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Collective punishment can work both ways.

datePosted on 13:26, August 10th, 2014 by Pablo

Using an “eye for a tooth” approach, the Israeli military has yet again adopted a strategy of collective punishment in its war against Hamas. The result, predictably, has been carnage and slaughter of innocents on a grand scale.

I am not going to debate who is right and who is wrong in this ongoing struggle. I have previously written about it and have found that the response is simply too emotion-driven for a rational discussion to hold. I will just say that I agree with those that say that Israel has forever lost whatever moral high ground it once had and is now no better than the enemies it fights. In fact, one can only despair for Israeli democracy as it descends into the type of reactionary intolerance that Hamas is notorious for. So I ask readers to please refrain from commentary about Israel.

Instead, here I wish to propose that collective punishment can be a two-way street, and that the global community can find ways to use it against Israel when the latter persists in disproportionately and asymmetrically meting out collective violence on the people of Gaza.

One way to respond is to collectively sanction all israelis for the actions of the political leadership and IDF. There are plenty of ways to do so: boycott Israeli goods; reduce diplomatic contacts with Israel, to include downsizing embassy and consular staffs; cancel contracts with Israeli businesses (to include rescinding investment contracts involving Israeli firms and export licenses for domestic companies trading with Israel, especially in the arms trade); refuse landing rights to Israeli flagged air carriers; deny all types of visa to Israeli nationals, to include tourist and student visas (John Minto has already suggested pulling the work-study visa scheme that allows young Israelis to do so in NZ); refuse Israeli participation in international sporting events; cancel touring Israeli art exhibitions, theatrical productions and musical events–the possibilities are many. The inevitable litigation that will ensue is an avoidable cost levied on Israelis as a result of their government’s policies regarding Gaza. As for the Israelis who carry multiple passports because of their lineage and the prohibitions against Israeli passports in Muslim states–visa checks, airline logs and residency checks can confirm who they are. It may cost to do so, but it  will cost the individuals involved much more.

Sanctions regimes already exist, but these are usually against government elites and their supporters (think of the current sanctions regime against Russian officials and elite entities and those (now lifted) enacted by Australia and New Zealand against the Baimimarama military dictatorship in Fiji). What is proposed here is different: complete sanction against all nationals of a targeted state.

This may seem unfair to the average Israeli who has nothing to do with the Netanyahu government or IDF atrocities. But that is the point: collective punishment of a majority for the actions of a minority is patently unfair. In this instance the collective punishment against Israelis may be unfair to them but is relatively benign when compared to what Israel does to Palestinian civilians in Gaza.  Forcing them to swallow a softer taste of their own medicine might give them pause to rethink their support for the “eye for a tooth” strategy.

More importantly, much like Israeli spokespeople who argue that the people of Gaza are getting what they deserve for electing Hamas into government, so too it can be argued that collectively punishing Israelis is justified in light of their election of the Netanyahu-led Likud government amid rising support for Israeli right-wing religious parties. After all, if we are to blame the electorate in one instance we might as well do it in another, although in the case of the Israelis the blame does not entail being subject to military force.

I realise that nothing will be done along the lines I propose. But I feel the need to put it out there because there seems very little else that anyone can do to make the Israelis desist from collectively punishing innocent Gazians.  In fact, the concept of non-lethal collective punishment or sanction could be used in other instances, say for example against Russians in response to their ongoing intervention in Ukraine. But that depends on some degree of international agreement on the necessity of pursing such a course of action and an equal degree of commitment to enforcing it over an agreed period of time or until certain corrective measures are undertaken by the targeted state.

That simply will not happen in the current context. Heck, if New Zealand sees venal material opportunity arising from Russian counter-sanctions against the EU and US, then it is clear that there is not enough moral and ethical consensus to effectively implement a collective sanctions regime against citizens of a targeted state.

But it might be worth a try, if even in a piecemeal fashion or as a symbolic statement of repudiation of those who believe that lethal collective punishment is a just means of conflict resolution. If nothing else, raising the possibility of non-lethal collective sanction might force citizens of states like Israel to re-think their individual stake in pursuing the collective punishment of others as a matter of state policy.

Systemic Realignment.

datePosted on 13:42, July 23rd, 2014 by Pablo

The chaotic state of contemporary international affairs demonstrates the serious limitations of constructivism and idealism as theoretical frameworks for the analysis of global macro-dynamics. The former claims that the construction of international institutions helps universalise common values and mores, thereby leading to improved interstate relations under supranational (international organisation) guidance and enforcement. The latter posits that the perfectability of humankind makes for a common search for cooperation in the conduct of foreign affairs. This leads to the pursuit of constructivism in international relations as common effort is made to overcome self-interest as the bottom line of nation-states. Both schools of thought believe that economic and non-state actors will eventually adopt similar approaches to their behaviour with foreign entities, as the universalisation of norms serves as a hedge against the uncertainties that ultimately lie at the heart of foreign relations based upon self-interested maximisation of opportunities by international actors acting rationally in environments of scarcity and limited information. This line of thought follows a rich utopian tradition that extends back to Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” through Woodrow Wilson to Alexander Wendt.

There have been undoubtable advances in international cooperation and the embrace of universal norms and supranational institutions over the last century. But recent events suggest that two “old school” theoretical approaches remain the best guides to international dynamics and the behaviour of international actors, both state and non-state in nature: realism and systems theory.

The reasons are simple. Realism is funded on the belief that absent universal norms accepted and enforced universally, self-interest is the ultimate determinant of actor’s behaviour in the international arena. This tendency is accentuated in environments of scarcity or of competition over strategic resources. Both situations–the lack of universally shared norms and competition over strategic resources–are hallmark characteristics of the present era.

International systems theory is both descriptive and prescriptive. The former describes the nature of interstate power relations at any given point in time: unipolar, bipolar, multipolar or anarchic. The analysis of said relations occurs globally, regionally and sub-regionally, as the international system is seen as being comprised of sub-systems acting at the micro (sub-regional) meso (regional) and macro (international) levels.  The latter is a product of both the first two as well as dynamics of its own.

Realism is focused on the exercise of power and its distribution in the international arena. It has intellectual origins in the thought of Metternich and Machiavelli, upgraded in modern times by Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz (who advanced a school of thought known as structural realism or neorealism that emphasised economic power as opposed to military-diplomatic power).  Today the concepts of “hard”,” “soft,” and “smart” power all follow in this tradition.

International systems theory was first advanced by Morton Kaplan, who adapted David Easton’s work on domestic political systems to the international stage. It sees systems as involving input, output and feedback loops that push the evolution of a particular system in a given direction. As with realists, the focus of international systems theory is on distributions or balances of power.

For international systems theorists the state of world affairs is never static. Instead, it is fluid and constantly in a process of change. There may be periods, often long in nature, of relative stability of a given system, but these are not permanent due to the inherent characteristics of the actors involved. For example, the Cold War was a period of what came to be known as tight bipolar stability, with alliance systems constructed around two opposing superpowers bound by the logic of nuclear deterrence. 45 years in duration, that system is considered to be relatively long-lived by systemic standards.

The post Cold War system was seen as unipolar in nature, as the US was considered to be the sole superpower after the collapse of the USSR. But in the eyes of systems theorists unipolar systems are inherently unstable, as pretenders to the throne will work incessantly, even if indirectly, to advance their positions vis a vis the so-called “hegemon.” In fact, unipolar systems are considered to be only marginally more stable than large-N multipolar systems in which power is widely distributed and strategic resources are regularly contested.

In contrast, small-N multipolar systems revolving around 3-5 states and their respective alliances or spheres of influence are considered to be the most stable types of international system, since the different poles can balance and counterbalance their relations with each other based upon mutual necessity. Balances of power are inherent in all international systems other than unipolar ones, and shifting allegiances on particular military, diplomatic and economic issues allow for equilibrium to be maintained amongst the competing powers.

Under the logic of international systems theory unipolar systems cannot hold and will eventually lead to systemic realignment that results in the emergence of a bi- or multipolar world. But the transition has a systems regulator, and its name is conflict.

International systems re-equilibrate through conflict. Here the quest for balancing becomes something akin to jostling for position in the making of a future world. Conflict runs a gamut from diplomatic tensions to war, and includes economic disputes and sanctions, unilateral and multinational foreign interventions, increased espionage between and within alliances and among individual nation states, and breakdown of international norms and consensus. The transitional period can see temporary alignments and bouts of various types of polarity, but is essentially a fluid moment that can last decades until systems equilibrium is restored. During that time different types of conflicts ebb and flow, to include major conflagrations.

Much like the invisible hand of capitalist economics, systemic realignment occurs in the aggregate rather than as the purposeful outcome of individual preferences or collective decision-making. State and non-state actors may attempt to steer the course of systems transition, but eventual stability depends on the establishment of a status quo that supersedes their particular desires.

What all of this suggests is that the current state of international affairs is one of systemic realignment. The transitional moment began with the end of the Cold War and accelerated after 9/11. The ensuing decade of armed conflicts, new and resurrected tensions in Central and SE Asia and the Middle East and rise of new power contenders such as the BRICs has produced a context of competition and conflict in which national self-interest prevails and international norms and institutions are ignored in favour of piecemeal solutions. The situation is set to last for some time, so we should be under no illusion that a new stable international system will be established soon.

Instead, a prudent course of action for a small country would be to understand that during a period of systemic realignment, strategic hedging in the form of holding all diplomatic options open, diversifying the range of economic partners and placing strict limits on the conditions in which military force is deployed is the best means of navigating the transitional moment.

Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what New Zealand is doing, which begs the questions as to whether its foreign policy elite truly understand the nature of contemporary international relations and what conceptual frameworks they employ to chart a course within it.

Should NZ renounce lethal drones?

datePosted on 17:32, May 25th, 2014 by Pablo

The Diplosphere event on lethal drones held in Wellington last week was a good opportunity to hear different views on the subject. The majority consensus was that legal, moral and practical questions delegitimate their use, although one defended them and I noted, among other things, that they are just one aspect of the increased robotization of modern battlefields, are only efficient against soft targets and are seen as cost effective when compared to manned aircraft.

At the end of my remarks I proposed that we debate the idea that New Zealand unilaterally renounce the use of lethal drones in any circumstance, foreign and domestic. I noted that the NZDF and other security agencies would oppose such a move, as would our security allies. I posited that if implemented, such a stance would be akin to the non-nuclear declaration of 1985 and would reaffirm New Zealand’s independent and autonomous foreign policy.

Alternatively, New Zealand could propose to make the South Pacific a lethal drone-free zone, similar to the regional nuclear free zone declared by the 1985 Treaty of Rarotonga. I noted again that countries like Australia and Chile would oppose the move (both have drone fleets and do not discount using them in anger), but that many of the Pacific Island states would likely welcome the idea.

Either declaration would in no way impact negatively on the use of non-lethal drones, whose utility is obvious. It would also leave open to interpretation whether NZ based intelligence could be used in drawing up targeting lists for foreign lethal drone strikes, a subject currently in the public eye as a result of claims that the GCSB does exactly that in places like Yemen. The PM says he is comfortable with the intelligence-sharing arrangement as well as the legitimacy of drone strikes, and added that similar intelligence was provided for ISAF drone strikes in Afghanistan (where the US and the UK deploy lethal drones on behalf of ISAF).

His confidence notwithstanding, many Kiwis are opposed to any cooperation with lethal drone programs, so the debate could be expanded to include indirect NZ involvement with them.

I think this is a debate well worth having. I realize that the security community will want to keep all options open and be very opposed to ceding any tactical advantage in future conflicts, and that extending the ban to indirect cooperation would have a negative influence on NZ’s diplomatic and military-intelligence relations with its security partners.

I am cognizant that it may be a hard thing to actually do given the balance of political power currently extant in NZ and the hurdles needed to implement it should the proposition be accepted. One of the other panelists dismissed the idea of unilateral renunciation as simply impractical and said that the proper forum in which to advance it was the UN (cue Tui ad here).

Some may say that is silly to debate something that does not exist. New Zealand does not deploy lethal drones. However, UAVs are already present in NZ skies, both in civilian and military applications. This includes geological surveys and volcanic research, on the civilian side, and battlefield (tactical) surveillance in the guise of the NZDF Kahui Hawk now deployed by the army. The military continues its research and development of UAV prototypes (early R&D worked off of Israeli models), and agencies as varied as the Police, Customs and the Navy have expressed interest in their possibilities. Since non-lethal UAV platforms can be modified into lethal platforms at relatively low cost, it seems prudent to have the debate before rather than after their entry into service.

I am aware that the revulsion voiced by many against the lethal use of unmanned aerial vehicles might as well be shared with all manned combat aircraft since the effects of their deployment ultimately are the same–they deal in death from the sky. Given that commonality, the preferential concern with one and not the other appears more emotional than rational, perhaps responding to idealized notions of chivalry in war. That is another reason why the subject should be debated at length.

Such a debate, say, in the build up to a referendum on the matter, would allow proponents and opponents to lay out their best arguments for and against, and permit the public to judge the merits of each via the ballot box. That will remove any ambiguity about how Kiwis feel about this particular mode of killing.

UPDATE: Idiot Savant at No Right Turn has kindly supported the proposition. Lets hope that others will join the campaign.

 

Something to do in Wellington.

datePosted on 11:50, May 8th, 2014 by Pablo

On May 20, 2014 from 6PM-7:30PM Diplosphere is hosting a panel discussion titled “Drone Strikes: Are They in New Zealand’s Interest?” The event will be hosted by Dr. Kennedy Graham MP-Green Party and will take place at the Theatrette, Parliament Buildings, Wellington. The hosts ask that people register for the event, which they can do by contacting Maty Nikkhou-O’Brien at the following email address: mnobrien@diplosphere.org

The panel Chair is Dr. Roderick Alley of Victoria University, who has just published a thorough examination of drone warfare. The panelists are Professor Richard Jackson of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago, investigative journalist Nicky Hager and myself.

It should be an interesting discussion. I will try to place the emergence of drone warfare in context before debating its legality and utility.

Media Links: Kiwi killed in drone strike.

datePosted on 17:56, April 17th, 2014 by Pablo

I did interviews on TV 3 and Radio NZ about the drone strike that killed a Kiwi dual citizen in Yemen last year. There are many questions raised by the incident, but time constraints precluded addressing all of them. The headline of the TV 3 interview is misleading of what I actually said. The RNZ interview is more straight forward and has a slightly different angle.

NATO toasts Putin.

datePosted on 12:18, March 27th, 2014 by Pablo

The end of the Cold War left NATO without its raison d’être. Its creation was predicated on the existence of an existential threat emanating from the USSR, one that would take the military shape of high intensity warfare: waves of armored columns crossing the central European plains backed by massive infantry formations covered by blanketing air cover and even tactical nuclear weapons. NATO was designed as a collective security arrangement whereby superior counter-force on the part of the US and its Northern Hemisphere allies served as a deterrent to Soviet aggression. That strategic orientation was at the heart of the Cold War.

With the Soviet Union gone, so was the need for that strategy. NATO first sought to incorporate, over Russian objections, former Warsaw Pact states into its embrace. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined first, followed by  Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania and, most recently, Albania and Croatia. It shifted its focus towards multinational peace-keeping and peace-enforcement, irregular low-intensity conflict operations such as those in Kosovo in the late 1990s (the size, scope, pace, depth and range of weapons used in kinetic operations determine the relative intensity of combat). Later it cast its collective gaze further afield, involving itself in the International Security Assistance Force occupation of Afghanistan and the ouster of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.

The irony is that these strategic shifts did nothing to allay Russian concerns that NATO’s  primary focus remained on curtailing its ability to project force to its West and South, but in Western capitals the belief was that NATO needed to re-boot given the shifting geopolitical landscape and strategic priorities of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

None of the new NATO missions substituted for those designed to counter the threat posed by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, and with the exception of the US, this was reflected in diminishing defense budgets, numbers of uniformed personnel and overall military significance within policy-making circles in member states. However it tried to redefine its core mission, NATO was increasingly seen by elites and public alike as a security organization without a purpose. Many felt that it should be disbanded and replaced by more flexible military agreements that would eliminate the costs of maintaining a permanent NATO infrastructure in Brussels and annually contributing, both militarily and financially, to its operations. It was believed in some quarters that this could be done without significantly impacting on any nation’s self-defense in what was seen as a largely benign European strategic environment where conflicts were more intra-rather than inter-state in nature.

It was for that reason that I penned this column as part of my late “Word from Afar” series as Scoop.

Now, thanks to the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, that has changed. In the eyes of its champions, NATO is once again confronted by hostile Russians on its Eastern flanks. Not surprisingly, US and European military-security officials, especially but not exclusively in places like Poland, have been quick to raise the specter of Russian imperialism in the former Eastern European bloc, calling for a revitalization of NATO’s original primary and core concern: containing the Bear.

The justification for NATO revitalization is based on the belief that Putin will not stop in Crimea or even the Eastern Ukraine, but has intentions to at the very least “Finlandize” a number of former Soviet Republics on Russia’s border that he feels have gotten too politically close to the EU and their Western neighbors. Given that the uprising in Ukraine was seen as a vote in favor of closer ties with the EU, the Russian response in Crimea is taken as indicative of its approach towards other “pro-EU” governments in its near abroad.

Just as Putin was able to capitalize on Russian nationalism as a generator of support for the invasion of Crimea, so too can conservative politicians in many European states use his actions as a catalyst for nationalistic appeals. Fear of the Bear is widespread and often visceral in many parts of Europe, especially those that suffered under Soviet occupation or at the hands of Soviet troops during the Great War. They and their descendants provide receptive audiences for anti-Russian appeals made on both politically opportunistic as well as principled grounds.

This is music to the ears of European defense bureaucrats, even if the US is not quite as capable of shouldering the burden of their collective defense in the measure that it once used to. For European security elites, the good ole days of robust defense spending, new weapons acquisitions, force expansion and significant military say in national policy making are now set to replace the politics of austerity and neglect that characterized the post Cold War period. Security decision-makers will make the argument that resurgent Russia is as much a threat today as it was back during the Cold War, even if its reach is now more regional than global in scope and its power is derived as much from its energy exports as it is from its military capabilities. Their argument will dove-tail nicely with those of anti-Russian nationalists, so the die is set for another re-casting of NATO’s mould.

Of course, while NATO went through contortions of re-defining itself after the Cold War, Russian strategists continued to focus primarily on defending their land borders and promoting Russian influence in neighboring states so as to provide a buffer to would-be aggressors, particularly from the West. For the Russians the “liberation” of Crimea is just a natural and justified reaction to the steady erosion of Russian influence in regions in which it has core historical, cultural and political interests. It is this “natural” reaction that has prompted the calls for NATO’s strategic re-orientation, which in turn means that the two strategic visions have once again been counterpoised.

This will be welcomed by Russian military and NATO officials because it marks the return to the common logics of collective defense that justify their positions and the arguments for counter-force deterrence that bound them together in opposition during the Cold War. However, for the citizens affected by a return to Cold War logics the prospects may not be so rosy.

Whatever the case, there are bound to be more than a  few NATO officials quietly hoisting a glass in honor of Vladimir Putin, for it is is he who has given them importance once again.

Playing Checkers on a Chessboard.

datePosted on 12:32, March 3rd, 2014 by Pablo

So John Kerry says that Russia’s military intervention in Crimea demonstrates that it is acting “in 19th-century fashion by invading another country on (a) completely trumped-up pretext.” He goes on to say that “It’s an incredible act of aggression,” and threatens Russia with expulsion from the G8 and a raft of sanctions.

My oh my. I realize that an essential element of politics and diplomacy is to be able to lie with a straight face and turn hypocrisy into an art form, but this really is up there on the chutzpah scale. Has someone pointed out to Mr. Kerry that this incredible act of aggression has resulted in zero deaths, unlike, say, some other military interventions over the last ten years? In any event, such rubbish is about all that the US has left when it comes to effectively replying to the Russian gambit.

Before I delve into why Putin is playing a larger game while the US reacts and responds simplistically, let me ask a couple of questions. Does military intervention by an autocracy feel any different from military intervention by a democracy on the part of those being occupied? And if the locals welcome the intervention even if their government does not (and in Crimea both the regional government and locals overwhelmingly welcome the Russian intervention), does that legitimate the use of force against a sovereign state?

Putin’s move reiterates his resolve to protect Russian interests and ethnic Russians along its borders. Already proven in Georgia, this latest move secures Russia’s strategic interests by defending its warm water naval bases in Crimea as well as the local Russian population. If extended to Eastern Ukraine where ethnic Russians are a majority, it could well provide a significant, albeit riskier bargaining chip for the Russian leader. His time window is relatively short, but if played right the strategic gains for Russia could be significant.

For example, withdrawal of Russian troops from the Crimea and/or Eastern Ukraine could be traded off for more than the continuation of a pro-Russian status quo in Kiev. The Russians can tie such a withdrawal to better terms for the Assad regime in Syria (where Russian strategic interests are also at stake), and even more- favorable-to-Russia terms for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program (which the Russians have an interest in given the larger interest in maintaining Iran as a buffer against Western influence in the Middle East). The Russians also have numerous points of contention with the West (particularly the US) in its near abroad, particularly in Central Asia amongst the various “Stans.”  Any of these can be used as bargaining chips in the negotiations to secure a Russian withdrawal from the Ukraine.

The ball is the Russian court, They have presented the West with a fait accompli in the guise of boots on the ground. They are going nowhere soon and will not be dislodged by force.

Why? because after nearly two decades of continuous war the US is exhausted of fighting. GOP and Fox News chickenhawks notwithstanding, the US public has no stomach for another fight and the US military is suffering from a slow burning crisis of morale than has been seen in gross ethical lapses from command to barracks across all of the armed services, to say nothing of the 20-30 military suicides per month and the epidemic of PTSD amongst young veterans. The US may still have a technological edge when it comes to weapons systems and a more experienced combat force, but its strategic interests in Ukraine are less than those of Russia and its emotive stake in a Ukrainian conflict is closer to zero when compared with that of Russian troops defending their ethnic kin living in Ukraine.

Then there is the small matter of escalation should the US and its allies get involved, which given the relative stakes and nuclear arsenals sitting at the top of each side’s weapons pile, is as good a deterrent as any.

If the US will not respond with force, then no one else will. NATO troops will go on alert, but even an increased supply of weaponry or foreign military advisors to the Kiev government will risk Russian retaliation beyond what the Europeans will find acceptable. If the Ukrainians go to war, no one will come to their defense other than to provide covert logistics and intelligence. But that will not be enough to overcome the Russian military advantage, although it might raise the costs of it remaining in Ukraine for a long period of time. So counter-force is not a real option.

As for the idea that the CIA somehow orchestrated the Ukrainian uprisings as part of some master plan (a theory put forth by at least one Left commentator), well let’s just say that the recriminations with the Beltway about a lack of warning, to say nothing of this outcome, would suggest not. In fact, the contrary is true: given the ethnic tensions within and Russian historical ties to and strategic interest in the Ukraine, the failures of intelligence and diplomatic reporting when it comes to assessing possible outcomes have been major (if for no other reason than this is the stuff of basic comparative foreign policy research). That means that Western intelligence services also will have limited to no effective say in the eventual resolution of the crisis–they will just report on developments as they occur.

The Budapest Memorandum of 1994 (signed by the US, UK, Russia and the Ukraine), which pledged non-interference in and respect for Ukrainian sovereignty in exchange for it giving up nuclear weapons on its soil, is a dead letter. It is not a Treaty and has no enforcement mechanisms other than what each country or countries choose to impose on each other. The Russians claim that the right to self-defense supersedes the memorandum, and that the presence of military bases and citizens in Crimea give Moscow the right to militarily intervene in their defense against Ukrainian aggression, even if done preemptively. In fact, if the Russians wanted to be really cynical they could invoke the “responsibility to protect (R2P)” doctrine that was used by NATO in Libya to justify its intervention against the Gaddafi regime (and R2P does not need UN sanction to be invoked).

Kerry flaps his jaws about expelling Russia from the G8 and imposing sanctions on Russian businesses. The EU makes lapdog noises about “serious consequences.” Does anyone think that Putin is cowed by those remarks? In fact, if anything the day of reckoning is upon Europe, not Russia. For instance, Germany is seriously dependent on Russian energy imports and has re-calibrated its foreign policy in recent years towards Russia. What is it going to do  now, abandon all of that in order to make a point about the Ukraine?

Diplomatically, Russia has the upper hand has the upper hand here and it involves (but is not limited to) its relations with Europe and the US.

As for the issue of economic sanctions threatened by Mr. Kerry.

Russian capital has flowed out of the mother country and is now invested–seriously invested–all over the world, to include places like the UK, Singapore, Dubai and the US. Are these states seriously going to consider freezing the assets of those who have made such investments? Will there be a united response when it comes to sanctions or will it be fragmented, porous and ineffectual?

Russia is not Cuba, South Africa, Iraq under Hussein or even Iran and North Korea today. Imposing sanctions on it is a far more difficult proposition, both in terms of getting states and private entities to adhere to any sanctions regime as well as with regards to Russian retaliatory capabilities.

Russian energy supplies are a lifeblood for many countries as well as Russia itself. States that choose to genuinely hurt Russia economically do so at their peril.

The UN will condemn the intervention and resolutions will be introduced in the Security Council to that effect. Russia will veto them. Nothing concrete will be done. If it were to get kicked out the G8–which is a long shot–then Russia can turn to the G20 for diplomatic support. Among its members are nations not entirely enthused about the US, UK and other colonial powers, so it is easy to suppose that its response will be lukewarm to any proposed sanctions or collective punishment.

Bilaterally, it will be hard for all but the most powerful nations to do anything meaningful to Russia. Perhaps countries will issue statements of regret and disappointment, perhaps even suspend talks on items of mutual interest, perhaps even recall or expel an ambassador. But symbolism aside, does anyone think this is going to sway Putin one way or the other?

Putin has a domestic constituency to consider. He may rule from behind a rigged electoral facade but he does represent a specific, and fairly broad constellation of Russian interests. These interests converge when it comes to defending Russia’s borders and near abroad, as well as Russians living outside the motherland. These constituents matter far more to Putin than the likes of David Cameron or John Kerry.

For all these (and several more) reasons, the Russians have the dominant hand in this situation. They will use it to extract concessions on matters of concern to them in exchange for an eventual, likely phased and partial withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. Their strategic interests will be reaffirmed and recognized by their adversaries.

Barring a miscalculation or over-reach on Putin’s part that would bog his troops down in a protracted war (which would inevitably be irregular, unconventional and asymmetrical given the forces involved), Russia stands to gain most from what basically amounted to a window of opportunity created by the Ukrainian uprising.

Policy-makers in Western capitals should have thought about this before rather than after Putin made his move.

 

Monitoring Syrians and Supplicants.

datePosted on 12:14, February 14th, 2014 by Pablo

The subject of spying is back in the news this week, but the coverage has been inadequate. Allow me to clarify some issues, first with regard to those who want to join the Syrian conflict and second with regard to politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with Kim Dotcom.

Contrary to the thrust of the coverage, not all those seeking to join the Syrian conflict are Syrian or descendants of Syrians. The Syrian War is a civil war between Shiia and Sunnis, where the minority Alawite-backed Assad regime is fighting to maintain its grip over a majority Sunni population (Alawites are a sub-sect of Shiia Islam). For a variety of affective and strategic reasons Iran (a very large Shiia dominant country) supports the Assad regime while Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Gulf oligarchies back the armed opposition. This opposition is divided into what can be loosely called secular moderates (such as those grouped in the Free Syrian Army) and Islamicists (such as those in the al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

The latter have come to dominate the military side of the opposition due to their superior combat skills and determination. Their ranks include Sunni internationalists from all over the world (including New Zealand) who see joining the struggle as a religious imperative. Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Britons, Australians and French nationals are among those fighting in Islamicist ranks. That has led to serious clashes with the moderate secularists (who do not have as many internationalists in their ranks, although there are some), to the point that the fighting between the armed opposition factions has allowed the Assad regime to re-gain the upper hand in the overall struggle after being near collapse just six months ago.

Where the armed opposition is winning, it is the Islamicists who are doing so.

In the last nine months the Prime Minister has made repeated reference to would-be New Zealand jihadis joining the fight in Syria. Some are already there and others have been barred from going. They may or may not be Syrian in origin, but his use of the “Syrian trump card” is a naked political ploy designed to use fear-mongering as a justification for extension of domestic espionage and, perhaps, as a way of pre-emptively steeling public opinion against the negative consequences of the inevitable revelations from Edward Snowden about New Zealand’s foreign espionage role within the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence collection network. The trouble with the PM’s ploy is that the proclaimed threat does not match the facts.

According to the government ten New Zealand passports have been revoked since 2005 and a handful of Kiwis are in Syria fighting. The PM makes it sound as if all these have associations with extremist Islam. Perhaps they do, but the Syrian conflict only heated up as of early 2012, so the Syrian card does not explain why passports were cancelled prior to that. Moreover, the PM says that passports were cancelled in order to prevent “radicalized” Kiwis from returning and making trouble at home. That begs the question as to what the frustrated wanna-be jihadis are going to do now that their plans are thwarted and they are forced to remain in the country under heavy scrutiny.

A Syrian community spokesman has said that two brothers had their passports revoked after their parents informed authorities of their plans to travel back home to join the fight. He also accused the PM and his government of “racial discrimination.” The latter claim is ridiculous and shows a gross misunderstanding of how democratic governance works. John Key did not personally order the revocation of any passports nor does he have the power to rescind the cancellation order. New Zealand authorities did not cancel the brother’s passports because they were Syrian but because of their purported intentions. They did not target the entire Syrian community for who they are.

In fact, under current legislation the government is well within its rights to revoke passports on the grounds that the individuals involved intend to become or are part of a criminal enterprise, of which terrorism is one. Since the Islamicists fighting in Syria are considered terrorist organizations by the New Zealand government, any intent to join them could be construed as an attempt to engage in criminal activity. One might argue that the definition of terrorism is too broad (and I believe that it is), but as things stand the government’s concern about returning, combat experienced jihadis is a legitimate motive for canceling passports.

I shall leave aside the fact that the chances of survival of those joining the Syrian conflict is quite low* and they are being monitored in any event, so mitigating the potential threat posed by returning jihadis is not as formidable as Mr. Key implies. There are technical means of tracking the location of passports, and the individuals who are in Syria or want to go there have been identified already via domestic intelligence gathering. In fact, allowing suspects to travel while being secretly monitored is a standard intelligence collection method, so one can reasonably assume that the handful of Kiwi internationalists in Syria as well as their as of yet to travel brethren are the focus of both human and signals intelligence collection efforts by local espionage agencies in conjunction with foreign counterparts.

However, Mr. Key’s repeated public use of the Syrian card certainly has alerted any would-be extremists in the New Zealand Muslim community that they have been infiltrated by the Police and SIS and that there are informants in their midst. In fact, the New Zealand Muslim community is a bit of a sieve since 9/11 because personal, sectarian and financial vendettas as well as legitimate concerns about ideological extremism have seen the accusation of “terrorist” thrown around quite freely within it. This has been well known inside security circles (who have to separate bogus from legitimate accusations of terrorist sympathies), but the PM’s public disclosure has given potential jihadis a clear signal to exercise increased caution and diligence when planning future violence (should there be any).

The most important issue, however, is the selective application of the passport revocation authority. If would-be Islamic internationalists have not been convicted of crimes in New Zealand, and barring clear evidence that they intend to engage in crime abroad, then they should be allowed free passage to travel. If they engage in war crimes or crimes against humanity during a foreign conflict (be it in Syria or elsewhere), they can be charged upon their return, or even detained on the suspicion of complicity in said crimes. This is not a far-fetched speculation because both the Assad regime and its armed opposition have committed a raft of atrocities that fall under both definitions of illegal war-time behavior.

This applies equally to those who may choose to join non-Islamicist groups in other foreign conflicts (for example, by joining Christian militias in the Central African Republic), so specifically targeting those intending to go to Syria to fight is, in fact, selective if not discriminatory application of the relevant law. As far as following the Australian example and making it illegal to join a foreign conflict under penalty of imprisonment or revocation of citizenship, one can only hope not.

The simple fact is that would-be jihadis and other internationalists should be free to join any foreign conflict. They assume the risk of doing so and understand that they give up the diplomatic protections usually reserved for citizens traveling abroad. Should they be deemed a potential threat upon their return (in the event that they do), then it is the responsibility of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to mitigate that threat within the rule of law. As I have alluded to above, that is not particularly hard to do in the New Zealand context.

As for politicians meeting with Dotcom, the issue is far more simple than sinister. Dotcom is a NZ permanent resident who is a fugitive from US justice still under extradition warrant (which is being argued in court). The authorities may well consider him a flight risk because he certainly has the means to do so. They may believe that he is continuing his criminal associations or practices while his court case is being heard (I shall refrain from making bad jokes about those who have flocked to his side during the GCSB Bill debates, or about the politicians who have knocked on his door). Given his penchant for partying and those he associates with when doing so, they may want to catch him in possession of illegal drugs.

Thus the Police would have legitimate reason to run ongoing surveillance operations on him, and can do so legally with or without the help of the SIS and now, thanks to the passage of the GCSB Bill, the GCSB. In doing so, they would monitor and record the comings and goings of visitors to his mansion, with that information passed up the chain of command.

That is why Mr Key’s version of how he came to know about Mr. Peters’ treks to the Coatesville property is odd. He claims that he got his information about Dotcom’s political visitors from Cameron Slater working with or independently from a Herald gossip columnist. That is troubling.

The Right Honorable John Key is the Minister of Intelligence and Security, so presumably he is aware of the status of security operations and the Dotcom case in particular given its history. But he claims that he received domestic espionage information about Dotcoms’s visitors from a right-wing, admittedly partisan “attack” blogger, rather than from the security agencies for which he is responsible and who have a legal right to monitor Mr. Dotcom. That is a sign of incompetence or willful ignorance on his part.

I have shares in a Bolivian gold mine I am willing to sell at a very affordable price to readers who believe a sociopath was the first source of the Dotcom visit data provided to the PM.  Perhaps I am wrong and it is simply too much for domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies to pursue the monitoring of Dotcom for a supposed copyright infringement when so many Syrian-focused terrorists abound. But given the amount of resources expended and the reputational stakes involved, it would not be surprising and in fact legal for security agencies to do so.

I would suggest that if people like Winston Peters are concerned about being spied on when visiting Mr. Dotcom, then they should look at their own roles in allowing that to happen. Since 9/11 the legal powers and practical reach of the domestic espionage apparatus have been increased incrementally yet extensively under both Labour and National governments. Other than a relatively small number of Left activists and the Green Party (as well as ACT while Rodney Hide was still around to lead it), neither the majority public or the majority of political parties did anything to oppose this extension.

In fact, although Labour party figures and Winston Peters joined Kim Dotcom on the stage at various anti-GCSB Bill protests last year, and the bow-tied buffoon with a pompadour posing as a political party objected to having his personal communications accessed during the course of an investigation into leaks of confidential government information, Labour is responsible for the majority of the extensions and Dunne and Peters supported all of them. National has merely deepened the trend towards a surveillance society.

Hence, whatever Labour, NZ First or United Future may say now as a way of partisan point-scoring, they are full accomplices in the erosion of Kiwi privacy rights over the last decade. Any current whinging about violations of their personal and the larger collective privacy should be dismissed as cowardly rank hypocrisy.

In any event, when it comes to intrusions on basic freedoms of association, privacy and travel, not only Syrians living in New Zealand have reason to feel aggrieved.

* This is due to the immutable Buchanan rule of ground warfare: if you are firing your weapon over your head, or firing blindly around corners in the general direction of the enemy, you will not last long once s/he closes in. Should that rule be miraculously violated without consequence, the fifth Buchanan rule of asymmetrical warfare comes into effect: strapping explosives or amulets to your body in the hope of divine intervention is based on a false premise.

The deal within the deal.

datePosted on 15:18, November 26th, 2013 by Pablo

There are several things to consider when digesting news about the recently signed nuclear limitation agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UNSC permanent members US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, with the EU as a mediator/facilitator). First, what is publicly announced about international agreements is not always all that is agreed upon. Often times what is not publicly disclosed is as or more important than the announced terms.

Second, actors given majority credit for an international agreement may not have been as decisive as they and their home media would like the public to believe.

Third, no agreement stands alone or occurs in a vacuum: other geopolitical and strategic considerations are bound to frame and influence the terms of the finalized compact.

The agreement between Iran, EU and six world powers on the conditions by which Iran would de-weaponize its nuclear research program in exchange for a temporary relief from international sanctions is a case in point. The agreement is for six months, with an eye to negotiating a more permanent contract at the end of that period. The 7 billion dollars in sanctions relief is not a huge amount by global standards, but significant in that it demonstrates the effectiveness of the sanctions regime imposed on Iran as well as its the flexibility of it (since it can be reimposed in the event Iran reneges on its promises).

The technical details are pretty straight forward: Iran agrees to suspend the enrichment of natural uranium (U238) beyond five percent and to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (U235). This is a step away from weaponization because most weapons grade U235 is enriched above 80 percent, which is relatively easy to produce if 20 percent enriched U235 is on hand. Most civilian nuclear energy programs use 3 to 5 percent enriched U235 fuel, thereby making weaponization more time consuming and costly. The agreement therefore does not interfere with Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for civilian power production.

Iran will also curb its use and purchase of centrifuges employed for said enrichment as well as suspend the heavy water reactor extraction methods used to produce plutonium. The entire Iranian nuclear complex will be placed under tighter international inspection controls.

The Western media has variously described the deal as a “US-Iran” or “Iran-Western” accord, but the importance of China and Russia should not be ignored. Both of these powers have friendly relations with Teheran and have supplied it with weapons and diplomatic support. They were not at the meetings in Geneva to serve as props for the US and UK. In fact, their presence in the negotiations should be considered to be decisive rather than incidental, to the point that they may have had a large say in the broader issues being bargained over that eventually sealed the deal.

What might those issues be? That brings up the larger geopolitical and strategic context.

Iran, as is well known, is a major patron of the Assad regime in Syria, currently engaged in a civil war against a Sunni opposition backed by the West and Sunni Arab states. The Assad regime receives funding, weapons and direct combat support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiia militia that serves as an Iranian proxy and power multiplier in the Levant. Assad also receives weapons from Russia, which has a naval base at the port of Tartus and which considers the Assad regime as its closest Arab ally.

Should Assad fall, not only Russia but more importantly Iran will lose a major source of power projection in the region. This would suit Israel and the Sunni Arab world, as Iran is seen as an existential threat by Israeli and Arab Sunni elites alike. Defeating Assad will pave the way for Israel to turn its military gaze more directly on Hizbollah, something that will not meet with much opposition from the West or the Sunni Arab elites. Israel is less concerned about the radical nature of a future Sunni government in Syria or the fragmentation of that country into sectarian enclaves, as the heterogenous rebel coalition now fighting Assad will be consumed by factional in-fighting that will limit its ability to project meaningful military force across its borders whether Syria as presently constituted remains intact or not. Sunni Arab elites will welcome a Sunni dominance in Syria as another bulwark against Shiia influence in the eastern Mediterranean, again, whether Syria retains its present boundaries or divides into smaller Sunni states.

However, it has become increasingly clear that the leading rebel groups in Syria are led by al-Qaeda inspired jihadis who are as bad if not worse than the Assad regime when it comes to committing callous atrocities against civilians as well as armed opponents. They are people who do not have much regard for the laws of war and who have published videos of themselves gassing dogs using crude chemical weapons (which may have had something to do with the rush to reach agreement on removing Assad’s CW stockpiles in the midst of the civil war), and who have had to apologize for “accidentally” beheading a fellow Sunni rebel leader under the mistaken assumption that he was an Alawite or Shiia Assad supporter (all videotaped, of course). Their atrocities (as well as those of the Assad regime) are well documented in the propaganda war now raging on social media.

Jihadist government in Syria may not be an existential threat to Western, much less global interests, but it is the most visible. It would be the first and most important place outside of Afghanistan where Islamicists fought their way into power (Somalia does not count). That is a significant issue regardless of their actual military power because symbolism matters and diplomacy is as much about symbology as it is about substance.

Following Russia’s lead and over Israeli and Saudi protestations, Western powers have become very alarmed about a possible jihadi victory in Syria, and now see a weakened Assad remaining in power or as part of a brokered coalition as the lesser evil. Hence the previous Western moves to give material and technical assistance to the rebels have slowed considerably while calls for a negotiated solution grow louder. Not surprisingly and following on the success of the Iran nuclear accord, negotiations on the Syrian crisis are now scheduled for January in Geneva, and include the Iranians as interested parties along with those supporting the anti-Assad forces grouped in and around the non-jihadist Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army.

For Iran, this was the bargaining chip. It can agree to temporarily halt its nuclear enrichment efforts in exchange not just for sanctions relief but also in exchange for a reprieve for Assad. As things stood, its nuclear program invited massive preemptive attack and Assad’s fall spelled the end of its geopolitical influence. By agreeing to curtail its nuclear program to verifiable peaceful uses in exchange for a withdrawal of Western aid to the Syrian rebels and sanctions relief, Iran is able to buy Assad enough time to defeat the rebels, thereby maintaining Iran’s influence as a regional power while it re-builds its domestic economy unfettered by sanctions. Israel and the Saudis may not be happy about this, but their narrow interests have been shown to not be coincident with those of their Western allies on a number of strategic issues, Iran being just one of them.

Political scientists would call this the nested game scenario: within the public “game” involving negotiations between Iran and its foreign interlocutors lie other confidential or private “games” that are key to resolving the larger impasse over its nuclear program (Iranian involvement in Iraqi domestic politics might be another). These games are defined as much by those who are excluded as those who are involved in them.

All of this is speculation, and any “nested game” deal on Syria would be part of the non-public aspects of the agreement  and therefore deliberately non-verifiable over the near term absent a leak. But there is enough written between the lines of the public rhetoric to suggest that this may be what is at play rather than a simple compromise on the limits of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

 

Coleman’s Cultural Cringe Moment.

datePosted on 15:35, October 31st, 2013 by Pablo

For some time I have had the impression that Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of his depth on issues of defense and security, so I was not surprised by his joyful celebration of the signing of a bi-lateral defense pact with the US. Master of the flak jacket photo op, it was all sunshine and roses for Dr. Coleman at the Pentagon press conference, where he emphasized that US and NZDF troops would be training and working together on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions in between group hugs and port visits. He seemed blissfuly unaware that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, standing beside him at the press conference, made no mention of the kumbaya aspects of the bilateral, instead referring to the combat integration benefits of closer military-to-military relations.

What I was surprised at was how provincial and just plain goofy Coleman appeared to be. Among other country bumpkin moments, he dismissed concerns about US spying on New Zealand by referencing an editorial cartoon that had spies falling asleep listening to NZ communications; he outright lied and said that the NZ government would not say anything in private that it would not say in public (which makes its silence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations all the more suspicious); he never once countenanced the thought that the bilateral might be part of the US strategic pivot towards Asia (in a military way), or that China might view the bilateral with some concern; and for a Pièce de résistance, he whipped out a junior sized All Blacks jersey and foisted it on the unsuspecting Hagel.

The last moment was gold. Hagel acted as if he was not sure what the piece of black cloth was all about. A pirate flag? A tea towel? Something for Halloween? Then Coleman did the most crassly egregious act of sponsor placement I have ever seen in an official government ceremony by turning the jersey to the cameras with all front logos on display (the back had Hagel’s name and the number 1 on it).  AIG and Adidas would not have believed their luck, but what does it say about Dr. Coleman and his government that he/they thought it appropriate to shill for sports team sponsors at such an event?

The usual protocol for government to government exchanges of sporting symbols (most often on the occasion of bi- or multination sporting events) is to keep the colors and national crests but not the commercial logos. Such exchanges are done at the conclusion of formal meetings, with approved media doing the coverage on cue. Otherwise, the exchange is approved at press conference photo opportunities by prior consent. This avoids impromptu, ad lib or extemporaneous embarrassments or hijacks of the media op, to say nothing of security breaches.

On this the ritual of public diplomacy is pretty clear: public posturing and grandstanding is expected, but surprises are not.

In this instance Secretary Hagel was clearly surprised by the unilateral token of affection. He had nothing to give in return in front of the cameras. That means that the NZ embassy in Washington was incompetent, deliberately mean or ignored in the decision as to choice of gift as well as the way in which to present it, because it is brutally clear that Coleman and his staff were clueless as to the symbolism and significance of their preferred option for a unilateral, unscripted gift.

Lets ponder this. Coleman and his staff decided that the best gift to give the US Secretary of Defense on the occasion of signing a major bilateral military agreement ending years of estrangement was a replica jersey for a commonwealth sport barely recognized outside of some hard core devotee circles in the US. He might as well given him a surf lifesaving jersey.

I would have thought that a Mere pounamu, or better yet a Taiaha or Pouwhenua (to signify continued distance), would have been more appropriate for the occasion. With some advance warning (perhaps in consultation with the US embassy in Wellington), such a gift would be appreciated in its full significance by the US counterparts and transmitted as such to the interested public. Instead, the most powerful US civilian decision maker on military matters was given a piece of quick-dry, stretchable artificial cloth with corporate logos as a symbol of New Zealand’s commitment to first-tier military relations.

Coleman compounded the back-handed compliment with the jersey sponsorship display, thereby commercializing the event. To be honest, I could not believe what I was seeing and can only imagine what the Americans thought. I say this because in a former life I was party to such official ceremonies involving the US Defense Department and allied nation officials, and it was simply unimaginable that someone would attempt to push product, however unintentionally, during a symbolic gift exchange. That is why the display was so utterly cringe worthy.

In general though, I was not surprised by Coleman’s hillbilly-in-the-big-city moment. After all, if the Prime Minister, as Minister of Intelligence and Security, says that he cannot be bothered asking the GCSB questions about US spying on its allies, then it is no wonder that Dr. Coleman thinks that US spies are asleep and the US government is up with the play when it comes to the All Black nation.

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