Archive for ‘USA’ Category

On the road again, this time to the Great Satan.

datePosted on 15:49, August 9th, 2010 by Pablo

It has been a busy year for travel. I was in OZ in January (pleasure), NZ in Feb-March (business and pleasure), Greece in April-May (business and pleasure), OZ again in June (pleasure) and am now headed to the US for five weeks (business and pleasure). My daughter is getting married (to a Republican!) and I have work to do on the Florida house, plus will vote in the state Democratic primary (where everything from dogcatcher to Senator is in play) and scout out opportunities for the political risk/market intelligence/strategic analysis consulting firm I have just re-started (I used to do this sort of consulting before moving to NZ, then switched into a media expert commentary focus, but now need to get back into the bigger game because I have been locked out of NZ and OZ academia as a result of well-known events). I am going to try and base the consultancy in SG and NZ with a Australasian-Latin American focus given my past experience and networks in the latter region. If things go to plan it will be the first dedicated political risk/market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy based in and focused on NZ’s relations with the Pacific Rim.  However, the US offers more opportunity for a range of work along the lines in which I have some expertise, so I am going to use the trip to visit with old colleagues and work on any networking opportunities that may arise. 

Depending on how things go I will likely do some more traveling before the end of the year. My partner would prefer that I not take assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, which I find understandable. So I suggested to her that I will instead focus on Yemen and Somalia as possible work sites. You can imagine her reaction. All joking aside, there are plenty of places in which my background and experience could be of help to potential clients (both public and private), so I will try to use the US trip as a springboard to work that will allow me to return to NZ and at worst divide my time between there and SG (my partner still has the full time university job in SG and there is no point in her giving it up until such a time as there are academic openings for her back in NZ or OZ).

Put another way: I may no longer be able to work in academia, but that does not mean that a lifetime accumulation of research and analytic skills need go to waste. Plus, I am not good at being idle or a “kept” man. Hence I need to find intellectually stimulating work that will allow me to contribute to society, with my personal ethics and values being the guide as to what sort of work I accept or reject. The US trip is the first step towards doing so.

All of which is to say that I may be a bit quiet for the next week or so. I will try to post about events in the US as I see them in the build up to the mid-term elections in November. Things have gotten very strained in terms of political debate in that country but it is hard to judge what really is the public mood without living there. The wedding and related visits with friends and family should provide a good cross-section and sounding board on how people feel about Obama, the economy, foreign affairs in general and the wars in particular, and contemporary social issues often overlooked in the foreign press or export news industry.  With any luck that will provide material for posts. Otherwise I shall work on my open water swimming, which has been neglected since I moved to SG because, to put it mildly, the locals waters are not exactly the cleanest on earth. Since the Florida place is 50 meters from the beach and the water there has not been affected by the Gulf oil spill (it is on the Atlantic side), it will be a nice opportunity to regain some of my surf swimming skills with a view towards using them in NZ once I finally make it back there.

Shameless Self-Promotion Alert.

datePosted on 13:09, August 4th, 2010 by Pablo

For those who may be interested, I am interviewed on the TVNZ news analysis show fronted by Russell Brown, Media 7, tonight on the subject of wikileaks. Although only parts of the interview will be aired, Russell will put the entire conversation up on the Media 7 web site (or perhaps on Public Address). The discussants on tonight’s taping are Selwyn Manning from the independent news aggregator  Scoop and investigative reporter Jon Stephenson (who is the most knowledgeable Kiwi journalist when it comes to Afghanistan).  There is some serious brain power between them. Both are hard news gathers who eschew the official spin, both are very critical thinkers about issues of public policy, both have taken on both the government and mainstream media versions of important news, and both know how to string a few paragraphs together (which is more than can be said for many in the so-called journalism fraternity). In other words, the offer great value in terms of insight and analysis, which is what I believe was Russell’s hope when conceiving the show. Hence, I commend it to you if you are not already familiar with it.

Of Leaks and Conspiracies.

datePosted on 13:50, July 27th, 2010 by Pablo

Wikileaks has scored another major coup with its publication of more than 90,000 official and previously classified documents on the Afghan conflict. I am of two minds on its doing so. On the one hand I see it as a valuable instrument of accountability, both as instrument for holding the people directly responsible to account as well as a future deterrent to others who might engage in unlawful acts or cover-ups during wartime. On the other hand, publication of the document clearly jeopardises the national security of the US as well as the ISAF mission, and does so on several levels. The bottom line is that it gives the Taleban, al-Qaeda, Pakistani intelligence (the ISI) and other rogue states very valuable insight into US military operations and intelligence gathering efforts. Depending on where one stands in the ideological divide, that can be very good or very bad news. I believe that in this regard it is bad news.

In publishing this classified information Wikileaks has made itself an enemy of the state in the US. In the measure that it uncovers other state secrets, it could well become an international pariah, at least among the Western states that is its main focus. This is ironic. Although Wikileaks has complained about harassment from US security agencies, it has not (yet) suffered direct retribution for its actions. But imagine if it published extremely sensitive classified military documents from Russia, China, Iran, North Korea or even Israel. We can safely assume, given these country’s past records on breaches of  and threats to national security, that the Wikileaks community would have very good reason to fear for their lives. In fact, there may be two reasons why Wikileaks does not publish on these states: 1) the amount of secrecy in them is far superior to that of the US and other Western countries; 2) Wikileaks is afraid to do so for fear of mortal retaliation. Put another way, Wikileaks targets the US not only because of its concern about US military misdeeds, because it knows that it can get away with it due to the more benign nature of democratic regimes (to include the US) when it comes to confronting non-violent security threats.

That raises an item of note. Wikileaks is successful because it has people within the US and other Western security agencies leaking classified information to it. This is, of course, a crime, since public dissemination of classified information without official authorisation is outlawed in all states. For example, I am bound by an oath I signed in the 1990s to not divulge, release or comment directly on the classified issues that I worked on during my stint in the Pentagon, and after 25 years have passed must request permission from the agencies I worked with before attempting to do so. The penalities for breaching this contract are long federal prison terms. Similar laws bind people working in security agencies throughout the world. Thus any leak of classified material is by definition a crime against the state.

Yet in Western democracies people of conscience or feeling remorse regularly turn to the media as well as public watchdogs and government accountability agencies to reveal classified information that provides evidence of official wrong-doing. In fact, many consider it to be a public duty for them to do so. In addition, the size of security agencies often makes hermetic secrecy impossible. The US has 1.5 million people with top secret clearances. From my experience in the Pentagon and elsewhere, individuals often take home, either deliberately or (more often) inadvertently, classified work papers that are part of their normal desk load and which do not have the strict records controls of documents classified as Secret Compartmentalised Information (SCI) or higher. Between the two types of mishandling–deliberate leaks and misadvertent transfer–the US security apparatus is a huge porous sieve. The fact that a single US Army private provided the documentation (and video) on the Iraq helicopter assault on journalists and the Afghan war dossier proves just how far down the chain of command sensitive information flows. Imagine if it were a colonel or general who decided to pass along his secure file cabinet worth of documents! In fact, I am surprised that it was someone so far down the totem pole who managed to get so much information out of the system and into Wikileaks’ hands.

Which brings up the issue of purported US government conspiracies, those about 9/11 in particular. Unfortunately, due to some writing and public commentary I have made on 9/11, I have had to deal with conspiracy theorists who believe that it was an inside job, Zionist conspiracy, controlled demolition, rockets rather than planes involved, even holograms rather than the real thing. Some of these otherwise apparently sane people truly believe that the US government conspirators orchestrated the whole thing so as to launch the war on terrorism in a quest for complete global domination. Some even see a link between the JFK assassination, the fake moon walk and 9/11.

Well, I have two things to say to these folk. First, if the “9/11 as part of a drive towards global domination” scenario is true that those plans sure as heck are not working out too well. Second, in a context is which no secrets are safe, in which leaking has become an art form, is it really possible that the US government has been able to enforce one hundred percent secrecy at all levels of operation on the planning, execution and cover-up of the supposed inside job? Is it rational to think that not a single person involved in this monumental plot, which would have involved a cast of thousands, would not have come forward by this point with direct evidence of a conspiracy? Would Wikileaks not have received something along those lines by now?

Conservative dementia in the US

datePosted on 20:08, July 6th, 2010 by Pablo

One has to hand it to the US conservative movement. They have no shame, or at least plenty of chutzpah.

They love to bark about the evils of Democrats while having no regard for the consistency of their own positions. Take the issue of corporate responsibility. Conservatives railed against the bail-outs of the Wall Street banks and Detroit automakers, arguing against the “they are to big to let fail” logic of the W. Bush and Obama administrations when these came to the financial rescue of the beleaguered  giants. “Let ‘em fail” they screeched, since “the market will sort ‘em out.” Yet, when Toyota lied about the causes of sudden uncontrolled acceleration in its cars and delayed recalls while “investigating” the incidents (which resulted in over a dozen deaths and more than a hundred injuries), these same groups demanded that the US government step in to investigate and charge those responsible for everything from criminal negligence to consumer fraud. Likewise, the US right wing is now raving that the US federal government has done too little too late to respond to the BP oil spill even though–surprise surprise–the US federal government does not have the deep water capping technology available to the private oil industry, had previously deregulated that industry at its request in order to stimulate production (and profits) and was initially relying on that industry to give honest estimates of the disaster and rectify the situation based upon its own expertise and record in controlling spills of that nature. Some conservatives even demanded that the US accept offers of foreign assistance in controlling the spill, and scolded the Obama administration when it declined to do so. Fancy that, conservatives calling for foreign aid at a time of domestic crisis. Thus, when it comes to issues of corporate responsibility, US conservatives cannot make up their minds about the why, how and when of government intervention.

As far as taxation is concerned, the likes of the Tea party movement are opposed to current federal taxation rates and demand cuts across the board without considering that it is taxes that pay, as just one example, for the US military’s trillion dollar budgets and prosecution of a seemingly endless procession of wars abroad in defense of the “freedom” they so much rhetorically cherish. They appear ignorant of the fact that without taxation the US would not be able to maintain its preeminent global position, and that the current federal budget deficits originated in the W. Bush administration’s deficit spending to fuel the wars while lowering the taxation rates for corporations and high income individuals. In fact, in this regard W. Bush was emulating the champion of all American conservatives, Ronald Reagan, who massively increased defense spending and the overall size of the federal budget while lowering taxes for the upper third of the population. How is this “fiscally responsible?”

Finally, although all conservatives are self-styled “patriots” who literally wear their flags on their sleeves, bumpers and lapels, some are of the “America first” persuasion whereas others are of the “US superpower” kind. The former prefer that the US concentrate on its own affairs and limit its foreign entanglements, while the latter wants to see the US as the major player on the world stage. One view is isolationist; the other is imperialist. The two views are irreconcilable.

In effect, American conservatives are not the limited government champions they claim to be, nor are they consistent in their linkage of national necessities with taxation. They are divided on their views of the US role in the world. Instead they are a collection of blustering fools, economic retrogrades and illiterates, corporate toadies, religious zealots, assorted bigots, xenophobes and militarists mixed in with a minority of true libertarians and honest believers in the primacy of individual over collective rights and responsibilities. That means that even if they make major gains in the November 2010 elections, the centrifugal forces within the US conservative movement, as well as the lack of a coherent core rationale underpinning it, will prove deleterious to their chances for successful overhaul of the US political system. In fact, such a victory could well make the crisis of US politics even worse.

Blog Link: Two Sides of the Afghan COIN.

datePosted on 12:00, June 29th, 2010 by Pablo

In the most recent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop I examine the broader context in which General Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign from his position as commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Beyond the issue of his insubordination and civilian control of the military in a democracy, the incident has brought to the surface the tensions between two competing views on how the US should prosecute counter-insurgency. One involves hearts and minds and nation-building, the other involves what I describe as a “drones and bones” approach that focuses on discrete operations against high value targets using high technology weapons and special forces. Although both are in place at the moment, there is competition between the two views with regard as to which ultimately will prove more successful at countering Islamicist threats to the West. Whether or not the ISAF mission succeeds may well depend on which perspective gains greater traction in coalition circles during the next twelve months (since the timetable for the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan begins in June-July 2011).

When irony leads to hypocrisy.

datePosted on 22:39, June 3rd, 2010 by Pablo

The uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has turned into what looks to be the US’s worst environmental disaster. 40 days into the spill the well is still spewing 19,000 barrels (79,000 gallons) of oil per day into the deep waters 50 miles off of southern Louisiana. If ever there was an environmental event that could be called “catastrophic,” this is it. Estimates are that the oil slick (which is far more extensive in the middle layers of the Gulf than at the surface) will reach the Florida panhandle within days, the western Florida coast within weeks, and if the prevalent currents take hold it, the Florida Keys, Florida Straits, Cuba and South Florida Atlantic Coast by mid July. Estimates of when the spill will be contained range from August to December. If it is the latter, the slick could well be in New England given the flow rate of the Gulf Current. If a hurricane hits (the Atlantic/Caribbean hurricane season started on June 1), then all bets are off. Whatever happens, the economic costs of the disaster are already mind-boggling and wide-spread, which at a time when the US was just starting to emerge from a deep recession is a catastrophe all of its own.

By now everyone who follows the news knows that British Petroleum is the lessee of drilling rights in that part of the Gulf and owner of the drilling platform that exploded and collapsed with the loss of 11 lives that led to the leak. BP’s inability to staunch the flow after nearly a dozen unsuccessful attempts has been matched by the the wait and see response of the US government, which initially relied on BP assurances that the leak was not as big as is now known and that a capping solution was possible within a few weeks. Now that oil has fouled the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coast lines on its way to Florida, public anger against BP and the Obama has started to boil over. A few days ago the US public was treated to the spectacle of James Carville, the well-known Clinton political advisor, ranting on national television against the Obama administration for its slow response (Carville is a Louisiana native). His rant was remarkable only because he is a loyal Democrat, since a host of Tea Party spokespeople, Republican Party figures and the baying hounds at Fox News and talk back radio have all lambasted the president for his lackadaisical approach to the crisis. A recent opinion poll shows that a quarter of those polled blame BP for the accident, a quarter blame Obama, and the rest blame both.

That is pretty rich. During the W. Bush administration regulations on off-shore drilling were relaxed and wilderness areas opened to oil exploration. Common emergency cutoff safeguards were abandoned as the GOP-controlled Congress approved policies of oil industry self-regulation. Dick Cheney chaired the White House energy task force, which was staffed by oil industry heavyweights including the infamous Ken Lay of Enron fame. Their recommendations, many of which passed into law, were that “less is more is less” when it comes to oil: the less US regulation the more domestic production. The more domestic production the less dependence of foreign oil. The entire federal regulatory and oversight apparatus charged with oil industry supervision adopted this mantra, which was spearheaded by Bush appointees whose idea of environmental protection was to make industrial polluters plant trees in the neighborhoods in which they operated or designate areas under their control as wildlife refuges.

The Obama administration had nothing to do with this. Its main fault lies in that, in an effort to appear centrist and “pro-business” it has allowed BP to lead the repair operation even though BP initially lied about the extent of the leak or about the fact that there had been multiple warnings from its own engineers that the well was showing signs of blowing in the weeks before the explosion. The timing of the disaster was both unfortunate and fortuitous, as, following the “less is more is less” line of thought,  the Obama administration just approved new off-shore drilling rights off the lower US East Coast, a decision it may now have to review in view of the fact that, unlike the Gulf of Mexico coastline, the US Eastern Seaboard holds a majority of the population and important commercial and military ports as well as providing the jump-off point for Trans-Atlantic sea traffic. An uncontrolled oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a disaster; a similiar uncontrolled oil spill off the northern coast of Florida or the coasts of Georgia, North and South Carolina would be apocalyptic.

The situation has gotten so desperate that experts are now debating the merits of the so-called “nuclear option:” a plan to detonate a nuclear explosive 15000-18000 feet under the surface so as to melt the surrounding rock into a glass-like “plug” (the wellhead itself is just a mile (3,800 feet or 1600 meters) down). This is also called the “Russian option” because Russia has reportedly used this technique to cap runaway natural gas wells (the Russians have not said anything in public to confirm or deny these stories). Trouble is, no one knows if the nuclear option will work, or what its collateral effects will be. As one Canadian blogger reportedly wrote: “What s worse than an uncontrolled deep water oil spill? A radioactive deep water oil spill.”

So the situation is grave. But in the their effort to place the blame on Obama, the Republican Party  and its tea bagger/media loudmouth cohort have shown that they are craven hypocrites with no sense of  fair play. In their attempts to divert attention from oil industry greed and failures onto the Obama administration, they reveal themselves as complete weasels. Take, for example, Sarah Pains claim that Obama was moving slow on the crisis because he had taken money from BP. Well, the “took the money” part is true. The Obama/Biden campaign received US 70,000 dollars from BP, which also gave US$38,000 to the McCain/Palin campaign. But the oil industry as a whole gave the McCain/Palin campaign US$ 1.3 million and the Obama/Biden campaign US$900,000.  It is axiomatic in US politics that lobbying groups paper the wallets of both sides of the political spectrum, with big business and Wall Street favouring the GOP and unions, high tech and other public interest groups favouring the Democrats. Thus the claims that Obama is in BP’s pocket are refuted by a simple perusal of the public record (to be fair, Palin may not have the attention span or time to peruse the public record given that she reads “all” of the newspapers and is busy with her Fox TV Show and book tours).

Obama’s detractors are also stupid. After years of clamouring for “less government,” this motley crew of “conservative” champions of free enterprise now whine about a lack of government response to a disaster created by the very private industry that they helped free from government regulations in the first place. The Obama administration may have been slow off the mark in its response to the crisis, but that is precisely because it relied on private industry–in this case BP–to be upfront and honest about he scope of the disaster. Now that it is clear that BP was dishonest, and that this dishonesty is endemic in the oil industry when it comes to environmental safeguards, the government turns out to be the default option after all, but this time in a reactive rather than a proactive role such as what existed before Bush 43 laid waste to the federal regulations governing off-shore drilling.

Obama may rue the fact that his first two years have been consumed by problems that were not on his agenda when he came into the office. But for those salivating at the prospect of a GOP sweep in the 2010 midterm elections, the oil spill may prove to be even more problematic because no matter how they may try to spin it, it was the Republicans who set the stage for the disaster to happen. Whatever flaws his administration has, Obama gave private industry a chance to fix the problem, and it is only after BP’s repeated failures that it is now considering direct intervention in the capping efforts. So much for him being a commie, and if the Democrats have any sense of irony, then so much for a Republican landslide in November.

Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

datePosted on 01:38, May 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.

First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?  The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.

But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.

He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.

Well, not quite. In a country that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.

Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ troops face.

Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.

And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.

Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?

Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?  Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.

And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in that outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.  As for the aircraft photos: staged and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.

Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.

Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”

Life mimicking art: ask and tell

datePosted on 12:21, February 3rd, 2010 by Lew

Following President Obama’s undertaking in the State of the Union address, Admiral Michael Mullen (Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Robert Gates (US Secretary of Defense) have recommended an end to the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing homosexuals from openly serving in the US military, in testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee. While the arguments are not quite the same, the general position and line of rhetoric (“the troops will get over it”) was memorably presented a decade ago in The West Wing:

All that having been said, it’s neither the Chairman nor the Secretary nor the President’s call. It’s for Congress to decide, and at present the bill is thirtyish votes shy of passing. But if it is done, this will be a genie of sorts; once out of the bottle, no force will put it back in. If the armed forces are even faintly representative of wider society, there will be thousands — tens of thousands, even — of demonstrably capable, patriotic, decorated soldiers, including perhaps some in the very highest ranks of the service who, while perhaps not having a coming-out parade, will nevertheless feel gradually more free to leave the closet. A future administration will court political and military ruin if it embarks on a witchhunt to purge them all from the nation’s ranks, particularly given the extensive nature of the USA’s current military deployments.

Update: Thanks to Hugh and Pablo (in comments) for correcting me on whose “call” it is.

L

Former Cosmopolitan Magazine nude pinup boy Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is a body blow to the Democrats and Obama administration, especially with regard to its attempts at healthcare reform. The pundits have already well dissected the reasons for the first GOP senatorial victory in Massachusetts since Edward Brooke’s tenure ended in 1979. Voter anger with the Washington “establishment,” the role of the Tea party movement, the arrogance and complacency of the Coakley campaign–all of these factors made for a decisive electoral shift that will have significant repercussions outside of the state in which the original tea party took place. That much is clear.

But what have the good people of Massachusetts got for their preference? For one thing, they have a rookie Senator who has no national-level experience at all and just ten years of legislative experience in a very liberal state. Nor does he have any executive experience. In fact, Barack Obama looks like an elder statesman in terms of previous experience when compared to the male model-turned politician. Moreover, Brown has been elected at a time of extraordinary anti-politician and anti-Washington sentiment that, even if born out of the mistakes of commission and omission of the Bush 43 administration, have seemingly been compounded by his successor. This has made for a highly volitile political climate that in turn has made extraordinarily attractive his vague populist appeals as a Washington “outsider,” something that traditionally resonates with a disgruntled electorate (and boy, are they disgruntled now!).

Why this matters is because of the arena in which he is about to enter. Much more so than in parliamentary systems (where party discipline and hierarchy often supersede the representational mandate, especially when List MPs are involved), elected officials representing states at the national level in the US Congress fulfill two roles: that of representatives and legislators. On the one hand, they represent the interests of their constituents, be it district (US House of Representatives) or state-wide (US Senate). This role is played up during electoral campaigns (hence Mr. Brown’s claim that he is a “Brown Republican” who will independently champion the interests of his state), and is much more important for US House representatives who are elected every two years. Senators, in contrast and by design, elected every six years and representing state-wide interests that can be quite heterogenous and often competing, tend to limit their appeals to the representative role to election season. Either way, that is only half of the equation.

Once in office, US congressmen and women become legislators. That means that they need to engage in the political bargaining and understanding of national-level issues as well as those that most immediately impact their individual constituencies. Sometimes these two levels of engagement–national and local–run against each other. The congressional legislator, by the nature of the US political process, must steer towards compromise rather than principle in most instances given the competing interests at play. Thus the legislator role often is at odds with the representative role, which is part of the reason why the Founding Fathers designed the two-chamber Congress (in order to allow the Senate to overcome the populist tendencies of House members). 

This is where Scott Brown is about to be schooled. As a novice Senator he will be at the bottom of the congressional pecking order. His appointment to committees, which is determined by a mix of seniority, trade-offs and patronage, will depend largely on how he “gets along” with his fellow Senators (committee work being the most important aspect of a senator’s job, as it is in committee where all bills are first considered). Since his victory is owed more to the tea bag movement and conservative media support rather than than of the GOP bloc in Congress, he is walking into a forum without much political cover. Moreover, he is a moderate Republican (for example, he supports abortion rights) in a party increasingly dominated by non-elected conservative fundamentalists. Sure, he will be lionised by the Republican National Committee and congressional bloc at first. But once the hard work of legislating begins, his representative appeal will have to take a back seat to the back room wheeling and dealing of which legislation is made (recall the old adage that the two things one never wants to see being made is sausage and US legislation). As a minority state senator in a one-party state like Massachusetts he has some notion of what that entails, but if he is to be more than a one-term Senator, he will have to lift his game exponentially given the national stage he is now playing on.

All of which means that his anti-Washington, anti-healthcare appeal, which was essentially a negative campaign about who he was not and what he opposed, now has to be transformed into a practice of pragmatic compromise and centrism unless, of course, he is hoping that GOP majorities will be restored in both Houses in the November 2010 mid-term elections. But even if that occurs, he still has to downplay his representative role in favor of his legislative obligations, at least until he is up for re-election. In a political moment where disenchantment and resentment is rampant throughout the electorate, that may turn out to be far harder than running a dark horse campaign against a lackluster opponent. But if he favours the representative role over the legislator role now that he is in office, he runs the risk of alienating his Senate colleagues and consequently be rendered hopelessly ineffectual in delivering on his promises. Either way, he has his work cut out for him, and his good looks are of no use in that context.

PS: Among many other things I will leave for the moment the conservative movement penchant for photogenic poster people over those with substantive political experience, or the potentially  (seemingly counter-intuitive) negative implications this outcome has for any NZ-US trade deal.

Blog Link: Disloyal Opposition in the US.

datePosted on 13:34, October 27th, 2009 by Pablo

For some time I have watched the opposition to Barack Obama and his administration with growing unease. Having some familiarity with Latin American politics, I began to see parallels between the traditional behavior of conservative Latin American oppositions to Left-leaning  democratic governments and that now manifesting itself in the US. I have now pulled my thoughts together into this month’s Word from Afar essay over at Scoop. The essay has more of a polemical tone than usual, but that is a reflection of my contempt for, and concern over, such behaviour.

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