Posts Tagged ‘Authoritarianism’

In defence of public ostracism.

datePosted on 14:40, June 26th, 2018 by Pablo

Public confrontations between Trump officials and activists, ordinary citizens and at least one restaurant owner have reignited the debate about “civility” in political disagreement. The editorial boards of leading US newspapers and Democratic leaders have called for restraint and asked those with anti-Trump opinions to refrain from harassing or confronting Trump officials in the public space when the latter are in a private capacity (such as eating in a restaurant). They claim doing so will play into Trump’s hands by reinforcing the narrative that the “Left” is an unruly mob uninterested in the right to privacy and free speech.

That is nonsense.

This is no longer a situation where taking the moral-ethical “high road” when the opponent goes low is practically effective. The “high road” strategy has not worked in the US since the Reagan days, when Republicans adopted a “stop at nothing” approach to politics that eventually produced the Trump presidency. Time and time again Democrats and progressives have been trumped by a disloyal Rightwing armed with unsavoury and unethical tactics such as Swiftboating and race-baiting. The situation at present is an ethical nadir that calls for what game theorists define as a “tit for tat” strategy: open with a cooperative (read: civil) move, then repeat the opponent’s move (with a turn to cooperation by the opponent rewarded for it). When Trump was elected the Democrats and public at large waited to give him the benefit of the doubt and some political space to prove his opponents wrong. He responded by proving them right and turning the White House into a cesspit of incivility, aided and abetted by a coterie of surrogates, advisors and sycophants who all share his sociopathic tendencies. Thus the proper retort is to respond in like kind, albeit with a twist.

Let’s begin with the fact that the US “Left” or what passes for it is of the soft (non-violent) persuasion. For all the talk about Antifa and Trotskyites smashing things, the bulk of Left violence is the garden variety protest march-turned-small riot where either a few provocateurs try to incite a bigger riot by breaking windows, looting and/or assaulting police or opponents (because most of the “militant” Left rallies are in fact counter-protests against white supremacists and neo-Nazis); or the Left protestors engage with Rightists in physical confrontations using sticks, bottles, Mace, edged and other improvised weapons (the Right does in fact bring firearms to many protests and its adherents of course have used them on more than one occasion, but the majority of the Right-on-Left fights involve variants of basic hand weapons). There have been no assaults on Trump officials and no attempts on the lives of anyone in his administration.

The US Left is mostly about shouting slogans and making witty placards against the status quo; the US Right is mostly about threatening or carrying out violence in defence of racial and ethno-religious supremacy. So when it comes to civility or the lack thereof, it is not the Left that is the problem.

Then take the Trump administration itself, which is anything but “civil.” There are two dimensions to its incivility: its policies and its tone. Trump and minions like Sarah Huckabee Sanders regularly use insults, character assassination, dog whistles, stereotypes and slander to belittle and undermine opponents and critics (and allies!) at home and abroad. The list of such is far too long and readers will be all to familiar with them for me to recount here. This is an administration that thrives on the politics of personal attack and which regularly sets new lows when it comes to Executive discourse. In fact, the immediate response of both Sarah Sanders and Trump to her denial of service at a restaurant (where her presence was opposed by the majority of staff) was to use their official Twitter accounts to disparage the establishment and its owner. In effect, Trumpsters whining about being confronted in their private time is just a case of crocodile tears on the part of bullies unaccustomed to being personally called out on their behaviour.

Add to that its callous disregard for fundamental ethics on a number of fronts (conflicts of interest, disclosure of confidential material, use of taxpayer money for private pursuits), and what we have today is the most uncivil US administration ever. Heck, Trump makes George W. Bush look dignified and smart and Richard Nixon look honest and statesmanlike, so there never again can be an argument as to who is the worst US president of all time. If nothing else his record when it comes to incivility will be hard to beat.

Then there are the policies of the Trump administration and the ways in which they are implemented or attempted. The Muslim ban, the ban on transgender military service, the opening up of wild lands to fossil fuel exploration, the withdrawal from international treaties and agreements, the removal of protections for disabled people, the cutbacks in funding for special education, denial of climate change and removal of scientists from White House offices, the edict to engage in forced separation of undocumented immigrant families–these and many more policies are underpinned by overtly racist, classist, misogynist, xenophobic and authoritarian attitudes that reek of contempt for the institutional process, the meaning of public service and the basic democratic principle of public accountability.

More importantly, Trump administration policies are mean in intent and consequence. They are designed to hurt rather than help people. They are designed to use the power of the federal government to punish and oppress outlier groups and reward and advantage insiders. They are blunt instruments of malevolence aimed at pounding the body politic into complying with a vision of society based on hierarchy, hate, privilege, stratification and self-interest/greed. In word and deed, Trump and his cabal hurt tens of thousands of people on a daily basis and make no apologies for it.

So what is so civil about that? And why should we be civil to them in return? Is not staying silent in the face of official incivility submission or acquiescence to it? I believe that it is.

Instead of silence, I think that we should make things very personal to every single Trump minion, surrogate, spin doctor, media acolyte, political donor and corporate toady. The message, delivered up close and personal, should be that the policies of hate and greed have no place in a secular cosmopolitan society and the politics of personal attack can work two ways. In this case the attack is not physical even if confrontational: the Trump entourage need to understand and feel in their personal lives the discomfort of threat and opprobrium. The repudiation of Trump policy needs to be made personal to them because both the administration lackeys as well as the foot soldiers implementing their policies believe that they are personally immune from liability or accountability.

Those at the top believe that the office of the presidency protects them from personal reproach, and those at the bottom believe that anonymity protects them from individual retribution. If we cannot confront the originators of bad policy in the public space and their personal lives and if we do not equally confront the enablers and implementors of uncivil policies, where is dissent and opposition heard? The courts, which are increasingly stacked with Trump appointees? Congress, where both chambers are controlled by the entity formally known as the Republican Party but which is now a Trump coat-tail and rubber-stamp machine?

No, the time for civility ended a while ago. The truth is that “civility” in political discourse has been eroding since the Reagan era, mostly thanks to the antics of the media and Political Right. So the calls for Left civility are both hypocritical and self-defeating because they work to silence those who wish to stand up to political bullying while ignoring the bullies themselves.

Mind you, I am not talking about physically attacking people or confronting their dependent children in any way. I am not advocating people go out and deliberately harass  Trump administration officials. What I am defending is the practice of calling out those responsible for despicable policies regardless of place. If we are going to ostracise or “name and shame” sexual offenders, local fraudsters, animal abusers and assorted other low-lifes and miscreants who are not in the public eye, why should we defer from doing so to those that are?

The best way to drive home to Trumpsters the fact that their actions have negative consequences is to make things personal understanding that timing and place need to be factored into the equation in order to be effective (e.g. yelling at people outside of church or at kid’s sporting events may be counter-productive while a quiet or polite rebuke in a parking lot may make the point better. There are plenty of ways to be direct and personal without seeming creepy or unhinged). It is not as if these agents of misery are constantly exposed to public wrath. They have enough time to enjoy the bubble and echo chamber that is their political support base in and outside of the institutions of office. They have the option to defend themselves via argument or escape, and many have bodyguards to buffer them from physical aggression. So let’s stop this nonsense about civility and lets make things real: in order to gain respect one has to give respect. In order to be treated with civility one must be civil as well. And if one disrespects entire groups of people and ruins the lives of thousands while catering to the baser instincts of the minority that are one’s political adherents, then better be prepared to hear about it in person.

Because civility is not about silence or submission. It is about consent. And when consent is lost, then civility includes the right to make personal to those who rule the reasons why.

A return to the banality of evil.

datePosted on 13:17, June 20th, 2018 by Pablo

When Hannah Arendt wrote about the “banality of evil” in Nazi Germany, she was referring not to the leaders but to the thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, civil servants, cops, tax collectors and everyday citizens who went along with the Nazi project or simply said that they were “following orders,” “doing their jobs” or being “good citizens.” The Nuremberg trails put paid to those excuses.

Today in the US we have a variant on the theme. It may not quite be holocaust in size, but the forced separation of children from undocumented parents in order to use them as pawns in Drumpf/GOP attempts to extract Democrat concessions on immigration reform (pay for the wall, etc.) is abhorrent nevertheless. And while attention rightfully is focused on Drumpf and his minions, my question is this: who are the people who are enforcing this wretched policy? These are the people who take the evil abstract of forced family separation and turn it into executable action via bureaucratic procedures and regulations (e.g. wearing of surgical gloves when handling detainees, using female agents to process women, providing water and x amount of calories via solid food at regular intervals, etc.). Who are the border patrol, local law enforcement and homeland security agents and private contractors who are doing the actual separation and detention of children in cages? Are they doing this because they agree with Drumpf, are racists themselves or are just plain psychopathic? Or are they going to tell us that they are only following orders and doing their jobs?

Until we make those carrying out this atrocity as personally responsible as Drumpf, Sessions, et.al, we will continue to see the steady undermining of the moral foundations of the Republic. Make no mistake about it: these enforcers of the morally reprehensible are neighbours, friends, family members and church goers who go about their lives as if all was normal. And that is exactly what Arendt was describing. It is the banality of such evil that eventually makes it normal.

Less NZ readers think that it cannot happen here, just hark back to the Police invasion of Nicky Hager’s privacy in search for the elusive “Rawshark” source. You may recall that I wrote a post about how the cops used Customs, Immigration and airline companies to obtain the personal data of thousands of passengers who flew on certain dates between Auckland and a foreign country where the Police suspected Rawshark was vacationing. None of this was done under warrant, but instead, just as in the case the banks that gave up Hager’s financial records so readily, they did so willingly upon request. All of those involved will defend their actions as cooperating with the Police but in fact they were under no obligation to do so without a warrant. But they did.

We now learn that a private security firm has a hand in glove relationship with NZ public agencies in spying on people who pose no threat to national security, and that in fact the private security firm may have business steered to it by a NZ intelligence agency in spite of the obvious–or at least appearance of–conflict of interest. Here as well we have a case of people just doing as they are told without consideration of the ethics or morality about what they are being told to do, some in pursuit of profit and some for reasons known only to them. They are following orders, doing their jobs, chasing leads and tip-offs without consideration of the fact that what may be legally permissible (or at least not outlawed) may not be morally or ethically proper.

These, in sum, are Kiwi examples of evil gone banal. And there are bound to be others, so perhaps the abomination that it is the Drumpf policy of separating undocumented asylum-seeking families at the southern US border should serve as a reminder to New Zealanders as to the depths to which a nation can plunge if it allows that evil banality to become the new normal.

The political rope-a-dope.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Autumn of the Patriarch.

datePosted on 14:00, August 21st, 2016 by Pablo

Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday a few days ago. During the public celebration of his milestone he sat in a specialised wheel chair between his brother Raul and Nicolas Maduro, president of Venezuela. He is physically frail but his mind is still sharp, as evidenced in a (rather self-serving) editorial he wrote in which he praised his revolution and denounced US president Obama and the thawing of relations between the US and Cuba (which his brother, now president of Cuba after Fidel’s abdication due to illness, helped engineer). As part of the month long celebrations of his birth, he is being gifted a 90 meter long cigar, a world record for “puros” of any type. Bill Clinton should be so lucky.

Yet, I felt sadness and some pity at watching Fidel in his autumn years. Like Garcia Marquez’s Colonel, he is a man of the past wrapped in memories of what could have been. A man who once was an icon of the Latin American Left, worthy successor to Jose Marti, comrade-in-arms of Che Guevara, patron of the Angolan and Mozambiquian revolutions, inspiration to insurrectionists world-wide, cunning adversary of the US for over five decades and arguably the best poker player the world after he bluffed the US into thinking that he would rather be incinerated rather than relent to US demands during the Cuban Missile Crisis (the USSR eventually agreed to withdraw its missiles from Cuba over Castro’s objections in exchange for a US withdrawal of surface to surface missile batteries in Turkey).

But rather than the imposing physical specimen that towered over so many of his emulators both in height and intellect and who attracted the attention of the rich, famous and powerful during his heyday, here sat a stooped, gaunt, hollow faced elder with visible hand tremors and a certifiable fool sitting on his left side. In fact, if Fidel represented the best hopes and aspirations of a previous generation of revolutionaries, Nicolas Maduro represents the terminal decline of the contemporary “Pink Tide” of elected neo-socialists that emerged during the 2000s and who, with few exceptions like the Frente Amplio governments of Uruguay, have been proven to be no less authoritarian, no less corrupt, and equally if not more incompetent than their capitalist predecessors. In some cases, these Pink Tide regimes were not so much socialist as they were kleptocratic, populist-corporatist or sold-out to the corporate interests they ostensibly opposed. And like Fidel, they have fallen on hard times.

Other than Maduro, no foreign leaders of note attended Fidel’s birthday party (even the Sandinista government of Nicaragua, a country in which many Cubans spilled blood in the overthrow of Somoza and defense of the Sandinista Revolution, did not send a high level delegation). The rich and powerful were absent. In a sense, Fidel’s decline mirrors the struggles of the Cuban Revolution after the USSR withdrew its economic support for it. More tellingly, it symbolises the squandered opportunity of the Pink Tide.

The emergence of elected Left regimes in Latin America during the 2000s was a moment of great hope for progressives in the hemisphere. It followed a wave of so-called neoliberal, market-friendly economic reforms undertaken by a variety of right and populist regimes such as those of Menem in Argentina and Fujimori in Peru during the previous decades. As the negative consequences of neoliberalism began to impact on basic social indicators such as income inequality and child poverty, and could no longer be hidden by creative accounting and statistical manipulation, a window of ideological opportunity opened for the Latin American Left. They were the earliest and fiercest critics of the so-called “Washington Consensus” behind the adoption of neo-liberal reforms.  They were the academics, activists, organisers and politicians who marshalled protests, demonstrations and other forms of passive and active resistance to the implementation of market-driven edicts. They were the outlets through which the dislocating effects and social impact of the “more market” approaches were highlighted. And they had one more thing: structural opportunity in the form of a global commodities boom.

With the rise of China as an economic powerhouse in competition and/or concert with other established and new powers (e.g. the US, India), the late 1990s and early 2000s saw the demand for commodities–primary goods, raw materials and especially minerals, metals and fossil fuels–skyrocket. As prices soared on the back of increased demand previously unexploited regions became the subjects of concerted interest by Chinese and other investors. What already existed in terms of commodities–oil in Venezuela and Ecuador, natural gas and oil in Brazil, copper in Chile, even soy, maize and beef in Argentina and Uruguay–saw redoubled investment in extractive export industries. A boom time ensued.

At the turn of the century Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela elected or re-elected neo-socialist governments (El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru did as well but their tenures were short-lived). Every one of these countries benefited from the commodities boom. The question was not so much how to generate public money surpluses but in what measure and how to make use of them. But, just like Soviet subsidies gave Fidel’s Cuba an unnatural sense of comfort and inflated standard of living, the commodities boom was a temporary boost rather than a long term panacea for the region’s problems, depending on what was done with the surpluses generated by the golden moment.

With the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, pretty much everywhere else the preferred combination was public spending on popular projects mixed with epic corruption, graft and theft. To be sure, health, education, welfare and housing services improved in the early years of these regimes and social indicators improved relative to the neo-liberal baselines. Income redistribution downwards was accomplished via generous benefits packages provided to the lower classes. Public services such as transport, electricity and gas were heavily subsidised by the State. So were basic food staples. Public works schemes generated employment. But after a while the money provided for such projects began to run out as the demand for commodities stabilised and prices began to drop.

Worse yet, what most of these regimes did not do was invest constructively in long-term productive capacity and infrastructure. Instead, they threw money at popular short term projects and grandiose schemes such as building sports arenas and stadiums. They pushed increased export commodity dependency rather than diversification of the productive apparatus. In parallel, they siphoned off millions in public funds to friends, cronies and family of government officials, when not to themselves. The combination was one of immediate gain (for them and their supporters) at the expense of long-term sustainability, and now those chickens have come home to roost.

In places like Argentina under Cristina Fernandez de Kichner, corruption was elevated to an art form (in a country where it was already a highly developed practice). In places like Brazil and Ecuador corruption was an integral part of the public-private nexus in construction and fossil fuel exploration. But it is in Venezuela where the full depths of the decline are seen. Even before Hugo Chavez died, his “revolution” had turned into a feeding trough for the Boliviarian elites. Billions of dollars were provided to creating anti-imperialist alliances such as ALBA, the anti-capitalist trading bloc that was supposed  to counter MERCOSUR and which never got off the ground. Billions in subsidised oil was sent to Cuba to prop up the Castro regime as a form of anti-US solidarity. After Chavez died, under Maduro, Venezuela has become an economic basket case where shortages of basic staples and power outages are the norm and where both government services and private industry have nearly ground to a halt (in a country with one of the world’s largest oil reserves). In Venezuela and elsewhere there was a conspicuous lack of foresight or public planning. Few sovereign wealth funds were created to save during times of plenty for the inevitable lean times that come with the boom and bust cycles of the commodities trade. Once the lean times came, the response of the neo-socialist Left was to blame anyone but themselves and to grab as much of the dwindling public reserves for their own benefit.

In some cases, the actions of disloyal oppositions and foreign powers hastened the authoritarian response and increased self-enrichment of Leftist leaders. This was very much true in Venezuela. In other cases the sheer weight of historical patterns of political patronage and private nepotism wore down the resolve of Left politicians to resist the temptation to do things “as usual.” That was and is the case of Brazil. In Chile the strength of the military-business network has impeded anything but incremental reform by the most determined Left governments. In some cases (Bolivia and Ecuador) long tenures in power slowly insulated Left governments from the masses and allowed for the development of cultures of impunity in which public officials were no longer responsive to the commonweal and instead focused on maintaining themselves in power. In virtually all cases, again with the exceptions of Chile and Uruguay, public officials treated national treasuries as individual and collective ATMs.

In some countries Left governments have been electorally replaced by Right ones (Argentina and Peru). In Brazil the Left PT government has crumbled under the weight of corruption scandals and succumbed to what amounted to a constitutional coup carried out by no less corrupt right-wingers. In several others such as Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, the Left continues to rule, however sclerotically and increasingly autocratically. In Chile the Concertacion government of Michelle Bachelet that preceded and replaced the one-term Right government of Sebastian Pinera is more establishment-friendly centrist than anything else (because it has to be in order to keep the coup plotters at bay). Only in Uruguay has the Left, in the form of the Frente Amplio governments of Tabare Vazquez and Jose Mujica, been true to its socialist and democratic principles.

This is just an broad overview. The extent of mismanagement, incompetence, ineptitude and outright criminality undertaken by the neo-socialist Left when governing in Latin American during the last decade and a half has been astounding. The hard truth is that the Latin American Left had its golden windows of opportunity in the 2000s and with some notable exceptions squandered it all.

In a sense, that is a fate they share with Fidel. Had he passed from the scene in the 80s or even 90s he would still be revered in many progressive circles. But he has lingered too long, well after the contradictions and frailty of his revolution have been exposed. In fact, an entire generation of Cubans have been raised in the “special times” of austerity and deprivation that have marked the last 25 years of Communist rule in Cuba and which has forced his brother to open the national economy and seek rapprochement with the US. This has made that generation much less committed to revolutionary ideals and much more committed to materially improving themselves. As an old friend said to me upon returning from Cuba: “Ideology goes out the window when you are hungry.”

Worse yet, it now appears true that Fidel was less a committed revolutionary as he was a Cuban nationalist who used the context of the Cold War to bolster his rule and burnish his credentials as a committed internationalist. Mutatis mutandis, that is a trait shared by many neo-socialists of the Pink Tide: they were and are socialists more in name than in deed, and are more interested in enshrining their rule than in truly re-making their countries into viable socialist (or social democratic) societies in which political power is exercised by the people for the people. Revolutionary rhetoric is no substitute for revolutionary praxis and is a poor cover for political and economic mismanagement.

I say this with much regret. One never expects the Latin American Right (or pretty much any Right) to do anything other than enrich themselves and their cronies. But one certainly expects that self-professed socialists will behave differently, especially more fairly and less venally, when in power. Many people, myself included, wanted to believe in the promise of the Pink Tide just as we previously wanted to believe in the transformational impact of the Cuban Revolution. And yet, like the neo-liberals before them, the majority of Pink Tide neo-socialists have been exposed as charlatans, thieves and frauds.

On those grounds Fidel has one thing over them. He may not have accomplished all of the things that he promised that he would, and his “revolution” may have been much less than he promised and more dependent than he admits, but at least he has remained true to himself in his declining years. That cannot be said for the likes of the Boliviarians and their erstwhile regional comrades.

That is why I felt sadness when I watched his birthday celebrations. In the autumn of his life, el Comandante is condemned to the unique solitude that goes with being the last of his kind.

PS: Looks like I am not the only one who thinks that the Pink Tide failed to deliver on its promise (although this author puts a more positive and hopeful spin on things).

The failed coup was Turkish democracy’s last stand.

datePosted on 08:24, July 20th, 2016 by Pablo

I have observed with bemusement some of the commentary (including here at KP) that views the failed coup in Turkey as a “victory for democracy.”  As someone who has lived through several coups in Latin America and who has academically studied, professionally written, and worked in developing policy for the US government on issues of comparative civil-military relations (including how to address coups), and who has written at length on the differences between coups d’etat, putsches, revolts and revolutions in the Middle East and elsewhere (some of it here on KP), I find it hard to believe that otherwise sensible commentators (with a notable exception) would think that anything good can come of the coup’s failure. This was not a simple matter of Turkish good guys versus bad guys, and the sequels to the violence will not be pleasant but will be long-lasting.

In any event, this week the Herald editorial board wrote favourably of the outcome in Turkey. My colleague Kate Nicholls (a comparative politics scholar) and I were disappointed by it and penned a response. It looks like the Herald will not publish the critique, so here it is:

As students of comparative civil-military relations, we were surprised to read the Herald’s July 19 editorial “Coup’s failure hopeful sign for democracy.” Unlike the Herald’s editors we see no positives resulting from the aborted coup. Instead we foresee the death throes of a painstakingly crafted secular, albeit imperfect, democracy, that was the crowning achievement of Kemal Atuturk and which has been under siege since the election of former Istanbul mayor Recep Erdogan to the Prime Ministry in 2003 and Presidency in 2014.

The cornerstones of the Kemalist vision of Turkish democracy were an apolitical professional military, an independent secular judiciary, and a multiparty electoral system characterized by a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.  Granted, Ataturk’s nationalism, which bound the country together in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, often worked to stifle free speech and repress ethnic minorities, notably the Kurds. Turkish democracy has also always been “guarded”, meaning that the military has on occasion acted as unelected veto-player. Yet since the rise of Erdogan to power 16 years ago, things have gotten incrementally but steadily worse.

Since he assumed office, Erdogan has undermined the judiciary by appointing ideological cronies and firing or arresting independent minded jurists; sacked hundreds of senior military officers and replaced them with loyalists; introduced mandatory Islamic Studies into military curricula; censored, banned and/or arrested non-supplicant media outlets and reporters; rigged electoral rules favour of his own party; and instituted constitutional amendments designed to perpetrate his rule and re-impose Sharia precepts on public institutions (something not seen since the days of the Ottomans). He has enriched himself and his friends by using public construction projects as sources of political patronage and illicit gain. All in all, he has destroyed the promise of a moderate democratic Islamism that brought him to power in the first place. Using populist methods to reaffirm his electoral popularity with the rural and urban poor, Erdogan has been steadily eroding Turkish democracy from within.

Erdogan has also proven himself to be diplomatically incompetent. From a position of stability as the regional power in the Levant, under his guidance Turkey now finds itself at war with adversaries on two borders, estranged from the US, Russia, Egypt and Israel as well as the Gulf Arab states, at odds with Europe over a host of political and economic issues, and confronted by a rising tide of domestic terrorism. His tenure has been ruinous for Turkish aspirations for European Union membership and Turkey’s increasingly unfavorable international reputation was cemented by its loss to New Zealand and Spain in the 2014 elections for a UN Security Council temporary seat for the 2015-17 term.

Erdogan has blamed the coup attempt on the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose power base is to be found amongst the more educated and liberal sectors of Turkish society and whose brand of Islam appears more compatible with the older secular nationalist vision. Whether Gulen was really behind the coup attempt remains to be seen, but there are reasons to suspect the President’s version of the coup’s origins, not least that the plot was very poorly planned and doomed to failure from the outset. For example, the plotters did not grab Erdogan or take over media outlets before announcing the takeover; did not move to censor social media in order to deny Erdogan and his loyalists an alternative communications platform; did not have more than a brigade’s worth of infantry troops (mostly conscripts) trying to control the entire country; and did not have enough armour or aviation on their side to impose emergency rule. As with many failed coups it was led by junior rather than senior officers, although that is because the senior ranks are full of Erdogan loyalists. One thing about modern day coups is that those leading them have a wealth of history to learn from, learning that does not seem to be much in evidence here in spite of Turkey’s history with previous coups and the examples provided by a host of countries elsewhere.

When it comes to the future of Turkish democracy, whether the coup was instigated from Pennsylvania or just a bit closer to the President’s own office is in many ways irrelevant. Erdogan is already using the events of the past week to further purge the military of secularist factions with the arrest of at least 6000 military personnel (including 130 officers), and has broadened the retaliatory sweep by suspending 8000 police officers, 15,000 public educators and 3000 members of the judiciary (all of whom are suspected of being opposed to his Islamicisation project for the Turkish state). He has moved to reintroduce the death penalty—a move which both appeals to baser populist tendencies and will be yet another setback in Turkey’s fifty-year long negotiation over accession to the European Union. None of this is supportive of democracy.

One of the major consequences of all this will be the reconfiguration of the Turkish military as a praetorian guard rather than professional organization. Based on Roman Imperial Guards, praetorian militaries are those that are heavily politicized, intervene in national politics, engage in domestic repression and serve the government of the day rather than the commonweal. Professional militaries, in contrast, are apolitical and non-partisan, focused on external defense and serve the nation as a whole regardless of who is in government.

What prompts a military to move from professional to a praetorian posture is a combination of push (internal) and pull (external) factors. The former include horizontal (between armed services) and vertical (between ranks) cleavages as well as resistance to government interference in military affairs. The latter include government corruption, stalemate, mishandling of security matters or inability to manage threats to national security, civil society pleading for intervention and loss of business confidence.

All of these factors were at play in Turkey’s latest coup. Nearly 300 people died in inter-service clashes. Erdogan loyalists swarmed under-manned and lightly armed soldiers in the streets of Ankara and Istanbul. Seeing that, civilian coup supporters stayed at home. Cynics will note that, in spite of its apparent near-success and the intense violence directed at loyalist-controlled security agencies and parliament, the nature of the undertaking suggested not so much a well-planned and militarily precise operation in defense of democracy as it did an opportunistic manipulation of discontent within military ranks in order to justify a purge of the discontented.

Whether the coup was done as a last ditch defense of the Kemalist democratic legacy or not, the outcome is now clear: Turkey has veered hard towards outright dictatorship with Erdogan as the primary beneficiary. The President’s announcement that he will now “clean all state institutions of the virus” that led to the coup is an ominous sign of things to come.

PS: The Herald was kind enough to publish a short version of the original essay on July 21, 2016.

The destruction of brand Trump.

datePosted on 11:37, March 13th, 2016 by Pablo

As readers may be aware I am delighted by the Trump candidacy because it is destroying the Republican Party and will pave the way for an epic defeat in the November general elections. Not only will the GOP lose the presidential race because none of its candidates will be able to muster the votes needed to overcome the Democratic advantage (be it Hillary or Bernie who lead the ticket). It could well lose control of Congress on the negative coattails of the presidential race (the entire House and 1/3 of the Senate are up for grabs, with the Democrats needing to win 4-5 current Republican seats in order to gain control of the Senate). It does not matter if Trump is the GOP presidential candidate or if he or another Republican go independent in the wake of the convention, which itself promises to be a bloodbath. The vast majority of swing voters and independents, who tend to vote on the Left in any event, will be galvanised to vote against whatever the Republicans have to offer, Trump in particular. For all his bluster about bringing out new voters on the Republican side, what he really has done is bring out new voters on both sides–most of whom are against him. As a result, the GOP is doomed and could well split into Tea bagger/populist and “moderate” right parties in the wake of what is looming as an electoral  catastrophe of historical proportions.

A tipping point has been reached this week with the escalation of protests against Trump at his rallies and the retaliatory violence of his supporters and campaign staff and security against those who dare confront him on his xenophobic bigotry and inflammatory rhetoric (and one has to ask why local law enforcement and the Secret Service act as his praetorian guard when removing peaceful protesters at his behest. After all, they are not in his employ and are not legally authorised to detain, handcuff and arrest people exercising their right to protest in public spaces just because he wants them forcibly removed).

The cancellation of a Chicago rally because of protests will only encourage more of them, and they will be increasingly large and organised in nature. That in turn will enrage Trump, who does not have the good sense (or even basic ability) to moderate his venom, which will bring out the full nut case element in his support base (which has already started to appear more and more frequently). Unfortunately, it is now a very real possibility that someone will be killed or seriously injured at a Trump rally, and the perpetrators will be his supporters, not his opponents.

When that happens, the wheels will come off the Trump political cart.

By then the damage to the GOP “brand” will have been irretrievably done. But what I find just as wonderful is that Brand Trump itself is now irreversibly damaged as well. However illusory, it used to represent luxury, opulence, quality, style and the excess that comes with success. It had global recognition. It was synonymous with capitalist high rolling, only in part because of his obsession with casinos.

In the wake of this presidential campaign, that image has been replaced by something less illusory and much darker. “Trump” is now synonymous with racism, xenophobia, buffoonery, demagoguery, narcism, sociopathy, chauvinism, misogyny, war-mongering, bullying, cheating, lying, senseless violence, stupidity–the list goes on. Whatever people may have done by way of word association with the name Trump in the past, my bet is that the first thing that now comes to mind when his name is mentioned is some of the negative terms mentioned above.  In fact, the word Trump may well become an adjective or verb, as in “that old white dude went all Trump on me when I said that Obama was not a Kenyan,” or “that reactionary fool is just plain Trumped in the head.” It could even be used as a noun, for example, as in “Trumpster:” n.: an idiot, fool, dolt, ignoramus, numbskull, someone who is gullible, slow on the uptake, blindly naive or prejudiced in the extreme.

His tarnished brand may survive in the US, perhaps in red neck resort destinations like the Florida panhandle and the coastal Deep South and/or parts of Appalachia. But many Americans, and not just “ethnic” Americans or Democrats, will shun his products, services and anything with his name on it. There may be boycotts and protests organised against them. And with the possible exception of Putin’s Russia (given the mutual admiration society he runs with Trump), as a global brand it is finished. Think of the Arabs, Latin Americans, Asians and even Europeans that Trump has scapegoated and insulted. Any current or potential Trump business partner or investor now has to wonder if they will be tainted by association with him and whether their business will suffer as a result. Given daily revelations of his less than salubrious past business dealings, profound dishonesty and myriad failures that have ruined others much more than it has hurt him,what foreign governments other than those of tinpot dictators are going to want a bar of him as an investment partner? Even better, increased scrutiny of his business dealings may well result in criminal charges being laid against him, which will only add to the tarnish on the brand.

The hard fact is that the Trump campaign will prove deleterious for Trump business holdings, which explains why his managerial minions, “the best people” in his words,  are currently in the process of putting legal and PR distance on him. The trouble for them, however, remains embedded in that ubiquitous name.

This is the silver lining in the Trump cloud. Not only has he exposed the ugly side of US politics. He has exposed himself and his illusory brand in doing so. He is taking the GOP down along with him, and neither it or his brand will survive the fall intact.

That is truly a good thing.

Fiji’s strategic pivot.

datePosted on 15:13, January 27th, 2016 by Pablo

Last week Fiji took delivery of a shipment of Russian weapons that were “donated” by Russia pursuant to a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in February 2015. The Fijians say that the weapons are needed by Fijian peacekeepers in places like the Middle East because what they currently have in their inventory is obsolete. The shipment includes small arms (squad) weapons, two trucks, tear gas, other non-lethal munitions and possibly one or more helicopters. The shipment will formally be unveiled in February in front of a Russian delegation that will include military trainers who will remain in Fiji to instruct Fijian military personnel in their proper usage.

Fijian opposition figures believe that the shipment is illegal because it was not approved by Parliament and that it could be used against domestic opponents of the current, military-backed government. Let me briefly outline the issues.

The shipment is perfectly legal as it is not part of a Treaty that needs parliamentary ratification. Plus, it is a “donation” of military aid so it does not need parliamentary approval.

The opposition is correct to be concerned about the “dual use” potential of the weapons. Squad weapons, tear gas and non-lethal munitions can be used in peacekeeping but can also be used as instruments of crowd control at home. Given the Fijian Military Forces history, that is a very real possibility.

The arms shipment could trigger an arms race with Tonga, which also has a military and is a rival of Fiji. The Tongans are not likely to view the shipment kindly even if it does not specifically include naval equipment. Squad weapons can and are used by navies as a matter of routine, and the introduction of military helicopters into a regional rivalry is bound to cause alarm in the Kingdom.

Although Fijian military inventories may well be obsolete (meaning Vietnam era US weapons), most UN peacekeeping missions are armed by the UN using NATO-standard equipment. That includes small arms and troop carriers used in “blue helmet” operations.  Thus the claim that the Russian arms are needed for peacekeeping is debatable at best.

The MOU with Russia also outlines military educational exchanges. These follow on a similar program with the Chinese military (PLA). The Chinese also have funded and undertaken numerous infrastructure projects such as port dredging and road building that have a parallel “dual use” potential: they can be used for civilian and military purposes alike.

Given the above, it is reasonable to speculate that the Chinese and/or Russians may receive forward basing rights in Fiji in the not to distant future. Under the “Looking North” policy Fiji has clearly pivoted away from its traditional Western patrons (Australia, NZ and the US) and towards others that are less concerned about the status of Fijian democracy (such as it is, and it is not very much). Given these weapons transfers plus bilateral military education and training exercises with China and Russia, the path is cleared for the two countries to use Fiji as a means of projecting (especially maritime) power in the South Pacific. The Chinese are already doing so, with Chinese naval ships doing regular ports of call in Suva. After years of neglect, the Russian Pacific fleet has resumed long-range patrols. So the stage is set for a deepening of military ties with a basing agreement for one or both.

The Chinese and Russians are enjoying some of their best bilateral relations in decades. It is therefore possible that they may be working in coordinated, cooperative or complementary fashion when it comes to their overtures to the Fijians. Both seek tourism opportunities as well as preferential access to fisheries in and around Fijian territorial waters, so their non-military interests converge in that regard, which may limit the regional competition between them.

It is clear that post-election Fiji has moved from a “guarded” democracy in which the military acts as a check on civilian government to a soft authoritarian regime in which the executive branch supersedes and subordinates the legislature and judiciary with military connivance. Instead of going from a “hard” dictatorship to a “hard” democracy, Fiji has moved  from a “hard” dictatorship to a “soft” one (for those who know Spanish and the regime transitions literature, the move was from a “dictadura” to a “dictablanda” rather than to a “democradura”).

Some of this is by constitutional design (since the military bureaucratic regime dictated the current constitution prior to the 2014 elections), while other aspects of the slide back towards dictatorship are de facto rather than de jure (such as the speakers’ order to reduce the amount of days parliament can sit. The speaker is a member of the ruling party yet holds a position that is supposed to be apolitical). Then there are the strict restrictions on press freedom and freedom of political participation to consider. Attacks on the Methodist Church, arrests of civil society activists and claims of coup plotting by expats and local associates contribute to concerns about the state of governmental affairs. Add to that the fact that the first Police Commissioner after the election resigned after military interference in his investigation of police officers implicated in torture, and then was replaced by a military officer (against constitutional guarantees of police and military independence) while the policemen were given military commissions (which insulated them from prosecution thanks to provisions in the 2014 constitution), and one gets the sense that Fiji is now a democracy in name only.

None of this bothers the Russians or the Chinese, both of whom resisted the imposition of sanctions on Fiji after the 2006 coup (to include vetoing UN Security Council resolutions barring Fiji from peacekeeping operations).

All in all, the outlook is two-fold, with one trend a continuation and the other one new. Fiji is once again becoming authoritarian in governance, this time under electoral guise and a facade of constitutionalism. In parallel it has decisively turned away from the West when it comes to its diplomatic and military alignments. This turn is a direct result of the failed sanctions regime imposed on Fiji after the 2006 coup, which was too porous and too shallow to have the impact on Fiji that was hoped for at the time of imposition. The result is a greatly diminished diplomatic influence and leverage on the part of Australia, New Zealand and (to a lesser extent) the US and the rise of China, India and Russia as Fiji’s major diplomatic interlocutors. Factor in Fiji’s disdain for the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) and its continued attempt to fashion the Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG) as a counter to it, and the makings of a regional transitional moment are clear.

The sum result of this is that the strategic balance in the South Pacific is clearly in flux. Given the US “pivot” to Asia and the reassertion of its security ties with Australia and New Zealand, that is bound to result in increased diplomatic tensions and gamesmanship in the Western Pacific in the years to come.

This week I attended a talk by Kiwi journalist Yasmine Ryan, currently based in Tunis. Yasmine previously worked for al-Jazeera and now freelances from her Tunisian base. Her talk was about the state of affairs in the Arab world, and more specifically, North Africa.

She had many interesting things to say but I garnered three main points from her talk. First, the the so-called Arab Spring has failed to open Arab politics in any meaningful way. Second, levels of corruption in the Arab world are so high and so pervasive that reform is virtually impossible, especially when foreign interests back the entrenched power elites. Third, state capacity (measured by public infrastructural development, enforcement of norms beyond simple repression and provision of goods and services) is woefully lacking throughout the region, something that contributes to pervasive discontent amongst disempowered groups.

Her bottom line was that although Tunisia is touted as an Arab Spring success story, it is in fact not and yet is the best of a sorry lot of post-dictatorial regimes now governing in North Africa.

As Yasmine spoke, I found myself pondering her use of words. She referred to the Tunisian “revolution” and to the “democratisation” of Arab politics. Her use of these terms reflects standard journalistic practice although she knows well that nothing of the sort has happened in North Africa. Let me explain why.

“Revolutions” properly conceived are popular uprisings that lead to the armed overthrow of the state and the imposition of a paradigmatic change on society under a new political regime in the wake of the overthrow. The first key to revolutionary success is victory over the repressive apparatus, either as a result of combat or because the repressive apparatus switches its allegiances to the new sovereign contenders. The second key to revolutionary success is the scope of paradigmatic change covering political society, civil society and the economic structure of the nation-state. Needless to say, none of this happened as a result of the so-called Arab Spring.

So what did happen? Well, if revolution does not eventuate and democracy does not obtain, then other outcomes are possible. The regime being challenged can use its repressive superiority to reassert its authority and crack down on dissent, thereby quashing the seeds of popular uprising. This occurred in Bahrain, although it took Saudi Arabian troops to help repress the mostly Shiia uprising against the Sunni elite in that country. To a lesser extent it occurred in the 2009-10 election protests and the 2011-12 Arab Spring-inspired “Day of Rage” protests in Iran.

Another alternative outcome is a civil war where the challenged regime is forced into an armed struggle with rebel groups or in which the old regime is overthrown but new power contenders fight each other in order to establish their claim to being the new sovereign. The former is happening in Syria and the latter is happening in Libya.  Iraq is a variation on this, with foreign intervention rather than popular unrest being the gateway (if not cause) for post-authoritarian internecine violence marshalled along sectarian lines.

A third option is for the authoritarian regime being challenged to engage in what is known as a “passive revolution.” “Passive revolution” is where the regime elite adopts cosmetic changes and engages in reform-mongering to appease popular discontent but does not fundamentally alter the power elite or the institutional bases of their power.  One of the cosmetic changes is electioneering rather than democratisation (which involves more than elections and encompasses institutional, social and economic life). This, sadly, is what has happened in Tunisia after the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and in Egypt after the respective ousters of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi. In both cases the power elite underpinning the ousted authoritarian leaders regrouped under an electoral facade that allowed them to cloak their rule in a mantle of “democratic” legitimacy. In Egypt’s case the scenario had a twist in that Morsi was allowed to become the first freely elected president in Egyptian history, but when his Muslim Brotherhood government pushed its Islamicist-backed constitutional project and Morsi granted himself unlimited executive powers not subject to judicial or parliamentary review, they were deposed in a military coup. The leader of the coup and then head of the Egyptian military, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president of Egypt.

However, for a passive revolution to work it must, along with continuing to selectively repress dissent, deliver goods otherwise not obtained by the discontented masses. Be it as a short term or longer term strategy, the passive revolutionary approach is more than political window dressing because it hinges on giving the appearance of progressive change by providing public goods and services, and material benefits, that previously were unavailable. Yet, in Egypt as well as Tunisia, none of that has occurred because of rampant corruption, lack of state capacity, and an absence of economic opportunity under the power elites that ruled before the regime changes and who continue to rule today. What has occurred is the resumption of repression of those who wish to push for a further and more substantive political opening.

This means that the root causes of popular discontent remain unaddressed, which makes the passive revolutionary approach inherently weak. It is akin to putting a sticking plaster on an arterial bleed–it may staunch some short term dissent but it cannot contain the surge of discontent over the long term.

But there is a twist to the story. It turns out that Tunisia has supplied the largest contingent of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. Egypt also has proved to be a fertile recruiting ground for jihadists, and Libya is overrun with them fighting to overthrow the central government in Tripoli. Why would alienated individuals in Tunisia and Egypt opt to join a foreign war rather than continue to fight for progressive political change at home?

I believe the answer is that those who choose to leave to fight for IS or al-Qaeda see the results of the Arab Spring for what they really are: a reassertion of the traditional status quo under different guise. Understanding the impossibility of affecting significant political, social and economic change at home, these disaffected fighters migrate to foreign conflicts in which the enemy is clear (be it the West, Israel, Iran or Shiia Islam in general) and in which their skills in the management of organised violence can be honed for future use at home should they survive combat. Should they not, they will have died for what they believe to be a good cause.

That is the crux of the “returning jihadi” problem. They pose no existential threat to the West or even stable authoritarian regimes (barring an overreaction by the state and society that makes it appear as if there is in fact a “war” between Islam as a whole and the non-Islamic world). They do not pose an existential threat to stable Muslim dominant societies such as Indonesia and Malaysia. But they do pose a potential existential threat to the passive revolutionary regimes in North Africa as well as in failing or failed states such as Yemen, Somalia and/or those in which civil war is occurring (to include Nigeria even if Boko Harum is comprised of indigenous fighters who for the most part have not traveled abroad).

That is why I see al-Qaeda  and the Islamic State as regional rather than global problems–they may have a world wide impact given the decentralised nature of terrorist tactics outside of the Middle East, but their real strategic impact stems from the existential threat they pose to the Middle East itself. After all, even if they use the US, the West, Israel and/or Iran as foils for their violent ambitions, al-Qaeda and IS have their eyes focused squarely on the Gulf petrolarchies as much if not more than they do on any other territorial and political objective.

In the end, it has been the failure of the Arab Spring to deliver on its theoretical promise and popular expectations for real change that has led to the rise of IS and the spreading wave of violent unrest throughout the Arab world. After a moment that promised a thawing of old political structures and the germination of new ideas about the relationship between state and society, the region has proven yet again to be barren ground for peaceful, progressive and lasting social change.

PS: Here is something I wrote in 2011 about Tunisia and other Middle Eastern transitions. Although I do not claim any particular expertise on the Middle East or Arab world, I think that by and large my observations of four years ago have stood the test of time.

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