Posts Tagged ‘Security’

The generous uncle.

datePosted on 13:23, March 24th, 2018 by Pablo

The title of this post references a Korean saying that alludes to the fact that those with power or dominance can afford to give away some leverage, even face, in pursuit of mutual good. This is applicable to the current state of US-North Korean (DPRK) affairs, where as per usual president Trump has announced via Twitter that he is prepared to sit down and talk face to face with Kim Jung-un about restoring civility to their bilateral relations.

There are many who oppose the overture. Most of the criticism in the US is based on the argument that by agreeing to a sit-down without prior concessions on the part of the DPRK, the US is “legitimizing” the Kim regime and conceding negotiating space before the meeting happens. Trump and his PR flaks have responded by saying that Kim has agreed to “denuclearise” in exchange for the talks, something that has not been confirmed by anyone–particularly the North Koreans–and which flies in the face of the long-proclaimed objective of the DPRK to obtain a nuclear deterrent as an existential cornerstone of its national defense. In fact, the Kim regime has made achieving nuclear weapons status an integral part of its identity, so it would seem suicidal to renounce that in exchange for a bilateral meeting between Kim and Trump that is very likely to be long on symbolism and short on substance.

The South Koreans (ROK) have played an interesting role in this affair. It was the ROK chief of intelligence who initially announced, on the White House steps after a meeting with Trump, that the latter had agreed to direct talks with Kim Jung-un. It is very unusual for any intelligence chief to meet with a foreign head of state as a head of delegation, much less a South Korean intelligence official (where social hierarchies and official protocol are a serious matter). It is also unprecedented that he would announce a stunning diplomatic breakthrough from the steps of the White House–on his host’s porch, as it were–rather than leave that to the president of the Republic or other senior diplomatic or military officials commenting from Seoul. In fact, even his public appearance abroad was highly unusual. But it has been reported that he was serving as an emissary from Kim himself offering to talk directly with Trump, including about the DPRK nuclear program, so it is possible that the unusual nature of the meeting has to do with the unusual nature of and means by which the message was conveyed.

That does not discount the possibility that the ROK government also engineered the intelligence chief’s meeting with Trump in order to advance its own agenda with regard to US-DPRK relations (which involve three-way talks between the US, ROK and DPRK as equals), then cornered Trump with a unilateral announcement about a possible diplomatic breakthrough after that topic was discussed. Knowing that Trump’s vanity would make it hard for him to backtrack from taking credit for a major foreign policy achievement, it is quite possible that the ROK manipulated him to its advantage in order to advance the stalled dialogue with its northern compatriots (I use this term with regard to ethnic, not political ties).

Trump obliged, and then added the denuclearisation remark in the face of domestic criticism. It is possible that what the DPRK message really said about negotiating its nuclear weapons program got lost in translation, but whether or not it amounts to “denuclearisation” does not detract from the fact that it is willing to talk. Otherwise, the North Koreans have remained largely silent other than to say that the offer to talk is not the result of sanctions but instead comes from a position of confidence, and that they are liaising with Sweden (as the DPRK diplomatic interlocutor with the US) about logistics and agenda.

The key issues appear to be these: the North Koreans have always wanted direct talks with the US. The US has always denied them because it does not recognise the legitimacy of the DPRK regime. The 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War is not a peace treaty and is not synonymous with a permanent cessation of hostilities (in fact, episodic hostilities are a signature characteristic of the DPRK-ROK relationship). Thus the status of both the conflict as well as of the north’s governance has always been subject to US questioning.

In response, the DPRK has asked for two things: a formal cessation of hostilities and recognition of its status as the legitimate government north of the 38th parallel. The US refuses to do so on both counts and maintains that Koreans should be reunified under the ROK political system because the Korean War was a post-WW2  Chinese Communist-instigated attempted revolution that usurped the legitimate government based in Seoul. After years of siding with the US, it appears that the ROK political elite are starting to reconsider their position.

This is where the proverb about the generous uncle comes into play. The Kim regime may have been born in dubious circumstances, be objectively odious and weird in its exercise of power and the US may not like it, but withholding recognition of its status as the de facto regent of the territory and population included within its physical borders is absurd. Much like Israel, the DPRK is here to stay whether Arabs or South Koreans like it or not. The Kim regime has been in power for 65 years, has powerful allies such as China, and in terms of the brutality of its rule, is on a par with a number of despotic states, including past and present US allies (readers are welcome to draw other parallels with Israel but my point is simply pragmatic: disliking a country and wishing it away will not make it go away, and if it has strong allies and its prepared to defend itself, it cannot be destroyed and remade in some other image). So denying the DPRK’s existence by refusing to have diplomatic relations and demanding concessions before engaging in bilateral talks is a case of ignoring reality. And with nukes in play, it is a matter of cutting off the nose in order to spite the face.

Critics will say that any meeting “legitimizes” the Kim regime. So what? If it leads to a diminishing of tensions on the Korean peninsula, how is recognising the obvious–that the DPRK is not going away–a bad thing?  What is wrong about agreeing to replace the armistice with a permanent cessation of hostilities and peace treaty that recognises the political division of the Korean peninsula if it can lead to a reduction of bellicosity and thereby the risk of nuclear confrontation? The South Koreans appear to understand what the proverb means for them, and with the reunification of Germany in the back of their minds, they may well believe that the formalisation of peace accords can, mutatis mutandis, eventually lead to non-hostile reunification on mutually beneficial terms.

In spite of the apparent willingness to engage in bilateral head of state talks without preconditions (depending on who in the White House is tweeting/talking), recent personnel changes in the Trump administration suggest that the desire to be generous is not part of Uncle Sam’s playbook. It remains to be seen if other actors, to include New Zealand, can offer insights to decision-makers in DC as to why that old Korean proverb has increased relevance today

NZDF links in the Iraq “kill chain.”

datePosted on 11:27, February 27th, 2018 by Pablo

When discussing military activities we often hear about the “tip of the spear.” The analogy is a bit overdrawn but points to the fact that the killing head is a relatively small part of the enterprise, and there is not only a long logistical line behind it but also elements of will, volition, intelligence, targeting and discipline in the use of the weapon.

In the modern military vernacular, the process behind the application of lethal kinetic force is known as the “kill chain.” It is worth disaggregating its core elements, starting from the spear tip.

Combat roles are those involving the direct application of force. This involves those pulling triggers on the enemy: infantry, armour, artillery, naval gunnery, tactical and strategic air strikes, special operations reconnaissance, forward air control and hunt and destroy missions. All of these roles involve engaging the enemy by kinetic means.

Combat support roles are those that directly facilitate the application of force. Intelligence collection and analysis, including that which leads to the preparation of target “packages” (usually consisting of a small array of priority and alternative targets and the suggestions about preferred kinetic means to be employed) are key combat-support roles. So are armorers. transporters and tankers providing the weapons, food, equipment and fuel to be deployed in theatre. Likewise, military mentors serving in “advise and assist” roles where they go into the field with foreign partner units are key combat-support roles that often morph into combat roles in the heat of battle. The same applies to combat search-and-rescue units. The key distinction from combat roles is that while they are not designed for or tasked with immediate involvement in the application of force, they are essential to doing so and are in close proximity to or overlapped with those who do. They are the eyes, ears, mind and body that inform the moment when the spear is thrown or trigger is pulled.

Non-combat roles are those that are not involved in the application of force on the enemy. These can be training units operating “behind the wire” in secure installations, mess hall and logistical services away from conflict zones, non-combat search-and-rescue, recruiting and foreign liaison duties, military diplomacy, unarmed humanitarian operations, military band and parade duties and other “meet and greet” PR exercises. Although all helpful to combat missions in an indirect way, none of these roles are absolutely required for successful completion of them. That is what differentiates non-combat from combat-support roles.

Many readers may find all of this obvious and not worth belabouring. But I do so because in New Zealand the  distinction between these roles appears to have been overlooked in official staments about what the NZDF is doing in Iraq (and previously in Afghanistan). From the moment NZDF troops were committed to the fight against Daesh in Iraq in May 2015, the government and military command have defined the mission as a “non-combat” training role. But there appears to be more to that mission that what has been acknowledged, and the NZDF has either been disingenuous or has deliberately misled the public on the true nature of it.

It was only last year that the National government admitted that NZDF personnel were engaged in  “advise and assist” roles and were operating on bases other than Camp Taji, the main training facility north of Baghdad. To this day its successor has refused comment on the nature of NZDF operations outside the training role (now into its fourth year). More tellingly, especially in view of the fact that there are credible reports of NZDF and civilian intelligence personnel being involved in the collection and analysis of actionable tactical intelligence at forward bases in northern Iraq and elsewhere in the regional theatre as well as NZSAS involvement in the fight for Mosul and attendant operations, both the former and the present government continue to maintain the line that the NZDF mission in Iraq is of a non-combat nature.

Not only does that dichotomise and oversimplify what are in fact a range of overlapping military operations, it serves as a semantic trick that, by using a very narrow definition of “combat” and a very broad definition of “non-combat,” reduces the former to only those who pull triggers and the latter to everyone else in uniform. Since combat-support roles are the largest part of the “kill chain,” this false dichotomy hides the very real possibility that the NZDF is in fact very actively involved in and around combat operations in northern Iraq (and perhaps Syria). Much like what eventuated in Afghanistan, it seems that the NZDF has, for its own reasons, decided to hide or misconstrue the multifaceted  nature of the deployment in Iraq and successive governments have gone along with the deception.

I am not sure why this is so.  Other than the Greens and some pacifists in Labour, no political party is going to oppose what the NZDF are doing in Iraq because the general consensus amongst the political elite and public is that the fight against Daesh is just. New Zealand is fulfilling an international obligation by joining in that fight (remember that “price of the club” remark made a few years ago by a senior decision-maker), and its soldiers (all volunteers) gain experience of real battlefield conditions and joint force operational integration with foreign military partners. Daesh already knows about the NZDF role in the so-called “Crusader Coalition” and has called for attacks on NZ soil. So on moral-ethical as well as practical grounds, it would seem that it is safe for the NZDF to be honest about what it is doing abroad.

Of course, as I wrote in a previous post, denying involvement in combat-support and combat roles allows the government and NZDF some measure of plausible deniability in the event that thing go wrong. But if that is the case, then why allow the mission in Iraq to broaden into roles that might incur that chance? Beyond what has been reported about NZDF activities in Iraq in the foreign (including allied military) press, circumstantial evidence at home indicates that the NZDF brass are very deliberate in their concealment of the facts on the ground. How else to explain the extraordinary secrecy demanded of deployed troops even upon their return, to include not telling their families of basic aspects of the deployment, when other members of the anti-Daesh coalition allow their troops to speak freely about non-sensitive operational matters?

A basic tenet of leadership is that responsibility for taskings is assumed by those making decisions. Why has the NZDF decided to engage in combat-support (and likely combat) operations but deny responsibility via the misleading claims about the NZDF non-combat role? Is that not a dereliction of duty and an abdication of command responsibility? Evidence is mounting that NZDF personnel are being put in or near harm’s way and yet the NZDF leadership insist that they are not. Why the continued NZDF  adherence to this ruse, and why does the new Labour government continue to tolerate it?

One thing is certain whether the NZDF and Labour government care to admit it (and with apologies for the mixed analogies): when it comes to the kill chain being used on Daesh in Iraq, the NZDF link runs the full length of the spear, from throw to catch.

In the US, what is needed is a Broad Front.

datePosted on 11:03, February 20th, 2018 by Pablo

The mass murder of 17 high school students and teachers in Florida at the hands of a deranged gunman has once again prompted public outcry about the need for better gun control in a country where gun-related violence is at epidemic levels. Foremost amongst those leading the charge for legislative reform in and around the 2nd amendment are teenagers, led by classmates of those killed and supported by a legion of kids nation-wide who have decided that they will do what their parents could or would not do: confront the National Rifle Association and the politicians in its pocket on the issue of who should have access to firearms, and which firearms should be made legally available to the citizenry.

Sadly, noble intentions notwithstanding, I fear that their efforts may be in vain and the movement will whither and die before any significant change can be made. Think of it this way. In this instance we have a mentally ill teenager kill other teenagers and staff at his former school. Teenagers are largely good if difficult to deal with, but there are enough of them (such as the killer) who push the boundaries of acceptable social convention for nothing more than self absorbed thrills. So one could say that not all of them are the precious flowers they are now being made out to be and that the loss of some teenagers (even if not these), while tragic, does not actually represent a complete waste of untapped human potential. I do not mean to be insensitive or cruel, but instead am trying to put things into context.

Because there are those other incidents to consider. For example, what about Sandy Hook? There 20 primary school kids were murdered along with six staff. These were little kids, still innocent, still wondrous, still untouched and untainted by the distractions of teenage life and attractions of the adult world. And yet, even as then president Obama tried to get the Republican controlled Congress to do something when it came to mentally ill people having legal access to semi-automatic weapons, nothing–as in zero–got done. A movement in their memory was started and yet it failed to gain wide-spread traction across the country. Little kids–precious, innocent kids– were murdered and nothing was done. So why do we think that the deaths of some teenagers will suddenly change the terms of any national discussion about guns?

I suggest that it will not change unless the teenage #NeverAgain movement joins forces with other social movements in what can be called a Broad Front (or, as the Maoists used to say in its original incarnation, “United Front”). The objective is to join together otherwise seemingly disparate groups in common cause. That is because if the #NeverAgain crowd go it alone they can be isolated and divided from, if not against, other mass based collective actors seeking systemic and institutional reform. This type of stove-piping or siloing makes divide and conquer tactics on the part of the status quo easier to accomplish, especially when the teenagers in question are not monolithic on the subject of gun control and may not have the type of national reach that they aspire to (say, for example, amongst adolescents in North Dakota, Idaho, West Virginia or Wyoming, where the gun and hunting culture is ideologically hegemonic).

Instead, what the kids in the #NeverAgain movement need to do is establish links with groups such as Black Lives Matter, the #TakeaKnee anthem protesters, the Women’s March on Washington, LGBT groups, unions and professional associations (including those that represent professional athletes, musicians and other artists), student governments, Hispanic, Arab, African-American, Asian and other identity organisations, religious entities, political organisations, pacifists and peace advocates, medical and psychiatric associations and lobbying groups, chambers of commerce, even local governments. The common cause is rejection of the existing gun culture and the agents of death that represent it in politics, to include the NRA and the media types and politicians who parrot its lines. The Broad Front can then rally around a few simple, good sense-based propositions regarding the who/how/what and whens of gun ownership in a diverse and democratic (as of yet) society. The unifying thread in both facets is the belief that the mental, physical and social costs of the current gun ownership regime far outweigh whatever benefit it may have in terms of personal and collective safety, and that since most of the costs are paid by taxpayers while the benefits are accrued by weapons manufacturers and dealers, the interest groups that represent them and some individuals rather than society as a whole, the current gun culture is reactive rather than proactive in its approach to commonweal costs and biased in favour of death merchants rather than children.

Interestingly, there is a parallel and example provided by the Argentine “Nunca Mas” (Never Again) movement that emerged from the ashes of the military dictatorship of the 1970s and early 1980s and which grouped a wide swathe of organisations in the effort to find justice for those victimised by the junta and to put an end to the culture of impunity that led to the so-called “dirty war” in which so many innocent lives were lost. In name and in broader intent, this is exactly what the English hashtag eponym movement is all about.

Organizing a Broad Front around the #NeverAgain movement will be hard to do but that is what collective action is all about–organizing people by making them think outside of their own personal circumstances and in terms of the collective good. For the #NeverAgain movement there has to be a conscious, deliberate and systematic effort to reach out and establish horizontal solidarity ties with other mass-based organisations and collective agents with agendas for change. There are few subjects that can unite a wide array of ideologically diverse and often narrowly-defined interest and activist groups in a heterogeneous society such as that of the US, but if there is one that can do so, it is the issue of gun control.

And a Broad Front can be made from that.

In Iraq, the NZDF is there but not “there.”

datePosted on 11:22, February 12th, 2018 by Pablo

Recently I was approached by reporters to comment on a report by Harmeet Sooden that reveals that NZDF activities in Iraq extend well beyond what has publicly been acknowledged.  You can read his report here. My back and forth with the reporters eventuated in an op ed (ironic, given the content of my previous post), the gist of which is below.  As readers will see, my concerns are not so much about the mission as they are about the lack of transparency on the part of the NZDF and the previous government as to what the deployment really involves.

Ethically and practically speaking, there is no real problem with what the NZDF is doing in Iraq, including the undisclosed or downplayed aspects. It is a way for the NZDF to hone its skills (to include combat skills), increase its capabilities, enhance its professional reputation and more seamlessly integrate and operate with allied forces and equipment, as well as demonstrate that NZ is willing to do its part as a good international citizen. The cause (fighting Daesh) is just, even if the context and conditions in which the war is prosecuted are prone to unintended consequences and sequels that blur the distinction between a good fight and a debacle. The issue is whether the benefits of participating in the anti-Daesh coalition outweigh the costs of being associated with foreign military intervention in a region in which NZ has traditionally been perceived as neutral and as a trustworthy independent diplomatic and trading partner. The statements of coalition partners (especially the ADF) demonstrate that they believe that the mission has been worthwhile for the reasons I noted.

Some will say that the disclosure of the NZDF “advise and assist” role in Iraq is evidence of “mission creep.’ In reality this was envisioned from the very beginning of the NZDF involvement in the anti-Daesh coalition. The training mission at Camp Taji, although a core of the NZDF participation in the coalition, also provided a convenient cover for other activities. These were generally disclosed in the months following the first deployment (TGT-1) in theatre, and it was only during TGT-5 and TGT-6 in 2016-17 that the advise and assist role was openly acknowledged. In practice, military training such as that conducted by the NZDF in Iraq does not stop after six weeks behind the barbed wire at Taji, so some advise and assist operations in live fire conditions were likely conducted before what has been publicly acknowledged (perhaps during the battles of Tikrit and Falluja or other “clearing” missions in Anbar Province).

The extended advisory role “outside the wire” is particularly true for small unit counter-insurgency operations. That was known from the start.  So it is not so much a case of NZDF mission creep as it is planned mission expansion.

NZDF collection of biometric data is only troublesome because of who it is shared with. The Iraqi authorities are unreliable when it comes to using it neutrally and professionally, so sharing with them or the ISF is problematic. Biometric information shared with NZ intelligence agencies can be very useful in vetting foreign travellers to NZ, including migrants and refugees. But again, whereas the use of such data can be expected to be professional in nature when it comes to NZ and its military allies, the whole issue of biometric data sharing with any Middle Eastern regime is fraught, to say the least.

The reasons for the National government’s reluctance to be fully transparent about the true nature of the NZDF commitment in Iraq are both practical and political.

Practically speaking, denying or minimizing of NZDF involvement in combat activities, to include intelligence and other support functions, is done to keep NZ’s military operations off the jihadist radarscope and thereby diminish the chances that New Zealand interests abroad or at home are attacked in retaliation. This goes beyond operational and personal security for the units and soldiers involved as well as the “mosaic theory” justification that small disclosures can be linked by enemies into a larger picture detrimental to NZ interests. All of the other Anglophone members of the coalition (the US, UK, Australia and Canada, as well as others such as France and Spain) have suffered attacks in their homelands as a direct result of their public disclosures. NZ authorities undoubtedly see this as a reason to keep quiet about what the NZDF was actually doing in theatre, and they are prudent in doing so.

However, foreign reporting, to include reporting on military media in allied countries, has already identified NZDF participation in combat-related activities, so the desire to keep things quiet in order to avoid retaliation is undermined by these revelations. Likewise, Daesh and al-Qaeda have both denounced New Zealand as a member of the “Crusader” coalition, so NZ is not as invisible to jihadists as it may like to be. Even so, to err on the side of prudence is understandable in light of the attacks on allies who publicly disclosed the full extent of their roles in Iraq.

The other reason why the National government did not want to reveal the full extent of the NZDF role in Iraq is political. Being opaque about what the NZDF is doing allows the government (and NZDF) to avoid scrutiny of and deny participation in potential war crimes (say, a white phosphorous air strike on civilian targets in Mosul), complicity in atrocities committed by allied forces or even mistakes leading to civilian casualties in the “fog of war.” If there is no public acknowledgement and independent reporting of where the NZDF is deployed and what they are doing, then the government can assume that non-disclosure of their activities gives NZDF personnel cover in the event that they get caught up in unpleasantness that might expose them to legal jeopardy.

It is all about “plausible deniability:” if the NZDF and government say that NZ soldiers are not “there” and there is no one else to independently confirm that they are in fact “there,” then there is no case to be made against them for their behaviour while “there.”

In addition, non-disclosure or misleading official information about the NZDF mission in Iraq, particularly that which downplays the advise and assist functions and other activities (such as intelligence gathering) that bring the NZDF into direct combat-related roles, allows the government some measure of insulation from political and public questioning of the mission. NZ politicians are wary of public backlash against combat roles in far off places (excepting the SAS), particularly at the behest of the US. Although most political parties other than the Greens are prone to “going along” with whatever the NZDF says that it is doing during a foreign deployment, there is enough anti-war and pacifist public sentiment, marshaled through a network of activist groups, to pose some uncomfortable questions should the government and NZDF opt for honesty and transparency when discussing what the NZDF does abroad.

However, in liberal democracies it is expected that the public will be informed by decision-makers as to the who, how, what and why of foreign military deployments that bring soldiers into harm’s way. After all, both politicians and the military are servants of the citizenry, so we should expect that transparency would be the default setting even if it does lead to hard questioning and public debate about what is a “proper” foreign military deployment.

The bottom line as to why the NZDF and political leaders obfuscate when it comes to foreign military operations is due to what can be called a “culture of impunity.” This extends to the intelligence community as well. They engage in stonewalling practices because traditionally they have been able to get away with them. Besides public ignorance or disinterest in such matters, these affairs of state have traditionally been the province of a small circle of decision-makers who consider that they “know best” when it coms to matters of economic, security and international affairs. Their attitude is “why complicate things by involving others and engaging in public debate?” That tradition is alive and well within the current NZDF leadership and was accepted by the National government led by John Key.

It remains unclear if there will be a change in the institutional culture when it comes to disclosing military operations abroad as a result of the change in government, with most indications being that continuity rather than reform is likely to be Labour/NZ First’s preferred approach.


An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Dominion Post on February 12, 2018. (

Plus ca change, or, does Labour have a foreign policy?

datePosted on 07:34, January 5th, 2018 by Pablo

Among the things mentioned during the 2017 election campaign, foreign policy was not one of them. This is not surprising, as domestic policy issues tend to dominate election year politics in times of peace in virtually all democracies. The syndrome is compounded in New Zealand, where matters of diplomacy, international security and trade are notable for their absence in both parliamentary debates as well as public concern, only surfacing during moments of controversy surrounding specific issues such as foreign troop deployments, NZ involvement in Anglophone spy networks or negotiating trade deals that appear lopsided in favour of other states and economic interests.

Even if foreign policy is not a central election issue, it nevertheless is an important area of governance that should in principle reflect a Party’s philosophy with regard to its thrust and substance. Given that the Labour-led coalition that formed a government in 2017 represents a departure from nine years of center-right rule, it is worth pondering what approach it has, if any, to reshaping foreign policy in the wake of its election.

It should be noted that NZ foreign policy has been relatively consistent over the last 20 years regardless of which party coalition was in government. Dating to the break up of the ANZUS defense alliance on the heels of its non-nuclear declaration in 1985,  NZ has championed an “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line that, if not completely integrating it into the non-aligned movement that rose during the Cold War, granted it some latitude in how it approached its diplomatic relations and international commitments. Foremost amongst these was support for multilateral approaches to international conflict resolution, concern with ethics, rules and norms governing international behaviour, advocacy of small state interests and a self-assigned reputation as an “honest broker” in international affairs. Issues of trade, diplomacy and security were uncoupled once the Cold War ended, something that allowed NZ to navigate the diplomatic seas without the constraints imposed by binding alliance ties to larger partners.

From the mid-90s there has been a trade-centric core to NZ foreign policy, to the point that promoting “free” trade and negotiating trade deals, be they bi- or multilateral in nature, is seen to have overshadowed traditional diplomatic and security concerns such as nuclear non-proliferation, environmental protection and human rights promotion. This “trade-for-trade’s sake” approach was initiated by the Shipley government but deepened under both the 5th Labour government as well as the National-led governments headed by John Key. After 9/11 it was paralleled by a reinforcement of security ties with traditional allies such as Australia, the US and the UK, in spite of the fact that the move towards expanding trade relationships in Asia and the Middle East ran against New Zealand’s traditional advocacy of a principled foreign policy that defended human rights as well as the thrust of the geopolitics perspectives of security allies (which view NZ trade partners such as China and Iran as adversaries rather than partners).

Although both Labour and National continued to voice the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy line during the 2000s, what actually took place was the development of two separate tracks where NZ pushed trade relations without regard to security commitments and human rights, on the one hand, and on the other hand deepened its involvement in US-led security networks without regard to broader diplomatic concerns. This was formalised with the signing of the bi-lateral Wellington and Washington Declarations in 2010 and 2012. For NZ diplomats, the parallel track approach was a matter of keeping eggs in different baskets even if it violated the long-standing principle of security partners trading preferentially with each other. That is not a problem so long as NZ trading partners are not seen as hostile to or competitors of the US and its main allies. Yet NZ chose to expand its trade ties with China with the signing of a bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2008, something that has not only increased its trade dependency on China in the years that followed (China is now NZ’s second largest export market and third largest import market), but also put it in the unenviable position of trying to remain balanced in the face of increased US-China competition in the Western Pacific Rim. Similarly, NZ-Iranian trade ties, and the nascent talks about NZ-Russian bilateral trade, both run the risk of negatively counterpoising NZ’s economic and security interests in each case.

Following Labour’s lead, the National government doubled its efforts to reinforce its ties to the US-led security network while pushing for trade agreements regardless of domestic opposition to both. It committed troops to the battle against Daesh in Iraq and Syria and continued to maintain presence in Afghanistan after its formal commitment to the ISAF mission ended in 2013. It revamped and upgraded its commitment to the 5 Eyes signals intelligence collection partnership that includes the US, UK  Australia and Canada. It loudly advocated for the TransPacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) even though the 12 country pact was largely seen as favouring US economic interests and serving as the economic component of a US containment strategy towards China in the Western Pacific.

Now it is the Labour-led coalition headed by Jacinda Ardern that holds the reins. What can we expect from it when it comes to foreign policy? Continuity when it comes to the “two-track” approach? A deepening of one track and softening of the other? An attempt to bring a third track–what might be called a humanitarian line that re-emphasises human rights, environmental protection and non-proliferation, among other rules-based policy areas–into the mix?

From what is seen in its foreign policy manifesto, Labour appears to want to have things a bit of both ways: overall continuity and commitment to an “independent” foreign policy but one in which ethical concerns are layered into trade policy and in which international security engagement is framed by UN mandates and multilateral resolutions (as well as a turn away from military combat roles and a re-emphasis on peace-keeping operations). A commitment to renewed diplomatic endeavour, particularly in international fora and within the South Pacific region, is also pledged, but the overall thrust of its foreign policy objectives remain generalised and rhetorical rather than dialed in on specifics.

A few months into its tenure, the new government has done nothing significant with regards to foreign policy. Jacinda Arden made some noises about resettling the the Manus detainees in NZ during her first official trip abroad, only to be rebuked  by Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and her own Opposition. She also made  ill-advised comments about who Donald Trump may or may not thought she was, leading to skepticism as to the veracity of her story. NZ First leader Winston Peters was named foreign minister more as a matter of style (and reward) rather than in recognition of his substance when it comes to foreign affairs. Likewise, Ron Mark got the nod to be Defense Minister in what appears to be a sop thrown to an old soldier who enjoys military ceremonies but cannot get his medals rack sorted correctly. Andrew Little was apparently made Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security because he is a lawyer and a reputed tough guy who as Opposition Leader once sat on the Parliamentary Select Committee on Intelligence and Security, rather than because he has any particular experience in that field, especially with regard to its international aspects. The Greens, in the past so vociferous in their defense of human rights, pacifism, non-interventionism and anti-imperialism, have gone silent.

As for the Labour Party foreign policy experts, whoever and how many there may be (if any), the question is how do they see the world. Do they use (neo) realist, idealist, constructivist or some hybrid framework with which to frame their perspective and that of their government? Do they use international systems theory to address issue linkage in foreign policy and to join the dots amongst broader economic, social, military and political trends in world affairs as well the nature of the global community itself?  Are they aware of the Melian Dilemma (in which small states are often forced to choose alliance between competing Great Powers)? iven the predominance of trade in NZ foreign policy, how do they balance notions of comparative and competitive advantage when envisioning NZ’s preferred negotiating stance? If not those mentioned, what conceptual and theoretical apparatuses do they employ? On a practical level, how do their views match up with those of the foreign affairs bureaucracy and career diplomatic corps, and what is their relationship with the latter?

Issues such as the ongoing NZDF deployments in Iraq (and likely Syria, if the NZSAS are involved) have not (yet) been reviewed in spite of early campaign promises to do so. Nor, for that matter, has Labour taken a detailed critical eye to the stalled TPPA negotiations now that the US has abandoned them, or re-examined its diplomatic approaches towards the Syrian, Ukrainian and Yemeni civil wars, South China Sea conflicts, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, post-Brexit economic relations, maritime conservation regimes and a host of other important and oft-contentious topics.

Judging from the manifesto it is hard to discern a coherent intellectual underpinning to how Labour policy makers approach international relations. It is also difficult to know how the new government’s foreign policy elite relate to the careerists charged with maintaining NZ’s international relations. So far, there is no identifiably Labour approach to foreign affairs and policy carry-over from previous governments is the norm.

That may not hold for long. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has changed the global environment in which NZ foreign policy is formulated and practiced because if anything, he has rejected some of the foundational principles of the NZ approach (support for the UN and multilateralism) with his “America First” philosophy and has increased global tensions with his belligerent posturing vis a vis adversaries and his bullying of allies. That combination of provocation, brinkmanship and alienation of allies brings with it high risks but also a diplomatic conundrum for NZ. Given that NZ maintains good relations with some of US adversaries as well as allies, yet is intimately tied to the US in uniquely significant ways, its ability to maintain the dichotomous  approach to an independent foreign policy may now be in jeopardy.

After all, the US now demands open expressions of “loyalty” from its allies, for example, in the form of demands that security partners spend a minimum of two percent of GDP on defense (NZ spends 1.1 percent), and that trade partners give acknowledged preference to US economic interests when signing “deals” with it. In that light, and with Trump increasingly looking like he wants open conflict with one or more perceived rivals (and is on a clear collision course with China with regards to strategic preeminence in the Western Pacific), the “two-track” NZ foreign policy may now be more akin to trying to straddle a barbed wire fence while balancing on ice blocks rather than a matter of saving diplomatic eggs.

In light of this, it is time for the Labour government to stand up and be heard about where they propose to steer NZ in the international arena during what are clearly very fluid and uncertain times.

A matter of insubordination and contempt.

datePosted on 14:00, December 22nd, 2017 by Pablo

In her latest annual report, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS) Cheryl Gwyn detailed that the NZSIS unlawfully collected Customs data on thousands of travellers from 1997-2016. This bulk collection was not done under warrant and was instead done on industrial scale: anyone who passed through New Zealand ports of entry during this time period can assume that their personal data was “harvested” by the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) for its own purposes. Current NZSIS Director Rebecca Kitteridge defended the practice as a necessary part of fighting terrorism (which presumes that SIS concern with terrorism started in 1997 if her claim is correct) and maintains that legal advice at the time made the SIS believe that the practice of bulk collection was lawful. Think about that–warrantless indiscriminate collection of the personal information about thousands of people was deemed, if we are to believe the Director, lawful by the best in-house legal minds within the NZSIS. This happened even though the NZSIS Act was revised several times during the time in which the unlawful bulk collection occurred, so it is clear that when it came to warrantless access of traveler’s personal information, be they citizens, visitors, immigrants or officials, the senior staff in the agency thought that it was fair game–or at least thought that they could get away with it. One gets the impression that this is the same legal team that thought it was lawful for the GCSB to spy on Kim Dotcom after he gained permanent residency–a practice clearly prohibited in the GCSB Act in force at the time of the illegal wire-tapping. Perhaps it is time for these legal geniuses to step down.

IGIS Gwyn also noted that the NZSIS refused to cooperate, impeded and/or raised obstacles to her search for primary documents related to the unlawful monitoring of travellers as well as on other issues. Let’s be clear on this: New Zealand’s primary human intelligence agency deliberately impeded the work of the main oversight officer to which it is responsible. This, in spite of legal requirements to do so. The answer to this contempt for their statutory obligations may rest in the fact that under the current SIS Act the maximum penalty levied on the NZSIS for unlawful acts (of which obstruction is one) is NZ$5000–payable by the agency, not the individuals who authorised the unlawful acts or who refused to cooperate with the IG’s requests.

Although I find it very hard to believe, let us assume that SIS managers who authorised the mass tapping of Customs data were doing so in good faith while under the impression that the practice was lawful. If that is the case, they should be reprimanded and counselled on their statutory obligations. But those who obstructed or impeded the IGIS’s work need to be fired. In fact, if they are not, then Director Kitteridge needs to either resign or herself be dismissed. That task falls to Andrew Little, the Minister responsible for Intelligence and Security. Yet, although he has made some noises to the effect that he expects the agency to comply with IGIS requests, he has made no moves to punish those responsible for this blatant disregard for and defiance of the intelligence oversight process.

It is now abundantly clear that even though the IGIS is better funded and staffed and has better powers of proactive as well as post facto investigative authority (ostensibly including the powers of legal compulsion) than her predecessors, her office remains effectively marginal, if not subordinate to the bureaucratic logics internal to the agencies she oversees. These logics are founded on a deliberate opaqueness when it comes to transparency and statutory compliance and a deeply ingrained disregard for external advice, scrutiny or oversight. The old boys club will do as it sees fit to do regardless of the arrows slung by nosy outsiders. They are the gatekeepers and guardians of the secrets, and it is they who decide what is proper and what is not when it comes to legality and oversight adherence. Perhaps in this particular case the SIS managers do not like Ms. Gwyn or her somewhat unconventional career path on the way to becoming IGIS, but even if that is true their personal feelings have no place impeding the effective discharge of her duties.

The problem of ineffectual oversight of the NZ intelligence community (NZIC) highlighted by the IGIS’s frustrations with SIS obstructionism is rooted in a bureaucratic culture of impunity within the SIS and GCSB and in the lack of strong parliamentary oversight. The Select Committee on Intelligence and Security (SCIS) remains a highly partisan paper tiger devoid of real compulsion or enforcement authority. For their part ministers responsible for intelligence and security such as Andrew Little are all to often reluctant to confront spies about their excesses, when not prone to “bureaucratic capture” by them (a situation where an ostensible overseer becomes captivated by the logics and rationales of  subordinates with specialised expertise in a given policy field, leading to a lack of critical appraisal and independent review of actions taken in that field). Some of this may be due to the history of politicization that surrounds the SIS, which often appears to serve the government of the day rather than the common interest (in which case Mr. Little’s soft response has a politically opportunistic basis). But most of the oversight failures when it comes to the NZIC is grounded in the lack of effective and enforceable legal authority granted to the IGIS and the SCIS.

The only answer to this culture of insubordination and contempt within the NZIC, in this case specifically the SIS, is to hold individuals legally accountable for their actions. For example, rather than levy paltry fines on the SIS for its unlawful activities, the fines should be increased 20 fold and levied against the individuals who either knowingly ordered the illegal project(s) and/or who deliberately obstructed, concealed, tampered with or otherwise impeded the IGIS investigation into their activities. Likewise, the SCIS needs to become a dedicated organ of Parliament with its own professional staff and dedicated funding so that it can be come an independent research and investigatory arm answerable but not subordinate to the government of the day. The political appointments at the top could remain as stands (five members, the PM and two members nominated by him/her plus the Leader of the Opposition and his/her one nominee). Or it could be revised to include leaders of parties who reach a significant electoral threshold (say, ten percent of the popular vote). Either way, the SCIS should be provided powers of compulsion under oath, arrest and other means of legal enforcement of its oversight mandate so that the NZIC understands that it answers to the people of Aotearoa via elected officials as well as the IGIS, not the other way around.

The new Labour government has a golden opportunity to promote effective reform of the NZIC armed with the justification provided by Gwyn’s report on the SIS. Much like rot, there is a culture of contempt as well as impunity amongst at least some senior staffers in the NZIC that needs to be extirpated and replaced by those who understand that in a democracy it is not the spies who determine what is lawful and what is not (or for that matter, what is secret and what is not), but instead it is the specialized oversight agencies entrusted by the people and grounded in law (such as when it comes to definitions of national security threats) who do so. But for that to be the case, the oversight agencies and mechanisms need teeth, and it is exactly that which continues to be missing from the current oversight scheme.

A walking Tui ad?

datePosted on 06:57, October 20th, 2017 by Pablo

The election turned out OK as far as I am concerned. My decision to support Labour after years of supporting the Greens seems to have paid off as they are now leading the new government. The Greens were punished for their shift from red to blue at their core and for bringing in neophytes onto their list, but not too much (although I still have serious reservations about their ideological direction and one of their new MPs). Save for ACT the various useless parties disappeared. And the Nats got what they deserved, which was the boot, even if it took that old dog Winston to apply his toe to their posteriors. As for NZ First, time will only tell if they are the fly in the ointment or the straw that stirs the drink.

When it comes to how the new government will be organized, I am very curious to see who will be appointed Minister of Defense. Ron Mark is a likely candidate, and I have no problem with him in that role in spite of his otherwise reactionary views (apologies if the list of Ministers is out and someone else is the new MoD). With the exception of Phil Goff he will be the most informed person to assume that portfolio in the last 18 years, which is good because the NZDF have some major decisions to make when it comes to upgrading and configuring the force.  There are issues of equipment purchases, recruitment and retention, foreign alliance commitments and the overall thrust of NZDF operations that need immediate addressing. He has been critical of the lack of strategic vision on the part of NZDF and MoD leaders, so my hope is that he will push for an overhaul in the strategic thinking underpinning NZDF operations that goes beyond the periodic exercises known as Defense White Papers. And he will have to address the problem of drug abuse within the NZDF, which has been kept largely under wraps but which is large enough to run the real risk of jeopardizing operational security and/or getting someone killed.

However, when it comes to intelligence matters and the general subject of security, I have concerns about the ability of the new government to impose its will on the intelligence community and Police as well as avoid so-called “bureaucratic capture:” the situation where the lack of experience in a subject field by new overseers or managers allows career bureaucrats to shape the former’s views of the subject in ways that serve the entrenched interests of the latter. I do not see anyone in the top tiers of Labour, the Greens or NZFirst who display particular fluency in matters of intelligence and security, and when it comes to direct political oversight of the NZ intelligence community, the lack of expertise is dire.

Or let me put it in this way:

Letters from America, take seven: Dark Irony.

datePosted on 07:50, October 4th, 2017 by Pablo

The fact that a country western concert in the US was the target of yet another mass murder spree by an automatic weapon- toting white man is darkly ironic given that country western fans tend to be ninety percent white, predominantly middle and working class, republican in political orientation and a core demographic of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Trump support base. They are known for wearing and displaying US (and confederate) flags along with cowboy boots and hats, and indeed many of the victims were clad in patriotic-themed apparel.  The guns used were apparently US-made semi-automatic assault rifles converted to fully automatic by the use of converter kits known as “bump stock” kits (which provide an anti-lock override mechanism attached to a short stock that allows the shooter to hold the trigger down and use the recoil to simulate an automatic setting). The shooter used extra capacity magazines, which are legal in Nevada, as are the conversion kits. In fact, the weapons, ammo and conversion kits can be purchased at the same time in any gun store. Truth be told, a converter kit is not always necessary. A simple file can be used to file down the spot welds that often are the only thing preventing a semi-automatic weapon from becoming fully automatic, especially on older model combat weapons like AK-47s and M-14s.  In any case, semi-automatic weapons are classfied as hunting weapons so purchases do not need to be entered into a federal databank (as some states require automatic weapons to be).

The entire cache of weapons, amunition and acessories stockpiled by the killer were legal. And since he had no prior criminal convictions, so was his possession of them.

With the exception of some rightwing conspiracy types who claimed that the killer was a Muslim convert, and Daesh, which tried to claim credit for the attack, no one in a position of authority is claiming that this was an act of terrorism.

I tend to agree with this assessment even though people in the killing field were clearly terrorized and many more traumatized by what they experienced. Beyond the motivation-versus-effect argument about how to define terrorism, the hard fact is that here again we have another example of a white male getting a pass on the “terrorist” label. Be it in Sandy Hook, Charleston or Colombine, white males who commit mass murders, even when motivated by racial, political or religious animus, are described as mentally ill, insane, maniacs or lunatics. They are not called domestic terrorists.

That is not the case when people of color engage in similar acts, even though the majority of mass murders with guns in the US are committed by white males. Plus, by definition someone who undertakes such acts has to be at least a little bit mentally out of kilter. So why call some US mass murderers crazy and some cold-blooded terrorist killers? Given the level of planning put into the Las Vegas attack, it can be argued that the perpetrator was much less nuts than many other murderers. Yet the “T” word will not be used on him even though what he did was deliberate, calculated, well-planned and executed and designed to have the maximum lethal effect on what was a carefully chosen mass target.

We shall see what set off him off.  It might be gambling debts, a romantic breakup or a psychopathic meltdown rather than a political or musical grudge. He clearly knew what he was doing, and he acted in premeditated fashion. So the forensics on the event will be interesting. Less so is the tragedy porn now playing 24/7 on US television screens, where tales of human misery and pathos, be it man-made (Las Vegas) or natural in origin (Puerto Rico) are on repeat loops for the morbidly obsessed (I am in the US on an extended sabbatical so am getting to live this in real time).

What is noticeably absent from the official police statements and pretty much all of the hourly “news” coverage is any discussion of gun laws that allow an individual to amass 30 or so automatic firearms, thousands of rounds of combat grade ammunition and precursor chemicals for explosives. Instead, the coverage is all about the shooter, his motivations and the wonderful character and/or heroism and/or sacrifice of all of his victims. Leave it to the “liberal” talk show hosts to address that elephant in the room, and leave it to the rightwing media and politicians to make the discussion about gunowners rights as opposed to the victim’s rights that were so brutally violated.

That is why I have no illusions that anything good will come of this. If nearly 30 kids can be murdered in Sandy Hook and nothing gets done in terms of gun control, and instead rightwing freaks saturate social media with claims that it was a government conspiracy hoax done to take away guns from law abiding people (like the Las Vegas shooter), then there is little hope that the president or Congress are going to do anything to change the status quo just because some good ole boys and girls got the hot lead hose down by a disgruntled accountant. This is especially true since Republican congresspeople and the president have received large sums of campaign (if not other) money from the NRA.

It is, however remotely, possible that because of who he targeted, the Las Vegas killer might have sparked a pang of conscience in the gun lobby and the politicians who pockets are lined by it. If that is the case then the victims will not have suffered and died in vain. But for the moment one can only repeat what has been said many times before: the time for thoughts and prayers for the victims is over. The time for action on gun control is long past due.

Is he a spy?

datePosted on 07:48, September 14th, 2017 by Pablo

There is a fellow in NZ who once lectured at an elite foreign military school that trained military and civilian intelligence agents. His position required him to meet certain protocols and standards in order to receive a high level security clearance. In return for receiving that clearance and his lecturing on topics of interest to the intelligence community, he was privy to classified subjects and materials as well as being allowed to interact with the agencies from which his students originated.

His students learned foreign languages as part of their studies, combining that with training in the practical and operational skill sets required of them once they graduated and entered the field.

After leaving the military education institution, the fellow in question went on to work closely with the intelligence community in his country of origin, eventually taking a fairly senior position within the defense and intelligence establishment and continuing to consult with it even after his departure from active government service.

Some time after, he moved abroad and found his way to NZ, where he was hired as a lecturer in politics at the University of Auckland and settled into his adopted country by buying property and engaging in community servcie. He became fairly well known in political circles, wrote academic titles on NZ and comparative foreign policy and engaged with government on topics of common interest.

The question is: is this guy a spy given his past? Could he have come to NZ as an undercover “mole” ready to be sprung into service by his foreign masters after lying dormant for some time?

I ask because another former University of Auckland lecturer now in public service as a parliamentarian has found himself under some scrutiny after it was revealed that he also had lectured to intelligence agents at military educational institutions in his country of birth. It seems that there are questions as to whether he left that life behind him when he came to NZ even though his academic and community life in NZ broadly resemble that of the first individual mentioned above. But now the political knives are pointing at him.

It seems to me that the question about whether either individual is a spy reduces to two things. What were the cirumstances surrounding their emigration from their countries of origin, and what sort of security vetting was done on them before they took up residency and later, when one decided to enter public life?

In both cases security background checks would have been done as part of their visa appllication process. In both cases the University of Auckland would have presumably checked their academic credentials (which is an issue because the second fellow apparently fudged his academic credentials on his citizen application form, which makes one wonder if due dilligence was done on him by the UA prior to it recommending him, as an employment sponsor, to immigration authorities). For the individual who entered public service, more extensive vetting conducted by the SIS or an agency contracted by it would have examined the case a bit more in depth.

Based on what I know of the second case so far, the individual in question is no more a spy than the first guy is, and the first guy is clearly not. The problem for the second guy is that he comes from a country ruled by an authoritarian regime with neo-imperialist ambitions that is known to use its diaspora as a human intelligence collection network, where emigrants take out citizenship and settle into target countries but continue to report back to intelliigence authorities in their homelands. For his part, the first guy was more involved in his home country’s intelligence community prior to his arrival in NZ than the second guy apparently was (as far as has been reported), and the first guy’s home country has an extensive record of imperialism, including covert intelligence collection in NZ and elsewhere in the South Pacific that historically dwarfs that of the second guy’s motherland. Unfortunately for the second guy, his country of origin is not a NZ intelligence partner like the country the first guy came from, and in fact is a major counter-intelligence target for NZ security agencies.

So the question remains: can either or both of these guys be legtimately called a “spy” based on their backgrounds prior to arrival in NZ?

I ask because I am the first guy and I do not like being misidentified without cause (as I have been from time to time). It is unfortunate that my former colleague now stands accused (even if by insinuation) of something that he might not be based on assumptions about what he used to be. For his sake as well as that of NZ security, it is appropriate and necessary for the SIS or other NZ security agencies (not the government of which he is an MP) to issue a clarification on the matter now that the question has been raised in  public and there is a cloud over his career and reputation.

Letters from America, take six: Flirting with disaster.

datePosted on 12:46, September 7th, 2017 by Pablo

The theme of the week in the US is “flirting with disaster.” Trump did well on his return to Texas for a second time after Hurricane Harvey–he looked a bit more presidential and at least went to the affected areas to hand out relief packages and hug displaced babies (of color, to boot!). Upon his return to DC his decision to repeal DACA, the so-called “Dreamers Act” (which gave limited legal protection to foreign born children without criminal recrods who were brought to the US by their parents) has enough support in Congress to see it upheld and replaced within the six month time frame Trump has specified for its implementation (although like everything else Trump does, the court challenges are already being filed). So for first time in months Trump had a week devoid of major scandal, crisis or controversy.

But now Hurricane Irma is headed to South Florida after hitting the Leeward Islands, including the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico (a US territory with a population of 3.4 million). The Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba are in its path before it is predicted to make a direct hit on the larger Miami area (with a population of 6.7 million). It remains to be seen what Trump’s response to this storm will be given the heavily Hispanic demographic in the impact areas and the fact that he did not carry South Florida in last year’s elections (unlike SE Texas where Harvey hit). He might order full scale federal help given that even Mar el Lago will be affected, but so far he has done nothing and left it to the territories and states to deal with emergency prep.

Irma is stronger than Harvey, being a full fledged category 5 storm with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and gusts to 225 mph (nearly 300 kilometers per hour) and a storm surge of up to 30 feet. Harvey was a Category 3 storm when it made landfall and turned into a rainbomb, but neither in terms of winds or surge is it comparable to the punch that Irma is packing. Like SE Texas, South Florida is low lying (and even below sea level in some places), so the catastrophic potential is huge. The number of people who could be affected in the Florida, Puerto Rico and the island territories is more than double that of those impacted by Harvey, and the demands for recovery assistance both in US territories as well as foreign neighbors will be astronomical.

So Hurricane Irma will be a big test for Trump. He ordered US$ 7.5 billion in federal disaster relief to Texas for Harvey recovery efforts (a drop in the bucket of what is estimated to be a 150 billion dollar recovery cost), but that will now need to be increased exponentially for Irma recovery efforts even in the face of GOP misgivings about disaster relief spending. Recall that the Texas congressional delegation opposed federal relief for the Mid Atlantic areas affected by Hurricane Sandy a few years ago, but are now clamoring for federal help (Ted Cruz and John Conrnyn come to mind). More generally, many Republican congresspeople are loathe to increase the US debt ceiling in order to fund recovery efforts outside their own districts, something that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin claims is an abosolute necessity (and a direct betrayal of Trump’s campaign promise to reduce the US debt ceiling). Faced with GOP opposition, Trump has sided with congressional Democrats in calling for a temporary elevation of the debt ceiling in order to finance disaster relief (a Faustian bargain if there ever was one,), much to the annoyance of GOP leaders such as House Speaker Paul Ryan. In view of these differences it will be interesting to see how the Republican majority in Congress reacts to pleas from Florida and US territories for federal receover aid, but what is certain is that the debate over it will be contentious at best.

Almost unnoticed in Washington amid all the hurricane news is the fact that another major disaster is unfolding in the US west. Nearly 60 large scale wildfires  covering hundreds of thousands of acres are burning in seven Western states, and both property and lives have been lost in them. Although the region is drought- and hence fire-prone and therefore has signficant deployable fire-fighting resources at the state and federal level (e.g. via the US Park Service and other branches of the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security), budget cuts have reduced the federal ability to contribute to fighting simultaneous large fires, some of which have reached the outskirts of major cities such as Los Angeles. With no end to the fire season in sight and seevral of these conflagrations still out of control, the possibility exists that a fire disaster can be declared this year. If that happens the arguments about natural disaster recovery funding will only get more intense and partisan.

And then there is North Korea. The test of what the DPRK claims is a thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb is a significant step forward in its nuclear testing program. Unlike more primitive fission or “atomic” bombs, these type of munitions are used by all of the major nuclear weapons states save India. The shape of the warhead that Kim Jung-un is seen posing with in photos appears to be similar to a US mid 60s-mid 70s Teller-Ulam  “peanut” design. Hydrogen bombs are two-phased fission-fusion devices that do not need advanced triggers because of their plutonium (or sometimes U-235) primary fission cores, which are more easily “ignited” by conventional high explosives (Pu-239 is used in both the primary and secondary sequences, although the bulk of the thermonuclear explosion comes from ignition of the U-238 “tamper” surrounding the Pu-239 “sparkplug” in the secondary sequence). The size of the prototype shown in DPRK propaganda photos demonstrates that it can fit into the nose cone of their recently tested ICBM (which seems to be a Chinese knock-off similar to Pakistani designs). So they have made a quantum leap towards having a lauchable weapon.

The issue remains as to whether they have the re-entry trajectories down so as to not burn up the nosecone and/or booster at too steep an angle, and whether the US and allied missile defense are up to the task of intercepting the booster before re-entry or upon re-entry on a flatter trajectory slope. Since the DPRK will have only one warhead on the booster (as opposed to the multi-warheaded nature of MARV’d and MIRV’d strategic strike missles deployed by the US, UK and Russia), a successful intercept can push the DPRK back both operationally as well as politically (since it will take some time to mount and fire another warhead, and that will likely not be allowed to happen because a launch in anger makes the DPRK vulnerable to a retaliatory response, be it conventional or not).

The more important question is whether, upon intelligence showing preparations of a live nuclear missile launch, the US will trigger (most likely conventional) pre-emptive strikes against DPRK missile launch facilities, or whether it will wait until a “live” launch is confirmed (which reduces the time avaliable for a response but which can allow more accurate tracking and intercept by ABM defenses such as the recently deployed Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems, and which provides data for early detection of the trajectory of future launches, should they occur). Either way, the result will be war between, at a minimum, the DPRK, ROK and the US, with more states such as Japan likely to get drawn in because of direct engagement or alliance commitments. And then of course, there is China.

It is an open question as to where the DPRK got its warhead design. But Pakistan comes to mind simply because it already has nuclear weapons and has a history of clandestine nuclear weapons design and parts proliferation. That poses some thorny diplomatic and security questions for those who have tried to engage Pakistan in the effort to have it moderate its behaviour on a number of fronts.

In the face of a DPRK willingness to launch, the US has very few options left short of pre-emption and or interception upon launch. Trump as usual has backed himself into a corner by tweeting that “the time for talking is over,” and the response from China and Russia to his demands for stronger sanctions has been equivocal at best. Trump’s barking at South Korea for its alleged policies of “appeasement” vis a vis the  DPRK are not only factually incorrect but alarming to regional allies, since the ROK has been anything but appeasing even while urging bi- and multi-lateral talks with the DPRK on a regular basis. Secretary of Defense Mattis and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have emphasised that the US is not interested in annihilating the DPRK, but they and the rest of the foreign policy establishment have not dropped the long-standing demand for regime change and reunification under ROK rule, which is simply a non starter from the DPRK point of view. So the walls are closing in on non-military options.

The threat to stop all trade with countries that trade with the DPRK is an idle one given the negative impact on the US economy that such an action would entail (particularly in the case of China), but smaller DPRK trading partners (perhaps including NZ, which purportedly has small backdoor dealings with it), could suffer as a result. The big issue is whether China will put the squeeze on the DPRK in light of recent developments. So far, other than rhetorical condemning of the test and the clear embarrassment it feels at having been ignored by its client when it came to not going forward with the nuclear test, it has shown a relcutance to do so. The Russians flat out refuse to cooperate in any increased sanctions regime. So the US is left with few cards to play short of the military ace in the hole.

In sum, the US is flirtng with disaster on several fronts, three natural and one man made. How Trump handles them is going to impact his standing before Congress and of course have an impact on domestic support as well as international relations. Options on all fronts seem limited and the consequences dire, both for him politically as well as those affected by his decisions. The moment is one where, as Machiavelli noted,successful handling of  the viccisitudes of fortuna (fate) requires the commitment of leadership virtu (virtue).

When it comes to leadership virtue, Trump has so far displayed none. It remains to be seen if the tests now before him will uncover what has never been seen before.

Addendum: Here is an interview that I did with Selwyn Manning of as part of a video series that parallels/complements the written series here.

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