (and there are plenty), he clearly understands that there is no going back to a white bread past that was not so good for grains of a different color.

 

On June 20 New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta signed the Washington Declaration, which specifies priority areas of cooperation between the militaries of both countries. The Washington Declaration is a follow-up to the Wellington Declaration signed by New Zealand and the US in November 2010 (with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Murray McCully doing the honors). The first was a general statement of principle with regard to New Zealand-US security cooperation and bilateral foreign relations. The follow-up provides more detail on the specific areas in which military cooperation will occur. These are counter-terrorism, maritime patrol, anti-piracy operations and humanitarian relief. The details of the logistics involved in those areas have not been finalized and/or made public, and in the case of counter-terrorism operations they are not likely to be divulged beyond a general statement. This has as much to do with New Zealand public sensitivities as it does with US public opinion or classified operational details (for example, the role of the NZSAS in joint counter-terrorism operations with US forces).

What is different in the Washington Declaration is that the military-to-military bilateral relationship is now taking concrete shape, whereas the Wellington Declaration was a diplomatic opening rather than a definitive outlining of military areas in which joint operations and exercises will occur.

Robert Ayson described the relationship as a defacto alliance between the US and New Zealand. Professor Ayson used the phrase because the US and New Zealand are not entering a formal alliance agreement but a “strategic partnership.” An alliance is essentially a contract with mutual obligations; a partnership is a looser arrangement in which obligations are voluntarily assumed but not contractually defined, binding or specified. Partnerships can be reviewed and modified on a case-by-case or temporal basis, whereas alliances commit the parties to treaty-strength obligations that require a major diplomatic rupture for them to be abrogated. This distinction theoretically gives the US and New Zealand a greater degree of flexibility in their relations with each other on military issues. That is diplomatically advantageous for New Zealand, which seeks to preserve its image and reputation for foreign policy independence, and also avoids domestic voter backlash to the resumption of something akin to the ANZUS alliance so spectacularly undone by New Zealand’s 1985 non-nuclear announcement. The Labour, Green and Mana parties, in particular, would have been very resistant to the restoration of a formal military alliance with the US, so on political grounds the strategic partnership agreement works out very well domestically as well as bilaterally.

In practice, the strategic partnership with the US aligns New Zealand with other “first tier” US security partners in the Western Pacific Rim such as Australia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines. This is important for the New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) as it seeks to integrate more closely with Australian Defense Force operational doctrine, training and equipment (as was suggested by the NZDF 2010 Defense White Paper) at a time when Australia and the US are deepening their bilateral security ties (evident in the recently announced agreement to forward base a US Marine rapid response force in Darwin). Ayson is right in that the NZDF will now be working side by side with the US military on a regular and continuous basis in specified areas (such as the upcoming RIMPAC naval exercises that the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) has joined for the first time in two decades), although NZ will have a little more leeway in refusing US requests to join in foreign conflicts than if it had signed a formal alliance agreement that required both parties to come to their respective defense.

The resumption of near-complete bilateral military ties between New Zealand and the US is not a surprise. The 5th Labour government (1999-2008) started the rapprochement with the US post 9/11, and the National governments that followed it have openly embraced the prospect of finally overcoming the post-ANZUS freeze in security relations (with the exception of intelligence-sharing, which never suffered the curtailment of ties seen in military relations). Labour was wary of being seen as getting too close to the US, since that could jeopardize its reputation for an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance, particularly amongst non-aligned and small states. National prefers to embrace the US more whole-heartedly, in part because of the belief that there will eventually be economic as well as military benefits in doing so (such as via the Transpacific Partnership trade agreements currently being negotiated by the US, New Zealand and seven other Pacific Rim states). The idea behind National’s approach appears to be to use the improved military ties with the US as a hedge against the rise of The People’s Republic of China (PRC) by countering or balancing increased economic dependence on the PRC with the strengthening of economic and military ties with the US and other pro-Western nations along the Pacific periphery. National seems to believe that this balancing act (or straddling of fences), continues the tradition, or at least appearance of independence in foreign affairs.

That may be a mistake because independence in foreign affairs is most often predicated on neutrality with regards to foreign conflicts or great power rivalries. In aligning itself more closely with the US on military matters, New Zealand loses that appearance of neutrality in international security affairs. The New Zealand Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries may believe that this is the best hedge against attempts by the PRC to exploit its economic relationship with New Zealand (since the PRC is clearly the dominant partner in the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with New Zealand and has much leverage on New Zealand when it comes to Chinese market access as well as exports and investment from the PRC to New Zealand). Balancing economic dependence on China with strengthened security ties with the US (and its allies) may appear to National to be the best way of New Zealand having its cake and eating it.

Strengthening of political ties with the US is part of National’s larger policy of reaffirming diplomatic alignment with traditional partners. The belief is that New Zealand shares more in terms of core values with these traditional partners due to the Anglo-Saxon liberal democratic traditions that bind them together, rather than the mixed Confucian-Communist values that underpin the core beliefs of the Chinese political elite (or the Islamic beliefs of New Zealand’s Middle Eastern trading partners). Even if the PRC was to continue growing economically at a pace similar to the last decade (which now seems improbable), it seems prudent under this logic for National to reaffirm its Western heritage, joint vision and general orientation until such a time as China and other non-Western authoritarian states begin to open up politically. Reaffirming political ties to the US and other traditional allies does not undermine New Zealand’s position with Asian democracies like India, South Korea, Taiwan or Japan, or with Southeast Asian democracies (such as they are) like Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. All of these countries, as well as Southeast Asian authoritarian states such as Singapore and Viet Nam, fear the rise of China as a military power and/or economic hegemon in the Western Pacific, and therefore welcome any counter-balancing efforts on the part of the US and its strategic partners and military allies.  The political alignment with the US also fits in line with the foreign policy approaches of Australia and the UK, and reasserts New Zealand’s position within that informal alliance structure (Canada is part of it as well).

There are benefits for both the US and New Zealand in this restored relationship. The benefits for New Zealand are that the NZDF will get to conduct exercises and operations with the most hardened, experienced and technologically advanced military in the world. That will expose it to the latest in US strategic doctrine and tactics. It may also result in the US providing military equipment to and training opportunities for New Zealand that it otherwise could not afford. It will reassure New Zealand of the implicit US defense guarantee in the event that New Zealand were to be threatened or attacked (to include economic coercion by the likes of the PRC). It may lead to closer economic ties, although that remains an open and much debated question (there is a large literature on security partners being preferential economic partners because of the mutual trust and dependence established between them. Most of that literature was written during the Cold War and things changed after it ended, but now with the emergence of the PRC and other powers some of those old assumptions are being resurrected and reviewed, especially in the US).

For the US the agreement is win-win. It gets an immediate benefit from securing another strong security partner in the South Pacific, one that has considerable “local knowledge” and relative influence in South Polynesia. This accords with the shift in US strategic emphasis to the Asia-Pacific, which is part of a long-term strategy of ring-fencing Chinese attempts at blue water expansion into the region. In signing New Zealand to a bilateral military partnership similar to those of other Western Pacific states, the US has moved to establish a security cordon in the region, something that also serves as a force multiplier in the measure that US strategic partners commit military assets to a common cause. New Zealand’s reputation as an honest broker in international affairs gives it diplomatic cover in this effort.

More importantly, after 25 years of estrangement and New Zealand foreign policy independence, at least with regard to international security affairs, the US has finally broken down New Zealand’s resolve and returned it to the fold. Post 1985 wooing of New Zealand began during the Clinton administration and continued with his successors. 9/11 accelerated the reconciliation (under a Labour government), and the Wellington Declaration codified it. In many respects, the US’s ability to re-gain New Zealand’s signature on a bilateral military-security agreement is a triumph of long-term great power diplomacy: after years of distance it secured junior military partnership from a small democratic state that prides itself on its modern history of foreign policy independence. To be sure, fluid global conditions since 1990 have contributed to the evolution in US-New Zealand bilateral relations, but at present it appears that the US has finally managed the contretemps of New Zealand non-nuclearism with diplomatic aplomb and to its ultimate benefit.

The negatives for New Zealand could be that the US will pressure it to increase its spending on defense, now below 1 percent of GDP, to something more in line with Australia’s two percent per annum. This would be on a par with other US strategic partners and around the NATO average, but will be politically unpalatable amongst New Zealand voters, who tend to under-appreciate defense when compared with education, health and welfare. Thus any such request will be politically thorny for a New Zealand government.  However, the US can leverage the fact that the NZDF is not “pulling its weight” in the strategic partnership (the Australians already say this).

For example, although the Washington Declaration speaks about closer bilateral military cooperation in the areas of maritime patrol and anti-piracy, New Zealand has very little in the way of long-range patrol and interdiction capabilities. Specifically, New Zealand only has two blue water ANZAC-class frigates, two off-shore patrol vessels and six long-range P-3 patrol aircraft, and its multi-purpose ship, the HMNZS Canterbury, spends more time in port being repaired than at sea, As for its logistical lift capability, not only is the HMNZS Canterbury unreliable, but the RNZAF C-130 fleet, at five aircraft, is also small and already stretched in terms of its operational readiness. Thus the US and Australia can pressure New Zealand governments to increase spending on defense so as to be able to perform the responsibilities and tasks that are expected of it as a strategic partner in the areas designated as joint priority.

There is the risk of being drawn into US conflicts that have nothing to do with New Zealand or an imminent threat to it. Even if New Zealand has leeway in terms of refusing a US request to get involved in a non-immediate foreign conflict, once bilateral military ties are established and consolidated they constitute a source of leverage on the part of the US since any retaliatory cancellation or disruption of the bilateral relationship will hurt the NZDF more than it will the US military. Moreover, the bilateral diplomatic backlash from a public refusal to work with the US in a foreign conflict theater could overcome any domestic and international support for the move.

There is also the more immediate issue of diplomatic fallout over the partnership. The more that New Zealand is seen as aligning itself with the US on security matters, the more US rivals such as Russia, the PRC, and various Latin American and Middle Eastern states will see it as a tool of US foreign policy and military strategy. Even other “independent” states like Uruguay, Finland, Costa Rica, Estonia and Turkey may begin to recast their view of New Zealand as an honest broker in international affairs. That is why National’s belief that its fence-straddling or hedging strategy will continue the image of independence may not work out to be the case, which could have adverse diplomatic consequences.

(The original version of this essay appears at 36th-Parallel.com)

 

Today the President of the United States of America came out (if that’s the right term) in support of gay marriage. Hours later, The leader of the New Zealand Labour party did likewise. The responses they got could hardly have been more different. Obama’s statement was greeted with a worldwide ripple of excitement; Shearer’s with a localised wave of criticism. Aside from the obvious difference in scale, we can make some sense of the difference in valence by looking at two main factors: the content of their respective messages in political context; and the media and moment in which they were made.

Substance and political context

Allowing for the differences in political context, Obama’s and Shearer’s statements were reasonably similar. Both expressed support for gay marriage in principle, with reservations about implementation. In Obama’s case, the reservations were constitutional. The President can’t unilaterally pass an act permitting gay marriage; it has to go through two federal houses and most aspects of marriage are still, ultimately, determined by the states. Obama’s statement was symbolic and aspirational. First of all, it was a means of defining who he is, politically — a rebuttal of suggestions that he is timid or not liberal enough, and a means of illustrating a sharp distinction between his administration and the caricatured culture-war conservatism of his Republican opponents. It was also an opportunity to reinvigorate the American political left. David Frum said it well:

The statement changes everything because it galvanizes flagging liberal enthusiasm for this president—while subtly corroding even further the Republican hold on the next generation of voters.

(You should read Frum’s whole piece, it’s short and articulates clearly why this was a strategic coup.)

Shearer’s statement was, if anything, less equivocal than Obama’s; he merely said that he “would like to see the detail of any legislation before giving formal support”. In purely rational terms, that’s totally reasonable; nobody signs a blank political cheque. Much of the criticism has centred on the assumption that any such law would be introduced by Labour, so Shearer would not only get to see it but would get to vet it before declaring support. This isn’t really so; Labour are in opposition, and barring extreme exigencies they will be for at least 2.5 years to come. Given the Greens’ long-standing commitment to gay marriage and remarkable success in the member’s ballot, there’s a better-than-even chance that a hypothetical same-sex marriage bill drawn at random would be theirs.* There are plenty of potential pitfalls in such a bill, if badly drafted, and it is reasonable to hold reservations.

Other criticism of Shearer has centred on the argument that Obama’s political context is much more hostile to gay marriage, and his declaring in favour of it constitutes a genuine act of political bravery, while it’s a rather less contentious issue here. Also not entirely fair; of course, that difference in political context exists, but Obama is in power, and (largely due to Republican infighting) in political ascendancy, while Shearer is in opposition and in the doldrums. It is also very unlikely that any gay marriage bill would pass the current NZ Parliament, especially now that social-conservatives like NZ First are back in.

So on the merits, criticism of Shearer for appending this seemingly-innocuous qualifier seems a bit unfair. But there are two better explanations for hostility: first, he misread his medium; and more importantly, he misread the moment.

The medium and the moment

Obama made his statement in a medium and situation that afforded him considerable control over how his message would be transmitted and received, and that enabled him to articulate his position both from a personal perspective and politically. Good Morning America was a sympathetic venue; morning TV is warm and nonconfrontational, on the ABC network even more so than usual. It is not strictly time-controlled and interviewers generally do not play hardball. Its audience is more liberal, more female, and more inclined to respond favourably to expressions of personal warmth and reflection such as this one.

Shearer chose Twitter to make his announcement — the most constrained medium possible, one that permits no contextualisation, no emotional or personal connection. Given his performance to date as leader of the opposition, and the NZ Twitter left’s activist bias, it’s probably also one of the more hostile media open to him. It’s not talkback, but in some ways it’s worse: a lot of people who really want to like you, but are already frustrated and disappointed and are beginning to despair can be a harsher audience than your outright enemies. Twitter also means that you are expected to be spare and to the point, and to only include detail that is significant. By hedging, he signalled that his position was not firm or genuine. The medium is the message, so the inclusion of an obvious redundancy like “need to see the detail” when characters are so limited doesn’t look like understandable prudence, it looks like fuzzy-headed waffly-thinking at best, or political cowardice at worst. David Shearer mistook a platform for slick, aspirational one-liners as the venue for earnest political positioning.

And that leads to the most crucial point of all: Shearer misread the political moment. Obama’s declaration in personal, philosophical terms of his “evolution” from someone who did not support gay marriage to someone who does was a watershed moment, a genuinely epochal event: when the President of the United States of America supports your cause, all of a sudden it looks a lot more like happening. A loud shot was fired in the culture wars; it instantly became global news, and with the news came a wave of liberal euphoria. This was, as Russell Brown noted, the best possible moment to note Labour’s progressive history and rededicate to the goal of marriage equality, but it was not a time for wonkish quibbling about details, or careful delineation of party policy. The moment was one of joy, of celebration, of possibility — of hope and change — and any response had to be congruent with that. Shearer’s wasn’t. The contrast jarred, and made the other, lesser, deficiencies in the message and its presentation more evident.

Substance, context, medium and moment. You can’t really afford to be without any of these, but if you’re trying to catch a wave of public sentiment, you really have to get your moment right.

This is symptomatic of Labour’s ongoing failure to articulate its vision: a lack of mastery of the tools and techniques at their disposal. Shearer’s lack of authenticity and his inability to speak clearly and unequivocally from his own position, that I touched on in my last post on this topic, was depressingly evident in this episode, and it may be that he’s still being tightly managed. A more concerning possibility is that this is the real David Shearer: lacking in virtù, like his predecessor.

But despite everything, I think this was a good experience for Labour — hopefully it has demonstrated to them that sometimes being timid is worse than being silent. If “go hard or go home” is the only lesson they take from today, it will have been worth it.

L

* Hypothetical, because none are in the ballot at present, though I expect that to change soon. Idiot/Savant drafted one some years ago, and it would not be an hour’s work to get it in.

Which Way, Huawei? (With postscript).

datePosted on 17:25, March 30th, 2012 by Pablo

All internet architecture has the potential for use as a Signals Intelligence Intercept platform (SIGINT). Data mining already occurs at the mid-range of  IT frameworks, such as when Facebook collects personal information on users for consumer research (or more nefarious) purposes. Cell phones have GPS trackers, which requires software. The range of data-mining already at play in the commercial field is extensive. It therefore should come has no surprise that States also have an interest in data-mining, but for military, diplomatic and intelligence purposes.

If mid-level IT platforms such as FB and numerous other private agents can data-mine extensively with or without the consent of those whose personal information is being accessed, then it stands to reason that providing the basic support infrastructure for IT operations gives the provider even more opportunities at such. In a liberal market environment there are standards of conduct and protocols developed to restrict the unfettered access to private information. But what happens when a state capitalist enterprise is the provider of basic IT infrastructure?

In market capitalist systems the state serves the interests of capitalists by framing the legal and governance frameworks so as to encourage competition on an ostensibly level regulatory playing field. In state capitalist systems capitalists serve the interests of the state above and beyond their particular commercial interests. This is seen in European fascism, Latin American national populism, and in Asian developmentalism such as that of Singapore.

Huawei is the product of a state capitalist system. It was founded by and is led by former PRC intelligence officers. Although Huawei claims to be 100 percent employed owned, that is true only because the one-party authoritarian regime than rules China continues to maintain that it is Communist, which means that all employees are owners. Huawei has been designated as one of the seven national economic treasures that are considered to be essential strategic assets for Chinese power projection, and as such are subject to the strategic dictates of the ruling party. All of this is well known, and having independent local Huawei operators fronted by non-Chinese managers cannot disguise that fact, particularly when all of the components and associated hardware are engineered and made in the PRC.

The US and Australia have decided to bar Huawei from providing IT technologies to strategically important sectors of their IT markets. The US specifically excludes Huawei from any defense or security related contracts, and for that reason Symantec decided to sell its interest in Huawei USA. The Australians feel that their National Broadband Network (NBN) is too precious an asset to be opened to Huawei. They say they have their reasons, and that those reasons have to do with national security.

NZ has just signed off on several broadband infrastructure contracts with Huawei. The question is whether those responsible for the decision were aware of the US and Australian position and if so, why they choose to ignore it. The UK and Canada have allowed Huawei civilian IT contracts, which is important because they are part of the Echelon SIGINT and TECHINT network that binds the “5 eyes” parties together (along with the US, Australia and NZ). In the UK Huawei was awarded contracts for civilian IT, but that was followed by the government communications security agency running an extensive and costly forensics accounting of Huawei systems in order to ensure its cyber security, and even then cannot guarantee that the system is safe as far as covert “backdoor” entryways are concerned. This had something to do with the Australian decision.

95 percent of attempted probes into US corporate and security IT systems originate in the PRC. In the PRC all internet access is tightly controlled and monitored. Huawei is a leading provider of the IT systems used in the PRC, to include the firewalls used to censor foreign content and the tracking devices used to monitor internal dissent. Although all of this is circumstantial, this is the non-classified reason why US security agencies have decided that the company serves as a SIGINT front for the PRC. Add to that concerns about Huawei activities in foreign SIGINT gathering, and what you have is a reason to ban it from competing for security related contracts.

Of course, this could all be a corporate driven plot to preserve market share in the face of superior Chinese efficiency. Or, it could be racism. Or it could be part of the Trilateral Commission efforts to extend its world hegemony. I am agnostic on the exact reasons, but whatever they are, I sure do hope that someone in the National government was briefed by the GCSB and/or SIS on what they were. After all, as full intelligence partners with the US and Australia, one would think that these agencies would have received some of the classified details of why the US and OZ have their doubts about Huawei, and that these agencies would have dutifully reported to at least the Minister for Security and Intelligence, John Key, on the nature of these concerns.

Mind you, if the concerns about cyber espionage are true, I do not fault the PRC a bit for doing so. As an emerging great power with global economic interest and no intelligence sharing network such as Echelon on which to rely (unless one thinks that intelligence sharing with North Korea and Burma is a good counterpart to Western intelligence networks), then the PRC must–and I do mean MUST–develop its own human, signal and technical intelligence capabilities in the measure that its global interests grow. That is just the way the game is played in international security affairs.

The major sea lanes of communication between Latin American and Australasian primary good and raw material suppliers and the Chinese mainland pass through the South Pacific. It would therefore be remiss of the PRC not to seek to ensure the security of these vital channels, and one part of doing so is to have a better intelligence “grip” on what goes on in the countries through and in which they are situated. To put it in Brooklyn-ese: they gotta do what they gotta do because no one else is gonna do it for them.

That is why it would be helpful to hear a “please explain” response from Mr. Key on the matter.

Postscript: It turns out that as early as 2008 the concerns of NZ intelligence partners about Huawei were discussed in US embassy cables from Canberra (which were sent to the US embassy in Wellington, among other places). In 2010 the SIS and GCSB informed him that they could not guarantee that the broadband infrastructure would not be compromised if Huawei was awarded the UFB contract. For reasons as of yet unexplained, he choose to ignore the warnings. As it also turns out, India and South Korea have banned Huawei from critical IT infrastructure projects. Thus it seems that concerns about Huawei are not just a Western plot born of anti-Chinese xenophobia and a desire to protect market share for western businesses, but part of a wider conspiracy amongst China-haters of all stripes. Mr Key, however, is not one of those, and his meetings with Huawei executives at the 2010 Shanghai Expo is proof of that. (Note to readers: all of this has been discussed in the NZ mainstream media the past week, and the 2008 embassy cables were published by Wikileaks).

A ruinous adventure.

datePosted on 16:43, December 21st, 2011 by Pablo

The objective of war is to marshall organized violence in order to intimidate or defeat an adversary for the purpose of imposing a political outcome against its will. Wars can be offensive or defensive in nature, preventative, pre-emptive or reactive, and can be waged out of necessity or choice (necessary defensive wars being the most justified under jus ad bellum standards). The point is to use enough lethal force to secure a preferred political end-game. In recent years this has given rise to something known as “effects-based strategy,” whereby military planners think of a desired tactical effect and plan their deployments accordingly. I shall not detour into how the “fog of war” and an adversary’s will and preparation play a role in determining real, as opposed to desired combat effects. Suffice it to say that the idea that one can go to war with an eye to a specific effect is problematic, and that is even more true at a strategic level than it is on the battlefield.

Instead, let us consider Iraq as an exercise in effects-based war-mongering. Leave aside the bogus WMD justifications for attacking Saddam Hussein’s regime. Let’s look at the real reasons and see how well the invasion and occupation of Iraq achieved those ends.

Dreamt up by the feverish minds of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century (which included Cheney, Rumsfeld, Perle and Wolfowtiz among its members), the invasion of Iraq was designed to remove a stable but hostile authoritarian regime in order to replace it with a US-friendly regime that would give US companies privileged access to Iraq’s oil supplies (with fuel retail prices coming down as a result) and which would allow the permanent stationing of US troops on its soil. US military assets in Iraq  would come from the transfer of troops and weapons from Europe and Saudi Arabia, since the former’s presence was made unnecessary by the end of the Cold War and the latter were a source of hatred in Islamicist circles and a potential source of domestic instability for the House of Saud. The idea was to create a land-based aircraft carrier in Iraq, numbering up to 100,000 troops with a full complement of weapons, in order to intimidate Iran and Syria while bringing fight against al-Qaeda to home soil. Having such a force forward-deployed in Iraq would also reduce rapid response times to other theaters, Central Asia in particular.

This scenario (the strategic “effect”) rested on the assumption that Hussein’s successors would be compliant if not democratic, that Iraqi Shiia and Kurdish populations would welcome US troops even if the Sunni population did not, that Baathists could be purged from the public bureaucracy without loss of efficiency and that any resistance could be defeated with overwhelming force. It assumed that Iran would be intimidated by the move. In order to produce the “effect” the war would have to be successfully prosecuted through its four phases (stage, thrust, seize and hold), and the international community would have take up the task of post-war nation-building as soon as Saddam’s statues had dropped from their pedestals.

Very little military input was sought in the making of these assumptions, and none of them proved correct.

Instead, Sunni and Shiia Iraqis violently resisted the occupation while the Kurds turned to in-fighting and irredentist actions in Turkey, the post-Saddam government (although elected and laboriously installed) has proven corrupt, unstable, unreliable and less than obsequious to American demands, the Iraqi armed forces dissolved into the resistance and have not yet reconstituted, the public bureaucracy collapsed and national infrastructure destroyed, both yet to be resurrected, all while Iran strengthened its influence in Iraq as well as in the broader Gulf region.

The last item is important. The US enemy d’jour, Iran, is in a better geopolitical position today as a direct result of the occupation next door (which allowed it to funnel advisors and material to Shiia resistance groups, particularly the Mahdi Army). Iraq is no longer a buffer between the Persian and Sunni Arab worlds, but instead is contested ground. Meanwhile, the Arab world is convulsed by domestic dissent to the point that US backing is not enough to stave off popular protest or Iranian influence amongst Shiia minorities in the region. As for the human cost, 4500 US troops were killed in the nine year occupation, more than 30,000 have been wounded (with many of those suffering catastrophic injuries that would have been fatal in previous wars), and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians are estimated to have died through no fault of their own as a direct consequence of the war. Corruption and ill-discipline infected the ranks of US civilian and military personnel as the occupation wore on, to the point that Abu Ghraib and Blackwater excesses are among the most potent images left in its wake. There is no permanent US military base in Iraq.

So what was the overall effect of this effects-based war?

Iran is regionally stronger now than before the invasion. Its influence in Iraq is greater now than before 2003. The Malaki government in Baghdad is neither democratic nor pro-US and instead is more susceptible to Iranian influence than ever before. The Kurds have not proven to be reliable US proxy counter-weights to Sunni and Shiia factions in Iraq, and instead have fomented trouble with a key US ally, Turkey. The Assad regime in Syria is in trouble but the US had nothing to do with that and can do nothing to force a preferred outcome there. The Sunni Arab street is in revolt against US-backed regimes. Anti-US  forces elsewhere have learned from the Iraq resistance and modified their tactics accordingly (the use of IEDs being the single most important lesson now shared by jihadis and others world-wide). The Afghan occupation–which was the only post 9/11 US military action that enjoyed broad international support and which was largely neglected during the height of the Iraq conflict–now languishes even as it spills over into Iran in the guise of stealth spy drones and special forces incursions.

While the US has been preoccupied with its wars, major rivals China and Russia have found opportunity to re-arm and expand their spheres of influence relatively unchecked (the 2008 Ossetian-Georgian war being an example). There has been an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder issues within returning US service ranks, and the US public has grown tired of fruitless war rather than proud of it as the “liberating” gesture that it was supposed to be (or sold as). Oh, and the US teeters on the edge of bankruptcy as a result of  deficit war spending and the price of gas at the pump (which soared after the invasion) is at record highs while Russian and other non-US companies negotiate contracts with Iraqi oil suppliers.

From a US strategic standpoint, the invasion made the regional situation worse, not better. The attack on Iraq was legally unjustified, ill- conceived, based on false assumptions and counter-productive in the end. Although military skills were honed and weapons advancements made, by any political measure the US is in a weaker position in the Middle East than it was before the invasion, and its major rivals are demonstrably stronger at a time when the entire region is less stable now than it was in early 2003.

Unless one subscribes to the view that preventative wars of choice are waged by the US in order to fuel the military-industrial complex, the Iraq War was a defeat. Although orderly, the circumstances of US military withdrawal from Iraq were not of its choosing, and the political situation it left behind is unstable, deteriorating and not protective of US interests. One does not have to be a Realist to understand that many lives were wasted in armed pursuit of an impossible effect in Iraq (although it was US realists who argued the most vigorously against the invasion in the months before it happened). It was, in other words, a cluster**k of epic proportions.

Doing things for effect is not the same as doing things right, or being right. The US going to preventative war in Iraq by choice and for effect was not right and was not rightly done. It was wrong and criminally stupid to do, and no amount of patriotic gloss can alter that fact.

 

A reality TV window on the US.

datePosted on 08:01, September 20th, 2011 by Pablo

Some say that reality TV is a stained-glass window on society. In the US the concept began with the show “Cops,” now in its gadzillionth year. It gave rise to the Survivor and Amazing Race series, singing and dancing shows, celebrity this and that, cooking  disasters of various sorts, adventure and survival programs,  motorcycle and automobile customizers, the antics of sexual deviants, cheaters and lumpenproletiarians of various ethnicities (e.g. “Jersey Shore”), Bridezillas and vapid Housewives from various places, dumb and dumber idiots doing an assortment of Darwin Award misadventures, animal attacks, plus a variety other examinations of the detritus of US life. However, the recent turn in reality programming offers a dark reflection of the economic malaise gripping the country.

In recent months the reality concept has focused on the impact of economic misery, albeit from a tangental angle. The most popular shows, led by those on a channel called “True TV–not reality, but actuality”–are those that cover the flow-on effects of econonic hardship. These are led by several shows about vehicle repossession agents, but also include shows dedicated to pawn shops, gun dealers, auctioneers, hoarders and down on their luck gold prospectors. The television angle is not on the economic condition of the participants but on the behavioural effects produced by the consequences of personal economic misfortune: fights, tears, breakdowns and other human drama. Like watching train wrecks, these shows cater to morbid interest and pervese delight in other’s misfortune, which may say something about the state of US social cohesion. I confess to finding some of those involved strangely fascinating, and there is some dark humor involved, but my overall sense is that these shows are a bit too close to the truth to be entirely easy to watch. 

I am not sure what to make of all this, but it could do conservative US policy makers some good to watch these shows, simply for them to see, should they wish to, the human face of the negative impact of the feral economic policies of the last decade.

NB: I am winding up my tour in the US this week, and other than one mention of the US-Russia game have seen and heard zero in the US media  about the RWC. What I did read is thatWayne Mapp said that the SAS was “sort of” involved in the latest terrorism incident in Kabul. Note to “Dr.” Mapp: that is  like being “sort of” pregnant.

Otherwise, and in spite of the RWC, it will be great to be home.

Willful ignorance in the US

datePosted on 04:47, September 14th, 2011 by Pablo

Ron Paul was booed at the recent Tea Party GOP candidate’s debate when he said that Americans should think about what motivated the 9-11 attacks. Rick Santorum had already said that the US was attacked because the terrorists hated “American exceptionalism” and the freedoms it brings, a comment that brought cheers from the audience. Even admitting that the audience was full of Tea Party adherents, what is disturbing is that this sentiment–that the US was attacked for its freedoms and that the underlying causes of the attack are reducible to that–is generalized throughout the population.

Neither Paul or other thoughtful commentators have justified the attacks (and I am not referring to the Ward Churchill variant of commentary). They have simply sought to open debate on the nature of US actions that could prompt such an act of premeditated violence against the symbols of US power and the innocents caught in them. For that, they have been accused as anti-American traitors and terrorist sympathisers.

The hard truth is that Americans simply do not want to reflect on the impact of US foreign policy in general, and on its role in setting up the conditions in which the 9/11 attacks were carried out. Scholars (most notably Chalmers Johnson) have used the term “blowback” to describe the unintended effect of US neo-imperialism. But this is not acceptable in American political discourse because, in spite of its myriad problems, the narrative being sold is that the US remains the “shining house on the hill” that can do no wrong and whose impact on global affairs is always benign. Thus two wars of occupation are considered to be acts of bringing freedom and democracy to backwards places, even if the majority of citizens in those places openly oppose the presence of US troops. Extrajudicial rendition and enhanced interrogation techniques on “unlawful combatants” and a host of innocents are justified as necessary for freedom to prevail in the Islamic world. There is a hallucinatory aspect to the way in which US foreign policy and international behaviour is construed, and it is disturbing that so many average Americans buy into that construction.

Admittedly, Ron Paul calling for a reflection on what motivated the 9/11 attackers in a presidential candidate’s debate held on September 12 a decade after the attacks shows poor political judgement, for which he will be punished electorally. Equally understandable is that right-wingers in the US would seek to cloak all US actions in the mantle of righteousness. But it is profoundly alarming that even after ten years a majority of Americans appear to believe that the attacks were unprovoked, or at a minimum inspired by some form of jealousy on the part of Islamic evil-doers. It is also alarming that in the present political context no Democrat is going to disabuse the American public of that notion.

It may be hard to swallow, but the US public needs to understand that there is a direct link between US actions abroad and the resentment it breeds. It needs to understand that this resentment is long standing in some parts of the world (I am most familiar with Latin America), and that the desire to strike back is deeply embedded in many places. It needs to take pause and reflect on this cold fact in order to begin to address what the US international role properly should be. Many Americans think that it should act as the global policeman, not only because other states cannot but because this is what politicians and the mainstream press tell them that is the role it should play. But that view is not universally shared overseas, where moral authority, diplomatic leadership and economic exchange is more highly valued than carrying (in Teddy Roosevelt’s terms) a big stick.

Better yet, with its economy hollowed out and its military stretched across the globe fighting to preserve a status quo increasingly under siege, perhaps it would be wise for the US public to drop the blinders and reflect on the fact that it many ways the US is starting to look like the USSR in the 1980s–a military power increasingly left without the economic or political foundation to regulate the international system rather than simply clinging on to a role it once had, and which may never be again (remembering that the difference between a superpower and a great power is that the former intervenes in the international system (often using war as a systems regulator) in order to defend systemic interests, while the latter intervenes in the international system in order to defend national interests). Only by confronting the truth about the nature and impact of its actions abroad will the US be able to begin the process of re-establishing its international reputation, if not status.

That, it seems to me, is the root question that needs to be addressed a decade on from 9/11.

 

 

 

Safer, but less secure.

datePosted on 08:04, September 3rd, 2011 by Pablo

I will be traveling to a family reunion in Boston during the September 11 commemorations, so will not be doing much posting during that time. What I will do now is briefly opine on what the US public might reflect upon a decade on after the attacks.

It is clear that, in terms of security against large-scale terrorist attacks, the US is safer. The price for that safety, from the indignities of airport security to the infringements on civil liberties and constitutional rights allowed by the Patriot Act and attendant legislation, is something that Americans take for granted, even if large gaps still remain in the defense against a committed and well-organised attack against mass targets (one need only to see shopping mall security to get an idea of the potential targets such places represent). By and large the US public is resigned to living in an age of fear, and go about their business willfully ignoring the myriad aways in which it is being surveilled, eavesdropped, video monitored and otherwise treated as a nation of suspects. Such, as they say, is the price for freedom.

The US has also become the most fearsome military force on the planet, with a level of combat experience and lethal technologies that exponentially exceeds that of any other country or combination of countries. For all their rise as important powers, when was the last time China, India or Russia were capable of sustaining two prolonged wars of occupation half way across the globe for years on end? What rivals, such as Iran or North Korea, have the ability to bring sustained multi-layered force to the battlefield, and which of these countries has a cadre of combat-hardened 30 year old field commanders and enlisted personnel capable of wreaking organised havoc at a tactical level? The answer is none. The US is a war machine par excellance, and allies and adversaries are well aware of this fact.

But the US has paid a price for its war-mongering. Having engaged in torture and the killing of thousands of innocents in the Muslim world in its pursuit of those responsible for 9/11 (and some who were not, such as Saddam Hussein), the US has lost much diplomatic stature and respect in the international community. It no longer represents the so-called “shining house on the hill” that all people aspire to. It is now just another great power bullying its way, with little to none of the moral authority it used to claim just ten years ago. Nor is it much liked, not only in places that have been traditionally exhibited antipathy to it such as Latin America, but now even amongst the community of liberal democracies that it ostensibly leads. The situation is so dire that even the Russians feel compelled to critique the US on issues of democratic governance and values. That is a sorry state indeed.

The ongoing commitment to unilateral pre-emptive war has exacted a toll on the US economy. More Americans are out of work than anytime since the late 1970 (the overall unemployment rate is over 9 percent and the unemployment for some sub-groups such as young Afro-American men exceeds 16 percent). More Americans are devoid of affordable health care since before World War Two. The dream of secure home ownership, the foundation of the American Dream as much as the quarter acre pavlova paradise is in NZ, is less attainable for the majority than at any time during the last fifty years. Crime rates have crept back up after record lows in the late 1990s. Political, class and ethnic divisions are at their sharpest in a quarter century. Polarisation, not solidarity and communitarianism, are the hallmarks of US society today. There is more to this litany of despair, but the point is that the US may still be proud, but it is bowed. It may be physically safer from foreign attack than ever before, but it is also more insecure than at any time since the war of 1812.

The mood, from what I can gather speaking with friends and family across the country, is sombre. This contrasts sharply with the historical sense of US optimism, if not idealism, that existed prior to 9/11. A friend of mine, a former Pentagon official, drew the analogy this way: the US went on a bender from the mid 1990s until 2008, only pausing in its partying ways during the weeks after 9/11 while the immediate damage was assessed. It now saddled with a massive hangover and the need to sober up by living within its diminished means. Although the Fox News and Tea Party crowd will engage in the usual jingoistic patriotism and shout that “we are still number one” to all and sundry, for the vast majority the anniversary will be ignored, be spent quietly, or be cause to reflect on what once was, and is no more.

Thus, my questions for the day are this. Is the US more or less strong than it was on 9/11/2001? Are its people more or less secure than they were on that terrible day? And if not, why is that, especially since al-Qaeda has been largely routed as a large scale irregular fighting force and Osama bin Laden is dead?

The answer, I reckon, lies within the US itself.

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