Letters from America: Opioids and Venezuelans.

datePosted on 08:22, August 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I am on an extended stay in the US that will see me in several states and regions before my return to NZ in December. I decided that this is a good opportunity to write an occasional “Letters from America” series gathering together random thoughts on various aspects of US politics, society and culture. First stop is the East Coast of South Florida.

Late summer in South Florida is hot (over 30C daytime temps), humid (over 80 percent until the PM thunderstorms break the steam bath), and languidly quiet. Tourists are few and far between and the locals alternate hiding from the heat indoors with forays to the beach or pool.

The two items on my mind today are opioids and Venezuela. Since the latter might not seem to be an US relevant subject, let me start with it.

Venezuela is in the middle of a slow burning civil war sparked by deteriorating economic and social conditions caused by the incompetence, corruption and myopic power lust of the Maduro government that succeeded the father of the Boliviarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, upon his death. Unlike many non-Venezuelan leftist commentators I have no time for Maduro and the petty authoritarian kleptocrats that surround him just because he opposes the US and the US opposes him.  He is just another prop in the endless right-wing arguments about how the Left cannot govern either competently or in a democratic way. As much as I loathe the Venezuelan oligarchy that has always been a disloyal opposition to the Boliviarians, I despair for the Venezuelan poor, working and middle classes who saw hope in the Revolution and have now had their aspirations terminally dashed under a barrage of water cannon, tear gas, sniper fire, rocks and molotovs. The root causes and official responses to the crisis are not just the work of external interference and internal agitators (sound familiar?).

Blame lies everywhere in Venezuela today, but no one will take responsibility and the regime has simply met its end with the last resort of dictators–repression. What comes after may be no better, or worse.

The reason that Venezuela is a social issue in South Florida as well as a political issue in the US is simple: there are over 100,000 Venezuelans living in South Florida, many recent arrivals as “refugees” from the Boliviarian regime. Many moved their capital and as much of their fixed assets to the US as they could (capital flight being a key indicator of political instability), bought property in a climate that is similar to that of their homeland, and struck up political alliances with the long-standing Cuban exile community. Like minds think alike, and the type of Cubans and Venezuelans who inhabit South Florida come from the reactionary-to-troglydite end of the political spectrum.

The union of Cuban and Venezuelan reactionaries, coupled with the money they bring into local, state and national politics, has been instrumental in turning the Trump administration’s approach to both countries in a backwards direction. The Cuban-Venezuelan lobbying bloc is staunchly pro-Trump. Not surprisingly, the restored relations with Cuba begun by the Obama administration have been partially rolled back, and the US has just announced asset freezes and other punitive sanctions against Maduro and members of his personal entourage wherever US jurisdiction applies. The White House has been at pains to note that Maduro joins Mugabe, Kim Jung-Un and Assad as the only heads of state sanctioned in this way, and the way in which the farcical and rigged constitutional referendum was held in Venezuela this past weekend was likened to assorted atrocities committed under Stalinism, Pol Pot etc. No mention of the US glad-handing the Saudis, Erdogan in Turkey or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi even as they engage in more egregious human rights violations than Maduro on a systematic basis. But hey, as a general rule politics in the US is about hypocrisy loudly masquerading as righteousness or indignation, so in that regard the White House sqwaking about Maduro (who again, is not a fit or suitable ruler for his country) needs to be taken with a grain of comparative salt.

There is a more sinister element in this “Venezuelafication” of South Florida. Although one of my pleasures in returning to SoFl is to have access to many Spanish-speaking radio and TV channels (including the legendary “Escandalo (Scandal) TV”), what pours out of the talk shows is an increasingly violent insurrectionary call to eliminate “traitors,” “dupes” and assorted others who are seen to enable or support the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both at home as well as in the US. This has meshed with the alt-Right narrative about “libtards” and other usurpers of the White Christian social order because many of the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles are also virulent racists and classists who view the poor brown masses in their homelands as human vermin equivalent to those reviled by the US Right. And because the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, whatever their faults,have  empowered brown people in their countries and removed some of the deep-seated social and institutional barriers to their success, the White Cubans and Venezuelans see red in more than one way.

What that has done is to compliment and expand the rhetoric of violence surrounding political debate in SoFl. And whereas it may have been true in the past that “an armed crowd is a polite crowd,” that presumed that the crowd in question had some basic shared notion of civility and proper comportment to fall back on when things got heated. Under Trump that is no longer the case and in fact the opposite is now openly encouraged: give no quarter to political opponents, hear, much less heed no argument from them, confront and attack them at all times using all means necessary to silence them.

Then add some Cuban and Venezuelan mouth frothing ranters with money and influence into the mix. The bottom line is that local and state democracy suffers when expat revanchists take center stage in it.

Were it that I was inclined to seek escape in prescription drugs because it would inure me to the dangers inherent in that trend. But others are not as averse as I.  Over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids (mostly Oxycontin, Vicodin and Methadone). Over 1000 people a day are hospitalised with opioid overdoses, and 100 people a day are dying of them. In 2015, the last year for full records, over 15,000 people died of opioid overdoses, with 183,000 having died between 1999 and 2015. In 2016 the estimated number of opioid overdose deaths jumped to over 59,000 people, the largest increase ever. Even so, the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled, along with overdose deaths, during the 1999-2015 time frame. Why is this so?

The first cause is the proliferation of shady “pain clinics” in which unethical doctors hand out prescriptions for opioids like lollies. The process if simple: you walk into the clinic complaining of chronic pain of one type or another, you get a script in less than 10 minutes for a $30-40 fee, and the cycle continues after you leave the clinic and enter the pharmacy conveniently located either next door or a few storefronts down from the clinic (usually located in strip malls).  SoFl is awash with these places, and it is not a stretch say that it is easier to get one’s hands on opioids than it is cocaine, cannabis or other illegal drugs.

The second cause is the discounting of opioid prices in states and regions that have an opioid addiction problem. You read that right: pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at cheaper prices in those regions where addiction rates are highest. What might these regions be? Well, pretty much all of those Red States that voted strongly for Trump, Florida included. Think Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, West Virgina–if the state went strong for Trump, it is likely that the price of a Vicodin is less than that in a Blue State.

Who are the victims of opioid addiction? Again, the connection with Trump’s voter base is strong: predominantly white working class or unemployed/partially employed males aged 25-54 years (most of the figures used here are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–CDC).

In the face of these epidemic-sized addiction figures, the attorney generals of several states in which the problem is concentrated have filed class action suits against the pharmaceutical companies for their price discounting and targeted marketing of vulnerable populations. But resistance has already been met at the federal level, with GOP congress people rebuking those who would seek to interfere with market imperatives and the freedom of choice people have when it comes to self-medication.

The problem does not end there. The rise in addiction has in turn given rise to a thriving “rehab” industry in which addicts enter into so-called “sober homes” in order to detox. Trouble is, these sober homes are often no more than temporary way stations for addicts trying to kick the habit and pain clinics and pushers have been drawn to them like flies to poop. In many cases “sober homes” are nothing more than glorified shooting galleries, with the attendant rise in criminality associated with the phenomenon. Cities throughout the US but especially in SoFl, including the one I am in, have had to redraft zoning and occupancy laws in order to discourage these type of addiction parasites from continuing to profit from human misery.

So there you have it: a country whose internal political polarization is abetted by that imported from abroad, filtering into a society that in many places is awash in guns and prescription drugs unscrupulously  supplied by industries profiting from them. These same places provide the core demographic–the hard 35 percent–of Trump’s support base who are the ones who support his every move, including demands for regime change in Cuba and Venezuela and a turn against the notions of civility and democratic disocurse that previously served as the ideological myth that once bound the nation together.

The trouble for this “Deplorables” core, as well as the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles longing for a return to the pre-revolutionary past, is that Trump’s promises are nothing more than the prescription drug version of a pipe dream.

Careful with that eugene, ACT

datePosted on 20:28, July 15th, 2017 by Lew

Beth Houlbrooke

Eugenics

ACT’s brand new deputy leader, Beth Houlbrooke, is into eugenics.

That’s what’s behind her emergence from the dusty old crypt of “if you can’t afford children, don’t breed” this week. I called it eugenics because when you use welfare to restrict fertility you’re targeting people who are overrepresented among welfare recipients, which in Aotearoa means you’re targeting Māori and Pasifika people. I was not alone.

And what happens when these benefit cuts produce increased rates of hunger, homelessness, sickness, neglect, and abuse among those families? Well, the government’s brand-new Ministry for Vulnerable Children will take them away from their parents. Welcome to your first glimpse of Aotearoa’s next stolen generation, just days after the government refused to consider redress for the last generation of children abused in state care.

Does this all seem a bit of a stretch? Well, we know what government-mandated child welfare agencies do when they decide parents are not doing well enough: they “manage” those parents. This is explicit in the ACT policy:

ACT WILL:

  • Push for a life-time limit of five years for support under the Sole Parent Support programme, and a life-time limit of three years for support under the Jobseekers Benefit, with “income management” being applied to beneficiaries when those limits are reached.
  • Extend income management to any parent who has additional children while on a benefit.

We know what happens when governments micromanage welfare: people find it a bit harder to buy smokes and booze, sure, but they also are forced to shop at a limited range of expensive outlets, they can’t buy cheap healthy produce at markets, they can’t barter or pay cash, and they are incentivised to game the system rather than working within it. The ACT Party hates perverse incentives, but not this one. And in Australia, it costs a fortune to administer. It would literally be cheaper to give each NT recipient an extra $100 per week than to give them a Basics Card. And we know what the ultimate government sanction is for “bad” parents: the removal of children from their custody. Draw your own conclusions.

As to eugenics. ACT leader David Seymour’s press secretary helpfully confirmed this aspect when he compared the ACT policy to abortion, which has the distinction of being the leading eugenic technique currently in use worldwide (largely for sex-selection). I gave him several opportunities to walk it back but he bravely refused them.

Read the whole thread, and draw your own conclusions. (And yes. Louis Houlbrooke appears to be Beth’s son. Rumination on the political wisdom of appointing the leader’s press sec’s mum as deputy leader are left as an exercise for the reader.)

This is not just ACT’s bag. That nice man John Key — himself raised on welfare — spoke in 2002 of women “breeding for a business” under Labour’s DPB rules. Current PM Bill English, while he would surely disavow the abortion analogy, was happy to compare welfare recipients to drug addicts. This kind of thinking goes all the way to the top.

Class eugenics

My response to the policy was the sort of fury that educated white dudes don’t usually get in welfare discussions: that’s me they’re talking about! After my father died my mother brought three young kids up on the benefit, and we will never forget that. Attacks on welfare, and especially on welfare mothers, are attacks on us. I had a wee rant about it that you can read if you can stand the swearing.

Dozens of others on twitter did likewise. Some are a bit famous. One is a Member of Parliament. A list put together by The Spinoff of notable children of welfare recipients includes millionaires, war heroes, All Black legends, and no fewer than three Prime Ministers. I was amazed by how many people had grown up on welfare and yet, somehow, had managed to become productive, decent human beings. I shouldn’t be, but there you go: that’s how deep anti-welfare stigma goes. Few of us in Aotearoa are many generations from being dirt poor, and it would pay us to remember that and not be ashamed of it.

The fact that so many people not only benefited from welfare, but understand its continuing importance in the age of busted unions, stagnant wage growth, casualisation, and the “gig economy” represents a threat to parties like ACT and National. The social purpose of the welfare is to support people out of poverty and into work and prosperity. It is a system that creates and nourishes the working class, and prevents the worst excesses of capitalism from destroying workers. And it works.

So of course the right-wing want rid of it. They can’t erase welfare kids from my generation, but in terms of long-term strategy, preventing today’s generation of poor people from having kids like us probably seems a pretty sound way to destroy class consciousness.

The way this breaks down illustrates how class politics is not distinct from but a necessary adjunct to identity politics in leftwing praxis. On paper I am pretty middle class, but this is temporary. Few of us welfare kids ever forget how little it takes to fall into economic uncertainty, so culturally, I will always be working class. Purists might bridle at this as just another identity, and some will continue to deride me as a bourgeois liberal managerialist, but I know where I came from.

This is how identity politics intersects with class politics. The same factors which make ACT’s intended victims — young, poor, brown women — vulnerable to this policy means they also stand to benefit most from Labour’s Families Package and Best Start policies, which provoked Houlbrooke’s statement in the first place. So bringing class and identity politics together, even if it was inadvertent, is good: it is brave policy, directly targeting people who already suffer from a lack of equitable access to the political and economic system. And those of us who remember what it was like to be brought up on the benefit, who now enjoy the privileges of a middle-class life and access to the political system, can show solidarity. We must show solidarity. Doing otherwise would be a betrayal of our ancestors.

The lack of a robust response to ACT’s latest attack on poor people from Labour is disappointing. It has largely been left to people on social media to fight the fight, and to my knowledge nobody in the party has used the e word. This is perhaps understandable in light of the party’s own history of man-on-the-roof welfare-bashing, and, you know, I grew up on that benefit under Rogernomics. They’re not blameless on this stuff. But let’s not be churlish. While Labour in 2017 might not be ideal, at least they’re not trying to breed poor people out of existence.

Deja Vu all over again?

datePosted on 15:26, July 2nd, 2017 by Pablo

According to press reports US Defense Secretary James Mattis is considering sending between 3000-5000 additional US troops back to Afghanistan to bolster the 13,450 already there. Last week he is reported to have asked NATO members and non-NATO military partners to commit additional troops up to the desired threshold of 1,200. Fifteen NATO members and partners have apparently committed to the task, with the UK (which has nearly 600 troops in theatre) promising an additional 100 soldiers and Norway and Lithuania publicly stating their intention to do likewise (without revealing numbers or units involved). Given that New Zealand has non-member partner status with NATO, is a member of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and is a bilateral US military partner that earlier agreed to a request to send a handful of soldiers back to Kabul, it is certainly possible that it has also been asked to consider bolstering its presence in that country. Mattis conceded that in retrospect the earlier US drawdown of troops from Afghanistan was too large and too sudden given the prompt resurgence of the Taliban (especially in Kandahar province) and the rise of Daesh as a new adversary in theatre. So what he is asking is for reinforcements to re-stem the extremist tide and continue the mentoring and advising that, along with selected hunter/killer missions, have been the mainstay of the ISAF role since the drawdown began a few years ago.

The question is: has NZ agreed to this latest US request to send more troops back to Afghanistan and if so, in what capacity? Given Donald Trump’s demands that US military allies “do more and pay more” for their common “defense,” is it prudent for NZ to refuse the US request?

On a related topic, reports are now regularly surfacing that Iraqi troops and federal police are committing war crimes on a significant scale in the battle to push Daesh out of the country, including torture and summary executions of unarmed suspects. Many of the war crimes are being committed by Shiia members of the Iraqi armed forces, who see their acts as revenge for the atrocities committed by Sunni Ba’athists during and after Saddam Hussein’s regime (since many Daesh fighters in Iraq are Iraqi Sunnis with ties to the deposed regime). No mention has been made of where these personnel were trained, but given the urgent need to commit troops to battle, is it not possible that some of the 20,000 Iraqis trained by NZDF personnel at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad since 2015 might be involved in these war crimes? (the NZDF is now in its fifth rotation at Camp Taji and claims that its training involves instruction on “fundamental human rights law and the Law of Armed Conflict”). This question is particularly relevant given that the NZDF admits that most of the soldiers it has trained have been committed to the battle for Mosul where war crimes have recently been documented (WARNING: the link contains nasty imagery).

Given that the NZDF has in the past had problems with some of its foreign security partners with respect to the treatment of prisoners (such as the NZSAS handing over detainees to the Afghan secret police, who then tortured and purportedly killed some of them), is it not possible that its combat training at Camp Taji (which emphasises infantry skills) has overshadowed the ethics training component of the mission given the urgent need to commit Iraqi troops to battle? Or do the Iraqis simply ignore the ethics part of their training or go rogue afterwards? Could this have contributed to the commission of war crimes by graduates of Task Force Taji’s training program? Since a NZDF officer is serving as a spokesperson for the anti-Daesh coalition in the battle for Mosul (and has had to explain the use of white phosphorous munitions in urban areas), and NZSAS personnel are believed to be serving as intelligence gatherers and target designators in the theatre, it is likely that the NZDF would know if its Task Force Taji graduates are involved in committing war crimes.

The culture of secrecy and denial within the upper ranks of the NZDF will make finding honest answers to both sets of questions difficult, but they are certainly worth asking.

 

PS: I shall leave aside the incidental question as to why a senior NZDF officer is serving as the Coalition spokesperson for the Battle of Mosul when the ostensible role of the NZDF in Afghanistan is limited to training Iraqi soldiers at Camp Taji and a few other bases.

Still think it is all about postmodern identity?

datePosted on 15:24, June 18th, 2017 by Pablo

Long term readers may recall something I wrote a few years ago about the issue of Left praxis and the need for a class line above all other strategic perspectives. That post was done in part because of the prevalence of identity politics and other post-modern forms of association within the NZ Left (such as certain “polyamorous” factions present in local progressive circles). This focus on non-class based forms of identification has been eloquently defended at some length by my colleague Lew here at KP, so there is merit in it, at least in some instances.

However, I believe that a major contributing factor to the decline of the Left as an ideological force and political alternative to currently dominant market-supportive ideologies and parties is the turn away from a class line, be it by the 3rd Way Labourites that NZ Labour emulates or the NZ Green Party with its election campaign emphasis on youthful (primarily female Pakeha) candidates over policy substance (which has completed the turn away from “watermelon” politics where class was at the core of its environmental philosophy and grassroots demographic and towards a business-friendly largely urban metrosexual orientation). The fact that many on the Left welcomed the victory of Emmanuel Macron, an investment banker, over Marine Le Pen, a neo-fascist, in France and failed to understand Donald Trump’s populist appeal to white American working class and lumpenproletarians (a sin I was guilty of) demonstrates the intellectual and practical vacuum at the core of what passes for modern progressive politics in some parts of the world, Aetoroa in particular.

It puzzles me that even in the face of Bernie Sanders’ remarkable primary campaign in the 2016 US presidential election and UK Labour’s rise under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the UK snap elections of a fortnight ago, that many in the US, UK and NZ Left still cling to the (false consciousness) notion that centrist policies and identity politics are the way to play the game. The truth is that centrist politics have bottomed out under the polarising conditions produced by Alt-Right provocations and disinformation and the futility of the Left trying to successfully play a “soft” version of the market-oriented election game. The corporate and media Right have been quicker to realise this and seized the opportunity to deepen neoliberal era policies of economic deregulation and public sector cost-cutting by adding to it the politics of cultural conflict, immigration control and other methods by which the underlying bases of class conflict are downplayed in order to harvest the political fruits of cross-class uncertainty and fear.

The effect of three decades of market-driven ideological socialisation and post 9/11 politics of fear has been to prompt vulnerable sectors of liberal democratic societies to revert to primal and centrifugal forms of identification–race, religion, ethnicity, culture, nationality–all of which divert attention from the commonality of wage labour class subservience and its increased precariousness under the rule of a predatory type of post-industrial capitalism. Clearly non-class forms of identification need to be factored into any  discussion of praxis in a given socio-economic and political context, but adding non-class identification into the mix as the main focus of progressive struggles only serves to further dilute the solidarity bonds created by the one commonality workers have in the social division of labour of contemporary advanced capitalism.

And yet, in the face of this much of the Left appears to be suffering a form of post-modern paralysis where it is unwilling or unable to recognise that the advances made on superstructural issues like gender and LBGTI rights have their genesis in (but are not reducible to) the class driven struggles of the industrial and post-industrial eras, many of which persist to this day.

With that in mind, rather than prattle on as an old white male former academic, I defer to a genuine organic intellectual of the Left. The context is the aftermath to the Grenfell Tower fire in London:

https://www.facebook.com/thedeepleft/videos/649061075299366/?pnref=story

A tacit admission of decline.

datePosted on 16:57, June 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

In international relations theory, there is one standard that is commonly used to differentiate between superpowers and great powers. Superpowers intervene in the international system in order to advance systemic interests. That intervention can maintain or alter a balance of power or systemic status quo, but the point of  the move is to tinker with the system as a whole, something that is not done out of pure self-interest but in pursuit of something bigger or long-term in nature.

For their part, great powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests. They do not have the capacity nor the desire to pursue systemic objectives outside of immediate national concerns.

Lesser powers can not make systemic changes but instead are subject to the actions of great powers and superpowers and the systemic effects of those actions.

I mention this as a prelude to a comment about the US position in the international system and Trump’s foreign policy actions to date. It has been clear for some time that the US is in decline. Once a pole in the bipolar balance of power that marked the Cold War, then the unipolar hegemon in the post-Cold War era when notions of the “American Century” and “Pax Americana” prevailed in US policy circles, the US has since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq been forced to deal with the rise of new and old powers when saddled with all of the hallmarks of domestic decline and yet remaining committed to a policy of perpetual war against non-state as well as state actors (although the form that conflict takes varies depending on the opponent and the nature of the battle space in which conflict occurs). Whereas once the US pushed liberal internationalism as a systemic virtue where international norms, regulations, law and institutions were seen as the foundations of a stable and peaceful world order, in the last decade or so the US has seen itself over-extended militarily in fruitless wars of convenience or opportunity that have eroded its international reputation and influence while its home front is rendered by decay and increased social division. Barack Obama tried to stem the adverse tide but a viciously disloyal political and media opposition undermined him at home and abroad.

No US politician can say, much less get elected or re-elected on the idea that the US is in decline and is no longer the first amongst equals in the international system. Barack Obama appeared to have understood the fact of US decline but could not admit it publicly. To this day US commentators, politicians and most of the general public believe or at least pay lip serve to the notion that the US remains an exceptional country, as the so-called “shining house on the hill” to which all other nations look for leadership as well as its role as the world policeman. They talk about defending freedom and American values as if those truly are the basis for US military interventions abroad and an increasingly coercive approach to ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural differences at home.

Enter Donald Trump, but with a twist. Trump also genuflects at the alter of American Exceptionalism. But his “America First” message, with its neo-islolationist, nationalist, monocultural and xenophobic undertones, is actually a tacit admission that the US is in decline. That is interesting because Trump was anything but tacit on the campaign trail when lamenting the state of the Union. Now, as president, he changed his tune and behaves as if the US as a nation-state is equivalent to himself in that it can buy, bully or negotiate its way to getting whatever it wants from others. That is where he is wrong, and his actions demonstrate otherwise.

By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Paris Climate Accords, refusing to endorse NATO’s notion of collective defense, demanding that other nations pay more for US “protection” (as if it was a Mafia racket), deriding international institutions and regional organisations, rejecting international law (such as those prohibiting the use of torture), threatening firms with retaliatory penalties if they do not invest more in the US and dismantling years of cross-border environmental and corporate regulatory frameworks in the supposed interest of creating US jobs, Trump has tacitly admitted that the US is no longer a super power that can manage the international system in its preferred image and in fact can no longer do anything more than what a great power in decline can do–pursue its interests at the expense of all others in order to try and arrest the slide.

It is too late for that. As one meme put it, “Trump is cancelling Netflix so that he can give more jobs to Blockbuster.” The decline of the US is not just a reversible economic phenomenon. It is ideological, political, moral and ethical in scope. It is institutional as well as material in nature. The very character of the US is in crisis, where a history of idealism and virtue has met its match in a culture of excess, greed and venality. Solidarity and an egalitarian ethos have given way to opportunism and survivalist alienation.

The US decline is also a product of advancing technologies in an age of globalised production, communications, consumption and exchange. It exists in a context where other nations no longer look to the US first for support on many fronts, and in which competitors have grasped the fact of American decline and moved to capitalise on it. It may not be exactly Rome before the Fall, but the US is in many ways starting to resemble the USSR in decline–all military muscle but with no heart, dead eyes and a silly orange comb over.

The good news for the US is that it can work well as a great power if it understands that is what it has become. The Bush 43 administration tried to reassert US supremacy with its foreign adventurism and only succeeded in accelerating its (albeit unrecognised) decline. Now that its diminution is in full sway, the US needs to address its internal contradictions, something that perhaps requires a (however temporary) retreat from systemic tinkering and intervention. This could be a good thing because international systems theory posits that unipolar systems are inherently unstable whereas multipolar systems with 3, 5 or 7 great powers balancing each other on specific strategic issues and geopolitical fronts are more stable over the long term. With the US backing away from international commitments and systemic engagement, it may be a moment for other great power aspirants to fully shine. Theoretically, that could work out for the better.

Practically speaking and whether it works out for the better or not, multipolarity is the where the international system is headed. The current moment is one of international systemic transition, and the fact is that conflict is the systems re-equilibrator under conditions of semi- or restricted anarchy (in which adherence to some international institutions and norms is paralleled by non-adhernce or respect for others). Absent uniform and effective enforcement authority, states decide which norms to follow and which to violate until such a time a new consensus is achieved on the contours and rules of the emerging international system. When universal norms are not uniformly followed, that is when conflicts occur. We are in such a moment.

Admit it or not, under Trump the US is at this transitional moment retreating into its shell and away from its superpower pretensions. For rising and resurgent powers, this is a window of opportunity that can lead to systemic realignment. And at least for the time being, for many around the world having the US out of their lives is not a bad thing.

One thing is certain: the decline of the US as a superpower may not be acknowledged but it is real.

What price for “friendship?”

datePosted on 13:34, May 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump’s classless lecturing of NATO leaders on the need to increase defense spending, and his subsequent refusal to endorse the alliance’s collective defense policy (“an attack on one is an attack on all”), should serve as a warning to New Zealand policy makers. Coming after his calls for Japan and South Korea to increase their defense spending less their security ties with the US be reviewed, Trump’s attitude towards US security alliances is a sobering reminder that New Zealand is not immune from his bullying.

Trump specifically wants US security allies to spend 2 percent of GDP on “defense.” The US currently spends 3.6 percent of GDP on military expenditures, including 14.5 percent of the federal budget. European Union countries spend 1.4 percent and 4.1 percent of GDP and central administrative expenditures, respectively, on defense. Overall, NATO countries spend 1.5 percent of GDP on their militaries, with only five member states (including the US) spending two percent or more. As for other US security partners, Australia spends two percent (and envisions future spending increases), South Korea spends 2.6 percent, Japan spends one percent and New Zealand spends 1.2 percent of GDP on defense (the same as Germany).

The 2 percent of GDP benchmark for individual member contributions to NATO’s defense was an aspirational goal first raised during the Cold War and periodically reaffirmed thereafter. In February 2017 US Secretary of Defense James Mattis made the goal a requirement extended to non-NATO US security partners as well, warning that the US “would moderate its commitment” to them if they did not meet the threshold by the end of this year. This runs counter to the overall trend of the past decade, where with the exception of frontline democratic states like Estonia, Poland and South Korea, military expenditures have fallen throughout the liberal democratic world, terrorism notwithstanding (which cannot be fought by conventional military means anyway). In fact, the only regions that have seen increases in military spending over the last decade are the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, all active conflict zones dominated by authoritarian regimes.

Should Russia continue to encroach on NATO borders or hostilities between the West and China and/or North Korea increase, that might change, but the truth is that unlike the US most liberal democracies put the welfare of their subjects before war preparations, which means that they largely spend more on health, education and welfare as a percentage of central government budgets than the US does, while the US, in turn, spends more on “defense” than most of its democratic counterparts and, in fact, most authoritarian states as well (China, for example, spends 1.9 percent of GDP and 16 percent of central government expenditures on “defense”, while Russia spends 4.9 percent and 15.9 percent, respectively).

Contrary to what some US pundits allege, there is no free-riding and nothing parasitic about the contributions to collective defense of most NATO members and other US security partners–they are simply paying the amount that their priorities deem to be appropriate. The US wants to maintain its global military dominance in a world of rising new and old powers, so it spends more and wants those in its alliance networks to do likewise. But that does not mean that the latter could or should do so given their domestic priorities and threat environments. The “one size fits all” approach to collective defense does not account for the particular circumstances of individual countries, something that Mr. Trump fails to understand.

This is why New Zealand needs to prepare for pressure from the Trump administration on matters of mutual security. The Wellington and Washington bilateral agreements bind New Zealand to the US as a military ally in everything but name only. It is a first tier US intelligence partner given its membership in the “5 Eyes” signals intelligence collection alliance that includes Australia, Canada, the UK. It is a NATO associate. It is therefore likely that the US will demand that New Zealand “lift its game” to the 2 percent of GDP mark, especially given that Australia already has.

Trump’s nominee to be ambassador to New Zealand is a portent of things to come. Former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, an unremarkable politician except for the fact that he once posed nude for a lady’s magazine and is an open advocate of torture as an interrogation technique, is slated to take up the post in Wellington by the end of this year, pending Senate confirmation. Given Mr. Trump’s advocacy of torture and his musing about re-opening the CIA-operated extraordinary rendition/black site kidnapping and secret detention program, it is possible that Mr. Walker will be the bearer of bad news in the form of demands for New Zealand to increase security budgets to US satisfaction and toe the new line when it comes to extrajudicial approaches towards terrorism.

This pressure must be resisted. Although it can be argued that New Zealand’s strategic position and threat environment may not readily accord with its current security posture or spending (for example, by having an Army-centric military and limited blue water patrol capability in a maritime nation), it is also clear that New Zealand’s security interests do not uniformly coincide with those of the US and more importantly, the Trump administration approach to fundamental norms such as the Laws of War and Geneva Convention. Moreover, New Zealand’s trade position is more vulnerable than that of its larger military partners, which makes blind compliance with US security demands risky when these involve antagonizing economic partners such as China.

When the subject of the two percent threshold was raised earlier in the year, former Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee dismissed the notion that New Zealand would raise its spending in response to US demands. It remains to be seen if his assurances will hold over the longer term. As it stands, New Zealand’s spending on intelligence and security, including the NZDF, has increased over the last decade and is high when compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Current spending priorities are on cyberdefense, counter-terrorism and equipment upgrades for conventional forces. These can all be addressed for less than two percent of GDP.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s remarks to NATO and the G7 Forum, German Chancellor Andrea Merkel warned Europeans that they could no longer rely on the US on matters of security and trade, and that they needed to look to themselves when determining their fate. New Zealand needs to heed that advice. One way of demonstrating resolve in the face of US pressure is to declare Mr. Walker persona non grata in light of his support for torture and the emerging Trump security doctrine. The opportunity to do so arrives next week in the person of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who will be on his first official visit to NZ. Declaring  Mr. Brown unwelcome may result in some diplomatic discomfort, but if New Zealand is to maintain its reputation as an honest broker and independent actor in international affairs, it is a small way of demonstrating that when it comes to its security the price of partnership is not up for negotiation.

A shorter version of this essay appeared as an opinion piece in the New Zealand Herald, June 2, 2017.

Media Irritants.

datePosted on 17:16, May 24th, 2017 by Pablo

Terrorism Porn.

Coverage of the Manchester bombing has turned into an exercise in morbid titillation. The media voyeuristically interviews hysterical parents about whether they or their children saw carnage and how do they feel about that. They blather on about the identity of the perpetrator and his ties to Daesh.  In doing so they explain nothing more than what is already obvious and feed into the extremist narrative. It is all about shock! horror! the humanity! OMG, what depravity does this?!  Meanwhile kids are wiped out on industrial scale in non Anglo Saxon places and the Western media barely murmurs. Perhaps the people at the BBC, CNN, Fox News, Newshub  or TVNZ  believe that white children matter more than brown or black ones, but I for one do not. Unless coverage is given equally to Palestinian, Syrian or Yemeni children buried under the debris of their houses bombed from above, or to those destroyed in sectarian violence in the Sudan, Somalia, India and Pakistan, then the Western media needs to spare us their crocodile tears about “innocence lost.”

Let me put it this way: Last night on a 7PM show a NZ television outlet offered a panel with a comedian, a politician and some gender balanced eye candy ready to discuss the issues of the day. After a somber cross over to the UK to discuss the bombing with a follow up by a local academic, the hosts turned and said something to the effect of “now changing the subject,” whereupon they all went into yuck yuck mode over some stupid story about something inconsequential. Again, this included a politician of some apparent import in this land. That was shameful, debased and as clear a sign of the vacuousness of NZ media (and some politicians) as one can ever get.

If the media and UK government had a shred of decency and counter-terrorism sense they would have never mentioned the killer’s name, or his motivations, or streamed imagery of panicked teens running for cover and crying parents searching for their offspring. Instead, the authorities should have just reported that a mass murder occurred in which explosives were used and that the police were investigating and offering support to the victims and family. The corporate media should have follow suit and imposed restrictions on coverage even in the face (and especially because) of social media coverage of the event. That would help take the oxygen out of the extremist story, removes fuel for copycats and nut jobs, give no credence to motivation or ideology and treats the event as what it is: a violent criminal act, no more, no less.

Instead, we get discussions of the type of explosives used (and where to find the ingredients for them) and the emotional and psychological impact of the event. Sadists, jihadists and any number of terrorism “experts” are wanking themselves with delight at the way the story has been covered but the rest of us are no wiser for it.

Iran is not the greatest sponsor of terrorism.

The US government and the Western media continue to run and parrot the line that Iran is the greatest sponsor of terrorism in the world and thus the major threat to peace in the Middle East. Holding a straight face, President Drumpf recently repeated this meme at a conference of Sunni Arab oligarchies hosted by Saudi Arabia–Saudi Arabia! Those paragons of governmental virtue and human rights advocacy applauded his words and the Western press, including that of NZ, reported approvingly of the statesmanship demonstrated by his remarks.

I call bullish*t on that.

Sure, Iran suports Hezbollah, Hamas, the Alawite regime in Syria, the al-Sadr and other Shiia militias in Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. It is complicit in the bombings of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s (and I, as a US Defense Department official charged with Latin American affairs at the time have some knowledge of the financial and forensic investigations that trace back to Tehran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards). It clearly has nuclear ambitions and talks trash about Israel, but compared to North Korea with regard to the former and any Friday sermon in the Sunni world with regard to the latter, how is it appreciably worse? Seriously, does anyone with a fair and objective mind think that (Shiite) Iran is a worse sponsor of terrorism than, say, (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan (whose intelligence services were implicated in the Mumbai terrorist attacks and who continue to fund and arm extremists in India and Afghanistan, if not further afield), any of the other UAE countries or, putting aside sectarian weirdness for a moment, organised crime and –dare I say it–the US (which backed with money and weapons rightwing death squads responsible for the deaths of thousands in Latin America and elsewhere from the 1950s to the 1980s and with who covert connections are reported to continue to this day)?

Why does the media accept the US word about Iran and its links to terrorism? Why do they not question the criteria upon which this “assessment” is based. Because nothing I have read, heard or personally seen in three decades of working the interstices of unconventional warfare has led me to believe that Iran is the foremost sponsor/supporter of terrorism in the world yesterday or today. Instead, it is a revolutionary regime that has successfully stood up to the US and its Sunni allies using conventional and unconventional means, covert and overt, indirect and direct, diplomatic, military and economic. I am not a fan of the Iranian regime or its ideology, but what is so different about the way it operates when compared to other regional actors other than that it has an adversarial relationship with the US and others in the West? Iran may not be the best “behaved” country in the world either domestically or internationally, but again, compared to who and by what measure?

The NZDF are lying and covering up what happened during Operation Burnham.

The NZDF wants us to believe that contrary to all Western professional militaries, its special operators do not occasional make mistakes that result in the deaths of innocents and, moreover, do not carry cameras into battle zones, do not collect forensic evidence on those killed and need permission from the US to release video from the air cover provided during NZDF operations abroad (assuming of course, that the NZDF requests such video in the first place). Other than an intrepid few, the NZ media has just taken the NZDF word for it although it has now been caught out lying about photographic evidence taken by NZDF soldiers at the scene (“and oversight” it claims), and has generally stonewalled OIA requests for information about really happened.

I am not entirely convinced that the explanation of the Burnham mission offered by Jon Stephenson (whose reporting constitutes ninety percent of the book Hit and Run) and Nicky Hager (who took majority credit for it) is absolutely correct in all details, but I sure as hell know one thing: when it comes to the honesty, integrity and credibility of Mr. Stephenson versus that of the NZDF brass, I will take Mr. Stephenson every time. This is not about the soldiers on the ground that night. This is about who gave the orders to undertake the raid and who decided to hide what really happened in its aftermath. Were it that TV talking heads and comfortable columnists and opinionators be cognisant of that fact.

Bowing to petty tyrants.

datePosted on 15:16, May 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I just got back from a trip to my hometown, Buenos Aires. During the time that I was there, the center-right president, Mauricio Macri, made a state visit to the White House. Like Donald Trump, Macri is the son of a millionaire who continued the family business and branched out into sports, entertainment and then politics. Unlike Trump, Macri was a two-time mayor of Buenos Aires who was widely recognized as having cleaned up the city and instituted a number of important public works and modernisation projects. He is not universally popular but he is generally acknowledged as competent. Oh, and he is reported to have business ties with the Trump Organization.

I write this in order to provide background to Macri’s visit to the White House. Not so much because of what was said during his meetings with Donald Trump but because of what did not happen. It turns out that in March the Argentine official government gazette, the Boletin Oficial, published an announcement that after the state visit President Macri would be awarding Argentina’s highest honor to a foreigner, the Order of San Martin, to Jimmy Carter for his focus on human rights in general and the efforts he led–channeled through his Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, the late Patricia Derrian–to uncover the fate of the “disappeared” under the Argentine military bureaucratic dictatorship of 1976-82.

I was involved in human rights work in the late 70s and early 80s in Argentina and can personally attest to the fact that Carter and Derrian saved hundreds if not thousands of Argentine lives simply by asking the junta about the whereabouts of political prisoners. Carter was also the first US president who made the provision of foreign aid, both military and economic, contingent on a country’s human rights certification by the State Department (where the State Department investigates and evaluates a country’s human rights record before recommending for or against channelling aid to it). Although Republican presidents have tried to weaken the human rights certification provisions in US aid programs, Democratic presidents have largely adhered to the parameters first enunciated by the Carter administration.

Before Macri traveled to Washington, the Trump administration asked the Argentine government to cancel the award ceremony for Carter. This, in spite of the fact that the ceremony was not part of Macri’s state visit and was to be done outside of the official schedule of events. So, to repeat, let’s get this straight: at the insistence of the Trump administration, the US government formally asked the head of a sovereign state to not award a former US president a rare honor for that president’s championing of human rights world-wide and his specific role in opposing the murderous actions carried out by the Argentine military and its accomplices during the infamous “dirty war” of the 1970s and early 1980s.

That is reprehensible. It is not only an insult to President Carter but to the Argentine government, the Argentine people and the history that they commonly share. Sadly, against the advice of his Foreign Ministry, President Macri bowed to the US request and cancelled the award ceremony.

Speculation about why he did so ranges from not wanting to get off-side with the White House, diplomatic necessity and/or Macri not wanting to jeopardize any future business ties with the Trump Organization. Whatever the reasons, Macri has justifiably been condemned for acquiescing to the request. His best option now is to invite Jimmy Cater to Argentina in order to receive the award, something that in retrospect is probably the more rightful place where to do so.

But why would Trump and his minions make such an outrageous demand? Is it because Trump hates Democrats or Jimmy Carter specifically? Perhaps. Could it be that he has no regard for supporting human rights as a matter of principle or practice? Possibly. Or is it because the Trump administration is currently in the process of cozying up to tyrants such as Dutarte, Erdogan and Putin as well as a number of lesser despots and has even spoken of being “honoured” to meet with that “smart cookie,” Kim Jun-un? If so, could it be that Trump did not want a reminder of when the US actually acted as a moral champion interfering with his value-free power politics approach to international relations? Again, whatever the reasons–and most of them reduce at best to needing any and all partners in the fight against common enemies and threats, even though the commonality of those enemies and threats is in dispute–Trump has shown himself to be a bullying coward lacking in any decency, while Macri has been revealed to be a quisling in the face of the bully’s demands.

There is a lesson here for NZ. Trump will interfere with sovereign decisions of other states under the implicit threat of retaliation. He has no moral compass and no ethical compulsion to respect another country’s decision to uphold international standards (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) should he find it inconvenient to do so. Given that NZ still clings to the fiction that it maintains an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy, it likely will not be long before that claim is put to the test by the sociopath in the Oval Office. And with the defense agreements signed between the US and NZ over the last eight years, it will likely be NZ support for Trump-instigated conflicts where that test will be.

The National government has two choices in that event: like Macri, forsake national interest and bow to the bully; or prepare contingency plans for the repercussions of saying “no.” The question is whether National has the spine to even consider the second option.

“You can’t handle the truth!”

datePosted on 15:07, April 4th, 2017 by Pablo

Well, no one should have been surprised that the government opted to not convene an inquiry into the allegations made in the Hager/Stephenson book Hit and Run. It preferred to let those accused “investigate” themselves and come up with an exoneration, then let the PM bad mouth the authors while wrapping himself in pseudo-sentimentality about the impact the accusations had on military families. SOP from National and the NZDF, especially in an election year.

Even though they may have forced a delay in ascertaining the truth as to what happened that August night in Afghanistan, they may have set themselves up for a bigger fall, albeit one that will cost taxpayers far more than if the inquiry had been done under the aegis of the Solicitor General, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security or some other reputable and independent local jurist. That is because if a state refuses to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by its troops, then that bumps up the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC can be petitioned to open an investigation and launch prosecutions against those suspected of war crimes if a state refuses to do so, and that may eventually be the case here.

The government strategy at this point seems to be to refuse an inquiry and force interested parties to make a case under the Inquiries Act, in the courts under one or more Acts, or in international bodies like the ICC. That is expensive and time consuming, so those willing to challenge the NZDF’s self-exoneration must be well resourced and prepared for a lengthy legal battle. In the meantime crucial evidence may disappear, sources for the allegations may change their minds out of fear of reprisal, material inducements for non-cooperation with investigators may be offered–no one should be so naive as to think that those under potential scrutiny would not stoop to such things.

The government is also clearly banking on political pressure for an independent investigation waning rather than increasing in the weeks and months ahead. It is confident that political parties will focus on the election and the media will move on to other things over the next few news cycles and that the claims will be forgotten by the public in short course. There are grounds to believe that it may be correct in these assumptions, but that depends on how interested parties feel about matters of truth and accountability in public institutions such as the military.

The government could well be daring the likes of Rodney Harrison QC, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod, who are representing the survivors of the alleged attacks and who successfully represented Ahmed Zaoui against the then-government’s mischaracterisation and detention of him as a dangerous terrorist, to take the case to the ICC. That is because although New Zealand is a member of the ICC, the US is not. Since the US Army provided the close air support for the raids and is implicated in the killings of civilians in the Hit and Run narrative, this means that a key part of any investigation–US complicity in the killing of innocents–will not receive US support or cooperation. In fact, the US is not a member of the ICC precisely because it does not want to see its soldiers or the authorities who command them ever face prosecution in The Hague. And without US participation, the presentation of the NZ side of the story would be incomplete at best, and thereby not a full account of what went down that fateful night. It is hard to mount an investigation or a prosecution, much less secure a conviction, without the participation of one of the principles involved. For a case to stand up in court a partial account of events is simply not enough without corroboration by others involved in the actions in question. This may be true for NZ courts as well as the ICC.

Even so, I am not sure that banking on US non-membership in the ICC is a winning strategy even if it adds to the costs and delays involved in establishing the truth and achieving justice for those needlessly harmed without cause. Refusal to participate in an ICC investigation could be worse for NZ’s reputation than agreeing to it and finding out that not all was as depicted by the NZDF version of event–even if war crimes were not committed.

The bottom line is that the government appears to be running scared with its quick acceptance of the NZDF clean up job. One video from a US helicopter and the NZDF report on the raid–a chronicle of events that leaves numerous questions unanswered, as pointed out by Selwyn Manning in the previous post–is all that it took to convince PM Bill English that all was hunky dory that night. Given that there were likely to be multiple camera angles and audio communications recorded during the raid by both the NZSAS as well as US forces for after-action de-briefings, the fact that just one served to convince the PM of the veracity of the NZDF account leaves me with only one simple conclusion with regard to Mr. English. In the words of Jack Nicholson playing a Marine Colonel under investigation for covering up a homicide at the Marine detachment stationed at Naval Base Guantanamo in the movie “A Few Good Men:”

YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

Guest Post by Selwyn Manning – Editor of EveningReport.nz.

KP Note: The issue of what the NZSAS did or did not do in Operation Burnham, a 2010 raid in Afghanistan that became the subject of the controversial book Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, must not be buried and forgotten by the next news cycle. The issues at stake go to the core of democratic civil-military relations: issues of accountability, transparency and civilian oversight of the armed forces. In the following guest post veteran journalist Selwyn Manning (formerly of Scoop and among other things co-founder of 36th Parallel Assessments) dissects the NZDF response to the allegations in the book and takes a close look at some important discrepancies in the official version of events. Readers are encouraged to carefully consider what he has uncovered.

There’s an overlooked aspect of the New Zealand Defence Force’s account of Operation Burnham that when scrutinised suggests a possible breach of international humanitarian law and laws relating to war and armed conflict occurred on August 22, 2010 in the Tirgiran Valley, Baghlan province, Afghanistan.

For the purpose of this analysis we examine the statements and claims of the Chief of New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), Lieutenant General Tim Keating, made before journalists during his press conference on Monday March 27, 2017. We also understand, that the claims put by the Lt. General form the basis of a briefing by NZDF’s top ranking officer to the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Bill English.

It appears the official account , if true, underscores a probable breach of legal obligations – not necessarily placing culpability solely on the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) commandoes on the ground, but rather on the officers who commanded their actions, ordered their movements, their tasks and priorities prior to, during, and after Operation Burnham.

*******

According to New Zealand Defence Force’s official statements Operation Burnham ‘aimed to detain Taliban insurgent leaders who were threatening the security and stability of Bamyan Province and to disrupt their operational network’. (ref. NZDF rebuttal)

We are to understand Operation Burnham’s objective was to identify, capture, or kill (should this be justified under NZDF rules of engagement), those insurgents who were named on a Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL) that NZDF intelligence suggested were responsible for the death of NZDF soldier Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell.

Lieutenant General Tim Keating, Chief of New Zealand Defence Force.

When delivering NZDF’s official account of Operation Burnham before media, Lieutenant General Tim Keating said:

    “After the attack on the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT), which killed Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, the NZPRT operating in Bamyan Province did everything it could to reduce the target profile of our people operating up the Shakera Valley and into the north-east of Bamyan Province.

“We adjusted our routine, reduced movements to an absolute minimum, maximised night driving, and minimised time on site in threat areas.

“The one thing the PRT [NZPRT] couldn’t do was to have an effect on the individuals that attacked Lieutenant O’Donnell’s patrol. For the first time, the insurgents had a major success — and they were well positioned to do so again.”

For the purpose of a counter-strike, intelligence was sought and Lt. General Keating said: “We knew in a matter of days from local and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) intelligence who had attacked our patrol [where and when Lt. O’Donnell was killed].”

The intelligence specified the villages where the alleged insurgents were suspected of coming from and Lt. General Keating said: “This group had previously attacked Afghan Security Forces and elements of the German and Hungarian PRTs.”

The New Zealand Government authorised permission for the Kabul-based NZSAS troops to be used in Operation Burnham.

“What followed was 14 days of reliable and corroborated intelligence collection that provided confirmation and justification for subsequent actions. Based on the intelligence, deliberate and detailed planning was conducted,” Lt. General Keating said.

Revenge, Keating said, was never a motivation. Rather, according to him, the concern was for the security of New Zealand’s reconstruction and security efforts in Bamyan province.

As stated above, Operation Burnham’s primary objective was to identify, capture or kill Taliban insurgent leaders named in the intelligence data.

We know, from the New Zealand Defence Force’s own account, Operation Burnham failed to achieve that goal.

Read the rest of this entry »

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