Posts Tagged ‘USA’

There is some overlap between yesterday’s post and today’s radio interview, but there is also a a fair bit of other material as well: http://www.radiolive.co.nz/home/video/2017/08/trump–charlottesville-and-north-korea—the-latest-from-the-us.html

Letters from America, take three: a scab got picked.

datePosted on 08:39, August 16th, 2017 by Pablo

Donald Trump picked a scab during his campaign for the presidency and now the pus is draining out. It will be a while before the wound is cleansed. The pus is racism, xenophobia and bigotry.

When I left the US to settle in NZ race relations were arguably the best they had ever been. The economy was thriving, incomes were rising as unemployment dropped, and a black middle class was re-emerging in numbers and across regions as had never been seen before (the previous rise of the historical black middle class was limited to selected East and South urban centers). By 1997, the year I emigrated to NZ, black culture had been embraced and internalized in mainstream US society (i.e., outside of sports and music) and most importantly, there was at least the appearance of racial tolerance and harmony. It turns out that if that was not an illusion then, it certainly is now.

Trump spent his election campaign dog whistling to his alt-Right base. This base is not conservative in the traditional sense of the term. Instead, it is a collection of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK supporters, anti-Semites, violent misogynists, gun freaks and assorted other sociopaths, many of whom claim to be Christians and some of whom are in fact part of the evangelical and Tea Party movements. What is most disturbing is that, like in his treatment of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Trump was and is open in his embrace of this base. He may be forced from time to time to distance himself from both Russians and neo-Nazis, but when he does so he does so reluctantly, under duress.

Think about it: for the first time ever a sitting US president openly touts as his core constituency a collection of violent retrograde extremists–truly deplorable in every sense of the term–while he simultaneously embraces the virtues of the authoritarian leader of what the US security community has identified as the US’s greatest adversary, one that has worked to usurp US foreign policy goals, repeatedly intruded in US cyber networks and even interfered in its political processes (and yes, the irony of the US complaining about foreign interference in its elections is not lost on me). He has ordered the defunding of programs oriented at combating racist groups while his Department of Justice undertakes a rollback of affirmative action legislation designed to redress historical injustices and discrimination against minorities. His Secretary of State orders the elimination of departments focused on fighting genocide and upholding human rights. All in the name of making America Great again.

In the last ten years, especially after Barak Obama’s election, these groups found an echo chamber in the rightwing media, both in its corporate expression (Fox News, various commercial radio outlets) and in its on-line presence (Brietbart is very much in the news but if you really want to see how these people think, check out the Storm Front web site that I will not link to). The synergy between extremists and their media enablers seeped into the political discourse of the Republican Party, and in the 2016 campiagn it grew into a torrent of vitriol and hatred directed at Hillary Clinton and everything that she ostensibly represented when it came to the cultural divisions rendering the country. Now, with Trump as president, it has institutional support in, if not outright ratification by, the Oval Office.

Trump’s ascendance has empowered and emboldened what used to be a fringe element on the US Right, who have now openly taken to the streets to reassert their supremacy over all others. This move out of the sewer coincided with efforts by Southern state governments to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public spaces, leading to the unhappy convergence of racists focusing on defending these artifacts (flags, statues, street names and plaques) on historical, cultural or transparently racist grounds. Charlottesville was a perfect storm of this convergence.

Even so-called “quiet” or “polite” racists feel comfortable publicly stating the view that things have “gone too far” or that “people need to know their place” in a fashion I had not seen in a very long time during my regular  sojourns in the South (where I still am at the moment). Bigotry is again acceptable in certain quarters of polite society.

I must confess that I have been surprised by the re-emergence of this openly racist discourse and the human vermin that champions it. When I left the US they seemed to be reduced to a small and disparate assortment of disgruntled losers with low IQs going nowhere fast. But it seems that, for whatever combination of factors–and I should note that the areas in which these people appear to be most strongly evident are the decaying white working class regions that make up the epicenter of Trump’s red state support and the opioid epidemic–racism just went underground. There it stewed in a vexatious brew of internet conspiracies, resentment against so-called PC culture and “liberal” media, post 9/11 xenophobic fear of foreign aggression, hatred of supposedly job stealing immigrants, gun fetishism and the fear of gun confiscation by a Zionist and UN-controlled federal government run by treasonous Democrats (and even a foreign-born Muslim president for eight years!) aided and abetted by smug, effete coastal academic and economic elites with disdain for “real” Americans.

Now these frotherers have scuttled into the sunlight, armed and dangerous. They have killed one and injured many others in the six months since Trump was inaugurated. Charlottesville was not the only staging ground for a racist gathering in the US this past weekend, and more confrontations are planned.

The good news is that, like the draining of a septic wound after a scab is lifted, Trump’s reluctance to repudiate his base of deplorables has ripped the veneer of deference and  respect (or at least what was left of it) from his office. The military, many corporations, numerous politicians (including those from the GOP), celebrities of all stripes, most of the media and hundreds of thousands of regular people have denounced the events in Charlottesville and the president for his cowardice in the face of them. Confederate symbols have been toppled by flash mobs, industry titans have resigned from presidential advisory boards, peaceful vigils and marches have materialized spontaneously thanks to social media dissemination, and the  general mood, at least as I can gather down here in SE Florida, is one of incredulity and dismay that this clown is POTUS.

More and more, I hear word that the endless cycle of scandal and crisis in the White House, some of which appears to be part of a strategy to replace one outrage with another in order to normalise the tumult, make people forget past offenses and divert public attention from the ongoing investigation of Trump’s Russia ties, is taking its toll on congressional republicans looking at the 2018 midterm elections. After all, they have themselves and their party to think of next year, and if the pace of scandal and crisis does not relent–and it shows no sign of doing so–then it is simply not sustainable for them to continue to support Trump without dragging themselves and the GOP down into defeat next year. As it is, even with control of both legislative chambers they have not passed a single piece of significant legislation and, to the contrary, have instead passed with overwhelming majorities presidential veto-proof sanctions on Russia and prohibitions on presidential recess appointments. So Trump is being increasingly and openly defied, when not politically emasculated, by the people in his own party that he most desperately needs to enact his agenda. With his dog whistling of racists now turned into an open field call, the chances of him doing so are slim to none.

In a few weeks or months, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will bring the hammer down on him with regards to the Russia investigation. With a reputation for being relentless and methodical, assisted by a crack team of prosecutors specialised in wire fraud, organized crime and counter-espionage (three of whom speak and read Russian), Mueller has already panelled three grand juries and ordered a dawn raid on Trump’s first campaign director’s house. He has been deposing dozens of Trump aides and campaign staffers, including his son-in-law and first national security advisor. Rumors of plea bargains in exchange for damaging information about Trump are openly circulating. Mueller is also looking into Trump’s dealings with the Russians prior to announcing his candidacy, and the relationship between the Trump organization and Russian organized crime.  As a friend of mine from DC noted, Mueller is the last person you want chasing you, and he is chasing Truimp hard.

Trump can, of course, order that Mueller be fired. Mueller knows that and we can be sure that he has prepared contingency plans so that the investigations continue in his absence. But should Trump order his Attorney General minion, Jeff Sessions (also someone with a checkered past on issues of race), to fire Mueller, than not only will it likely cause a revolt within the Department of Justice and FBI. It will force Congress’ hand when it comes to filing articles of impeachment against him (the “high crime and misdemeanor” required for impeachment being obstruction of justice). Again, with an election looming next year, any such move by Trump will see large swathes of the GOP abandon him.

So the news is mixed. Trump picked the scab of racism and the pus is in the streets. But it also has energised antiseptic forces throughout the country and made congressional Republicans reassess their positions vis-a-vis him in light of his reluctance to thoroughly drain his camp of the putrid emulators of bygone ideologies. Because, as it turns out, as of January 20  the swamp that needs most urgent draining is located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue rather than in DC as a whole.

I have agreed to provide a weekly commentary to Mitch Harris on his Night Talk show on Radiolive. In the first instalment we roamed over a series of subjects,  but the focus was on the ongoing trainwreck that is US presidential politics.

Letters from America: Opioids and Venezuelans.

datePosted on 08:22, August 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I am on an extended stay in the US that will see me in several states and regions before my return to NZ in December. I decided that this is a good opportunity to write an occasional “Letters from America” series gathering together random thoughts on various aspects of US politics, society and culture. First stop is the East Coast of South Florida.

Late summer in South Florida is hot (over 30C daytime temps), humid (over 80 percent until the PM thunderstorms break the steam bath), and languidly quiet. Tourists are few and far between and the locals alternate hiding from the heat indoors with forays to the beach or pool.

The two items on my mind today are opioids and Venezuela. Since the latter might not seem to be an US relevant subject, let me start with it.

Venezuela is in the middle of a slow burning civil war sparked by deteriorating economic and social conditions caused by the incompetence, corruption and myopic power lust of the Maduro government that succeeded the father of the Boliviarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, upon his death. Unlike many non-Venezuelan leftist commentators I have no time for Maduro and the petty authoritarian kleptocrats that surround him just because he opposes the US and the US opposes him.  He is just another prop in the endless right-wing arguments about how the Left cannot govern either competently or in a democratic way. As much as I loathe the Venezuelan oligarchy that has always been a disloyal opposition to the Boliviarians, I despair for the Venezuelan poor, working and middle classes who saw hope in the Revolution and have now had their aspirations terminally dashed under a barrage of water cannon, tear gas, sniper fire, rocks and molotovs. The root causes and official responses to the crisis are not just the work of external interference and internal agitators (sound familiar?).

Blame lies everywhere in Venezuela today, but no one will take responsibility and the regime has simply met its end with the last resort of dictators–repression. What comes after may be no better, or worse.

The reason that Venezuela is a social issue in South Florida as well as a political issue in the US is simple: there are over 100,000 Venezuelans living in South Florida, many recent arrivals as “refugees” from the Boliviarian regime. Many moved their capital and as much of their fixed assets to the US as they could (capital flight being a key indicator of political instability), bought property in a climate that is similar to that of their homeland, and struck up political alliances with the long-standing Cuban exile community. Like minds think alike, and the type of Cubans and Venezuelans who inhabit South Florida come from the reactionary-to-troglydite end of the political spectrum.

The union of Cuban and Venezuelan reactionaries, coupled with the money they bring into local, state and national politics, has been instrumental in turning the Trump administration’s approach to both countries in a backwards direction. The Cuban-Venezuelan lobbying bloc is staunchly pro-Trump. Not surprisingly, the restored relations with Cuba begun by the Obama administration have been partially rolled back, and the US has just announced asset freezes and other punitive sanctions against Maduro and members of his personal entourage wherever US jurisdiction applies. The White House has been at pains to note that Maduro joins Mugabe, Kim Jung-Un and Assad as the only heads of state sanctioned in this way, and the way in which the farcical and rigged constitutional referendum was held in Venezuela this past weekend was likened to assorted atrocities committed under Stalinism, Pol Pot etc. No mention of the US glad-handing the Saudis, Erdogan in Turkey or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi even as they engage in more egregious human rights violations than Maduro on a systematic basis. But hey, as a general rule politics in the US is about hypocrisy loudly masquerading as righteousness or indignation, so in that regard the White House sqwaking about Maduro (who again, is not a fit or suitable ruler for his country) needs to be taken with a grain of comparative salt.

There is a more sinister element in this “Venezuelafication” of South Florida. Although one of my pleasures in returning to SoFl is to have access to many Spanish-speaking radio and TV channels (including the legendary “Escandalo (Scandal) TV”), what pours out of the talk shows is an increasingly violent insurrectionary call to eliminate “traitors,” “dupes” and assorted others who are seen to enable or support the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both at home as well as in the US. This has meshed with the alt-Right narrative about “libtards” and other usurpers of the White Christian social order because many of the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles are also virulent racists and classists who view the poor brown masses in their homelands as human vermin equivalent to those reviled by the US Right. And because the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, whatever their faults,have  empowered brown people in their countries and removed some of the deep-seated social and institutional barriers to their success, the White Cubans and Venezuelans see red in more than one way.

What that has done is to compliment and expand the rhetoric of violence surrounding political debate in SoFl. And whereas it may have been true in the past that “an armed crowd is a polite crowd,” that presumed that the crowd in question had some basic shared notion of civility and proper comportment to fall back on when things got heated. Under Trump that is no longer the case and in fact the opposite is now openly encouraged: give no quarter to political opponents, hear, much less heed no argument from them, confront and attack them at all times using all means necessary to silence them.

Then add some Cuban and Venezuelan mouth frothing ranters with money and influence into the mix. The bottom line is that local and state democracy suffers when expat revanchists take center stage in it.

Were it that I was inclined to seek escape in prescription drugs because it would inure me to the dangers inherent in that trend. But others are not as averse as I.  Over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids (mostly Oxycontin, Vicodin and Methadone). Over 1000 people a day are hospitalised with opioid overdoses, and 100 people a day are dying of them. In 2015, the last year for full records, over 15,000 people died of opioid overdoses, with 183,000 having died between 1999 and 2015. In 2016 the estimated number of opioid overdose deaths jumped to over 59,000 people, the largest increase ever. Even so, the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled, along with overdose deaths, during the 1999-2015 time frame. Why is this so?

The first cause is the proliferation of shady “pain clinics” in which unethical doctors hand out prescriptions for opioids like lollies. The process if simple: you walk into the clinic complaining of chronic pain of one type or another, you get a script in less than 10 minutes for a $30-40 fee, and the cycle continues after you leave the clinic and enter the pharmacy conveniently located either next door or a few storefronts down from the clinic (usually located in strip malls).  SoFl is awash with these places, and it is not a stretch say that it is easier to get one’s hands on opioids than it is cocaine, cannabis or other illegal drugs.

The second cause is the discounting of opioid prices in states and regions that have an opioid addiction problem. You read that right: pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at cheaper prices in those regions where addiction rates are highest. What might these regions be? Well, pretty much all of those Red States that voted strongly for Trump, Florida included. Think Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, West Virgina–if the state went strong for Trump, it is likely that the price of a Vicodin is less than that in a Blue State.

Who are the victims of opioid addiction? Again, the connection with Trump’s voter base is strong: predominantly white working class or unemployed/partially employed males aged 25-54 years (most of the figures used here are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–CDC).

In the face of these epidemic-sized addiction figures, the attorney generals of several states in which the problem is concentrated have filed class action suits against the pharmaceutical companies for their price discounting and targeted marketing of vulnerable populations. But resistance has already been met at the federal level, with GOP congress people rebuking those who would seek to interfere with market imperatives and the freedom of choice people have when it comes to self-medication.

The problem does not end there. The rise in addiction has in turn given rise to a thriving “rehab” industry in which addicts enter into so-called “sober homes” in order to detox. Trouble is, these sober homes are often no more than temporary way stations for addicts trying to kick the habit and pain clinics and pushers have been drawn to them like flies to poop. In many cases “sober homes” are nothing more than glorified shooting galleries, with the attendant rise in criminality associated with the phenomenon. Cities throughout the US but especially in SoFl, including the one I am in, have had to redraft zoning and occupancy laws in order to discourage these type of addiction parasites from continuing to profit from human misery.

So there you have it: a country whose internal political polarization is abetted by that imported from abroad, filtering into a society that in many places is awash in guns and prescription drugs unscrupulously  supplied by industries profiting from them. These same places provide the core demographic–the hard 35 percent–of Trump’s support base who are the ones who support his every move, including demands for regime change in Cuba and Venezuela and a turn against the notions of civility and democratic disocurse that previously served as the ideological myth that once bound the nation together.

The trouble for this “Deplorables” core, as well as the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles longing for a return to the pre-revolutionary past, is that Trump’s promises are nothing more than the prescription drug version of a pipe dream.

A tacit admission of decline.

datePosted on 16:57, June 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

In international relations theory, there is one standard that is commonly used to differentiate between superpowers and great powers. Superpowers intervene in the international system in order to advance systemic interests. That intervention can maintain or alter a balance of power or systemic status quo, but the point of  the move is to tinker with the system as a whole, something that is not done out of pure self-interest but in pursuit of something bigger or long-term in nature.

For their part, great powers intervene in the international system in order to pursue national interests. They do not have the capacity nor the desire to pursue systemic objectives outside of immediate national concerns.

Lesser powers can not make systemic changes but instead are subject to the actions of great powers and superpowers and the systemic effects of those actions.

I mention this as a prelude to a comment about the US position in the international system and Trump’s foreign policy actions to date. It has been clear for some time that the US is in decline. Once a pole in the bipolar balance of power that marked the Cold War, then the unipolar hegemon in the post-Cold War era when notions of the “American Century” and “Pax Americana” prevailed in US policy circles, the US has since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq been forced to deal with the rise of new and old powers when saddled with all of the hallmarks of domestic decline and yet remaining committed to a policy of perpetual war against non-state as well as state actors (although the form that conflict takes varies depending on the opponent and the nature of the battle space in which conflict occurs). Whereas once the US pushed liberal internationalism as a systemic virtue where international norms, regulations, law and institutions were seen as the foundations of a stable and peaceful world order, in the last decade or so the US has seen itself over-extended militarily in fruitless wars of convenience or opportunity that have eroded its international reputation and influence while its home front is rendered by decay and increased social division. Barack Obama tried to stem the adverse tide but a viciously disloyal political and media opposition undermined him at home and abroad.

No US politician can say, much less get elected or re-elected on the idea that the US is in decline and is no longer the first amongst equals in the international system. Barack Obama appeared to have understood the fact of US decline but could not admit it publicly. To this day US commentators, politicians and most of the general public believe or at least pay lip serve to the notion that the US remains an exceptional country, as the so-called “shining house on the hill” to which all other nations look for leadership as well as its role as the world policeman. They talk about defending freedom and American values as if those truly are the basis for US military interventions abroad and an increasingly coercive approach to ideological, ethnic, economic and cultural differences at home.

Enter Donald Trump, but with a twist. Trump also genuflects at the alter of American Exceptionalism. But his “America First” message, with its neo-islolationist, nationalist, monocultural and xenophobic undertones, is actually a tacit admission that the US is in decline. That is interesting because Trump was anything but tacit on the campaign trail when lamenting the state of the Union. Now, as president, he changed his tune and behaves as if the US as a nation-state is equivalent to himself in that it can buy, bully or negotiate its way to getting whatever it wants from others. That is where he is wrong, and his actions demonstrate otherwise.

By pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and Paris Climate Accords, refusing to endorse NATO’s notion of collective defense, demanding that other nations pay more for US “protection” (as if it was a Mafia racket), deriding international institutions and regional organisations, rejecting international law (such as those prohibiting the use of torture), threatening firms with retaliatory penalties if they do not invest more in the US and dismantling years of cross-border environmental and corporate regulatory frameworks in the supposed interest of creating US jobs, Trump has tacitly admitted that the US is no longer a super power that can manage the international system in its preferred image and in fact can no longer do anything more than what a great power in decline can do–pursue its interests at the expense of all others in order to try and arrest the slide.

It is too late for that. As one meme put it, “Trump is cancelling Netflix so that he can give more jobs to Blockbuster.” The decline of the US is not just a reversible economic phenomenon. It is ideological, political, moral and ethical in scope. It is institutional as well as material in nature. The very character of the US is in crisis, where a history of idealism and virtue has met its match in a culture of excess, greed and venality. Solidarity and an egalitarian ethos have given way to opportunism and survivalist alienation.

The US decline is also a product of advancing technologies in an age of globalised production, communications, consumption and exchange. It exists in a context where other nations no longer look to the US first for support on many fronts, and in which competitors have grasped the fact of American decline and moved to capitalise on it. It may not be exactly Rome before the Fall, but the US is in many ways starting to resemble the USSR in decline–all military muscle but with no heart, dead eyes and a silly orange comb over.

The good news for the US is that it can work well as a great power if it understands that is what it has become. The Bush 43 administration tried to reassert US supremacy with its foreign adventurism and only succeeded in accelerating its (albeit unrecognised) decline. Now that its diminution is in full sway, the US needs to address its internal contradictions, something that perhaps requires a (however temporary) retreat from systemic tinkering and intervention. This could be a good thing because international systems theory posits that unipolar systems are inherently unstable whereas multipolar systems with 3, 5 or 7 great powers balancing each other on specific strategic issues and geopolitical fronts are more stable over the long term. With the US backing away from international commitments and systemic engagement, it may be a moment for other great power aspirants to fully shine. Theoretically, that could work out for the better.

Practically speaking and whether it works out for the better or not, multipolarity is the where the international system is headed. The current moment is one of international systemic transition, and the fact is that conflict is the systems re-equilibrator under conditions of semi- or restricted anarchy (in which adherence to some international institutions and norms is paralleled by non-adhernce or respect for others). Absent uniform and effective enforcement authority, states decide which norms to follow and which to violate until such a time a new consensus is achieved on the contours and rules of the emerging international system. When universal norms are not uniformly followed, that is when conflicts occur. We are in such a moment.

Admit it or not, under Trump the US is at this transitional moment retreating into its shell and away from its superpower pretensions. For rising and resurgent powers, this is a window of opportunity that can lead to systemic realignment. And at least for the time being, for many around the world having the US out of their lives is not a bad thing.

One thing is certain: the decline of the US as a superpower may not be acknowledged but it is real.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Where to draw the line?

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

Here are some thoughts for readers.

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

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

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

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

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

I would love to hear your opinions.

Foxes in the hen house.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From failure, opportunity comes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War for war’s sake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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