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Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

Foxes in the hen house.

datePosted on 12:44, January 31st, 2017 by Pablo

Here is a thought. Among all the wretched news coming out of the US this past week, two somewhat lesser items struck me. One was that Trump’s son-in-law was granted a high level security clearance, and the other was that former Brietbart boss, white supremacist and pro-Russian provocateur Steve Bannon has been given a Principal’s seat on the National Security Council, displacing both the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff (who now attend on an “as needed” basis).

During the time I spent in the US security apparatus I held several levels of clearance, working my way up to the fairly high Top Secret/Secret Compartmentalized Information (TS/SCI) level. The scrutiny I received in order to get that clearance was pretty intrusive and lengthy: polygraph and drug tests, background checks run by the DIA that included interviews with college friends, my former wife, work colleagues at various places and even neighbours, and an FBI background check. The process took about 10-12 months.

Bannon and Jared Kushner will be privy to sensitive information well above my ultimate pay category, and yet the latter was granted a clearance in a month and the former, for all we know, has yet to receive one. I know that elected political officials do not have to undergo the sort of background checks that I did (something that is always troublesome when congressional testimony is given behind closed doors to congresspeople who are known to have serious skeletons in their closets that make them liable to blackmail). But political appointees as well as career civil servants and military personnel must have those checks done before assuming the jobs in which they handle highly sensitive information. Mistakes have recently been made in security vetting due to outsourcing (Edward Snowden) and people can grow disenchanted and violate their oaths (Chelsea Manning), but for the most part the security vetting process allows the government some degree of confidence that the person being scrutinised cannot be blackmailed, is not financially vulnerable, is not addicted, criminally violent, mentally ill, etc.

So my questions are these: Has Steve Bannon undergone any security vetting, particularly given his background and links? Why did Mr. Kushner receive an expedited clearance rather than a thorough one? There are other individuals in the Trump White House who also have access to this type of information without full security vetting (including a Brietbart editor), but for the moment I wonder about those two fellows.

This is more than a matter of personal curiosity. Given Trump’s attacks on the military and intelligence leadership and the ongoing questions about his relationship with Russia in the wake of official claims that Russia sought to influence the US presidential election in his favour, these sort of moves could set the stage for a constitutional crisis in civil-military/intelligence relations. After all, if Bannon is talking to the Russians and Kushner is pillow whispering to Ivanka about policy matters that impact on the family businesses, why would the intelligence community and military brass feel comfortable with them receiving full classified briefs on such matters? Would it not be advisable for the security community to withhold highly sensitive information from them and direct that information to others such as NSC advisor Gen (ret.) Mike Flynn (also of some very suspect ties) on an “Eyes Only” basis? Or should they just give full briefs and let the chips fall where they may?

Neither option is a good choice, but one has potentially catastrophic consequences while the other undermines the foundations of elected civilian supremacy over the military and intelligence communities.

 

There are lessons here for New Zealand. The NZSIS is responsible for security vetting of people who will handle sensitive classified information, but its record is mixed in this regard. In 2010 it was revealed that Stephen Wilce, the head of the Defence Technology Agency (DTA), the scientific arm of the NZDF, was a serial fraudster and liar who among other things claimed to have been a member of the 1988 UK bobsled team and a former Royal marine who had worked for MI5 and MI6 in the UK and who had invented the guidance system for the Polaris (submarine launched and nuclear tipped) missile (you can find the NZDF Court of Inquiry Report on Mr Wilke here).

Mr. Wilce was recruited by Momentum Consulting (which was paid $25,000 for the job), a firm that included among its directors and executives National Party stalwarts Jenny Shipley and Michelle Boag. Momentum was supposed to have confirmed Mr. Wilce’s bonafides and the NZSIS was supposed to do his security vetting before granting him a high level clearance, but none of that happened. It was not until Mr. Wilce had been in the DTA job for five years that a whistleblower outed him.

In recent years the SIS has reported that security vetting takes up more and more of its time and resources, to the detriment of its domestic intelligence, foreign intelligence and counter-espionage activities. Delays in obtaining clearances are commonplace and pressures to expedite them are strong. That was exactly the situation that led to Edward Snowden being granted a high level security clearance. As it turns out, the firm that was contracted to do his security vetting by the NSA simply rubber stamped the clearance authorisation because it was swamped with such work.

Employees of New Zealand’s intelligence community and military personnel certainly undergo serious security vetting before they can be trusted to handle classified information. Perhaps, like the US, elected officials are exempt from the requirement, but what about parliamentary staffers and those employed in the DPMC? Given the revelations in the Dirty Politics book, can we be assured that the likes of Jason Ede and Phil de Joux (or even Roy Ferguson and Sir Maarten Wevers) have been vetted properly? Is everyone who is privy to classified material treated the same as military and intelligence personnel and subjected to a thorough security vetting process? Is outsourcing recruitment of people to sensitive positions still the norm? If so, is that outsourcing going to politically connected firms or is there now in place some objective standard of applicant vetting rigour that needs to be met?

I ask these questions because if anything, New Zealand appears to have a much looser government administrative system that does the US. Shoulder-tapping, “who-you-knows,” nepotism, cronyism, old boy networking–perhaps it is a small country thing but it seems to me that such practices occur fairly frequently when it comes to high level civil service positions (to say nothing of the private sector). If that is so, then it is fair to ask if these practices override the good sense need for security vetting of those involved with intelligence and military matters.

I stand to be corrected if wrong in this appraisal, but the issue still remains as to who with access to sensitive intelligence and security information outside of NZ intelligence and military officers undergo the type of security vetting that I underwent back in the US and which Messrs. Bannon and Kushner managed to avoid.

Put another way and stripped of the US baggage: are there Bannons and Kushner facsimiles in our midst?

From failure, opportunity comes.

datePosted on 17:19, January 24th, 2017 by Pablo

When President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the US signature from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTPA), he signed the death warrant of that multinational trade deal in its present form. The US was the core member of the TPPA and held the dominant negotiating position within it, so the decade-in-the-making, laboriously undertaken and vexing complex compact that was agreed to by the other eleven signatories is now all but null and void.

There are options, however, for the TPPA that may allow it to survive and thrive in light of Trump’s unilateral abrogation.

First, the other eleven member states can put the agreement into hibernation, wait for the 2020 US presidential election and hope that a more trade-oriented president succeeds Trump.

Second, they can hope that the Republican congressional leadership will force Trump to reverse his decision sometime between now and 2020. That would only occur if Trump is weakened by some failure and the GOP sensed that it could re-assert its traditional pro-trade stance at his expense. The Democrats would welcome the move for opportunistic partisan reasons even if some of its leading figures such as Bernie Sanders also oppose the TPPA and applauded Trump’s decision to pull plug on it.

Third, the members could look to themselves and re-draw an agreement that is less US-centric. Many of the provisions insisted on by the US could be reconsidered and even dropped in exchange for increased preferences for the interests of previously junior TPPA partners.

Fourth, the remaining TPPA partners could look to fill the void left by the US with another large market economy. The one that springs immediately to mind is China. That is where things get interesting, and where opportunity may lie.

China is already party to the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) that established a regional free trade area that is the largest in terms of population and third largest in term of trade volume and nominal GDP. Some of the ACFTA signatories are also parties to the TPPA (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam). This agreement is considered to be a “true” free trade agreement in the Ricardian sense because it reduces tariffs across 7,881 product categories to zero percent, with the result being that tariffs on ASEAN goods sold to China fell to 0.1 percent and those of China sold in ASEAN to 0.1 percent in the year the agreement went into force (2010)

The non-US TPPA members could opt to negotiate an agreement with ACTFA as one course of action. That may be difficult given that the TPPA is not a “genuine” FTA as much as it is an investor guarantee agreement (IGA) in which market regulations are altered to attract foreign investors and these are protected from legal liability in the event of disputes with the host state. What is not included in the TPPA are across-the-board reductions to zero tariff, and in fact many domestic industries remain protected or subsidised throughout the TPPA membership as part of the horse trading undertaken during negotiations over its central tenets. But it may be possible to reconcile the two trade deals in an effort to create a new super trade bloc on neo-Ricardian grounds.

Another option might be to invite China to the table. It has the second largest market in the world and is continues to grow at a sustained and rapid pace in spite of the vicissitudes of the world economy over the last two decades. It is making the transition from export platform to a mixed domestic mass consumption/value-added export model, and it has previously expressed interest in joining the TPPA. The US blocked consideration of China’s membership because it saw the TPPA as the economic equivalent of the military “pivot to Asia” announced by the Obama administration, that is, as a hedge against Chinese economic, diplomatic and military influence in the Western Pacific Rim in what amounts to a new Containment Policy in the Asia-Pacific.

With the US gone, China has an opening and the remaining TPPA members have an opportunity. The TPPA will have to be renegotiated, but it is likely that the non-negotiable provisions insisted by the US will not be supported by the Chinese and can be dropped in the effort to entice their interest. In turn, China might have to accept something less than blanket reductions in uniform tariffs and agree to a tariff reduction regime that is more segmented and scaled in orientation and gradual and incremental in application (i.e. more product or industry specific and phased in over a longer period of time). That is clearly within the realm of possibility, as is Chinese agreement to other TPPA provisions stripped of their US-centric orientation.

China has already signalled its intentions in this regard. President Xi used this year’s Davos Forum to preach the virtues of free trade and global commerce, arguing against protectionism as an impediment to international understanding and exchange. China has proposed the creation of a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) along the lines mentioned above with regard to an ACTFA-TPPA merger but with the provision that the US be excluded. There are many details to be ironed out but the groundwork has been laid for that to happen.

What makes the turn to a China-included trade bloc a potentially win-win proposition for remaining TPPA signatories is that the key provisions demanded by the US–changes in market regulations and preferential market entry clauses for US business interests (including changes in patent and copyright protection) and imposition of limited liability clauses in the event US businesses are sued by local governments–were those that were most resisted by domestic audiences in several TPPA member countries. Removing them not only allows the agreement to be free of those constraints but also diffuses a source of domestic opposition in countries where such things matter.

One thing TPPA states should think carefully about, especially small states like New Zealand, is the invitation to negotiate bi-lateral trade deals with the US instead of the TPPA (something just announced by the Trump administration). The historical record shows that large asymmetries in market size favour the larger over the smaller partner in bilateral trade agreements. This is due to economies of scale, market dominance, and economic and geopolitical influence derived from market size advantages. The recent track record of bilateral deals between the US and smaller states reinforces this fact. Australia, South Korea, Chile, Colombia and the Central American nations plus Dominican Republic grouped in the CAFTA scheme all have bilateral FTAs with the US. In all instances the majority benefits accrued to US-based companies and industries and the benefits accrued in the partner states were limited to specific export markets (mostly in primary goods), with little flow-on, trickle down or developmental effects in the broader national economies.

So rather than “jump on a plane” to sign a bilateral deal with the US, as one wag put it, smaller states such as New Zealand need to think hard whether the bilateral alternative with the US is more long-term beneficial than a multilateral agreement, especially when it has shown that under a certain type of administration the US is willing to renege on its commitments even if they are multilateral rather than bilateral in nature. With the Trump administration also set to review and replace the tripartite North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico (NAFTA), it is clear that honoring commitments and maintaining continuity in trade policy is not, even if just for the short term, on the US agenda.

When one widens the lens on what the Trump administration is doing in terms of its threats to withdraw from various bi-and multinational defense agreements unless the partner states “pay more” for US protection, it becomes clear that the US is not, at least for now, a reliable international partner.

The reason is that the new US attitude to trade is part of a larger phenomenon. The neo-isolationist protectionism embedded in the “America First” approach adopted by the Trump administration has ended, however temporarily, over 50 years of bipartisan consensus in the US political elite on the merits of international engagement. Be it in trade, foreign aid or collective defense, the US policy elite, both public and private, have embraced globalisation as a means of projecting US power, influence and values world-wide. That era has come to end for the time being, and so long as Trump is successful in pursing his “America First” strategy it will continue to be so.

That may or may not make America Great Again but it could well have a negative impact on those who seek mutual benefit by engaging with it. They will be asked to do more, pay more and offer more concessions in order to be granted US favour.

In the absence of an alternative, that is an unenviable position to be in. But if alternatives are available, then the current moment in US politics provides a window of opportunity to countries that have found themselves marginalised by Trump’s policy directives. The re-orientation of TPPA is one such opportunity because, if for no other reason, a US return to the TPPA fold in the post-Trump era will see it with much less leverage than it had up until now. Add to that the possibility of increased benefits via a renegotiated deal with the remaining and possibly new partners, and the downside of the US withdrawal seems acceptable.

From a smaller nation perspective, that is a good thing.

War for war’s sake?

datePosted on 13:28, January 17th, 2017 by Pablo

An article in a US magazine about the Senate confirmation hearings of US Secretary of Defense nominee General (ret.) James Mattis struck a chord. The author pointed out that the hearings basically involved patsy questions that were designed to elicit the standard responses about the US having the “greatest” military on earth but (somehow, given that it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined) needed much more money to counter myriad threats. That allowed Senators to push weapons programs being built in their home states such as the F-35 fighter jet and the next generation of nuclear submarines (all of which Mattis said the US needed and the acquisition of which he supported). The sense one gets from the hearings is that it was a stitch up so long as Mattis threw the usual sops to the usual pork barreling crowd.

No questions were asked of Matthis as to why the US goes to war and why, after being constantly embroiled in wars big and small for a quarter century and currently involved publicly in at least eight conflicts (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan), the US has failed to achieve a victory in any of them. What is the point of going to war if the result is inconclusive (Libya), a stalemate (Afghanistan) or a defeat (which Iraq can be considered if one looks at the national and regional situation before and after the US invasion)?  Or is the purpose now simply to feed a military-industrial complex that increasingly occupies a vanguard position in the US economy (even more so than when Dwight Eisenhower warned against the dangers of the complex that led him to coin that phrase)?

It seems that the answer is the latter. But it is worth delving into the backdrop to war-mongering for war and profit’s sake.

There are wars of necessity, wars of opportunity and wars of convenience. Justification for war is usually made on the grounds that they are fought defensively for existential purposes, in the face of grave threats to the nation-state. This is the basis of Laws of War (Jus ad Bellum) arguments. Even so, larger powers may engage (“expeditionary”) wars of offensive opportunity or convenience, most often against smaller or weaker states, if they feel that they can produce an outcome that enhances their international position or achieve a specific goal (political, military or economic). The US invasion of Iraq was a war of opportunity, as the neocons leading the US security apparatus thought that they could redraw the post 9/11 political map of the Middle East by removing Saddam and placing, as it was referred to at the time, a land based aircraft carrier full of US troops in between Iran and Syria that would intimidate both of them. Afghanistan may or may not have been a war of necessity. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan itself did not pose an existential threat to the US, but its aiding and abetting of the 9/11 conspirators, to say nothing of the repercussions of the attacks themselves, advised in favour of a strike against the al-Qaeda safe havens located in that country. Then the conflict morphed into something else. Nation-building, peace enforcement, counter-insurgency, regime support–you name it, but all of these renamed conflict justifications have one common theme: no victory or end in sight.

Russia’s incursions into Georgia and the Ukraine were and are wars of opportunity that have allowed it to reinforce its border buffer areas, something that has been a tenet of Russian geopolitical thought dating back to the Czars. Likewise, Russian involvement in Syria is opportunistically designed to defend the Alawite regime (with or without Assad at its helm), protect Russian interests in Syria (including 100,000 Russian citizens as well as the naval base at Tartus), and increase Russian influence throughout the Middle East in the face of US reluctance to commit significant force in Syria during the Obama administration.

China has claimed that any move to deny it possession of the disputed artificial islands it has built on reefs in the South China Sea will be seen as an existential threat leading to a major regional war. Whether a bluff or not, it is clear that China has used the opportunity provided by US reluctance to confront it early in the island-building process as a means of expanding its littoral claims in accordance with the “three island chain” or “string of pearls” maritime strategy it has long promoted but until recently has not been able to implement (and in which the South China Sea is considered to be Chinese territorial waters within the first or innermost island chain).

Generally speaking, the syllogism upon which wars are fought goes like this: geopolitical position (including diplomatic, economic and security partnerships)–> threat environment–> strategic orientation–> force composition–> weapons acquisition–> tactical orientation–> force deployment–> operational tempo. Depending on the specific nature of this syllogism, nation-states wage wars of an existential, convenience or opportunistic sort. For example, as a small isolated maritime nation New Zealand should, by virtue of the logic embedded in this syllogism, have a naval dominant defensive force structure that emphasis anti-access/area denial capabilities over its littoral waters and sea lines of communication.

However, in practice the NZDF is an Army dominant force with limited blue water naval projection, no air supremacy component and a special operations branch (the SAS) that mainly serves in overseas expeditionary roles that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland. The reason is that force composition is not just product of physical defense needs but also of alliance commitments and international politics, something that has seen the NZDF deployed in foreign combat zones that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland since the end of World War 2.

That returns us to the US and its penchant for continuous war without victory. Regardless of what US politicians say or how “great” its military is, the US is a declining super power transiting from unipolar dominance to great power status in a multipolar world. Yet even when it was the international hegemon it was not clear that it had a full grasp of the need to have strategic coherence before it went to war. For example, for the entire post Cold War period and existing yet to this day, the US claims that it has a “2.5 major regional war” fighting capability (2.5 MRW). That is, it can simultaneously fight two and a half (whatever that means) major regional wars unassisted and prevail in all of them. But the reality is clearly not the case. The US not only cannot fight and prevail in the 2.5 MRW scenario, but it has needed multinational assistance to fight (and still not decisively prevail) in those that it has fought in the last 15 years.

The US makes weapons procurements that are designed to counter a mix of threats without establishing a hierarchy amongst them. The US spends more money on weapons technologies than any other country by a far stretch. In fact, US “defense” spending and the justifications for it are akin to the arguments about the US health system–and the results are similar (high costs tied to corporate manipulation, much technological innovation, excellent high-end delivery systems but less than desired outcomes across the board for the nation as a whole).

US strategic incoherence is rooted in broader disagreements about the thrust of US foreign policy.  Realists, neo-realists, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists compete for foreign policy dominance, yet no single school of thought has prevailed since the mid 1980s (idealists and constructivists had a brief moment in the sun under the first Clinton administration but were soon smothered by the weight of international events). Both the political elite as well as the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies are rendered by divisions amongst these competing theoretical camps, something that has made impossible a coherent approach to the application of armed force in foreign theatres (let it be noted that the US foreign policy and strategic approach has largely been guided by liberal interventionist precepts since the Bush 43 administration, but not to the extent that it has coalesced into a comprehensive theoretical framework for the conduct of US international affairs).

That is the crux of the matter. It is not just, as vulgar Marxists would say, that the military-industrial complex dominates US foreign policy because of its neo-imperialist imperative. There is something to that, but the real bottom line is that without a coherent strategic vision that connects the resort to war to the national, as opposed to corporate interest, then the latter will step into the vacuum and prevail in discussions about national security.

Wrap those discussions in nationalist/patriotic rhetoric festooned with flags and military paraphernalia at everything from car dealerships to football games, add incessant rhetoric about valour and sacrifice defending “freedom,” “democracy” or the US “way of life,” push the uncritical veneration of a “hero” or “warrior” military culture, and you have, in the absence of a genuine strategic rationale for going to war, the trumped up (yes, I did go there) reasons for turning the US into an incessant but ineffectual war machine. Glorification of war as a PR exercise over the course of decades and commercially tied to the minutia of American life is the opiate that feeds public delusion that the US should be the world’s laws enforcement agency and can in fact win any war.

The result is that the US increasingly looks and acts like a jumped up version of the former USSR–a steroid-jacked muscleman with deteriorated internal systems having trouble coping with anger management issues. Yet unlike the USSR, which tested its muscles selectively and avoided constant physical engagement in wars of convenience (and still fell), the US is a muscleman that is always looking for trouble. And trouble it has found.

The strategically incoherent yet endless resort to war in pursuit of profit is one major reason for the US decline. I shall address others in a post to follow.

Cross-Link: New Zealand on the UN Security Council.

datePosted on 08:11, December 13th, 2016 by Pablo

I was asked by the nice people at the Briefing Papers to write a short essay on NZ’s recent tenure on the UN Security Council. Here it is.

It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

datePosted on 17:13, November 24th, 2016 by Pablo

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

Sailing aboard the SS Futility.

datePosted on 15:09, November 16th, 2016 by Pablo

The RNZN is celebrating its 75 anniversary through this upcoming weekend, with 18 foreign warships attending the events. There will be fleet review on Saturday and an open house on the ships on Sunday.  An exhibition of international naval history will be open throughout the week on the Auckland waterfront.

For the first time in three decades the US is sending a warship to NZ waters as part of the event. In doing so the US acknowledges and accepts NZ’s non-nuclear stance and the NZ government confirms that it can verify that the ship is non-nuclear propelled and armed via independent means (and quiet diplomacy). The ship in question is the USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Other nuclear powers represented at the celebration are China and India (and France and UK in lesser capacity), as well as a host of regional navies including Australia, Indonesia, Japan and several Pacific Island states. Ships from Singapore, South Korea and Canada will also participate.

The NZ Defense Industry Association is running its annual Forum concurrently with the RNZN celebrations. It gives NZ defense-oriented businesses an opportunity to take advantage of the presence of foreign military commanders in order to hawk their wares as well as exploit the opportunities provided by the NZ$20 billion in capability upgrades announced by the MoD/NZDF for the next fifteen years. Needless say, the combination of events has elicited opposition from a variety of groups.

Protestors have already blocked the venue of the defense industry meetings and more protests are scheduled for the next four days, including a flotilla on Saturday when the fleet will be on review in the Waitemata Harbour. Interestingly, some moron posing as a National MP suggested that the Terrorism Supression Act be amended to include protest flotillas as “terrorists” because they might terrorise the crews of the warships by accidentally getting run over by them. So much for intelligent representation but who knows, maybe someone at the defense industry Forum will have a marketable idea about non-lethal anti-dinghy defences that are designed to deal with such contingencies.

There seems to be several different elements in the protests. There are pacifists who are against the presence of warships of any sort as well as those who profit from the misery of war. There are those who are against the so-called “death merchants” but who do not necessarily object to naval forces (perhaps seeing them as a necessary evil). There are those who are anti-nuclear. There are those who are anti-imperialist. There are those who support indigenous sovereignty. There are those who are anti-American. There is some overlap between these factions but the core appears to be focused on two things: the defense industry Forum and the presence of the USS Sampson as symbolic of conjoined war-mongering evils.

Although one can not really argue against being opposed to “death merchants,” the reality is that like the tip of an iceberg, weapons manufacturers are a relatively small percentage of those exhibiting at the Forum (although major weapons providers like Lockheed Martin are major sponsors of it). Most of the NZ defense industry are logistics and support providers who often also have civilian branches to their businesses (for example, drone manufacturers, navigational technology suppliers and search and rescue equipment providers). At worst, one might consider them “enablers” rather than direct purveyors of instruments of death. Be that as it may, it is understandable why pacifists are opposed to the Forum. Simplistic, naive and righteous, but understandable.

The issue of the warships is a bit more complex. Although there are plenty of pacifists who are opposed to the entire notion of celebrating naval forces, many of the protestors appear to be more focused on protesting the presence of a US warship. This includes some of the ostensibly anti-nuclear types, who seem to have given a pass to the Chinese and Indians while focusing on the US boat. The same is true of the anti-imperialist crowd, who also are concentrating their attentions of the USS Sampson but seem unconcerned about the neo-imperialist ventures of other countries represented, to say nothing of the unhappy histories of places like Indonesia or Chile (whose visiting training ship Esmeralda was used as a prison for political prisoners during the Pinochet era). So that basically means that much of the protesters are anti-American more than anything else.

That stance has been made a bit harder to justify now that the USS Sampson has been diverted to do earthquake relief duties in Kaikura. After all, it is hard not to look silly when the focus of your protests is on a ship that is involved in humanitarian relief operations on your home soil and yet you ignore the authoritarian and often repressive histories of other countries represented in the visiting fleet. This is particularly true if the crowds at the naval expo, watching the fleet review and waiting to board the ships on open house day are larger than the number of demonstrators. Clearly they are not getting the message the protestors want to impart on them.

So the question is: what is the point of the protests?

If the answer is to support pacifism in its opposition to anything connected to war regardless of the ancillary civilian benefits of naval power such as disaster relief and regardless of public attitudes towards the military, then so be it. But if the answer is to selectively protest against the US and defense industry regardless of circumstance, well, that seems to be more of a futile gesture than a public education action.

The last thing the NZ Left needs to be seen as is silly and futile.

What a bummer.

datePosted on 13:02, November 13th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, THAT sucked. Myself and a zillion other pundits got the US election wrong. In fact, pretty much everyone with a Ph.D. in Political Science got it wrong as well as most veteran political journalists. The reasons are many but the moral of the story is that so-called experts armed with reams of data still cannot accurately predict the mood of an electorate that may lie to pollsters or remain undecided until election day. “Experts” like empirical data and believe in reasoned voting choices when studying well established liberal democracies, so are ill-equipped to comprehend seemingly irrational voting behaviour based on raw emotion, visceral reaction and religious belief in the false promises of demagogues. The anecdotal evidence was there from Trump’s rallies and the bluebonnet fields of Trump/Pence signs on suburban lawns. But those of us with advanced degrees and years of studying politics ignored it in favour of quasi-scientific methodologies that provided a numbers crunch to our opinions. We saw what we wanted to see rather than what was.

There is no point in trying to do a post-mortem on what happened. Plenty of others are doing so. I did find it interesting that Trump received less votes than Romney and McCain in the 2012 and 2008 elections, respectively, and that 6 million less people voted this year than in 2012 and 10 million less than in 2008. In fact, nearly 47 percent of the electorate did not vote, giving Clinton (as the majority vote getter) and Trump around 25.7-25.5 percent of the popular vote overall. The bottom line is that the absent voters, presumably those who would have voted Democratic but could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, decided the outcome by staying home.

As for those who decry the Electoral College because this is the second time in 16 years that a Democrat wins the general vote but loses the presidential election in the Electoral College: tough luck. Hillary played the Electoral College game, focusing on so-called battleground states and apparently neglecting those states considered solid Democrat such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Since the base of that presumed solidity was the rust belt white working class that Trump targeted preferentially, that was clearly a mistake (both Michigan and Wisconsin went to Trump).

Much has been made about the class angle to the election but I also think that we should not forget Trump’s idealogical appeal–the xenophobic scapegoating, the racism, the bigotry, the misogyny posing as anti-PC righteousness. Perhaps not all of his supporters are closet Klansman, but it is clear that to many in the white working and middle classes that aspect of Trump’s ideological appeal resonated strongly. The intersection of class and exclusionary ideological appeal was found in grievance and fear, and that grievance and fear transcended employment concerns. Make of it what you will.

The vaunted female and Latino vote against Trump never materialised. In fact, the defensive voting surge that I repeatedly predicted would happen never did. Instead, it seems that people just stayed at home thinking that, given the polls, others would do the job for them. Even so, had those under the age of 35 been the only voters, Hillary would have won walking away. So the future holds some promise when it comes to progressive change, but for the meantime things could get worse and, if acts of hatred and protests are anything to go by, that has already started.

For those who think that Bernie Sanders would have done better against Trump, I say think again. That is because primary campaigns are run in parallel while looking at each other. Had Bernie emerged as the Democratic nominee Trump would not have won the Republican nomination. The GOP would have made a negative issue of Sander’s “outsider” status and marginalised the outsider on its side. Money would have poured into backing a more establishment figure who could take Sanders to task for his “socialism” and his vague and unrealistic policy prescriptions. Sanders would find it hard to counter the false accusations about his supposed communist leanings because the Democratic establishment would not have backed him as strongly as it did Clinton. He may also have failed to transfer the energy of his primary supporters into sustainable support from swing voters on the campaign trail as many undecided and independent voters would react fearfully to the dark accusations of what his ideological orientation would bring for the US.

Whatever the case, this is all idle speculation. We got the matchup that we got and for most of us Hillary was a safe bet even if we had to hold our noses when voting for her (and again, I flatly reject the notion that she somehow is “worse” or more corrupt than any other contemporary politician. If people believe that they need to look at who funds the Bush Foundation and the campaign coffers of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).

My hopes now hinge on two things: 1) that once in office Trump will find his freedom of action circumscribed by the practical, legal, institutional and political realities surrounding him. This will force him to abandon or renege on many of his more outrageous campaign promises, which in turn will disappoint many of those who have vested their hopes in him but will mitigate against some of the more onerous consequences of what he could have done; and 2) that his lack of political experience and commitment to Republican principles and policies (remember that he only switched from Democrat to Republican in 2010) will lead to a serious clash with the GOP congressional leadership. That could hurt the GOP in the 2018 elections where all of the House and a third of the Senate will be up for (re) election as well as his re-election bid two years later.

Be that as it may, these are dark times for people such as myself. The Right may gloat and think that they now rule supreme (and we have had a couple of such folk appear here on KP), but I have a feeling that Trump’s victory is a crest of a wave or the last stand of the American Right. Neither demographics or policy orientation appear to favour the GOP and alt-Right over the long-term, so perhaps this is their last moment to shine.

I sure hope so.

Meanwhile, I thnnk I will have a cup of tea and a lie down.

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

Trump is Toast

datePosted on 13:21, October 11th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, all good things must come to an end.

But first, let’s play word association:

Authoritarian Populist.

Racist. Bigot. Xenophobe.

Bully. Buffoon. Bankrupt.

War-mongerer. Torture fan. Genocidal Demagogue.

Narcissistic Sociopath. Tax evader. Ignorant blowhard.

Serial Liar. Serial Cheat. Serial adulterer.

Thin skinned. Egomaniac. Coward.

Lecher.

Sexual predator.

Whose name comes to mind when these words are mentioned?

Conservative spin aside, there is no coming back from this. The destruction of brand Trump is unfolding before our eyes and soon will be complete.

Let’s unpack the video outtakes from his 2005 Access Hollywood appearance in order to explain the reasons why.

In it he speaks of pursuing a married woman. That will cost him religious conservative votes as well as those from people who take a dim view of home-wreckers.

He then boasts that he has a pre-meditated strategy to swallow breath mints before he forcibly kisses women without their consent. He goes on to say that because he is a “star” he can grope women’s genitals with impunity. These are admissions of repeated sexual assault. That is going to cost him much more than female votes, as many in the law and order crowd, to say nothing of men who have real respect for their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and grand daughters will walk away from a self-admitted practitioner of such criminal behaviour (say what you want about Bill Clinton, there is no audio recording in his own voice of him admitting to sexual assault).

In his non-apologies he claims that the crude and lewd language he used during the now infamous bus ride is just “locker room banter.” Besides the fact that many have pointed out that it is not, in fact, normal athlete talk to speak the way he did, what he is basically saying is that (presumably male) locker rooms are places where discussion of sexual assault is common place. If that is true, then what he is speaking about–and dismissing–is a particular aspect of rape culture. True or not (and there is definitely a problem with rape cultures in some areas of US society), the fact that he downplays the seriousness of boasting about sexual assault (whether real or made up) is indicative of deeply seated misogyny on his part. This may have been something that he could get away with twenty years ago, but it is not now.

Better yet, Trump is a wrecking ball that is bringing the Republican Party down with him as the GOP rats scramble to get off that sinking ship known as the 2016 campaign. They have to jump because the word association game that we just played will be attached to those who do not. Already 50 Republican elected officials are trying to put distance between themselves and Trump, including the House Majority Leader and 14 Senators. The focus of the Republicans is keeping their House and Senate majorities, and that looks to be increasingly in peril in the Senate (where a shift of 4 seats restores a Democratic majority).

In parallel, the media facilitators at the alternative universe known as Fox News are also in full meltdown mode as the Trump sycophants (Sean Hannity) publicly quarrel with other colleagues (Meghan Kelly, Shepard Smith) in a crisis environment brought about by the forced resignation of another sexual predator, Roger Ailes, as CEO of the network.

These are the worst of times. These are the best of times.

The forces of evil in the US are in disarray, on the run and looking for whatever (political) cover they can find. But there is no place to hide.

This year November 8 is not just election day. It is not just judgement day for the GOP.

It is armageddon for US conservatism. The end is nigh.

The real questions now are what will the Democrats do with the gift of Republican self-destruction? Will the Clinton administration heed the lessons of the election and integrate at least some aspects of Bernie Sanders’ policy prescriptions into it? Will the Democratic Congressional leadership seize the opportunity to consolidate or pursue legislative gains in areas such as health care, education, campaign finance reform and taxation? Will the Supreme Court nominations made by the Clinton administration ensure a “progressive” majority for decades to come?

For their part, will the unsavoury forces unleashed by the Trump campaign crawl back under their rocks or will they turn into a violent disloyal opposition? Will the GOP split into “moderate” and retrograde wings and if so who will dominate conservative discourse? What lessons will the Republicans take away from this disaster? Will those lessons teach them civility or even more darker modes of behaviour?

Time will tell but for the moment we can only thank The Donald for his efforts.

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