Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

One of the ironies of the perennial Middle Eastern conflict is how the Western democratic Left shifted from a pro-Israeli position (held until the 1970s), to an anti-Israeli position during the last three decades. Much of this is Israel’s own fault, as its continued expansion into, and occupation of Palestinian lands in violation of the 1967 and 1973 war settlements, to say nothing of the Camp David accords, has re-cast its image to that of an imperialist oppressor rather than besieged liberal democracy surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab despots and medieval theocratic zealots.

 

Yet Israel remains the sole functioning democracy in Middle East (Turkey is further afield and excluded from this analysis for argument purposes), one that if, in a process of increasing decay (think the Olmert and Sharon corruption scandals),  internal polarisation (think of the political ascendence of the rabid orthodox Right and its impact on Israeli settlement policy) and restrictions on the political  and civil rights of Arab Israelis and the Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories, remains in stark contrast to the autocracies or facade democracies that, even if pro-Western, surround it. In terms of social toleration, gender and economic equality, and freedom of expression, Israel remains ahead of all of its neighbours. In fact, Israel is a classic social democracy whose betrayal of its basic principles has also been seen in the negative fortunes of its Labour Party, something that has only been partially been compensated by a rising peace movement in opposition to Likud and its religious zealot allies (it should be noted that most of the orthodix Jewish zealots are fairly recent foreign immigrants from the US and Russia, and not second or third generation Israelis).

 

But the view that Israel, in spite of its grave flaws, remains a country worth supporting  is a view that can no longer be safely voiced in Left circles and is in fact now a minority opinion. Instead, the Palestianian struggle has become the main Left cause celebre as an expression of anti-imperialism, no matter that both Hamas and Fatah are intensely authoritarian political organisations with little socialist inclination, the former acting not only as militant counter to the “betraying” moderation (and corruption) of the latter, but also acting as a proxy (along with Hizbullah) for Iranian influence in the Eastern Mediterrean (Iran being an elected authoritarian-theocratic regime in which basic civil liberties are, to put it gently,  seriously curtailed). Moreover, Hamas in government in Gaza has been anything but democratic in its treatment of internal dissent, so even if it was voted in fairly (much to the US and Israel’s dismay), it has not made good on its promises to bring democratic governance to its beleaguered people. The larger point being that Israel may suck as a democracy, but its neighbours and opponents may suck just as bad or worse.

 

Thus, if one is on the Left side of the Western political spectrum and expresses a sympathy for Israel in spite of its flaws, even if only in comparison to its neighbours and the character of Palestinian political society,  then one risks being pilloried by ideologically kindred spirits.

 

On the other hand, if one points out the illegality of Israeli occupation of land in Gaza and the West Bank, and the illegality of the ongoing settlement of Palestianian lands, and/or notes the deterioration of Israeli democracy, then one risks being labeled an anti-Semite by Israeli sympathizers and the political Right. These see no fault in Israel and no good in Palestianians. Their fear of Islamicism overrides their concern Israel’s political decadence and its overtly bellicose approach to regional affairs. They see and hear no evil when it comes to Israel.

 

There is no point in arguing, as many do, about who came first to that part of the world–Jews, Arabs or Christians. Arguing about who came first 2000+ years ago does not advance one iota the prospects for a peaceful settlement of current disputes (there is a parallel here to the “we were here first” arguments of some Maori activists). Nor does it do any good to re-visit the circumstances surrounding Israel’s founding as a nation-state (much like there is little point in arguing the legitimacy of European colonisation of Aotearoa). The fact is that Israel (like Pakeha) is (are) not going anywhere.

 

Israel is here to stay regardless of whether its neighbours or non-state adversaries may wish it not to or plan for its demise. Thus, the real point of departure for any prospect for peace is admission of the fact. Sadat recognised this and paid for it with his life. In turn Rabin recognised that Israel needed to deal as equals with its Palestianian counterparts and paid for that view with his life. Perhaps it is fair to say, then, that there are those on both sides (and inside and outside the Middle East) who have a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict rather than solving it, and they do so by dredging up historical grievances and past offenses as one means of doing so.

 

Needless to say there is a fair bit of anti-Semeticism in the opposition to Israel, particularly that voiced in Muslim and some Christian fundamentalist circles. And, needless to say, the heretofore seemingly blind US support for Israel has very much made it the tail that wags the US dog when it comes to Middle Eastern policy and has contributed to Israeli intransigence and defiance when it addresses international conventions (something that may be shifting as a result of the Netanyahu government’s latest affronts to US attempts to re-start the so-called “peace process”). But opposition to Israeli occupation is not reducible to anti-Semeticism or anti-US beliefs. Instead, it can rest on a principled opposition to illegal behaviour on the part of a democratic state that more than most should understand the long-term consequences of oppression and inequality. Israel may continue to feel besieged (although truth be told many Arab states de facto accept its existance, so much of the siege mentality is driven by domestic ideological competition) but much of the opposition to it now has to do not with its origins or ethno-religious character but with its current behaviour.

 

The current rift in US-Israeli relations is a moment to drive that point home, devoid of the emotional and ideological baggage that has impeded rational discussion about the way forwards towards a durable peace. It remains to be seen whether those with a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict, be they from the Left or Right, will accept that to be the case.

 

Forewarning: Comments that attempt to rehash historical disputes (i.e. the “who came first” or “Israel’s founding was illegal” arguments) will be deleted simply because they add nothing to what has been said ad nauseum already. Likewise for personal attacks on what some might take to be my position one way or the other. In the latter case the point will have been missed that what I am trying to do here is steer a middle course through the ideological minefield that surrounds discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. 

Outsourcing Counter-Espionage.

datePosted on 15:46, March 16th, 2010 by Pablo

The SIS recently released its 2008-2009 annual report. I will be analyzing it in further detail in a future “Word from Afar” column over at Scoop. However, I thought I would provide readers with a glimpse of one aspect of its activities that called my attention.

On page 14 (out of 29) of the report, in the section titled “Intelligence and Advice to Government,” under the heading “Counter-Espionage,” the following quote summarizes the SIS approach towards countering foreign espionage activities in NZ: “The Counter-Espionage (CE) efforts identifies and frustrates acts of espionage against New Zealand or New Zealanders. We give advice to internal and external stakeholders and disrupt, where appropriate and usually via a third party, espionage activities prejudicial to New Zealand’s national security” (emphasis mine).

Beyond the fact that the SIS does not mention whether, in fact, any foreign espionage actually occurred during the time period in question (I would assume that it did), much less the precise nature of such activities, two points in that sentence are worth noting. First, the mention of external stakeholders. Who might they be? It is obvious who the internal stakeholders are-the government and other NZ agencies. But who, exactly, are the external stakeholders? Who would have a “stake-holding” interest in foreign espionage activities in or involving NZ: Australia? France? The US? UK? Private agents/ies?

That brings up the second and more interesting point. The SIS claims that it usually disrupts foreign espionage via “third party.” Again, who is this party or parties? We can assume that the SIS uses the Police, the GCSB (for electronic and technical counter-measures), the NZDF and perhaps Customs and other government security agencies as part of this effort (since it would be alarming if it it used just one third party for all of its counter-espionage “disruption” tasks). But does the reference to third parties include foreign governments and/or private or non-governmental agencies such as private security firms? Given that private security agencies have recently spied on environmental activists on behalf of  public and private corporations in NZ, it is not a stretch to wonder if this type of out-sourcing is also used by the SIS. Such a privatization of intelligence operations opens a potential cans of worms with regards to civil rights and the blurring of the lines between proper governmental authority and profit-driven interest. If indeed private agencies are used for counter-intelligence operations, who are they? Does that include foreign firms as well as NZ privateers (such as Xe, the re-branded name for Blackwater, which has its own intelligence and counter-intelligence branches)? Hence, an explanation as to who are these third parties appears to be in order (not that I expect that we will receive one).

Moreover, could it be possible that the SIS also contracts to foreign governments counter-intelligence tasks on NZ soil or on behalf of NZ “interests?” Is that not a violation of sovereignty? Or is it simply expedient to do so given NZ’s lack of capabilities in this field?  Does the public have a right to know about such things? More specifically, does the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security (all 5 members) have knowledge of who these third parties are? If so, are they content with the arrangement, and on what specific grounds (such as oversight and accountability)? Again, the questions raised by this simple mention in the SIS report are both numerous and troubling.

I will leave for the larger essay the implication that the SIS does not have the capability to engage in counter-espionage operations on its own, particularly in its human component. That is worrisome in itself, but also is the reason for the third party outsourcing.

The full report is here: http://img.scoop.co.nz/media/pdfs/1002/nzsisar09.pdf

That is the title of the talk I will be giving at the AUT Pacific Media Centre in Auckland on Friday February 12 at 5PM. I am starting to formulate the bases of the talk now because I arrive in Auckland just a couple of days before it happens, so I thought that I would kill two birds with one stone by outlining my thoughts on the matter here. Call it a trial run.

For all the comment about growth, Asian Values and a geopolitical shift towards the East, SE Asia (Indochina) and the Western Pacific are a region suffering from poor governance, primordial divisions and simmering conflict. All of this is influenced by the US-China competition for influence in the Western Pacific, and has significant consequences for the long-term future of places like New Zealand.  Let me outline the major reasons why.

1) Democracy. Where and such as it exists, democracy in SE Asia and the Pacific is a joke. Looking from the South China Sea southwards, the “democracies” in question–Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand (if it can be called that),  the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and those grouped under the rubric of the Pacific Island Forum, are hotbeds of populist demagoguery, corruption, criminal influence, ethno- religious division and electoral manipulation. With the exception of Indonesia, which has made good strides towards holding legitimately open and competitive elections and which has seen the “democratization” of civil-military relations for the first time in its history (but which below the procedural level remains profoundly authoritarian), the state of democracy throughout the Western Pacific Rim is pallorous to say the least. Taiwan is essentially rule by organised crime with a semi-civilised electoral facade using Cold War ideological precepts as dividing points (the same corporate/criminal networks fund and provide organisational support to both major parties and economic prosperity buys off any pointed examination of the regime). The Philippines and Malaysia are oligarchic rule with populist veneers in which ethnic and religious appeals contribute to centrifugal, often outright conflictual political competition (Malaysia still has Sultanates who lord over their geographic areas and the Philippines has regional overlords who rule as neo-feudal political bosses). Thailand is a certifiable basket case on too many levels to count (e.g., thieving politicians, sectarian mobs, a comatose monarch that cannot be criticised because of purportedly god-like attributes, a seriously fractured military hierarchy involved in political skullduggery and murder). East Timor is a failed state that has shown little or no signs of development in spite of millions of dollars of UN aid and a contingent of Kiwi, Australian and Portuguese peacekeepers and civilian nation-building advisers. The Cooks, New Caledonia and Tahiti are post-colonial protectorates in which what gets protected is the corporate interests and life-style of the servitor local elite. Or in other words, the Pacific Island democracies are oligarchic or crony rule by another name.

That gives legitimacy to the authoritarians in their midst. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore are all relatively “soft” authoritarian regimes with electoral facades. Myanmar is a hard authoritarian regime whose best trading partners are its authoritarian neighbors (especially Singapore, and to the North, China). Brunei is a semi-medieval oil Sultanate. Fiji is a military-bureaucratic regime, Tonga is a degenerate monarchy that Samoa is working hard to emulate.  All of these dictatorships, be they junta, party, personalist or elected in nature, point to the inefficiencies and disorder of their democratic neighbours as “proof” that Western style (read: liberal) democracy is ill-suited for Asian/Pacific societies. Often couched in “Asian Value” or “Island style” arguments (which is no more than an ideological justification based on revisionist historical interpretations by authoritarian elites that have no basis in current actual fact), the authoritarian claim is that the Asian and Pacific Island psyche and civil society (such as it exists) is simply not amenable to Western-imposed democratic standards. There may be some truth to the Asian civil society argument, because there is a noticeable absence of volunteerism and solidarity with non-ethnic, religious or linguistic kin regardless of common nationality. But that is not the issue. Whatever the root cause, the bottom line is that the quality of democracy in the Pacific Rim is poor at best, miserable at worst, and in all cases a comparative justification for authoritarians throughout the region writ large.

2) Arms races. SE Asia is in the midst of a dramatic arms race. Fueled by strong economic growth and spurred by emerging power rivals China and India’s military modernization programs, every single country in SE Asia is upgrading and expanding its military capabilities. All of the SE Asian countries spend more than 3% of GDP on “defense,” (in line with Chinese and Indian outlays as a percentage of GDP),  with some like Singapore allocating 6% of GDP to  its military. Beyond the controversial US weapons sale to Taiwan that has the Chinese in a snit, Malaysia has ordered new submarines and an entire tactical air wing from European and Russian suppliers. The Singaporeans, Thais, Filipinos and Indonesians are preferred US weapons customers all in the midst of major force upgrades, whereas Myanmar purchases a mix of Chinese, North Korean and Western weaponry (often using Singapore as a conduit and middleman). In the case of the authoritarians, defense expenditures include regime defense as well as external threat deterrence and countervailing. The democracies focus more on a mix of internal security and traditional external concerns. This has led, among other things, to a counter-insurgency focus in the Philippines and Thailand (in which Islamicist insurgencies show no signs of being defeated), with external defense taking a secondary role, whereas in Indonesia and Malaysia the external defense role is now paramount. Among other things, the mix of strategic perspectives and push to rearm has led to armed border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia (over the border placement of a temple), Vietnam and Cambodia, and Myanmar and Cambodia (one might argue from this that the Cambodians have issues). Malaysia has picked arguments with both Indonesia and Singapore about relative weapons capabilities, piracy and border controls. The reason why these fragile democracies act belligerently is that irresponsible politicians pursuing electoral agendas engage in both domestic ethnic/religious/race-baiting as well as jingoistic appeals in order to consolidate popular support. Be it originated in government or opposition, these appeals have a corrosive effect on both domestic democratic tolerance as well as regional peace. Even piracy, a problem that all of the region’s governments agree is a common scourge, is in fact abetted by willful government inaction–for example, Malaysian pirates ply the Eastern Malaysian coast with some impunity (especially east of Tiomen Island and North of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), while Indonesian pirates do the same in the Western reaches of the Malaccan Straits. In each case the pursuit of pirates is seen by rivals as a drain on military resources better spent elsewhere, which makes passive facilitation of pirate activity a neat form of low-level proxy attritional warfare. The same goes for cross-border guerrilla havens (say, in northern Malaysia or Sabah), where insurgents are provided sanctuary by governments with ethno-religious rather than national interests at the heart of their concerns.

3) The China-US strategic competition. Since I have written about this before I shall not repeat myself. The bottom line here is that the competition between the US and China over strategic influence in the Western Pacific Rim has seen both powers increasingly disregard issues of good governance in favor of straight influence-peddling. This adds to the issues mentioned above, as arms and influence buy favors in a measure that principled support for democracy does not. Beyond so-called cash diplomacy, foreign aid and military-to-military relations, this includes ostensibly “free” trade relations with authoritarians or weak democrats whose interests are more self-serving than what the language of trade agreements suggests, and who use the legitimating mantle of trade with liberal democratic states as further proof that their rule is just.

I shall leave aside for the moment the role of organised crime in all of this, particularly with regard to its relationship to trade and elected government. Suffice it to say that the picture is not pretty.

Thus my tentative prognosis is that, rather than moving towards an era of peace, stability and growth in the Western Pacific, we are about to find out what the dark side of globalisation looks like, at least in terms of its manifestation in this part of the world. And that can be summed up in one word: conflict, both of an internal as well as of a cross-border sort.

Lesson for the NZ government (not that it would listen): Know exactly who you are dealing with and the context in which your dealings occur. Be risk adverse, pragmatic and principled in your approach to medium term futures. Hedge against uncertainty  and beware of the temptation of  positive short-term economic horizons that are divorced from the political risk environments in which they occur. Do not allow ideological belief to blind you to the political, social and economic realities on the ground. This is not a Lehman Brothers world–and it ain’t Confucian either.

Blog Link: Why the NZDF is in Afghanistan

datePosted on 13:10, January 26th, 2010 by Pablo

Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist  ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation. 

To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.

Former Cosmopolitan Magazine nude pinup boy Scott Brown’s victory in the special election to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is a body blow to the Democrats and Obama administration, especially with regard to its attempts at healthcare reform. The pundits have already well dissected the reasons for the first GOP senatorial victory in Massachusetts since Edward Brooke’s tenure ended in 1979. Voter anger with the Washington “establishment,” the role of the Tea party movement, the arrogance and complacency of the Coakley campaign–all of these factors made for a decisive electoral shift that will have significant repercussions outside of the state in which the original tea party took place. That much is clear.

But what have the good people of Massachusetts got for their preference? For one thing, they have a rookie Senator who has no national-level experience at all and just ten years of legislative experience in a very liberal state. Nor does he have any executive experience. In fact, Barack Obama looks like an elder statesman in terms of previous experience when compared to the male model-turned politician. Moreover, Brown has been elected at a time of extraordinary anti-politician and anti-Washington sentiment that, even if born out of the mistakes of commission and omission of the Bush 43 administration, have seemingly been compounded by his successor. This has made for a highly volitile political climate that in turn has made extraordinarily attractive his vague populist appeals as a Washington “outsider,” something that traditionally resonates with a disgruntled electorate (and boy, are they disgruntled now!).

Why this matters is because of the arena in which he is about to enter. Much more so than in parliamentary systems (where party discipline and hierarchy often supersede the representational mandate, especially when List MPs are involved), elected officials representing states at the national level in the US Congress fulfill two roles: that of representatives and legislators. On the one hand, they represent the interests of their constituents, be it district (US House of Representatives) or state-wide (US Senate). This role is played up during electoral campaigns (hence Mr. Brown’s claim that he is a “Brown Republican” who will independently champion the interests of his state), and is much more important for US House representatives who are elected every two years. Senators, in contrast and by design, elected every six years and representing state-wide interests that can be quite heterogenous and often competing, tend to limit their appeals to the representative role to election season. Either way, that is only half of the equation.

Once in office, US congressmen and women become legislators. That means that they need to engage in the political bargaining and understanding of national-level issues as well as those that most immediately impact their individual constituencies. Sometimes these two levels of engagement–national and local–run against each other. The congressional legislator, by the nature of the US political process, must steer towards compromise rather than principle in most instances given the competing interests at play. Thus the legislator role often is at odds with the representative role, which is part of the reason why the Founding Fathers designed the two-chamber Congress (in order to allow the Senate to overcome the populist tendencies of House members). 

This is where Scott Brown is about to be schooled. As a novice Senator he will be at the bottom of the congressional pecking order. His appointment to committees, which is determined by a mix of seniority, trade-offs and patronage, will depend largely on how he “gets along” with his fellow Senators (committee work being the most important aspect of a senator’s job, as it is in committee where all bills are first considered). Since his victory is owed more to the tea bag movement and conservative media support rather than than of the GOP bloc in Congress, he is walking into a forum without much political cover. Moreover, he is a moderate Republican (for example, he supports abortion rights) in a party increasingly dominated by non-elected conservative fundamentalists. Sure, he will be lionised by the Republican National Committee and congressional bloc at first. But once the hard work of legislating begins, his representative appeal will have to take a back seat to the back room wheeling and dealing of which legislation is made (recall the old adage that the two things one never wants to see being made is sausage and US legislation). As a minority state senator in a one-party state like Massachusetts he has some notion of what that entails, but if he is to be more than a one-term Senator, he will have to lift his game exponentially given the national stage he is now playing on.

All of which means that his anti-Washington, anti-healthcare appeal, which was essentially a negative campaign about who he was not and what he opposed, now has to be transformed into a practice of pragmatic compromise and centrism unless, of course, he is hoping that GOP majorities will be restored in both Houses in the November 2010 mid-term elections. But even if that occurs, he still has to downplay his representative role in favor of his legislative obligations, at least until he is up for re-election. In a political moment where disenchantment and resentment is rampant throughout the electorate, that may turn out to be far harder than running a dark horse campaign against a lackluster opponent. But if he favours the representative role over the legislator role now that he is in office, he runs the risk of alienating his Senate colleagues and consequently be rendered hopelessly ineffectual in delivering on his promises. Either way, he has his work cut out for him, and his good looks are of no use in that context.

PS: Among many other things I will leave for the moment the conservative movement penchant for photogenic poster people over those with substantive political experience, or the potentially  (seemingly counter-intuitive) negative implications this outcome has for any NZ-US trade deal.

The election of Sebastian Pinera in Chile is the most dramatic example of the re-emergence of the electoral Right as a political force in Latin America. Although he is the son of one of Agusto Pinochet’s most infamous ministers (Jose “Pepe” Pinera, who crafted the Chilean labor code that became a blueprint for the NZ Employment Contracts Act and who was a personal friend of Roger Douglas and Roger Kerr), and parlayed his father’s ministerial position and influence to create a credit card empire that now sees him as one of Latin America’s richest men, Pinera used voter discontent with the long-running left-centre Concertacion coalition to propel himself as a candidate “for change.” In this he was the Chilean equivalent of John Key, because (besides their private sector wealth), both capitalised more on voter disenchantment with successful long-term Left governments than on offering any real change in policy direction. Instead, Pinera and Key rode a wave of sentiment in favor of change for change’s sake rather than on promises of policy re-direction, appealing to the centrist sentiment that prevails in both constituencies. The vote, in each instance, was more anti-incumbent than pro-alternative, and had little relation to the policy accomplishments of the defeated Left governments.

More importantly, Pinera represents the most recent example of Right party electoral success in Latin America, but his is not the only one. In Panama, a rightist won presidential elections last year. In Brazil and Costa Rica, right-centre candidates lead in the polls for this year’s presidential elections. In Peru, the centrist APRA government looks to be re-elected, and in Colombia and Mexico, rightist governments are in power (with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe looking to capitalise on his success against the FARC guerrillas by constitutionally extending his right to run for a third presidential term). Even in Argentina, the right-centre Union Civica Radical has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence as a result of the policy disasters of the (nominally Left) Peronist government led by the husband and wife team of Cristina Fernandez and Nestor Kirchner. Although it occurred under dubious circumstances due to the ouster of Leftist president Manuel Zelaya in June, the Honduran elections last November also produced a right-centre winner. Guatemala has been ruled by Rightists since open elections were restored in 1990. Thus, whether by hook or by crook, legitimate or not, the Latin American Right appears to be on the political rebound after more than a decade of predominantly Leftist rule.

To be sure, Left candidates won presidential elections in El Salvador and Uruguay last year, and Leftist governments  control Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Venezuela. The electoral balance may have tilted to the Right, but it is by no means a seismic shift. What makes it noteworthy, therefore, is its implications for democratic consolidation.

Students of regime transitions have noted two important yet distinct elections in the move towards regime consolidation in new democracies. The first is the so-called “foundational” election, which marks the formal end of authoritarianism and the ushering in of a new era of transparent electoral politics. In countries emerging from right-wing authoritarianism, foundational elections tend to be won by right-centre coalitions that do not threaten the core interests of the authoritarian support base, which is the price paid for the transition itself (this is part of the so-called “ethical compromise” by which incoming democratic elites reassure the authoritarian elite by among other things not challenging the market-driven economic model and by granting amnesty to security personnel for any atrocities committed, something that is required for the transition to occur but which has been challenged in court in several post-authoritarian countries, including Chile). In countries emerging from left-wing authoritarianism the reverse is often true, with former communists re-branding themselves in order to be more electorally appealing while continuing many of the policies of their predecessors in core areas of public policy (except, most importantly, macroeconomic policy).

That makes for the importance of the second type of election, known as the “consolidation” election. In this election, which can occur four, six, ten or dozens of years after the foundational election, power is electorally rotated to the opposition. That is to say, a democracy is not considered to be politically (or at least electorally) consolidated until the opposition has been given a chance to compete, win and rule. This gives the opposition a chance to prove its democratic credentials, especially in cases like Chile’s where it has previously been associated with authoritarianism. In Brazil, Uruguay and El Salvador, previously Left oppositions have turned out to be exemplary (and moderate) democratic governments. In Ecuador and Bolivia, Left governments of a more militant stripe carried over from days in opposition have nevertheless continued to enjoy considerable popularity and policy success. Nicaragua and Venezuela remain more problematic due to the authoritarian predilections of their respective leaders, Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chavez, but in terms of the totality of Left rule in the region, they are a minority.

It has, until recently, been an open question as to whether the Latin American Right could be truly democratic in the event that it won presidential office. Right wing electoral authoritarians like Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Carlos Menem in Argentina (who ran as a Peronist) demonstrated that, at least in the 1990s, the tug of dictatorship still pulled strongly on those of a “conservative” persuasion. More recently, the behaviour of the Right opposition and Micheletti interim government in fomenting and legitimating the ouster of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras confirms wide-held trepidations about the Right’s democratic bonafides. Now, with the resurgence of the electoral Right apparently region-wide, the time appears to have arrived for that question to be answered more fully, and in the event that it is in the affirmative, then the chances for the electoral consolidation of democracy in Latin America will have been reaffirmed. Should it be answered in the negative, then it will confirm that the Right is simply incapable of overcoming its authoritarian tendencies regardless of the means by which power is achieved.

On the Strategic Utility of Terrorism.

datePosted on 20:59, November 13th, 2009 by Pablo

In a previous life I worked in and with the US security apparatus on matter of Latin American regional policy, to include subjects ranging from civil-military relations to counter-insurgency. In the latter capacity I spend a fair bit of time interacting with the Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict (SOLIC) community who are  primarily responsible for US anti-terrorism operations, and who include elements from intelligence agencies and domestic security agencies as well as the military. Politically controlled by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) via the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and headquartered at the Special Operations Command at McDill Air Force base outside of Tampa, the SOLIC community has analytic and operational wings that are regional, issue and event specific. At a tactical level (i.e. in the field) the community deploys assets as part of Joint Task Forces (JTFs), of which there are a number currently working abroad (the precise number is classified but there is more than one in Afghanistan alone).

One of the best pearls of wisdom imparted to me by an old SOLIC hand is that “terrorism is the last desperate gasp of a dying man. The cause is lost, its ideological appeal is on the wane, and thus the zealots respond by desperate acts of wanton mayhem in a last ditch effort to rattle the nerves of the subject and erode his will to continue to push his agenda to completion.” I believe this to be true, and that it applies to Islamic extremists confronted with the inexorable progress of Western (and Eastern) secularism riding the wave of globalisation of production, consumption and exchange. But there is more to the issue than that.

Terrorism is an irregular (or unconventional) warfare tactic. It is not a strategy in and of itself, but is a means employed to a strategic end. As such, terrorism has a subject, an object and a target, and they are not the same. Although it appears to be an offensive strategy and has been used offensively at a tactical level, it is by and large a defensive strategy. The object(ive) is to get the subject to desist in what it is doing that is inimical to the terrorist interest. The subject is dual in nature: the adversary and its popular support base, on the one hand (e.g. the US government and citizenry), and the terrorist support base, on the other (e.g. Islamicists and the larger Muslim community). The target is, of course, the hapless victims of an act of politically motivated violence whose purpose is more symbolic than military. Terrorism is used against highly symbolic targets in order to erode the will of the adversary to pursue a given course of action while steeling the conviction of the terrorist support base. Terrorism can also be used as part of a moderate-militant strategy in order to create space and provide leverage for negotiated compromises. This was seen with the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland and may in fact turn out to be the strategy employed by non-jihadist Taliban in Afghanistan today. In practice, though, the outcome is often the reverse of what is intended; Israel is a case in point, although it must also be noted that it was the PLO military campaign (in which terrorism was an integral component) that eventually brought Israel to recognise it as a legitimate political actor (Israel, for its part, owes its existence to the terror campaign of some of its founding fathers organised in groups such as the Irgun).

Terrorism can occur in two circumstances and comes in three different guises. The circumstances are terrorism during war and terrorism in peacetime. The guises are state terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism (where terrorists act as proxies for militarily inferior states), and non-state terrorism (such as today’s jihadis). If acts of terror are not committed for political purposes, they are not genuine terrorism but criminality taken to extremes (say, Mafia firebombing or assassination campaigns). This may seem like a semantic distinction but it is important because terrorism is effective only in pursuit of an ideological project, in pursuit of an alternative conception of the “proper” social order, as opposed to the more immediate and material objectives of criminals or psychopaths.

Terrorism in warfare is designed to erode the morale of the enemy. It can be used against military targets to erode the morale of the fighting element and to show the steadfastness, resolve and determination of the perpetrator (such as the Kamikaze attacks, or suicide bombings against military targets in Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan). Terrorism can also be used in wartime against civilian populations to erode the will of the support base of a given regime. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the fire bombings of Tokyo and Dresden are classic instances in this regard (as were the V2 bombings of London), in which the psychological impact on the subject far outweighed the military-strategic importance of the targets. That brings up an important point in this age of the so-called “war on terrorism:” generally speaking, the state has been the primary terrorist organisation throughout history. In fact, most instances of state terrorism are directed at their own people, in what is known as “enforcement terrorism” whereby the state imposes its ideological project by force on an unwilling citizenry. The reason why state terrorism is so prevalent in history is that it works. Its purpose is to infantilise and atomise the body politic so people feel powerless and unable to control their own destinies (think of a child’s nightmare). Under such conditions the main recourse for the subject population is a retreat into the private sphere, the disruption of horizontal solidarity and resistance networks, and generalised acquiescence to the cruel powers that be. Under such conditions dictatorial regimes can implement their ideological projects free from the interference of civil society: Chile under Pinochet is a case in point, as are the USSR under Stalin or Cambodia under Pol Pot (the examples are many and not limited to either side of the ideological divide).

State-sponsored terrorism is most often directed at the enemy support base. The Lockerbie aircraft bombing is a case in point, as is Iranian sponsorship of Hezbollah and Hamas  attacks on civilian targets in places as disparate as Lebanon, Israel and Argentina (Iran denies any connection to the military campaigns of Hamas and Hezbollah, and specifically refutes the claim that it was involved in anti-jewish bombings in Argentina in the 1990s. The Argentine government believes otherwise). Reported Pakistan support for Kashmiri separatists and Lashkar- e-Taiba (LET) is another example of state-sponsorship of terrorist organisations. Here the objective is to place enough distance between the sponsor and the perpetrator so as to allow for “plausible deniability” that forces the targeted adversary to either escalate out of proportion to the event or acquiesce (if not respond in kind).

Non-state terrorism has two forms: 1) in its insurrectionary form it is used to advance a group’s political project within a country as part of a counter-hegemonic project (for example, the use of selective terrorism by revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow status quo regimes). Because the group wants to cultivate popular support for its ideological project, the use of terrorism in such instances tends to be more selective and focused on military targets or symbols (and members) of the regime elite. 2) the transnational grievance form is used to thwart homogenising international projects and processes that are deemed inimical to existing social mores and constructions (which can include unwanted immigration from ethnic “others” as well as political or corporate interventions) . Whether secular or ethno-religious, such terrorist groups can be self-identified as anti-imperialist or more localised in scope. The al-Qaeda project is an example of the former, whereas the janjaweed anti-African campaign in Darfur is couched in localised terms (although there is an underlying resource motive clearly at play).

The chances of success of the non-state, transnational grievance form rest not on much on their own capacity to wreak symbolic political violence in pursuit of their objectives but on the nature of the regimes that are the subjects of their activities. Strong authoritarian and democratic regimes, defined as those with majority support and the political will and military-intelligence capability to defeat irregular warfare groups that practice terrorism, will always prevail in such contests. The combination of mass support, military capability and willpower is the decisive part of the asymmetric equation. Russia is a good example of a strong authoritarian regime confronting terrorists; China is(or will be)  another. Strong democracies have similar strengths. Israel again is emblematic, but the UK response to the IRA irregular warfare campaign is also illustrative. In fact, all of Europe and Turkey have the requisite combination of will, capability and support to defeat jihadism in all of its forms (fears about the Islamicisation of Europe notwithstanding).

Conversely, weak authoritarian and democratic regimes are highly susceptible to politically-motivated terrorism, be it state-sponsored or non-state in nature. Weakness is here defined as a lack of majority support and/or leadership will to defeat the terrorist project, whether or not there is a military-intelligence capacity to do so. Under such circumstances even allied assistance may be insufficient to defeat a well-organised terrorist campaign. The will to do so has to come from within, and it must be come from the majority. That is what makes Egypt, Iran, Algeria, a number of Sub-Saharan African states, and perhaps even Saudi Arabia itself more vulnerable to terrorism. The question is not so much one of counter-terrorism capabilities as it is of support and will.

That is the crux of the matter when it comes to judging the strategic utility of terrorism in the contemporary context. Weak regimes like Afghanistan and Pakistan are examples of highly vulnerable subjects of terrorism. To a lesser but still significant degree, weak democracies such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are also vulnerable to destabilisation by a well-organised terrorist campaign. Conversely, virtually all of the East Asian regimes, authoritarian or democratic, have the necessary ingredients to defeat non-state terrorists, be they sponsored or self-organised. They same can be said for the Antipodes, even if Australia and New Zealand differ significantly in their approaches to the current counter-terrorist campaigns. Latin America has also managed to combine the requisites for a successful counter-terrorism strategy (especially if the threat is Islamicist, which is culturally alien to the region), although there remain in the region a small number of indigenous irregular groups that continue to practice isolated acts of terrorism in spite of their lack of popular appeal. Thus, in terms of probabilities of success, terrorists today are confronted with a strategic landscape that, outside of Central Asia and the Middle East, appears to doom them to defeat. That might explain the move to highly decentralised and often individual attacks (such as that at Fort Hood), the increasingly “indiscriminate” nature of attacks in places like Iraq and Pakistan (in which potentially sympathetic elements of the local population are targeted), as well as the increasing success in uncovering plots before they are executed (which is a function of good intelligence in a supportive community).

That raises the question of the US. Given the culture wars and ideological polarisation that divide the country, coupled with popular lack of interest in, or commitment to foreign wars, it is increasingly an open question as to whether the US has the popular staying power and committed political leadership to defeat its irregular adversaries at home and abroad. It is that variable that is the jihadis best hope of long-term success, but it is not only Islamicists who see opportunity in perceived US weakness. That could well be a matter of strategic concern down the road, and is what makes the US approach to counter-terrorism a matter of global import. There lies the rub, because counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency is as much an issue of cultural understanding as it is of will, support and capability.

There is more to the issue but in the confines of a blog post this is enough. Former students might recognise some of the above from the “Revolutions and Insurgencies” courses taught in NZ and the US, although this is an updated brief on those long-gone but still relevant course materials.

Crumbling Walls and Simultaneous Transitions.

datePosted on 19:10, November 10th, 2009 by Pablo

Among the celebrations and self-congratulations marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps it is worth mentioning the process involved as opposed to the event. Contrary to what some may think, this was not exactly a full triumph of freedom orchestrated by a Ronald Reagan-led US in the space of ten years. Instead, it culminated a long process of decay within the Stalinist camp that was the result of internal contradictions that analysts of regime change have seen in other forms of authoritarianism. Not to belabor the point, but authoritarian regimes tend to fall for the same reasons even if their specific ideologies may differ. Defeat in war is one such reason, but where the regime is long-lived and institutionalised, the source of decay is from within the regime itself. Institutional sclerosis and lack of responsiveness are to key measures of authoritarian regime decline. Short of war, the role of external agents in authoritarian demise is marginal, at best serving as an accelerant for long-standing trends. That was clearly evident in the Soviet bloc, and once the repressive apparatus decided not to increase its support for Stalinist regimes in the face of rising socio-economic unrest, it was only a matter of time before they fell. Yet, interestingly enough, none of the Sovietologists in Western academia or intelligence agencies foresaw the inevitable until events were already unfolding (something that reflects the nature of their training, which is now evident in US approaches to MIddle Eastern and Chinese studies. To put it bluntly: studying countries from an adversarial viewpoint often leaves analysts unawares of both the broad and narrow nuances that make or break a given form of rule).

Be that as it may, it is not the subject I wish to address here. Instead, I simply wish to note that the post-collapse era in the former Eastern bloc has been a mixed blessing rather than an unqualified triumph for democracy or capitalism, and that is largely due to the nature of the regime transitions themselves.

Students of regime change note that the transition to capitalist democracy from socialist authoritarianism occurs in one of two general ways involving three specific processes. The first two processes of change  are called sequential transitions, where either change in the economic structure is followed by change in the political structure or vice versa. For example, China is undergoing a long transition whereby its economic bases have moved from socialist to capitalistic, yet it retains one-party rule while the transition is ongoing. Here structural change precedes political change. With some variances, this is what Cuba and Vietnam are doing today, and was also the case in Chile in the period 1973-1990, where the market-oriented economic base was cemented under dictatorial rule, which was followed by a period of authoritarian regime liberalisation leading to the restoration of democracy.  More broadly, the sequence holds true for a number of countries: e.g. South Korea, South Africa, the Philippines and Taiwan all fostered capitalism before they embraced democracy. It is important to note that political liberalisation leading to democracy is not often the stated intention of the liberalising authoritarian elite, but becomes an increasingly possible outcome once command economies are dismantled simply because of the proliferation of private actors and decentralisation of economic decision-making that ensues. At that point the genie is pretty much out of the bottle–but not always.

Conversely, political change towards democracy can precede economic change towards capitalism, although it is generally believed that such a sequence is more difficult to achieve because democratic politics allows subordinate groups to organise electoral resistance to economic dislocations caused by a shift to market-oriented macro-economic policy. This was seen in Argentina in the 1990s and Mexico in the early  2000’s. Generally speaking, students of regime change agree that economic change ideally should precede political change simply because the latter occur after populations have gotten used to the new economic facts of life. That counsels for so-called “top-down” transitions where authoritarians control the timing and tempo of sequential economic and political changes leading to democracy. Put differently, once the new (diminished) threshold of economic consent has been established, elections can be held. This is in contrast to “bottom-up” regime change whereby the masses rise against the authoritarians before the latter are  able to schedule an orderly transition sequence, often leading to political conflict and economic stagnation. Although there are (semi) peaceful forms of bottom-up change (such as Argentina after the Falklands War or the People’s “revolution” in the Philippines), social revolutions are the most intense form of “bottom-up” change, and it should be noted that in most modern instances they result in the imposition of a new form of authoritarianism rather than democracy.

That brings up the second general transition path: simultaneous transitions. Analysts concur that, due to the myriad complexities involved, simultaneous transitions from socialist authoritarianism to democracy and capitalism are the least likely to succeed. In some sense, they are directly contradictory in that they involve the opening of the political franchise while at the same time narrowing social redistribution networks, pubic goods and other socialist “entitlements” (noting here that the trade off in authoritarian socialism was supposed to be diminished political voice in exchange for increased social egalitarianism and welfare). The general line is that a country can do one sequence or the other with some chance of success, but in trying to do both at the same time it is almost guaranteed to do neither. That, however, was something that Western political elites ignored or did not care about in their headlong push to “open” these former Stalinist societies to Western economic and political influence.

Ergo, the Fall of the Wall. Never mind that  Polish dockworkers began the slow crumbling of European Stalinism with their strikes in 1980, that Glasnost and Perestroika accelerated it, and that the Berlin Wall came at the end rather than the beginning of the process of Stalinist decline. Or that the fall of communism in Romania was violent and resulted in a different Stalinist cadre taking over. Or that the result of the implosion of Yugoslavia was genocide at the hands of Serbians that required repeated NATO military interventions. Instead, let us note that the entire Soviet bloc, from Central Europe through the Balkans to the Caucuses and into Central Asia, endured simultaneous transitions with very mixed results. Some countries–the Czech Republic, Hungary,Estonia, Latvia, Slovakia and Slovenia, for example–managed to weather the transition process and are now doing remarkably well as market-oriented democracies. Others–Georgia, the Ukraine, Bulgaria, and all of the Central Asian “stans,” are governed by mixtures of elected authoritarians and oligarchs, to which can be added the centre piece, Russia. In many of these countries the transition to market capitalism has also been thwarted, and instead has turned into variations of crony-capitalism, mafia-capitalism, oligarchical control and/or state capitalism in strategic industries (especially energy resource extraction). In fact, in most of the former Stalinist world there is neither democracy or markets at play in the lives of the average citizen. In many countries pre-Soviet ethnic-religious divisions have come back to the fore, and in some of these countries conditions are worse than they were before (Chechnya). Ultra-nationalist movements have gained ground in many former Soviet republics, and in response Communists have started to regroup.

The broader reasons for this are multiple and deeply rooted in social, political and economic authoritarian legacies that cannot be changed or dismantled in a generation, much less overnight. But the precipitating reason lies in the simultaneity of the transitions themselves: absent a historically rooted culture of democracy, social tolerance and market exchange, most of the former Soviet bloc became a field of play for economic opportunists and demagogues rather than democrats and entrepreneurs. What is most striking is that, once having realised the difficulties in simultaneously pursuing democracy and market economics in post-Soviet contexts, both Western as well as local elites have apparently made the decision to support markets (even in their quasi-capitalistic versions) rather than democracy in most of that world. Whether by choice or chance, there is no elective affinity between democracy and market economics in these contexts.

Thus, we should view the 20th anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a jaundiced eye. On the one hand, it marked the death of European Stalinism and liberated millions of people from that scourge. On the other hand, for many it did not deliver on its promise of freedom and prosperity, and is still far from doing so in many parts of the non-European former Soviet bloc. More generally, authoritarian regime transitions may be a universal good, but only if they lead to something better. That has not always been the case in the Post-Cold War world. Less self-congratulation and more reflection would therefore seem to be in order.

On resuming intelligence sharing with the US.

datePosted on 19:52, October 9th, 2009 by Pablo

I must confess that this one has me stumped. In her joint press conference with Murray McCully today, Hillary Clinton said that the US would resume intelligence-sharing with NZ as a sign of the strengthened security ties between the two countries.  It might have been a slip of the tongue, but McCully seemed unfazed and the comment was made as part of her prepared remarks, so it appears that the mention was deliberate. But what does it really mean? The US and NZ already share signal intelligence streams via the Echelon network, which has two collection stations on NZ soil. The NZSAS has a least one officer seconded to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (as well as NZSAS liaison officers designated to  MI-6 in the UK, ASIO in Canberra, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the French DGSE).  The CIA more than likely has a station officer in Wellington (most likely a political (affairs) officer). These connections presumably are already involved in intelligence sharing. So what gives?

Since I am not privy to the decision-making involved, let me just speculate on what this announcement may mean. A few weeks back word slipped out that NZ had intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Then the NZSAS were deployed there (to Kabul, as it turns out, in a counter-terrorism and CT training role rather than their previous long range patrol and reconnaissance role, which is an interesting story in itself). Putting these two lines together, I suspect that what Mrs. Clinton was alluding to was a resumption of tactical intelligence sharing between US and NZ forces in theater (rather than first report back to their respective superiors at home and allow the bosses to determine what gets shared). This would obviously be of priority in Afghanistan, but frees up US and NZ intelligence collectors to share information throughout areas of mutual interest such as the Western Pacific Rim. On the latter, subjects of mutual interest could include Chinese intelligence and military activities in the region (as alluded to in the Scoop series I linked to last month), money laundering and arms trafficking, organised crime activities (which would also be shared with INTERPOL), as well as leadership analysis and political and  economic trend forecasts.

More broadly, what this means is that NZ is returning to the US fold on security matters. If Australia is the US sheriffs deputy in the Southern Hemisphere, NZ under National is positioning to become the deputy’s adjunct. What is different is not just the extent of the bilateral cooperation involved, but the fact that the Ozzies make no bones about their belief that their middle power aspirations are tied to the US mantle, whereas NZ has carefully cultivated an image of being a neutral and honest broker in international affairs. With this revelation, that image is bound to be altered, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of closer security relations with the US (which I do not necessarily object to based on the principle of necessity) may translate into to a loss of mana, reputation and prestige in the eyes of the larger international community. Perhaps the diplomatic community is jaded enough to understand that pragmatism requires that NZ play all sides of the fence, that “it has to do what it has to do,”and that its rhetorical lip service is a mere cover to its real, pro-US orientation (I touched on this in the previous post titled “John Key Rides the Fence”). However, I wonder how the Chinese, Malaysians, Iranians and Arab trading partners will feel about this revelation, to say nothing of European partners who have trusted NZ to speak to truth to power on issues as varied as non-proliferation and environmental sustainability. Although Mrs. Clinton was at pains to laud NZ’s role on the latter two subjects, it remains to be seen what (negative or positive) spill-over effects may occur as a result of this closer bilateral security relationship, or, as National will undoubtably argue, whether the issue of intelligence sharing is safely “compartmentalized” and thereby insulated from the broader foreign policy direction of the National government. In three years we should know, but by then the consequences, good or bad, will be inescapable.

Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

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