Posts Tagged ‘Foreign policy/affairs’

Monitoring Syrians and Supplicants.

datePosted on 12:14, February 14th, 2014 by Pablo

The subject of spying is back in the news this week, but the coverage has been inadequate. Allow me to clarify some issues, first with regard to those who want to join the Syrian conflict and second with regard to politicians trying to ingratiate themselves with Kim Dotcom.

Contrary to the thrust of the coverage, not all those seeking to join the Syrian conflict are Syrian or descendants of Syrians. The Syrian War is a civil war between Shiia and Sunnis, where the minority Alawite-backed Assad regime is fighting to maintain its grip over a majority Sunni population (Alawites are a sub-sect of Shiia Islam). For a variety of affective and strategic reasons Iran (a very large Shiia dominant country) supports the Assad regime while Sunni-controlled Saudi Arabia and Gulf oligarchies back the armed opposition. This opposition is divided into what can be loosely called secular moderates (such as those grouped in the Free Syrian Army) and Islamicists (such as those in the al-Nusra Front and Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant).

The latter have come to dominate the military side of the opposition due to their superior combat skills and determination. Their ranks include Sunni internationalists from all over the world (including New Zealand) who see joining the struggle as a religious imperative. Egyptians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Britons, Australians and French nationals are among those fighting in Islamicist ranks. That has led to serious clashes with the moderate secularists (who do not have as many internationalists in their ranks, although there are some), to the point that the fighting between the armed opposition factions has allowed the Assad regime to re-gain the upper hand in the overall struggle after being near collapse just six months ago.

Where the armed opposition is winning, it is the Islamicists who are doing so.

In the last nine months the Prime Minister has made repeated reference to would-be New Zealand jihadis joining the fight in Syria. Some are already there and others have been barred from going. They may or may not be Syrian in origin, but his use of the “Syrian trump card” is a naked political ploy designed to use fear-mongering as a justification for extension of domestic espionage and, perhaps, as a way of pre-emptively steeling public opinion against the negative consequences of the inevitable revelations from Edward Snowden about New Zealand’s foreign espionage role within the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence collection network. The trouble with the PM’s ploy is that the proclaimed threat does not match the facts.

According to the government ten New Zealand passports have been revoked since 2005 and a handful of Kiwis are in Syria fighting. The PM makes it sound as if all these have associations with extremist Islam. Perhaps they do, but the Syrian conflict only heated up as of early 2012, so the Syrian card does not explain why passports were cancelled prior to that. Moreover, the PM says that passports were cancelled in order to prevent “radicalized” Kiwis from returning and making trouble at home. That begs the question as to what the frustrated wanna-be jihadis are going to do now that their plans are thwarted and they are forced to remain in the country under heavy scrutiny.

A Syrian community spokesman has said that two brothers had their passports revoked after their parents informed authorities of their plans to travel back home to join the fight. He also accused the PM and his government of “racial discrimination.” The latter claim is ridiculous and shows a gross misunderstanding of how democratic governance works. John Key did not personally order the revocation of any passports nor does he have the power to rescind the cancellation order. New Zealand authorities did not cancel the brother’s passports because they were Syrian but because of their purported intentions. They did not target the entire Syrian community for who they are.

In fact, under current legislation the government is well within its rights to revoke passports on the grounds that the individuals involved intend to become or are part of a criminal enterprise, of which terrorism is one. Since the Islamicists fighting in Syria are considered terrorist organizations by the New Zealand government, any intent to join them could be construed as an attempt to engage in criminal activity. One might argue that the definition of terrorism is too broad (and I believe that it is), but as things stand the government’s concern about returning, combat experienced jihadis is a legitimate motive for canceling passports.

I shall leave aside the fact that the chances of survival of those joining the Syrian conflict is quite low* and they are being monitored in any event, so mitigating the potential threat posed by returning jihadis is not as formidable as Mr. Key implies. There are technical means of tracking the location of passports, and the individuals who are in Syria or want to go there have been identified already via domestic intelligence gathering. In fact, allowing suspects to travel while being secretly monitored is a standard intelligence collection method, so one can reasonably assume that the handful of Kiwi internationalists in Syria as well as their as of yet to travel brethren are the focus of both human and signals intelligence collection efforts by local espionage agencies in conjunction with foreign counterparts.

However, Mr. Key’s repeated public use of the Syrian card certainly has alerted any would-be extremists in the New Zealand Muslim community that they have been infiltrated by the Police and SIS and that there are informants in their midst. In fact, the New Zealand Muslim community is a bit of a sieve since 9/11 because personal, sectarian and financial vendettas as well as legitimate concerns about ideological extremism have seen the accusation of “terrorist” thrown around quite freely within it. This has been well known inside security circles (who have to separate bogus from legitimate accusations of terrorist sympathies), but the PM’s public disclosure has given potential jihadis a clear signal to exercise increased caution and diligence when planning future violence (should there be any).

The most important issue, however, is the selective application of the passport revocation authority. If would-be Islamic internationalists have not been convicted of crimes in New Zealand, and barring clear evidence that they intend to engage in crime abroad, then they should be allowed free passage to travel. If they engage in war crimes or crimes against humanity during a foreign conflict (be it in Syria or elsewhere), they can be charged upon their return, or even detained on the suspicion of complicity in said crimes. This is not a far-fetched speculation because both the Assad regime and its armed opposition have committed a raft of atrocities that fall under both definitions of illegal war-time behavior.

This applies equally to those who may choose to join non-Islamicist groups in other foreign conflicts (for example, by joining Christian militias in the Central African Republic), so specifically targeting those intending to go to Syria to fight is, in fact, selective if not discriminatory application of the relevant law. As far as following the Australian example and making it illegal to join a foreign conflict under penalty of imprisonment or revocation of citizenship, one can only hope not.

The simple fact is that would-be jihadis and other internationalists should be free to join any foreign conflict. They assume the risk of doing so and understand that they give up the diplomatic protections usually reserved for citizens traveling abroad. Should they be deemed a potential threat upon their return (in the event that they do), then it is the responsibility of local law enforcement and intelligence agencies to mitigate that threat within the rule of law. As I have alluded to above, that is not particularly hard to do in the New Zealand context.

As for politicians meeting with Dotcom, the issue is far more simple than sinister. Dotcom is a NZ permanent resident who is a fugitive from US justice still under extradition warrant (which is being argued in court). The authorities may well consider him a flight risk because he certainly has the means to do so. They may believe that he is continuing his criminal associations or practices while his court case is being heard (I shall refrain from making bad jokes about those who have flocked to his side during the GCSB Bill debates, or about the politicians who have knocked on his door). Given his penchant for partying and those he associates with when doing so, they may want to catch him in possession of illegal drugs.

Thus the Police would have legitimate reason to run ongoing surveillance operations on him, and can do so legally with or without the help of the SIS and now, thanks to the passage of the GCSB Bill, the GCSB. In doing so, they would monitor and record the comings and goings of visitors to his mansion, with that information passed up the chain of command.

That is why Mr Key’s version of how he came to know about Mr. Peters’ treks to the Coatesville property is odd. He claims that he got his information about Dotcom’s political visitors from Cameron Slater working with or independently from a Herald gossip columnist. That is troubling.

The Right Honorable John Key is the Minister of Intelligence and Security, so presumably he is aware of the status of security operations and the Dotcom case in particular given its history. But he claims that he received domestic espionage information about Dotcoms’s visitors from a right-wing, admittedly partisan “attack” blogger, rather than from the security agencies for which he is responsible and who have a legal right to monitor Mr. Dotcom. That is a sign of incompetence or willful ignorance on his part.

I have shares in a Bolivian gold mine I am willing to sell at a very affordable price to readers who believe a sociopath was the first source of the Dotcom visit data provided to the PM.  Perhaps I am wrong and it is simply too much for domestic law enforcement and intelligence agencies to pursue the monitoring of Dotcom for a supposed copyright infringement when so many Syrian-focused terrorists abound. But given the amount of resources expended and the reputational stakes involved, it would not be surprising and in fact legal for security agencies to do so.

I would suggest that if people like Winston Peters are concerned about being spied on when visiting Mr. Dotcom, then they should look at their own roles in allowing that to happen. Since 9/11 the legal powers and practical reach of the domestic espionage apparatus have been increased incrementally yet extensively under both Labour and National governments. Other than a relatively small number of Left activists and the Green Party (as well as ACT while Rodney Hide was still around to lead it), neither the majority public or the majority of political parties did anything to oppose this extension.

In fact, although Labour party figures and Winston Peters joined Kim Dotcom on the stage at various anti-GCSB Bill protests last year, and the bow-tied buffoon with a pompadour posing as a political party objected to having his personal communications accessed during the course of an investigation into leaks of confidential government information, Labour is responsible for the majority of the extensions and Dunne and Peters supported all of them. National has merely deepened the trend towards a surveillance society.

Hence, whatever Labour, NZ First or United Future may say now as a way of partisan point-scoring, they are full accomplices in the erosion of Kiwi privacy rights over the last decade. Any current whinging about violations of their personal and the larger collective privacy should be dismissed as cowardly rank hypocrisy.

In any event, when it comes to intrusions on basic freedoms of association, privacy and travel, not only Syrians living in New Zealand have reason to feel aggrieved.

* This is due to the immutable Buchanan rule of ground warfare: if you are firing your weapon over your head, or firing blindly around corners in the general direction of the enemy, you will not last long once s/he closes in. Should that rule be miraculously violated without consequence, the fifth Buchanan rule of asymmetrical warfare comes into effect: strapping explosives or amulets to your body in the hope of divine intervention is based on a false premise.

Some advice about travel advisories.

datePosted on 09:19, January 5th, 2014 by Pablo

The murder of Westerners, including a New Zealander in Libya, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” of regime change in North Africa and the Levant, has raised the profile of travel advisories as effective guides to personal and institutional safety of foreign travelers in such unstable regions. Libya is classified as High Risk in an around Tripoli and Misarata extending west to the Tunisian border and Extreme Risk pretty much everywhere else in the country by most Western states, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US. Syria is, understandably, considered to be an Extreme Risk environment by virtually all Western governments. The body of the Kiwi who was murdered, a female friend of a contractor to an Italian petrochemical firm, was found 100 kilometers west of Tripoli in a High Risk area. For her and her British companion, as well as several Americans recently, the risk was terminally extreme.

Both governments and private entities issue travel advisories, which are most often associated in Western minds with unstable or undeveloped states and regions in which lawlessness is rife (the same is largely true for advisories given by non-western governments such as the Japanese, Singaporeans or Chinese). The advisories may focus on political or criminal threats to foreigners in general and citizens in particular depending on the situation (for example, ethnic Chinese are more likely to be the target of socioeconomic-based ethnic violence in Melanesia and Polynesia than ethnic Europeans, and female travelers are particularly vulnerable in many places because of local cultural mores). Yet these advisories are not always as neutral as they may appear at first glance and hence need to be treated with caution and in broader perspective.

Put bluntly, it is erroneous to assume that governments, much less many private entities, issue objective and value-free travel advisories. They do not.

Government travel advisories take into account the diplomatic, security and economic relations of the issuing state with the targeted country. As a result, taking everything into account and (however short-sightedly) thinking of the bigger picture moving forward, there is a tendency to downplay security concerns where the countries in question are allies or have good foreign relations, whereas there is an inclination to paint an adversary or hostile country in a more negative light regardless of the objective situation on the ground. States are loathe to annoy their partners and allies, or those that they wish to cultivate for diplomatic or economic reasons, by issuing alerts and advisories of high or extreme risk in them. They may be pressured by corporate actors to downplay the risk of travel to those countries. Thus, even if the situation on the ground is hazardous for tourists or business travelers, the advice offered in such circumstances often does not raise above that of a caution about medium to moderate risks to personal and institutional security.

The concern with maintaining good diplomatic relations is compounded by the failure of many Western governments to fully appreciate the fluid nature of political and social events in designated countries, specifically the impact of regime change, latent social unrest and pre-modern cleavages on mass collective action. Confusing mass acquiescence with popular consent often leads countries to overestimate the degree of political support sustaining a foreign ally or partner. That in turn leads them to formulate their travel advisories in ways the underestimate the possibility of regime failure and the attendant risks associated with it.

Given resource constraints in diplomatic and intelligence agencies in many countries, limitations on diplomatic presence and in-country expertise in foreign contexts can limit the ability of advising governments to gather accurate, time sensitive and nuanced information on local conditions. Consequently, they often rely on the host government or foreign partners for situational knowledge, which itself may be more general than specific. This is then passed on by diplomatic outposts (some which may not be located in the country under scrutiny) to the home governments, often without vetting by other security agencies. That is a problem because for a number of reasons both host governments and foreign partners may not provide accurate reads of the local conditions being assessed.

Bureaucratic in-fighting amongst government agencies responsible for offering input into official travel advisories adds to the problem of objectivity. Different foreign policy-related agencies with input authority on travel advisories may have different information from their foreign counterparts with regard to the countries being assessed (say, intelligence, police and military agencies versus diplomatic, customs, health or immigration agencies).

Look at it this way: whatever the concerns of one or more agencies, would others be willing to accept harming a fruitful diplomatic, security or economic relationship because of the particular, if valid, concern about citizen travel to a particular country? And even if the foreign affairs bureaucracies agreed to defer to the concerns of one or a few agencies, would all Ministers necessarily find it politically expedient to accept the bureaucratic judgement, be it in an election year or not?

Continuity, stability, reliability and future mutual support are the most precious commodities of foreign relations, but the interest in them often blinds governments to the inherently weak or unstable nature of the regimes that appear to offer them. It also leads to acceptance of what foreign allies depict as local reality as fact when the truth may be otherwise. Thus time and time again Western governments have been caught by surprise at mass upheavals against seemingly stable friendly (most often authoritarian) regimes, with their citizens visiting and resident in countries where popular revolts occur often victimized as a result in part because they were lulled into a false sense of security by official travel advisories that downplayed the risks to the friendly regime, and by extension, foreigners who could be construed as associated with it.

This has occurred throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, SE Asia and Latin America in years before, and is evident in the moderate advisories given to Middle Eastern diplomatic, military and trading partners by Western governments in spite of clear indications of simmering restive and anti-foreign sentiment in them.

Similarly, travel agencies, tour companies, airlines and other business invested in tourism, as well as those that see profit in resource extraction and commodity export, have an inherent disposition to downplay risks because their livelihoods depend upon sustaining and increasing the number of tourists and investment dollars in such ventures. Absent an obvious and compelling threat such as a civil war like those in Syria and the Central African Republic, profit driven private entities will, like official government warnings, often couch their advisories in moderate terms. Here too they are handicapped by a lack of objective risk analysis because they often rely for their local knowledge on in-country partnerships that also depend on tourist and investment dollars for their livelihoods. In such relationships no one wants to upset the foreign traveler or investor gravy train so risk is downplayed in all but the most dire situations. As two of many examples, Kenya and Thailand offer proof of that.

NGOs and IOs tend to more pragmatic in their travel advisories and risk assessments because they have less profit at stake and more lives and reputations immediately in play. Travel guides tend to be objective but superficial in their risk advice unless the local situation is obviously dire. This is not surprising given the breadth and focus of travel guides (think Lonely Planet as an example, although to its credit it does address gender and LBTG travel issues where possible), which are not oriented towards divining risks to personal and collective security but instead focus on geographic, cultural and entertainment features of any given place.

The best risk assessments and travel advisories tend to come from insurance firms (although some of their assessments have been proven to be suspect, such as those involved in the determination of national credit ratings). Likewise, reputable international political risk and open source intelligence firms are more objective and forthright about the situation in any given country because their client’s welfare is often at stake, and maintaining client relationships is most important for the success of such firms. In fact, insurance firms regularly seek external assessments from political risk and open intelligence firms so as to limit the possibility of and mitigate their liability in the event a client disregards their in-house advice.

The difference here is that reputable political risk and open source intelligence agencies tend to canvass as wide an array of sources as possible before they put their names on any assessment, including travel advisories. Moreover, such firms can tailor their assessments and advisories to client needs, for example, but specifying the relationship of competing market actors with local political factions and (where present) criminal or political armed groups in specific foreign contexts (the relationship between irredentists and oil firms in the Niger Delta comes to mind, but also applies to resource extractive firms and indigenous militias in regions like the Southwestern Pacific and Central Africa).

Needless to say, reading news about a travel destination is a very good way of getting abreast of the local context. Many non-European countries have English, French, Italian, Spanish, German or Dutch language newspapers (many of these  a colonial legacy), and outlets like the BBC, VOA and RT radio services also provide useful updated information on local conditions. Similarly, social media may offer better awareness of tactical or real-time situations, although one should always be aware of editorial and personal bias in any news provider, so-called mainstream or not. After all, when it comes to taking advice and reading the news, a discerning traveler is a prepared traveler.

Reliable information on local conditions is as important for those who deliberately travel to unstable or conflict zones such as reporters, diplomats, military personnel, security contractors and ideological “internationalists” who join in foreign fights as it is for the casual or unwary traveler. Regardless of circumstance, one should know what they are getting into and prepare (or avoid) accordingly.

In light of the above, travelers should not rely exclusively on the advisories of governments or private entities with a direct interest in downplaying risk assessments in foreign countries. This may seem obvious but in fact is not, as many people assume that their governments and the companies that transport, house and entertain them overseas have their personal and group safety as an overriding concern.

They do not, and are insured against episodic calamity as a result.

Media Link: Snowden, Spying and New Zealand.

datePosted on 10:55, December 3rd, 2013 by Pablo

In a New Zealand Herald op ed I discuss Edward Snowden’s actions and their implications for New Zealand. It is possible that he may not be what he claims to be, but whether he is or not, there will be inevitable consequences for New Zealand stemming from his leaks.

The deal within the deal.

datePosted on 15:18, November 26th, 2013 by Pablo

There are several things to consider when digesting news about the recently signed nuclear limitation agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UNSC permanent members US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, with the EU as a mediator/facilitator). First, what is publicly announced about international agreements is not always all that is agreed upon. Often times what is not publicly disclosed is as or more important than the announced terms.

Second, actors given majority credit for an international agreement may not have been as decisive as they and their home media would like the public to believe.

Third, no agreement stands alone or occurs in a vacuum: other geopolitical and strategic considerations are bound to frame and influence the terms of the finalized compact.

The agreement between Iran, EU and six world powers on the conditions by which Iran would de-weaponize its nuclear research program in exchange for a temporary relief from international sanctions is a case in point. The agreement is for six months, with an eye to negotiating a more permanent contract at the end of that period. The 7 billion dollars in sanctions relief is not a huge amount by global standards, but significant in that it demonstrates the effectiveness of the sanctions regime imposed on Iran as well as its the flexibility of it (since it can be reimposed in the event Iran reneges on its promises).

The technical details are pretty straight forward: Iran agrees to suspend the enrichment of natural uranium (U238) beyond five percent and to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (U235). This is a step away from weaponization because most weapons grade U235 is enriched above 80 percent, which is relatively easy to produce if 20 percent enriched U235 is on hand. Most civilian nuclear energy programs use 3 to 5 percent enriched U235 fuel, thereby making weaponization more time consuming and costly. The agreement therefore does not interfere with Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for civilian power production.

Iran will also curb its use and purchase of centrifuges employed for said enrichment as well as suspend the heavy water reactor extraction methods used to produce plutonium. The entire Iranian nuclear complex will be placed under tighter international inspection controls.

The Western media has variously described the deal as a “US-Iran” or “Iran-Western” accord, but the importance of China and Russia should not be ignored. Both of these powers have friendly relations with Teheran and have supplied it with weapons and diplomatic support. They were not at the meetings in Geneva to serve as props for the US and UK. In fact, their presence in the negotiations should be considered to be decisive rather than incidental, to the point that they may have had a large say in the broader issues being bargained over that eventually sealed the deal.

What might those issues be? That brings up the larger geopolitical and strategic context.

Iran, as is well known, is a major patron of the Assad regime in Syria, currently engaged in a civil war against a Sunni opposition backed by the West and Sunni Arab states. The Assad regime receives funding, weapons and direct combat support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiia militia that serves as an Iranian proxy and power multiplier in the Levant. Assad also receives weapons from Russia, which has a naval base at the port of Tartus and which considers the Assad regime as its closest Arab ally.

Should Assad fall, not only Russia but more importantly Iran will lose a major source of power projection in the region. This would suit Israel and the Sunni Arab world, as Iran is seen as an existential threat by Israeli and Arab Sunni elites alike. Defeating Assad will pave the way for Israel to turn its military gaze more directly on Hizbollah, something that will not meet with much opposition from the West or the Sunni Arab elites. Israel is less concerned about the radical nature of a future Sunni government in Syria or the fragmentation of that country into sectarian enclaves, as the heterogenous rebel coalition now fighting Assad will be consumed by factional in-fighting that will limit its ability to project meaningful military force across its borders whether Syria as presently constituted remains intact or not. Sunni Arab elites will welcome a Sunni dominance in Syria as another bulwark against Shiia influence in the eastern Mediterranean, again, whether Syria retains its present boundaries or divides into smaller Sunni states.

However, it has become increasingly clear that the leading rebel groups in Syria are led by al-Qaeda inspired jihadis who are as bad if not worse than the Assad regime when it comes to committing callous atrocities against civilians as well as armed opponents. They are people who do not have much regard for the laws of war and who have published videos of themselves gassing dogs using crude chemical weapons (which may have had something to do with the rush to reach agreement on removing Assad’s CW stockpiles in the midst of the civil war), and who have had to apologize for “accidentally” beheading a fellow Sunni rebel leader under the mistaken assumption that he was an Alawite or Shiia Assad supporter (all videotaped, of course). Their atrocities (as well as those of the Assad regime) are well documented in the propaganda war now raging on social media.

Jihadist government in Syria may not be an existential threat to Western, much less global interests, but it is the most visible. It would be the first and most important place outside of Afghanistan where Islamicists fought their way into power (Somalia does not count). That is a significant issue regardless of their actual military power because symbolism matters and diplomacy is as much about symbology as it is about substance.

Following Russia’s lead and over Israeli and Saudi protestations, Western powers have become very alarmed about a possible jihadi victory in Syria, and now see a weakened Assad remaining in power or as part of a brokered coalition as the lesser evil. Hence the previous Western moves to give material and technical assistance to the rebels have slowed considerably while calls for a negotiated solution grow louder. Not surprisingly and following on the success of the Iran nuclear accord, negotiations on the Syrian crisis are now scheduled for January in Geneva, and include the Iranians as interested parties along with those supporting the anti-Assad forces grouped in and around the non-jihadist Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army.

For Iran, this was the bargaining chip. It can agree to temporarily halt its nuclear enrichment efforts in exchange not just for sanctions relief but also in exchange for a reprieve for Assad. As things stood, its nuclear program invited massive preemptive attack and Assad’s fall spelled the end of its geopolitical influence. By agreeing to curtail its nuclear program to verifiable peaceful uses in exchange for a withdrawal of Western aid to the Syrian rebels and sanctions relief, Iran is able to buy Assad enough time to defeat the rebels, thereby maintaining Iran’s influence as a regional power while it re-builds its domestic economy unfettered by sanctions. Israel and the Saudis may not be happy about this, but their narrow interests have been shown to not be coincident with those of their Western allies on a number of strategic issues, Iran being just one of them.

Political scientists would call this the nested game scenario: within the public “game” involving negotiations between Iran and its foreign interlocutors lie other confidential or private “games” that are key to resolving the larger impasse over its nuclear program (Iranian involvement in Iraqi domestic politics might be another). These games are defined as much by those who are excluded as those who are involved in them.

All of this is speculation, and any “nested game” deal on Syria would be part of the non-public aspects of the agreement  and therefore deliberately non-verifiable over the near term absent a leak. But there is enough written between the lines of the public rhetoric to suggest that this may be what is at play rather than a simple compromise on the limits of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

 

Coleman’s Cultural Cringe Moment.

datePosted on 15:35, October 31st, 2013 by Pablo

For some time I have had the impression that Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman is out of his depth on issues of defense and security, so I was not surprised by his joyful celebration of the signing of a bi-lateral defense pact with the US. Master of the flak jacket photo op, it was all sunshine and roses for Dr. Coleman at the Pentagon press conference, where he emphasized that US and NZDF troops would be training and working together on peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance missions in between group hugs and port visits. He seemed blissfuly unaware that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, standing beside him at the press conference, made no mention of the kumbaya aspects of the bilateral, instead referring to the combat integration benefits of closer military-to-military relations.

What I was surprised at was how provincial and just plain goofy Coleman appeared to be. Among other country bumpkin moments, he dismissed concerns about US spying on New Zealand by referencing an editorial cartoon that had spies falling asleep listening to NZ communications; he outright lied and said that the NZ government would not say anything in private that it would not say in public (which makes its silence on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations all the more suspicious); he never once countenanced the thought that the bilateral might be part of the US strategic pivot towards Asia (in a military way), or that China might view the bilateral with some concern; and for a Pièce de résistance, he whipped out a junior sized All Blacks jersey and foisted it on the unsuspecting Hagel.

The last moment was gold. Hagel acted as if he was not sure what the piece of black cloth was all about. A pirate flag? A tea towel? Something for Halloween? Then Coleman did the most crassly egregious act of sponsor placement I have ever seen in an official government ceremony by turning the jersey to the cameras with all front logos on display (the back had Hagel’s name and the number 1 on it).  AIG and Adidas would not have believed their luck, but what does it say about Dr. Coleman and his government that he/they thought it appropriate to shill for sports team sponsors at such an event?

The usual protocol for government to government exchanges of sporting symbols (most often on the occasion of bi- or multination sporting events) is to keep the colors and national crests but not the commercial logos. Such exchanges are done at the conclusion of formal meetings, with approved media doing the coverage on cue. Otherwise, the exchange is approved at press conference photo opportunities by prior consent. This avoids impromptu, ad lib or extemporaneous embarrassments or hijacks of the media op, to say nothing of security breaches.

On this the ritual of public diplomacy is pretty clear: public posturing and grandstanding is expected, but surprises are not.

In this instance Secretary Hagel was clearly surprised by the unilateral token of affection. He had nothing to give in return in front of the cameras. That means that the NZ embassy in Washington was incompetent, deliberately mean or ignored in the decision as to choice of gift as well as the way in which to present it, because it is brutally clear that Coleman and his staff were clueless as to the symbolism and significance of their preferred option for a unilateral, unscripted gift.

Lets ponder this. Coleman and his staff decided that the best gift to give the US Secretary of Defense on the occasion of signing a major bilateral military agreement ending years of estrangement was a replica jersey for a commonwealth sport barely recognized outside of some hard core devotee circles in the US. He might as well given him a surf lifesaving jersey.

I would have thought that a Mere pounamu, or better yet a Taiaha or Pouwhenua (to signify continued distance), would have been more appropriate for the occasion. With some advance warning (perhaps in consultation with the US embassy in Wellington), such a gift would be appreciated in its full significance by the US counterparts and transmitted as such to the interested public. Instead, the most powerful US civilian decision maker on military matters was given a piece of quick-dry, stretchable artificial cloth with corporate logos as a symbol of New Zealand’s commitment to first-tier military relations.

Coleman compounded the back-handed compliment with the jersey sponsorship display, thereby commercializing the event. To be honest, I could not believe what I was seeing and can only imagine what the Americans thought. I say this because in a former life I was party to such official ceremonies involving the US Defense Department and allied nation officials, and it was simply unimaginable that someone would attempt to push product, however unintentionally, during a symbolic gift exchange. That is why the display was so utterly cringe worthy.

In general though, I was not surprised by Coleman’s hillbilly-in-the-big-city moment. After all, if the Prime Minister, as Minister of Intelligence and Security, says that he cannot be bothered asking the GCSB questions about US spying on its allies, then it is no wonder that Dr. Coleman thinks that US spies are asleep and the US government is up with the play when it comes to the All Black nation.

Mission to nowhere.

datePosted on 16:06, October 8th, 2013 by Pablo

It is said that the who and when of diplomatic missions tells much about the disposition of the government sending them. If that is true, then consider this.

The most important annual Trans-Pacific diplomatic (APEC) meetings are being held in Bali this week. John Key and Tim Groser are there, once again pushing their trade-first (only?) agenda in the main sessions and back rooms.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Murray McCully is on a mission to Antarctica.

Since Antarctica has no diplomatic agencies on its soil, it seems odd that the foreign minister is headed that way in the absence of a treaty signing or other diplomatic event. His press release states that the visit, his first, is because he is the minister responsible for New Zealand’s Antarctic Affairs and that along with his visit to Scott Base he will head to the US base at McMurdo Sound. But there is nothing diplomatic on his agenda.

Mr. McCully is not a minister for anything scientific, so he is not discharging science portfolio responsibilities by visiting one of the research stations on the continent. Perhaps, as Minister of Sports and Recreation, he is looking into possibilities along those lines, especially since he was flown down on an Air Force plane along with 117 others plus the 11 person Air Force crew.

But if he is not engaged in anything other than a tour of the realm, why is he not with other Trans-Pacific foreign ministers in Bali? Is this the contemporary equivalent of the colonial practice of assigning diplomats in disgrace to a posting in Brazzaville? Is Antarctica New Zealand’s diplomatic version of the Mosquito Coast?

MFAT and National will say that he was superfluous to requirements in Bali (not exactly in that language) because the PM and Trade Minister are there. That tells us two things.

On the international relations front it confirms that New Zealand’s foreign policy is dominated by a trade fixation (fetishism?) that has come to dominate all other aspects of New Zealand’s diplomatic endeavor. In spite of Mr. Key’s posturing at the UN with regard to UN reform, weapons non-proliferation and multilateral intervention in search for votes for a Security Council temporary seat next year, the hard fact is that New Zealand’s diplomatic ranks have been purged, one way or another, of arms control and non-proliferation specialists, climate change and human rights experts and many other senior diplomats whose primary expertise lies outside the realm of trade. They have been replaced by younger, less costly and more narrowly focused trade zealots (many riding on Groser’s coat tails) whose knowledge and experience in other diplomatic fields is comparatively thin.

This has been accompanied by out-sourcing lead responsibility for intelligence sharing and security assistance negotiations to the GCSB, SIS and NZDF, which is one of the reasons, in concert with the trade fixation, that New Zealand’s foreign relations have taken a distinctly schizophrenic look under National (trade with the East, defend with the West, even if the PRC and US are on a collision course for supremacy in the Western Pacific).

One might respond that spy agencies and armed forces should cut their own deals with foreign counterparts, since it is their business after all. But that is precisely why diplomatic intercession is required–securing the national interest is a long-term game played on many fronts that is not reducible to bureaucratic self-interest, making friends amongst foreign counterparts, or currying immediate favor. It is a fluid balancing game rather than a static one-off opportunity, which is why allowing spooks and uniforms to dictate the terms of engagement on matters of intelligence and security is less than ideal. That is particularly so when the ministers in charge of security and intelligence as well as military affairs are less than conversant with the nature of the operations they are responsible for and where there is no independent oversight of their decisions regarding the conduct of those operations.

Likewise, trade zealots need to have their single-minded obsession with neo-Ricardian prescriptions tempered by those who understand that the world is not solely dominated by trade balances and import/export quotas, tariffs, licensing and the other minutiae of cross-border economic interaction. Important as these are, they need to be considered in relation to other areas of diplomatic endeavor so that coherence, congruence and continuity in foreign affairs can be achieved and maintained. The latter is important for no other reason than it helps establish and maintain a nation’s reputation as a global actor.

New Zealand’s reputation as a global actor has transformed under National from that of an independent and autonomous honest broker into that of a wheeling, dealing “free” trading operator that hedges its bets by cozying up to the world military superpower. It remains to be seen how tenable this position will be over the long-term.

On the internal front McCully’s Antarctic junket offers proof that he is an outcast within his own party, a pariah best unseen and unheard. He has no significant allies in the Collins or Joyce factions of the National caucus and no real friends elsewhere. He has no discernible influence on foreign policy, serving more as a spokesperson and chief of ceremony. The weeks before his trip to the frozen continent he was flitting about the US and Caribbean, visiting the America’s Cup before heading to the UN for some meeting and greeting, then onto bilaterals with Caribbean counterparts. Prior to that he was at the Pacific Island Forum in the Marshall Islands, preceded by trips to Hong Kong, China and Mongolia, Melanesia and the Cook Islands and Africa and the Seychelles. He presented many gifts to a variety of dignitaries from far-off lands and wore colorful shirts as much as he did suits. He did little hard negotiating.

That is a lot of time spent abroad during times when parliament is sitting, particularly when the bulk of the trips were for more symbolic than significant purposes. Come to think of it, when was the last time he answered a question in the debating chamber? I may have missed it but he does seem conspicuous by his absence.

In effect, McCully has been given a comfy sinecure to ensure that he stays away from his own caucus and steers clear of involvement in the “real” business of foreign affairs, that being trade. This neuters him in terms of the internal politics within National as well as with regard to foreign policy making (which is now the province of Groser and his minions). This is a variation on the theme used by Labour with respect to Winston Peters, when he became a Foreign Minister not in cabinet who spent a similar amount of time as McCully does exploring the far–and nicer–reaches of the globe. Except Antarctica.

And we have paid for all of it.

 

Blog Link: The Transition Tango in Fiji.

datePosted on 11:35, October 3rd, 2013 by Pablo

Over at 36th Parallel Assessments I explore some of the dynamics that are and will be key factors in the political transition to free and open elections in Fiji scheduled for mid 2014. Unique circumstances in Fiji notwithstanding, the success of a transition from military-bureaucratic authoritarianism to freely elected government (if not democracy) hinges on some key factors, particularly the interplay between regime and opposition hard- and soft-liners. The essay explains how and why.

The end of a norm.

datePosted on 15:17, September 12th, 2013 by Pablo

One perennial argument in international relations is that between realists on the one hand and idealists and constructivists on the other. Idealists believe in the perfectability of humankind and in the ability to interject moral and ethical authority into international affairs. Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush adopted this approach to US foreign relations, Carter with his human rights policy and Dubya with his Pax Americana doctrine for transforming the world into the neoconservative’s preferred image. Closer to home, the Lange government’s non-nuclear declaration appealed to the higher minded elements in the global community.

Constructivists are not as prone to believe in the power of moral authority in international affairs. Instead, they believe that the behaviour of international actors can be constrained and regulated  by international norms and institutions. New Zealand’s support for multinational institutions and multi-lateral approaches to international conflict resolution, as well as its support for  international norms such as those embodied in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are examples of constructivism in foreign policy. Idealists and constructivists dovetail in their belief that multinational institutions and norms can promote better international behaviour than otherwise would obtain.

Realists do not believe this is possible. Realists operate on the premise that because there is no moral, ethical or ideological consensus in international affairs, and because there is no superordinate authority to consistently and effectively enforce its rules of conduct, then the world is effectively in a state of nature (as used by Hobbes). Absent Leviathan in international affairs, states and non-state actors pursue their interests checked only by the relative power of other actors. Self-interest, not morality, rules the day. Classical realists see war as a systems regulator and military force as the ultimate determinant of power. Neo-realists (who emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s) believe that economic power is more important than military might and that the exercise of economic power determines the ability of actor’s to project force in defense of national and self-interest. They used the example of the USSR as a case where military power did not equate or supersede structural power in the long-term course of foreign affairs.

For realists international norms and institutions are nice and ideally preferable, but are no substitute for self-interested power projection as the basis for international stability. Realists see a place for idealist-based international institutions and norms in peripheral areas of international behaviour, but not in core areas of national interest. Thus saving whales can be approached via constructivist means, but securing trade routes and borders cannot.

In the realist view, international actors need to fend for themselves in the last instance, and therefore should approach the global arena with a view to best defending their own interests rather than those of the world community as a whole. Where national power is insufficient to defend core interests, alliances are constructed to do so. Contrary to the perception that realists are military hawks, realism is risk and war adverse in any circumstance where core national interests are not at stake. They do not believe in perfectability campaigns such as democracy and human rights promotion, nor do they believe in wars of choice fought to promote a preferred political outcome or moral ideal. Realism, at its core, is pragmatic and self-limiting.

The Syrian crisis has shown that when it comes to enforcing international norms the global community does not have the will or capability to do so. The bulk of world opinion is against US military intervention to punish the Assad regime for using sarin gas against his civilian population (not once, but a total of at least eleven times in the past 18 months). This occurs in spite of the 1927 and 1993 international bans on chemical weapons and the 1997 international convention calling for the destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles. The political leadership of the majority of nation-states oppose the use of force to punish Assad for his war crimes (I will leave aside for the moment the question of who did the gassing, as the focus here is on international norm violations). Amongst those who believe that Assad should be punished (including the National government), only France appears willing to go to war. Even the US Congress is divided on the issue.

That is striking. The ban on chemical weapons is one of the oldest international conventions. It has obvious moral weight. It has been ratified by over one hundred countries. Images of the victims of the latest attack have been compelling and transmitted world-wide. One would think, if idealists and constructivists are correct in their views of the international community, that Assad’s transgression of such an important norm would prompt a call to arms by fair-minded people the world over. Yet it has not. To the contrary, it has elicited apathy, denial, disinterest or fretful handwringing by the world at large.

What this demonstrates is that when push comes to shove, pragmatism and self-interest trump idealism and constructivism in world affairs. While seemingly promising on the surface, the Russian proposal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons to the UN can also be seen as a cynical ploy to give Assad some time to disperse his chemical weapons stores while continuing his counter-offensive against the rebels by conventional means (which the Russians are supplying). I say that because ensuring the transfer of Syria’s several thousand tons of chemical agents will be lengthy and exhaustive process that will require thousands of foreign technicians on the ground in Syria, and assumes perfect cooperation by the Syrian authorities and the rebels in the midst of a nasty civil war. That is an optimistic view at best, and something that idealists and constructivists may believe possible if a negotiated settlement can be reached under the auspices of the UN Security Council.

However, the Russians are no idealists when it comes to foreign relations and international affairs. Instead, they are very much informed by realist notions of inter-state behavior, so it is safe to assume that their proposal has less to do with humanitarian concern and more to do with Russian power projection and strategic interests in Syria and beyond.

One could argue that the same is true for the US and its allies, and that the call for military intervention by the US against the Assad regime has little to do with humanitarian concern or international norm enforcement and more to do with the geopolitical competition between Iran and its proxies (including the Assad regime) and the Sunni Arab world and the West. This view is backed by the misuse by NATO of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to justify the Libyan intervention. Under R2P foreign military intervention is justified in order to protect vulnerable populations from the depredations of their governments or in the face of government incapacity to defend them against the violence of others. But in Libya it was used as a pretext for forcible regime change over the objections of the Russians and Chinese. Given the outcome, that has for all intents and purposes killed off R2P as an international norm.

The situation with enforcing the norm against use of chemical weapons is even more fraught. Besides the reluctance of the global community to enforce a norm in a conflict in which most have no strategic stake, there is the problem of its prior unsanctioned use. Not only did Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war (with the CIA providing targeting data to Iraq fully knowing that Saddam intended to use chemical weapons against Iranian troop formations). More recently Israel has used white phosphorous (another banned agent) in Gaza and the US used white phosphorous in the Battle of Falluja. In both cases the dense urban combat environment made it impossible to discriminate between civilian and military targets, so their use was arguably criminal even if there were not a ban against them.

In each of these instances the perpetrator used chemical weapons because it was felt to be expedient and because they could get away with doing so. Although there was some hue and cry about their use, no effective action was taken against any of these perpetrators. Only later, in the first Gulf War, was Iraq’s prior use of chemical weapons used to justify the military response to his invasion of Kuwait (and even then his suspected chemical weapons stockpiles were not destroyed by Desert Storm and the US-led alliance refused to help the Shiia uprising against him in the wake of his defeat).

Israel and the US have paid no price for having used chemical weapons in recent years.

Moreover, in spite of the 1997 convention on destroying chemical weapon stockpiles, it is widely believed that most countries that had them at the time (including the US, UK, Israel and Russia), failed to completely eliminate them from their respective inventories. Others, such as Syria, never signed up to the chemical weapons ban and thus have proceeded to develop that capability as a deterrent and a hedge against conventional military defeat.

All of which to say is that at least when it comes to the ban on use of chemical weapons, idealists and constructivists have been proven wrong and realists have been proven right: besides the strategic calculations of many nations that advise against involvement in the Syrian conflict, regardless of the outcome the international norm against using chemical weapons is not worth the paper it is written on. It is, as they say in Spanish, letra muerta.

 

Crying wolf on terrorism for political gain.

datePosted on 14:04, August 20th, 2013 by Pablo

The merit of a proposition can be judged by the strength of the argument in support or defense of it. In the case of the proposed changes to the GCSB and TICS Acts, the government’s argument has basically reduced to claims that terrorists will strike if the bills do not pass, perhaps even using weapons of mass destruction. More than an argument in favor of the bills, it is a sign of desperation on the part of a government unwilling to level with the public on its real intent.

To begin with, counter-terrorism is a very small part of what intelligence agencies do. Ninety percent of intelligence collection and analysis, to include its sub-set of electronic espionage and counterespionage, is focused on traditional corporate, diplomatic and military intelligence gathering. That is true for the Five Eyes/Echelon signals intelligence network and even more so for countries that are not on the front lines of the so-called War on Terrorism.

Yet countering “terrorism” has become the buzz word used by politicians to justify the expansion of the security apparatus in all its forms, to include the militarization of police functions and extension of powers of search and surveillance. It is the fig leaf that covers a multitude of sins perpetrated by the state in the name of national security.

This is an important point because as nasty as it is, terrorism is not an existential threat to any established state, much less a consolidated democracy. Viewed objectively, it can be properly seen is a crime of violence most often carried out as an irregular warfare tactic for ideological reasons. In the hands of non-state actors it is a weapon of the militarily weak that cannot be used regularly and systematically against a broad array of targets in the face of state enforced counter-measures. Although impossible to eliminate in its entirety, especially in its small cell or lone wolf application, this type of terrorism (i.e. in John Key’s airport bomb hypothetical) is a type of criminal violence best handled by the police using the intelligence made available by human as well as signals and technical intelligence agencies.

That may or may not involve electronic eavesdropping of a targeted sort. What is not needed to counter terrorism is blanket adoption of draconian security laws that restrict individual and collective freedoms, including the right to privacy. Oppressing the majority out of fear of an extremist few is counter-productive for no other reason than doing so plays into the hands of the aggressor.

In any event New Zealand is not on the front line of the War on Terrorism. Its threat environment is different than that of Australia, the UK and the US. It is more akin to (yet less than) that of Canada, and it is telling that Canada has resisted moves to closely align its domestic intelligence gathering powers with that of its Northern Hemisphere partners. The Canadians well understand the hierarchy of threats confronting them, and in light of that have shied away from the type of legislation currently being proposed in New Zealand.

If anything, the Canadian government knows that closer public alignment with the US and UK on security issues invites greater risk of attack from those engaged in armed conflict with them. It also understands that what irregular threats exist for Canada, they are more likely to be internal and related to domestic policy issues than external in origin or manifestation. New Zealand is similar in both regards.

What this means is that the specter of terrorism raised by John Key is a dark chimera that has little connection to New Zealand’s real threats, but which is used to defend the passing of security legislation that is more appropriate for the threat environment in Pakistan or Yemen than that of the South Pacific.

In recent years cyber espionage has become the predominant form of signals intelligence threat, to include that in New Zealand. The focus of attention of Five Eyes and other signals intelligence agencies is increasingly on fiber optic cables, routers, switches and the computers that use them, as opposed to radio and satellite intercepts (even if the latter remains a priority for Echelon). In pursuit of effective counter-measures, the Echelon partners have developed sophisticated labor-savings software such as PRISM and XKeyscore that filter the first cut on zillions of bytes of electronic data (the so-called meta-data), thereby making it easier for human analysts to target specific communications based upon keywords, phrases and usage patterns.

This mass trawling through personal as well as institutional electronic communications is indeed efficient, and not problematic for countries under non-democratic rule, but poses a problem for liberal democracies where the right to privacy and presumption of innocence go hand-in-hand as the bedrocks of citizenship.

Cyber espionage in New Zealand is mostly but not exclusively perpetrated by foreign state and non-state actors seeking to access sensitive corporate, political and security information. This includes back-door access via personal computers and electronic devices into work computers of targeted sectors. Since New Zealand has the most porous internet security of the Five Eyes partners and because its economic and political decison-making elite is relatively small in comparison, it is considered to be the weak link in the network by adversaries and allies alike.

Be it by groups such as Anonymous or by state agencies such as Chinese military intelligence (and there are many others), it is estimated that New Zealand computer networks are probed dozens of times a year (at least as far as what has been publicly admitted by the government). Thus the interest in increasing the GCSB’s cyber-securty function in order to bolster the defensive aspect of local cyber intelligence (targeted hacking of foreign networks being the offensive side).

The hard fact is that cyber espionage and counter-espionage is the newest and increasingly most pervasive form of spying and is here to stay, so New Zealand has to lift its game in that field of play.

This is the real reason why the Bills have been introduced. The trouble is that they contain a very strong offensive aspect to them, in part owing to the blurred nature of cyber espionage that does not conform easily to the foreign versus domestic dichotomy traditionally used to partition internal from foreign intelligence gathering. Threats now are seen as “glocal” or “intermestic,” and thus offensive cyber intelligence operations are run side-by-side with domestic counter-intelligence (defensive) work. That includes meta data mining on home soil, and the sharing of that data with Echelon partners.

Rather than honestly reveal the true reasons why the amendments to the GCSB and TICS Acts are being proposed, the National government has resorted to the old canard about terrorism. It may be doing so because it is undiplomatic to point out that its second largest trade partner has been accused by New Zealand’s strongest security and intelligence partners of being the source of most cyber attacks on their respective and shared computer networks. It may be doing so because it assumes that most people simply do not care about issues of security and intelligence, and it might be right. But whatever its rationale, its proposals are way over the top given the realities of New Zealand’s position in world affairs and its history as a democratic polity.

There is much more that is wrong with the New Zealand intelligence community–the lack of effective and independent oversight, the political manipulation of intelligence flows, the overly broad definition of national security and threats to it being foremost amongst them. It is therefore not surprising that in the very framing of the debate about the GCSB and TICS Bills, the government has resorted to bluster and fear-mongering rather than outline the real thrust of its changes.

That is a pity. Had it done so it might have been able to reach a compromise on cyber security more appropriate for a small liberal democracy on the periphery of the major conflicts of our times. However, as things stand New Zealand is about to be saddled with a cyber-security apparatus apparatus more similar to that of Singapore than those of Belgium, Norway or Uruguay.

That pretty much says it all about how National views the world.

 

Three perspectives on the spy bills.

datePosted on 14:37, August 18th, 2013 by Pablo

Selwyn Manning has done a Q&A with three individuals who have different and at times conflicting views of the GCSB and TICS Bills, although all three are critically opposed to the bills in their present form. One is a strategic analyst, one is an internet entrepeneur and one is an IT lawyer. John Key may dismiss them as uninformed, politically motivated or holding some hidden agenda, but their differing takes on the issue may make for some food for thought for KP readers.

The Q&A can be found here.

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