Posts Tagged ‘Authoritarianism’
Although we in NZ have been preoccupied with our own national election, Fiji had one a few days earlier that arguably is far more important when it comes to that country’s long-term prospects. Much has been written about this foundational election and the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but in this 36th Parallel analysis I consider the possibility that Fiji may see Singapore as a developmental model worth emulating.
It is not as crazy an idea as you might think at first glance.
One of the important lessons taught by the study of military dictatorships is that when the military rules as an institution, such as in the case of the military-bureaaucratic regimes of Southern Europe, Latin America and East Asia in the 1960s through the 1980s, organisational professionalism is compromised. Having military officers sitting at desks as Ministers and department chiefs of non-military portfolios keeps them away from the training grounds and deployments in which military leadership is honed and exercised. Having soldiers patrol the streets and suppressing domestic dissent takes them away from the combat tasks that are supposedly their reason for being. Prolonged tenure in government makes both officers and enlisted personnel susceptible to the temptations of unchecked authority, from material corruption to unethical personal behaviour.
The very nature of military organisation is incompatible with governance. Whether it be collegial or Prussian style or some variant thereof, the military is a pyramidal organisation in which orders are passed from top to bottom and duties are delegated without question. There is no cabinet made up of ministerial equals. Instead, there is either one Military Commander or there is a High Command or Joint Staff comprised of similarly ranked chiefs of different armed service branches, and even then there is a first amongst equals. The further down the chain of command the more immediate and tight the degree of control of superiors over subordinates.
The rationale underpinning the organisational ethos and structure is to promote discipline under fire. There is little room for compromise and stakeholder consultation such as that which is the norm for most public agencies. There is no public consultation and few feedback loops other than after action reports and what soldiers tell their superiors in a chain of command. Superimposing a military organisation on the State apparatus may impose discipline (or at least fear) on the public bureaucracy, but the price paid for that is the softening of the military organisation in question.
The situation is compounded by militaries that use foreign peacekeeping missions as a substitute for combat exercises and as a source of remittances (since UN pay tends to be much high than local military pay in most of the world). Whatever dangers exist in peacekeeping, and there are many, keeping the peace is not, nor can it ever be, a substitute for combat training.
When taken together these factors erode the professional competence of the military as an institution. In countries that have military rule and conflicts with neighbours, this is often seen as a sign of weakness by adversaries. After all, pushing pencils and having long working lunches is not quite living like in a tent eating rations in between live fire exercises. Thus, somewhat ironically, prolonged military rule invites attack by hostile states in which the military does not rule and instead focuses on its combat role.
The capture of 45 Fijian Army peacekeepers in the Golan Heights by the Al-Nusra Front is a variant on this theme. The Fijians were part of a detachment that included a similar number of Filipino soldiers. When the al-Nusra rebels surrounded and attacked their jointly held UN outpost, the Filipinos, who have years of experience fighting Abu Sayyaf rebels in the southern Philippines, staged an armed retreat that allowed all of them to escape capture. They laid down suppressing fire as they drove their armoured column out of the compound at speed, and prevailed in the firefight occasioned by their escape. They suffered no losses.
The Fijians, on the other hand, although being similarly armed and equipped, surrendered without a shot. They are now waiting “divine justice” at the hands of their al-Nusra captors. Neither the Fijian military nor the military government can do anything about the situation, and instead have to reply on UN negotiators for the safe return of their soldiers. Other than appeals to the captors, the only response evident in Fiji is threats to the local Muslim community made by some Fijian nationalists.
The difference between the two outcomes in the Golan Heights is attributable to relative military professionalism. The Philippines Army does not govern and fights on a regular basis with the Abu Sayyaf rebels. They are battle hardened and disciplined as a result. The Fijian Army, in contrast, has ruled Fiji since 2006. Senior military leaders from the rank of major up have held managerial positions in the civilian administration, and the military spends most of its time engaged in domestic repression rather than training for combat. As part of the sanctions levels against it, Fijian military officers were denied admittance to Western military colleges and the Fijian military does not participate in multinational exercises. In spite of a limited military exchange program with China, the Fijian military has not engaged in the types of corporate training that makes for an effective fighting force against other armed adversaries. Instead, it has sent hundreds of soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions, but this is more due to the domestic importance of remittances from Fijian soldiers to their kin (especially in the villages) rather than securing the benefits of operational experience in conflict zones.
The result is that what used to be considered one of the more professional military organisations in the South Pacific is no longer capable of defending itself when attacked by irregular forces abroad. It lacks the leadership and discipline required to engage in organised violence against such armed opponents because it has spent too much time focused on ruling rather than serving its compatriots.
All of this illustrates the point that, beyond the negative impacts of military rule on society at large, the military as an institution is adversely affected by military rule. This is why “enlightened” militaries that stage coups try to relinquish direct control of government as quickly as they can. But others, perhaps safe in the knowledge that they have no immediate adversaries and enjoying the perks of governance, tend to linger in power. In spite of their lofty nation building rhetoric, the longer they retain power the more likely that the military will begin to lose the combat leadership and soldiering skills essential for survival in battle. And should that military ever find itself in battle, it stands a poor chance of victory when confronting hardened soldiers.
That has been proven sadly true for the Fijian Army in the Golan Heights.
Military-bureaucratic authoritarian regimes often seek to legitimate their rule and establish a positive legacy by transferring power to elected civilian authorities. However, they do so only under certain conditions and with specific outcomes in mind. One way to ensure that their post-authoritarian vision is adhered to is to run a military-backed candidate (often a retired military leader) as the “official” candidate while actively working to use their control of the election process to promote divisions and disunity amongst the opposition. The way in which the elections are governed and the process leading up to them are used by the outgoing authoritarians to produce a voting outcome that upholds the status quo under elected civilian guise.
In spite of its dominant position in such “top-down” forms of electoral transition, military-backed candidates and/or parties are confronted with several dilemmas that complicate their ability to ensure their desired post-authoritarian outcome. In this 36th Parallel Assessments brief I point out two of them as well as some other political dynamics at play in such scenarios.
Although the analysis is framed broadly, it may be of particular interest to those interested in the elections scheduled for September in Fiji.
Over at 36th Parallel Assessments I explore some of the dynamics that are and will be key factors in the political transition to free and open elections in Fiji scheduled for mid 2014. Unique circumstances in Fiji notwithstanding, the success of a transition from military-bureaucratic authoritarianism to freely elected government (if not democracy) hinges on some key factors, particularly the interplay between regime and opposition hard- and soft-liners. The essay explains how and why.
Accusations that the NZDF may have been spying on journalist Jon Stephenson during or after he was in Afghanistan researching what turned into a series of very critical stories about the actuality of SAS operations in support of the elite Afghan counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) have sparked both public outrage and government backlash. Numerous media entities and civil libertarians have protested the alleged spying as an infringement on press freedom, with the story now picked up by the US press because Mr. Stephenson was working for a US based news service when the spying supposedly occurred, and the spying may have been carried out by US agencies.
It is early days yet in the development of the story, but there are numerous angles that if explored could lead to a can of worms being opened on the NZDF and NZ government as well as the US administration. More immediately, if what has been made public so far is accurate then there are some NZ-focused issues to ponder, which can be broadly divided into matters of short and long-term consequence.
The specific accusation is that NZDF obtained meta-data about Mr. Stephenson’s phone records from US intelligence sources while he was in Kabul. This meta-data included the phone numbers of those he contacted or who called him while in theater, which could be “mined” and subject to network analysis in order to create signal maps and flow charts of the patterns of communication between them as well as with Mr. Stephenson (what have been called signals meta-data “trees”).
Implicit in the original story by Nicky Hager is the possibility that the content of Mr. Stephenson’s conversations and possibly his emails were accessed by the NZDF, or at least by foreign partners who then shared that information with the NZDF.
This is the short aspect of the story. Mr. Hager believes that Mr. Stephenson was subject to an NSA signals trolling scheme akin to that done by the PRISM program, and that the NZDF may have requested that Mr. Stephenson be surveilled by the NSA as a result of Stephenson’s investigation but also because the NZDF could not spy on him directly. However, since the SIS and GCSB had officers on the ground in Kabul and shared workspace with NSA and CIA personnel, the possibility was raised that they were somehow involved in the electronic monitoring of Mr. Stephenson, either has initiators or recipients of the NSA meta-data mining of his communications.
This may or may not prove true. The government and NZDF flatly deny that any spying, whether by the NSA, GCSB or NZDF, was done on Mr. Stephenson. Mr. Hager claims to have evidence that NZDF personnel obtained Mr. Stephenson’s telephone meta-data (presumably he has at least been shown that data by the NZDF personnel who are his sources).
One of these versions is apparently false, although there may be a twist to the story that bridges the veracity gap between them.
Since Mr. Stephenson was in a declared conflict zone in which a multinational military coalition was engaged, he was inevitably subject to military intelligence collection. Military organizations and their various service branches maintain human and signals intelligence collection units that focus on tactical aspects of the conflict zone. That would, at a minimum, include canvassing local telephone and email networks for information on potential threats and contextual background. Such collection is designed to facilitate “actionable” intelligence: information that can be used to influence the political environment as well as the kinetic operations that occur within it.
It is possible that Mr. Stephenson’s phone records were collected by an ISAF military signals intelligence unit. It probably was that of a US military unit. That unit may have identified Mr. Stephenson as a New Zealander and passed his information on to one of the intelligence shops located at Bagram Air Force base or elsewhere for sharing with the NZDF as a professional courtesy and a “head’s up” on who Mr. Stephenson was involved with.
If this is true, then Mr. Hager’s NSA/PRISM/GCSB/NZDF spying scenario is wrong. However, the issue does not end there. The big questions are whether the NZDF requested that an allied military signals intelligence unit spy on Mr. Stephenson, or if not, what it did with the information about Mr. Stephenson volunteered to it by its ally.
If the latter is the case, then it is possible that the NZDF took no action because it either considered the information marginal to its intelligence concerns or improper for it to receive and use. That in turn could have led to the destruction of that meta-data after it was received.
On the other hand, if the NZDF requested said information about Mr. Stephenson from a military intelligence partner, that would make any subsequent meta-data record destruction an attempt to eliminate evidence of that request or the use to which the data-mining was put.
It should be noted that such spying in conflict zones is usual and to be expected by anyone operating with them, journalists and non-journalists alike. Moreover, it is perfectly legal as well as reasonable for the NZDF to share information with its military intelligence partners, even if it includes information about unaffiliated NZ citizens operating in conflict zones in which the NZDF is deployed. Thus it would not have been unlawful for the NZDF to obtain Mr. Stephenson’s electronic meta-data whether it initiated its collection or merely received the results.
This extends to its use of the SIS or GCSB to assist in said collection, since the SIS is empowered to spy on NZ citizens and the GCSB was working in a foreign theater in which Mr. Stephenson was working for a “foreign entity” (McClatchy New Service), therefore making him a legitimate target under the 2003 GCSB Act. Whether one or both of these agencies was involved in the spying on Mr. Stephenson, should it have occurred, the eavesdropping could legally be conducted without warrant, again owing to situational circumstance.
However, just because something is legal does not make it right. This is where the long of the story comes into play.
Mr. Hager also revealed the existence of an NZDF operations manual, apparently drafted in 2003 and revised in 2005, that included at least “certain investigative journalists” along with hackers, foreign spy agencies, ideological extremists, disloyal employees, interest groups, and criminal organizations in the category of “subversive” threats (although it remains unclear as to when that particular passage was added to the text and who authored and authorized it). The definition of subversion was stretched to include those whose activities could undermine public morale or confidence in the government and NZDF. This included “political” activities deemed inimical to the NZDF image or reputation.
Whether it was included in the original version or added some time later (perhaps very recently), that definition of subversive threats is astounding. The language used borrows directly from the lexicon of the Pinochet dictatorship and Argentine Junta. It completely ignores the concept of press freedom in a democracy, which is premised on the autonomous separation of the media and the military as institutions. It lumps in so-defined subversive threats with physical threats to operational security in the field. That makes those identified as subversives enemies rather than adversaries, which allows them to be treated accordingly.
The wording of the passage about subversive threats in this manual says more about those who drafted it and the NZDF leadership that allowed it to become doctrine than it does about any real threat posed by journalists to the NZDF or government. Being embarrassed by critical reporting is not akin to being shot at. Even if written in the fevered years immediately after 9/11, the authors of that passage (and presumably others in the manual) display an authoritarian, anti-democratic mindset that is fundamentally inimical to democratic civil-military relations and, for that matter, democratic military professionalism.
Chris Trotter has noted that the NZDF, as a military organization, is authoritarian in nature and thus inherently un-, if not anti-democratic. I respect his view but disagree to an extent. Virtually all social organizations are hierarchical in nature–families, churches, private firms, unions, schools, bureaucracies, political parties and yes, the armed forces, police and intelligence agencies. That makes the egalitarian bases of democratic political society unlike virtually all other forms of social organization.
In other words, we are socialized in a hierarchical world and it is democracy as a political form that is the unnatural outlier.
Even so, although hierarchy can and often does tend towards authoritarianism, in democracies social organizations that are hierarchically constructed bow to the egalitarian meta-logic that posits that in their political interactions they are bound by notions of mutual respect, independence, corporate autonomy and non-interference. That is, they practice at a meta-level what they do not at the macro or micro-levels: in their interactions with each other groups forgo the hierarchical disposition that characterizes their internal governance.
This is important because the NZDF field manual that Mr. Hager exposed and whose existence is now confirmed by the government displays an authoritarian mindset and operational perspective that transcends the necessary hierarchy of NZDF organization. The NZDF is not inherently authoritarian because it is hierarchical in nature, but because, if the spying allegations are correct in light of the manual’s language about threats requiring military countering, its leadership displays an authoritarian disposition when it comes to things it finds objectionable, including pesky reporters (I shall leave aside Mr. Trotter’s remarks about military allegiance to the Queen rather than government or citizenry, although I take his point as to where its loyalty is directed and the impact that has on its transparency and adherence to democratic norms).
In sum: Consider what the manual says with regards to subversive threats in light of the well-publicized NZDF attacks on Mr. Stephenson’s professional and personal integrity that resulted in the defamation trial recently concluded (attacks that could well fit within the “counter-intelligence operations” recommended in the manual). Add in the claims by Mr. Stephenson that a senior military officer uttered death threats against him (the subject of a police complaint in 2011 that was not actioned). Factor in the NZDF admission in the defamation trial that it tracked Mr. Stephenson’s movements along with the possibility that the NZDF did acquire and utilize Mr. Stephenson’s telephone communications records in a capacity other than to detect tactical threats to units in theater. Further include Mr. Hager’s findings in his book Other Peoples Wars, in which the NZDF was seen to disregard government instructions regarding its conduct in foreign theaters and collaborated extensively with US intelligence (both military and civilian) in places like Bamiyan in spite of its repeated denials that it was doing anything other than building schools and roads in that province.
The conclusion? In light of this sequence of events it is very possible that the NZDF has systematically operated in an unprofessional and anti-democratic fashion for at least a decade, and particularly with regard to Mr. Stephenson.
This is a serious matter because it gives the impression that the NZDF has gone rogue (assuming that the governments of the day were, in fact, unaware of the language in the field manual or of the alleged spying). Rectifying this institutional anomaly is important. How to do so is critical.
It is not enough to blame the previous government and retired NZDF commanders for the manual, then excise the offending passage while maintaining that no NZDF records of spying on Mr. Stephenson exist. Instead, the NZDF leadership during this time period needs to be held accountable for allowing anti-democratic attitudes and practices to take root within it and, if need be, action needs to be taken against those who authorized the language of the manual and/or the spying if it happened. Only that way can confidence in NZDF accountability and commitment to democratic principles be restored.
In order for any of this to happen, yet another inquiry needs to be launched. Given the debates about the GCSB and TICS Bills and ongoing concerns about Police and SIS behaviour, that says something about the state of New Zealand’s security community at the moment.
The rejection of the 2013 draft constitution by the Baimimarama regime in Fiji (a constitution drafted by a panel of international jurists and partially funded by New Zealand), has led to speculation as to whether the promised 2014 elections will be held. What has not been mentioned in press coverage of the constitutional crisis is an end-game that is neither dictatorial or democratic: elections leading to a “guarded” democracy. In this analysis I outline some reasons why the prospect of a guarded democracy in Fiji should be considered to be very real.
Bashar Assad has likened the civil war in Syria to a surgeon performing messy emergency surgery. Much blood is spilled but it is in the best interest of the patient’s survival that it do so. In this case the patient is purportedly Syria (but in actuality the Alawite regime), and the surgery is required because of the gangrenous actions of foreign-backed “terrorists” and extremists.
That comment brought back some unhappy memories. On March 24, 1976 the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional” (Process of National Reorganization) was installed in Argentina. Over the next seven years it killed over 30,000 people and tortured, imprisoned and exiled at least that many more. It refined the concept of “disappearing” people without a trace (although it was later revealed that many of the disappeared were sedated and dumped from aircraft over the South Atlantic). It was a very bad moment in Argentine history, and the psychological and social scars of that sorry time are still evident to this day.
Assad’s surgical analogy struck an unpleasant chord with me because that is exactly the language used by the “Proceso” to justify its actions. In one of its first proclamations the Junta spoke of the need to rid Argentina of the “malignancies” of subversion, economic instability, social disorder and moral decay, and that in order to do so it would have to “extirpate without anesthesia” the cancers afflicting the Argentine body politic (on this see “Acta fijando el proposito y los objectivos basicos para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional,” Republica Argentina, Boletin Oficial, 29 March 1976 and Republica Argentina, Documentos basicos y bases politicas de las fuerzas armadas para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional. Buenos Aires: Junta Militar de la Nacion, 1980). It seems that when it comes to “organic” parallels between the state and society, Arab and Argentine dictators think alike.
It might behoove Mr. Assad to remember the fate of his Argentine counterparts. Their regime collapsed under the double-barreled weight of popular unrest and foreign conflict (the Falklands/Malvinas War, which was staged by the Junta as a diversion from its internal problems). The generals who commanded that regime were all eventually tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, where several have died. Argentine justice certainly was not swift or completely fair, but in the end the self-professed “surgeons” were found guilty of homicidal malpractice rather than lauded as the triage medics of the country.
Assad has that double-barreled weight now resting upon his regime. His conflict is internal rather than external, but the involvement of external actors is substantial and not limited to UN proclamations, jihadist infiltration or covert military assistance to the Syrian Free Army. He is therefore well on the path to following his Argentine counterparts down the road to collapse and overthrow, and it is now more a question of whether he will die in a prison cell or on the street rather than if he will fall. After all, once the dictator starts talking about emergency surgery on the body politic, it may be the case that he is the worst tumor of them all.
The double veto cast by Russia and China against the UN Security Resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s repression against unarmed civilians and calling for Bashar Assad to step down in favor of a coalition government harks back to the obstructionist logics of the Cold War. Besides confirming the ingrained authoritarian ethos in both countries (an ethos that does not see human rights as universal values but as contextually constructed), the blocking of the resolution stems from a mix of realist and idealist perceptions.
The idealist perceptions are rooted in the principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Russia and China argue that the UN’s actions amount to externally-forced regime change. That would be true. In their view the right to self-determination, no matter what brutality is evident in a regime’s behavior, is more important than the defense of unarmed populations against the depredations of their rulers. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia, sovereignty is the founding principle of the modern nation-state system, and other than as a result of a declared state of war it is illegitimate to attempt to externally impose a political outcome on a sovereign state (exceptions to the rule notwithstanding).
Russia and China are well aware that in recent years the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine has been formalised as part of the UN mandate. R2P states that the international community must act, with force if necessary, to protect vulnerable populations from state violence or in the face of state unwillingness or incapacity to prevent atrocities committed against innocents. The genocide in Rwanda was the catalyst for the R2P and it has been invoked in the Sudan and Somalia, among other recent cases.
Most importantly, R2P was invoked in UNSC resolution 1973 authorizing the use of external military force in Libya. Starting out under the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians from military assaults by the Gaddafi regime, it morphed from enforcing a no-fly zone to arming and advising anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground in pursuit of regime change. The Russians and Chinese had flagged this surreptitiously planned mission creep from the onset, and had warned that misuse of the R2P to justify armed intervention against a sovereign state government would set a bad precedent.
That is the precedent now being applied to Syria. The Russians and Chinese know full well that external intervention in Syria in pursuit of regime change is on the cards, using R2P as the justification. They also know that military intervention in Syria, should it come, has nothing to do with protecting innocents and all to do with the geopolitical balance in the Levant.
That is where realism enters the equation. China and Russia are partners of Iran. Iran is the Assad’s regime’s closest ally. Under Assad Syria has facilitated the extension of Iranian influence in Lebanon and Gaza by providing land routes for the provision of Iranian weapons, money and advisors to Hezbollah and Hamas. Should the minority Allawite Assad regime fall to a Sunni-majority coalition, then Iran will likely see its influence curtailed significantly, which in turn places Hamas and Hezbollah at greater risk from their enemies (Israel in particular). Moreover, Russia has a military base in Syria and has long been a strong military ally of the Assads. Taken together with Chinese and Russian diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran, the Assad regime’s forced demise could spell trouble. It will remove a source of Russian influence in the MIddle East. Amid all the sabre-rattling about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will leave Iran feeling more vulnerable, at least in its own eyes, to Western machinations and internal subversion at home. This not only increases the risk of war but diminishes China and Russia’s ability to act as negotiators between Tehran and the West. Thus the fall of Assad means a diminution of their respective influence in that part of the world.
Thus, by standing on principle (non-intervention in sovereign states), Moscow and Beijing are protecting their geopolitical interests, and their relationship with Iran in particular. It may seem callous for them to do so in what increasingly looks like a civil war between the Assad regime and its people, but it is also in their short-term interest to do so. By holding their UNSC veto power, they can exercise leverage in pursuit of a more favorable accommodation that, if it does not allow Assad to remain in power, does protect their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East.
That is what is behind the double veto. In the absence of universal values and standards in the global community (due to the so-called anarchic state of nature that all realists perceive as the founding principle of international relations), the matter boils down to national interest and the exercise of power in pursuit of it. As such, Russia and China are just doing what they have to do to ensure an outcome more favorable to their respective interests, and by that logic humanitarian appeals and the invocation of the R2P simply have no place as either genuine concerns or as ruses designed to camouflage external meddling in Syrian affairs.
Sad but true.
During the dark years of dictatorship in South America in the 1970s and 1980s, there emerged a phrase to capture the attitude of the elites who benefitted from such rule: the culture of impunity. It referred not only to the attitude of the uniformed tyrants who ran the regimes, but more to that of the civilian elites who gave them social and economic support, and who benefitted lavishly thanks to the repression and restrictive laws on basic rights of association, dissent and movement. These civilian elites literally lived above the law, since they could, if not be directly protected by the regime’s thugs, be immune from prosecution or liability for crimes and other transgressions they committed simply because of who they were. Murders, rapes, abuse of servants, violent attacks on members of the public–all of these type of behavior were excused, ignored or bought off rather than be held legally accountable (I do not mention justice simply because it is impossible to have real justice under dictatorial conditions). Although there was variation in the attitude of some elites and cross-country differences appeared as well, the bottom line is that during the authoritarian period in South America a culture of impunity developed that was one of the salient social characteristics of the regimes in question.
With that in mind I ask readers if such a culture of impunity exists in NZ. I ask because it strikes me that although diluted and less repressive in genesis, there appears to be an attitude of impunity in the political and economic elite. They can buy silence and name suppression when they misbehave; with a wink and a nod they accommodate employment for their friends and provide sinecures for each other (think of various Boards); they consider themselves better informed, in the know, more worldly and therefore unaccountable to the popular masses when it comes to making policy (think of the use of parliamentary urgency to ram through contentious legislation and the NZDF command lies about what the SAS is actually doing in Afghanistan); they award themselves extraordinary powers in some times of crisis (Christchurch) while absolving themselves of responsibility in others (Rena). They use the Police for their own purposes (Teapot Tapes and Occupy evictions, the latter happening not because of public consensus but done by summary executive fiat). More generally, think of the lack of transparency in how government decisions are made and the duplicity of elite statements about economic issues (say, the price of wage goods) and political matters (e.g., recent internal security legislation). Coupled with equally opaque decision-making in NZ’s largest publicly-traded firms, or the cozy overlap between sectors of the judiciary and other elites, the list of traded favors and protections is long.
None of this would matter if NZ was run by Commodore Bainimarama. It would just be another Pacific island state ruled by a despot and his pals. But as a liberal parliamentary democracy NZ regularly scores highly on Freedom House and Transparency International indexes, to the point that it is often mentioned at the least corrupt country on earth (which is laughable on the face of things and which raises questions about the methodologies involved in such surveys). To be sure, in NZ traffic cops do not take cash bribes and judges do not have prostitutes procured for them by QCs representing defendants, but corruption does not have to be blatant and vulgar to be pervasive. And in the measure that elite sophistication in accommodating fellow elites outside of the universal standards applicable to everyone else is accepted as routine and commonplace, then a culture of impunity exists as well.
My experience in NZ academia, two respectable volunteer organizations and in dealing with national and local government officials suggests to me that such a culture of impunity does exist. It may not be that of Pinochet, Videla, Stroessner, Banzer or Geisel, but it seems pervasive. It appears to have gotten worse since I arrived in 1997, which may or may not be the fault of market-driven social logics and the “greed is good” mentality that has captured the imaginations of financiers, developers and other business magnates (or it could just be a product of a long-established tradition of bullying, which has now spilled over into elite attitudes towards the country as a whole).
Mind you, this does not make NZ a bad place. It simply means that there is an encroaching, subversive authoritarian sub-culture at play amongst the NZ political and economic elite that undermines the purported egalitarianism and equality on which the country is ostensibly founded (I am sure there are sectors of Maoridom who will take reasoned exception to that claim). And if so, has the corrosive culture seeped into the body politic at large so that almost anyone is a relative position of power vis a vis others thinks that s/he can get away with behavior otherwise contrary to normal standards of decency and responsibility?
Does NZ has a culture of impunity?
Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.
I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.
The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).
It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.
The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.
It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.
All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.