KP Debate: Was the Iraq Invasion and Occupation a Strategic Success?

Seven years after the US invaded Iraq, the last of its combat troops have withdrawn across the border into Kuwait. Left behind are 50,000 troops whose mission is to continue limited counter-insurgency operations while providing security training and advice to Iraqi security forces along with helping in civilian reconstruction projects. President Obama has been cautious in his framing of the end of the combat mission, noting that the “job” in Iraq is not yet done. No “mission accomplished” banners have been unfurled, and no staged military fly-ins to congratulate the troops have been organised. For the US, the end of combat in Iraq is a transition to another phase of its occupation, one that has seen an escalation in sectarian violence in parallel with the withdrawal of the bulk of US forces from the country. The future of Iraq remains unclear.

With that in mind the question of the moment is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community? Was US intervention in Iraq a success?

In this post two opposing views are offered. I offer the case against the US invasion as a strategic success. Sagenz from No Minister offers the case in favour. The rules we have agreed on is that we both state our basic position without rebuttal, then invite the readers to argue the merits of each case. As the host I open the debate.

Con: The US invasion and occupation of Iraq is a strategic failure.

It is an axiom of military strategy that wars are fought for political reasons. The famous Clausewitz dictum that “war is politics by other means” is a hallmark of modern strategy, because even if fought for immediate reasons such as resources, territory, access to sea lanes or diplomatic leverage, the ultimate motive for war is a strategic calculation made by government elites that political advantage can be accrued by the use of force. Be it born out of necessity or discretion, wars are measured by the political outcomes they produce.

If we accept that achievement of political objectives are the reason for war, then the US invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a strategic failure. Let me summarise why, starting with what the US sought to accomplish with the invasion.

Using the pretext of preventing Saddam Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction, the US sought to remove his regime in order to install a secular, pro-US democracy that would host forward bases for US troops drawn from obsolete commands in Europe and controversial bases in Saudi Arabia. This would reinforce Iraq’s traditional role as a buffer state between the Sunni Arab world and their traditional Persian enemies in Shiia Iran while at the same time placing a US military presence on the Syrian border. The idea was to use the post 9/11 rationale of fighting Islamicist terrorism to bring the fight to the region in which it was incubated while intimidating those like Iran and Syria who are believed to provide weapons, training and safe havens for the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. Coupled with the US military presence in Afghanistan, the installation of permanent US military bases in Iraq would act as a pincer on Iran and a check on Syria and Iranian proxies while allowing the US to more rapidly project massed force into failed states such as Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen where Islamicists congregate.

The invasion was also sold as bringing democracy to Iraq and as a means of re-opening Iraqi oil supplies to the world after more than a decade of embargos and sanctions. The erection of a pro-Western democracy on the ashes of the Baathist one-party authoritarian state was seen as a model for other Muslim Arab countries to emulate, and therefore a vehicle for change in the Sunni world. The re-opening of Iraq’s oil industry would help undermine the Saudi monopoly on oil pricing within OPEC, since full capacity Iraq oil production would be the third largest in the world (after Saudi Arabia and Russia). Breaking the Saudi ability to price fix the petroleum market would lead to a reduction in crude prices, thereby stimulating economic growth and consumption in the West in the measure that disposable income for corporate investment and consumer spending in non-energy related areas was freed up. With fuel costs down Western economies could push out of their post- 9/11 doldrums.  

Breaking the Saudi lock hold on oil pricing would also accelerate reform in the Kingdom as it was forced to diversify its economy and become more competitive in its core export industry. That would and encourage and reinforce incipient democratic movements as well as economic diversification throughout the Middle East, under the assumption that a move towards competitive economic diversity would promote political pluralism as well. The sum total of these repercussive effects would be to enhance US prestige and power in that part of the world while curtailing that of regional adversaries. Or so the neoconservative architects of the invasion thought.

In practice, this is what has happened: when compared to the Saddam regime, Iraq is more politically unstable, less of a buffer, virtually defenceless on its own, and just as anti-American, if less autocratic than before 2003. It may hold elections but it is by no means democratic, especially when examined at the sub-national level where traditional political hierarchies and forms of patronage still obtain. It has yet to convene a central government six months after the last parliamentary elections due to profound and often violent divisions between Sunni and Shiia parliamentary blocs. Corruption remains endemic, even worse than under Saddam due to the influx of foreign money for reconstruction and pacification projects. Compared to 2003 Iraq is more susceptible to Iranian influence in its internal politics, most visibly via Moqtada al-Sadr’s Madhi Army and other militias that dominate Shiia political representation. In fact, the US has had to court the favour of the very Baath Party members and Sunni tribal elders that were the backbone of Saddam’s regime in order to counter Shiia dominance of Iraq politics, with a Kurdish-Sunni alliance now seen as the only means of balancing the numerical advantages held by Shiia political factions (the same formula that Saddam used to bolster his regime). The goal of representative democracy has been abandoned as completely as was the search for WMD—what matters now is staving off Shiia domination of the Iraqi political process. The irony is that is exactly what Saddam was useful for in the 1980s—countering Persian and Shiia influence at home and abroad.

Although the volume of terrorist attacks has diminished from the high point of 2004-07, car bombings, assaults on mosques, markets, police stations and community centres, assassination of community leaders, kidnappings, murders and other basic measures of criminality have all increased exponentially when compared with the Hussein regime. On virtually every human security index—health (infant mortality, average life span, infectious disease rates, access to primary care), education (literacy, access to post-primary schooling), access to electricity and potable water—Iraq is worse off today than before the invasion. It is no longer a secular republic, but instead a country in which behind a facade of constitutional government religion permeates politics from the local to the national level. It is a country in which women used to populate senior positions in the health, education and diplomatic bureaucracies, but which now sees the burqa imposed on the streets of conservative neighbourhoods. In sum: the country is fundamentally broken as a result of the invasion, and this was not a case of having to break eggs in order to make an omelette. It is a case of breaking eggs with hope but without a p(l)an.

The Iraqis have refused to allow the US permanent basing rights, so thoughts about using  the country as a forward platform for US regional force projection are no longer possible. That leaves Iraq virtually defenceless, since its national army is weak, corrupt, and focused on internal security while its air force and navy are for all intents and purposes non-functional. In fact, once the remaining US troops are withdrawn by 2014, Iraq will be at the mercy of its neighbours, Iran in particular (which may be a reason why US troops may stay beyond that deadline). In order to counter that possibility, Iraq is making overtures to Syria and Turkey and the wider international community in ways that do not conform to the US preferred approach to those countries (for example, by courting Russian and Chinese investment in oil infrastructure). Rather than a beacon of pro-US democracy in an otherwise authoritarian landscape in the Middle East, Iraq looks at best—in the event that it does eventually develop a stable central government with authority over the whole country—to become a civilianised version of Saddam’s regime, with a Shiia twist.

As for the oil logic, the results have been poor. Iraq oil production is years away from pre-1990 levels and those who will benefit the most from its resumption are the Chinese and Rusisans whose contracts for infrastrructure development have been accepted by the Malaki regime. The Saudis are unmoved politically or economically by the invasion and occupation–they still dominate international oil pricing and they still play both sides of the fence when it comes to the so-called “war on terror.”  Energy prices throughout the West have not come down to anything close to pre-2003 levels, so whatever the intention, the results of the invasion have been counterproductive on both the political and economic dimensions. Saudi Arabia is still the dominant economic and political force in the Arab world, and another regional power has benefitted from the invasion in unexpected ways.

To put things bluntly, the biggest beneficiary of the US invasion is Iran. In terms of regional power balances, Iran has been strengthened by the invasion. Having US forces tied down in Iraq as well as Afghanistan made it less possible for the US to credibly threaten large-scale force against Tehran. Having borders on both Afghanistan and Iraq allows the Iranians to leverage their support for anti-US irregulars in both countries while at the same time continuing support for proxies further afield such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Its influence in Iraq has increased to the point that it is a major power broker in that country, which has allowed it to start a process of “Finlandisation” of Iraq whereby the latter no longer serves as a buffer state but instead as a forward line of defense for Iranian interests. Using great power balancing to its advantage, Iran has successfully played off Russia, China and the West on matters of common concern in Iraq and elsewhere while cultivating broader international ties with countries like Brazil and Venezuela.  

All of this gives Iran space to manoeuvre with regards to its suspected nuclear weapons development program and overall military expansion while providing it with shelter from armed response to its openly anti-Israeli, anti-American and anti-British rhetoric. That has increased Iranian prestige within the Muslim world while undermining Sunni Arab elites who are seen as appeasing of Western interests. By all measures, and despite internal dissent, Iran’s world position is stronger today than it was in 2003. It has consequently gotten bolder, expanded its range of influence and placed its Western antagonists under more pressure than ever before.

The US strategic position is weaker as a result of the invasion. Although it is true that ten years of continuous fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere has made the US military (especially its land forces) the most combat experienced in the world today, it has been stretched thin by its ongoing deployments and is therefore no longer able to mount large scale land assaults in other theatres of operation for anything other than short periods of time. Since air and sea power do not secure ground, this leaves the US unable to respond to military contingencies in the measure that it could have had it not gone into Iraq. The 2008 Ruso-Georgian War is illustrative in that regard. Moreover, the debacles of Abu Ghraib and Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo have reduced US moral authority and prestige world-wide while encouraging anti-US sentiment throughout the Muslim Diaspora. Thus, by no measure can it be said that the US is stronger today than it was on the eve of the invasion in March 2003.

Hence, when considering the outcomes of the Iraq invasion and occupation, the overall picture is one of strategic failure. The US did not achieve any of its goals other than the ouster of Saddam Hussein. Perversely, the rivals it sought to weaken have been strengthened while the position it sought to establish has been abandoned. Rather than consolidate US superpower pre-eminence it has opened it to question. It has left the Middle East geopolitical landscape less rather than more stable, and it not diminished Islamicist influence in the Muslim world or its capabilities to strike at targets outside of Iraq. What successes have been achieved in dismantling al-Qaeda’s core leadership and large scale operational abilities have occurred in spite of rather than because of the Iraq invasion.

Perhaps the longer-term picture in Iraq will turn out to be more favourable to US interests. But if that does happen, it will be due not so much to the invasion and occupation itself as it will be to the as of yet unknown actions of Iraqi and other international actors in the wake of US military withdrawal. Only then will a strategic victory be snatched from what is now a strategic defeat masquerading as a military drawdown.

Pro: Seven years after Saddam, It’s too early to tell.

The question is: what is the strategic outcome of the US invasion of Iraq? Has the outcome been positive or negative from the perspective of the US, the Middle East, and the broader international community?

Pablo has succinctly put the case for the view that the invasion of Iraq is a strategic failure.  I put the case for the invasion being a qualified strategic success.

To analyse whether the world is in a better or worse place because of the invasion we must consider three things.  Has America achieved its strategic objectives, what the alternative would have been and what was the strategic context for the invasion? 

Addressing those in reverse order the strategic context for the invasion can be traced to the US withdrawal from Lebanon after losing 200 marines, the decision to leave Saddam Hussein in place after the first gulf war, Clinton cutting and running from Somalia after losing 17 Rangers followed by the international community washing its hands in Rwanda and being too slow to protect European Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo.  Aden and the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1992-3 were further indicators to Osama Bin Laden and the Islamists that the West had grown corrupt, weak and lacked the will to defend themselves.  911 was intended to cause a reaction from the US.  What Al Qaeda expected was a weak response that would kill many Muslims and bring more to the cause.  The air war on Serbia was perhaps their foremost example of an America unwilling to put boots on the ground. 

Although many will not accept the premise of Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations it is clear to any serious observer that Islamists reject Western culture and are prepared to use violent means to replace it with a caliphate.  To suggest that the invasion of Iraq caused otherwise completely peaceful Muslims to become insurgents would be fatuous.   Western mistakes have certainly provided recruits to the cause but the likes of Abu Hamza were preaching their hatred long before GW Bush took office.

Having invaded Afghanistan after 911 the US was faced with a strategic choice.  Double down and try to convert part of the Middle East to democracy or manage the situation.  Having chosen not to occupy Iraq in 1991 the US had seen the result.  A dictatorship contemptuous of American power and an enemy prepared and able to bring the war to American soil.  It is relevant that there have been no further successful attacks on US soil since September 2001.

America and their allies chose to take the fight to the enemy.  That the invasion lacked UN legitimacy was only down to a late change of mind from the perfidious French more concerned with their Iraq weapons sales than morality.  To believe that America must occupy Iraq to control its oil is to completely misunderstand the international oil market.  Even now, Venezuela supplies a large amount of crude to US refineries.

Moving on to address the likely present if the invasion had not happened.  Without the invasion of Iraq, the Islamists would have had only one front to fight on and all recruits would have headed to Afghanistan.  The difficulties faced by the coalition there from a divided enemy would have been nothing compared to the full force of an Al Qaeda not distracted and then defeated in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein would have long broken the will of the international community to keep up sanctions.  He was more able to accept the damage to his own people from them.  Iraq had the technology to reconstitute chemical weapons any time they wished to and would now be well on the way to being nuclear armed as Iran and Iraq along with other countries scared by that prospect engaged in a regional arms race.  Nuclear weapons in the hands of Qusay or Uday Hussein would certainly have required US intervention.

Iraqi leadership do not quite understand yet that the US is serious about leaving them to their own devices.  It is now apparent that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan with the American military providing  a stable guiding hand rather than the Pakistani military.  Both countries require a leader to emerge before they can expect genuine stability.  Does the fact that Iraq is in a similar position to Pakistan make Iraq a success or Pakistan a failure?

Has America achieved its strategic objectives?  On the face of it Pablo makes a strong case that the current situation is a strategic failure for the US on the basis of the objectives he identifies. Certainly the Islamist insurgents fought more determinedly than anybody thought likely.  Abu Ghraib and other incidents are a stain on American honour and its moral leadership.

However, the core strategic objective for the US to invade Iraq in 2003 was and remains its own security.  Islamist terrorism had challenged the status quo and American power.  The only way to ensure America had peace was to bring that peace to the rest of the world.  Hence the development of the Bush doctrine.

Can anybody now doubt that America is prepared to use force to protect its strategic interests.  Although the insurgents have developed tactical IED that cause losses to coalition forces,  the insurgents lose when they confront coalition forces directly.  By contrast, the US has highly developed drone technology that is proving highly effective at targeting and destroying enemy leadership. It’s military has learned the hard lessons of counter-insurgency doctrine.

“Peaceful” Islam must go through its own enlightenment before it ceases to treat its women so barbarically and joins the modern world.  The sight of democratic elections in Afghanistan and Iraq has de-stabilised theocratic Iran.  Iran has been trying to develop nuclear weapons for decades, that is not new.

America has taken the fight to the enemy and won a military victory on its enemy’s fields.  To expect nations with decades of dictatorship and conflict to easily turn into stable democracies within a decade was never more than wishful thinking.  The flow of foreign recruits to Iraq insurgency was stemmed and Iraqi insurgents chose to take a more peaceful path.  In the new world of counter insurgent warfare there is not an army to defeat on the field, but the absence of a large number of insurgent combatants is an indicator of success.

As America withdraws its combat troops it can only look forward to many more years of Islamist containment but it has demonstrated to the world in general and Islamism in particular that it has not lost its determination and ability to react when provoked.  It has left behind a country that is corrupt, poorly lead, but practicing self determination. That constitutes a qualified strategic success.

A country perpetually at war.

When in graduate school I was exposed to the writings of dependency and post-colonial theorists, people like Samir Amin, Barrington Moore, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Cardoso and Faletto, and a host of other neo-Gramscians and Euro Marxists. Following Lenin’s theory of imperialism, these various schools of thought all concurred that there was a structural basis for US imperialism, and that this in turn led to what Dwight Eisenhower (of all people) called a “military-industrial complex” that continually pushed for war in order to develop, test and apply new technologies in pursuit of  profit, with follow-on benefits eventually accrued by the civilian market as well. None of these theorists believed in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy promotion that the US used, and uses, to justify its military activities abroad. 

For Marxists, US imperialism is not about liberation but about exploitation of other people’s natural and human resources for US gain. It is about oil in Iraq and natural gas and mineral rights in Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia, coupled with the geo-strategic imperative to keep rival powers from encroaching on US economic interests in these areas. It is why the US declared the Monroe Doctrine that until recently made Latin America its exclusive sphere of interest (a status quo now under seige from Chinese investment), and it is why the US continues to spend more money on defense than the next eight countries combined (including Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany). Most importantly, in this view, the structural imperative is why the US is a war-mongering nation that uses–and in fact needs–wars to propel its economy and maintain its preeminence in the global arena.

Being US-born but raised in Latin America, I had, and have, mixed emotions about this perspective. On the one hand I see the validity of the argument, which is elegant in its simplicity of explanantion but also reductionist to a fault. On the other hand I find it hard to believe that a majority of Americans would accept the premise that the US is an imperialist war-mongering nation driven by corporate interest, and that if they were presented with evidence to that effect a majority would vote to end the cycle of war-for-profit that Eisenhower warned about.

The inability of most Americans to see US military activities in the structuralist light may be a tribute to the myth-making propoganda of the US educational and media systems, but the truth is that they simply see what the US does abroad as part of its natural responsibilities as the world’s (yet) superpower and policeman. In other words, if no other country is going to step in and put out fires, then it is up to the US to do so. That is what the US public believes, although it has been shown time and again that they have little patience for staying in protracted conflicts that do not appear to directly impinge on core national values or security.

Over the past few months, as I have contemplated and written about Afghanistan, I have found myself returning to this theme: is the US a war-mongering country? In recent correspondence with journalist Jon Stephenson, whose work as one of the few serious independent NZ-based journalists I admire, he brought up the subject of wars of necessity and discretionary wars. The former are fought in pursuit of core national interests; the latter are fought for reasons of political, diplomatic or economic want, not need.

This does not mean that the latter are always illegitimate. As I mentioned in the earlier post about the “Responsibility to Protect,” sometimes more than national interest has to be considered in committing troops to conflict. But the overall picture should be clear. Some wars are justifiable due to imposed necessity; other wars are not.

This is where the US begins to show its colors. It appears that it has conflated the two types of war, under the banner of promoting “freedom” and “democracy” abroad, in order to satisfy its broad structural needs and the specific demands of the perpetual motion machine known as the military-industrial complex exemplified by the likes of Raytheon, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Haliberton, McDonald Douglas and other conglomerates.

But even as I pondered the implications of this theoretical overlap between the two types of war in the US mindset, I found myself (perhaps due to some lingering loyalty to my place of brith) still unable to accept the fact that the US is indeed a war-mongering imperialist power. I decided to research the history of US military adventures abroad so as to get a better idea of their scope over time. I was pretty sure that in one way or another the US has been in a state of semi-constant conflict since 1989. I do know that it is the only country on earth that has an array of military bases spanning the world, to include every continent including Antartica, remote island chains and atolls, and non-publicised detachments engaged in covert action. I know that the US has five aircraft carrier battle groups (which include submarines, destoyers, frigates and tenders as well as the air wings on the carrier), of which three are deployed at any one time, and that no other country has a single one such battle group. The point should be clear–the US position in world affairs does in fact ride on the back of an immense military machine (as opposed to moral authority or diplomatic leadership).

My research was an eye-opener. Ahough I am not a fan of Wikipedia being used as a scholarly source (and in fact mark down students who use it as such), I have decided that in this case it summarises the issue pretty concisely. Could it be that the Marxists are right? If so, is this status quo unbreakable in a world in which rising powers may see reason to challenge the US position in global society? What are the implications of these potential challenges given the historical record?

On the other hand, is it plausible that this history of intervention is strictly driven by economic interest and military-corporate collusion? Is it not possible that altruistic motives are sometimes at play when the US uses force abroad? After all, many if not most of the cited interventions involved evacuations of civilians from conflict zones and involvement in foreign conflicts for apparent humanitarian reasons devoid of economic interest.

I wonder what the US public would make of this history if they knew enough about it, and how future justifications for war would square with this track record? Could it be possible that the Obama administration will return to the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of discretion as a benchmark for foreign military intervention, thereby breaking with the military-industrial complex and its need for perpetual war?

Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

In the US, a return to primordialism.

In retrospect, it seems obvious. Given the venomous attacks on Barack Obama in the 2008 election campaign, the move towards a “post-racial” society was never going to happen.  Instead the reverse transpired, with race, religion and ethnicity now dominating US political debates in a measure not seen in years. Fuelled in part by the president’s overt identification with African-American culture and causes in spite of his mixed race heritage, the real instigators of the return to American primordialism are the conservative media outlets, Tea Party agitators and opportunistic Republican politicians who see political advantage in harping negatively about race, religion and ethnicity. Be it arguments about reverse racism, immigration, “socialist” health policy, religious freedom (in the case of the proposed Islamic cultural centre located 2 blocks from ground zero in New York City), the hot button issues in the lead-up to the November 2010 midterm elections are rooted in conservative white fear of cultural diversity and ethnic equality. That garrison mentality resonates in the great American echo chamber of conservative blogs, radio and television, and it has set the tone for the political debates of the moment.

The conservative view is that to be Judeo-Christian white is to be right, and the issue is whether to stand or fight. This view holds to the belief that White Christians are the carriers of superior values tied to the Protestant Ethos of hard work and entrepreneurship,  and that these values are now under siege from a variety of forces, both domestic and foreign (often working in concert). Fear of the “other” is the subtext of the day. With the nightmare of a black Kenyan Muslim in the oval office now realised (at least in the minds of some), the culturalist Right have chosen to fight. Their method for doing so is to fill the public space with racially charged interrogatives that speak to white grievances against affirmative action, poverty reduction, undocumented immigration (including so-called “anchor babies”), minority religions (especially Islam), linguistic diversity, and any other cultural characteristic that is seen as threatening to WASP values.  Cultural scape-goating is phrased as a defense of traditional values in order to cloud the message and make it difficult to refute. The Democrats and progressive elements in the electorate have been slow to stand up to the cultural bullying, and even slower to recast the terms of the political debate. Since those who set the terms of political debate are the ones who usually win the argument, this augers poorly not only for the president and his party in November, but for the future of American social diversity in general.

The return to race baiting and xenophobia is due not only to white Christian conservative fear of what the future US demographic may look like, but also to their inability to offer a policy agenda that is anything other than opposition to whatever the Democrats propose. Capitalising on anti-“big government” sentiment that conveniently overlooks the fact that the expansion of the federal government deficit was fuelled by a massive military build-up in pursuit of two wars undertaken by a conservative Republican president aided and abetted during his first 6 years in office by a GOP-dominated Congress in a context of corporate deregulation and lower taxation of firms and wealthy individuals, the white conservative backlash against Obama is visceral, vicious and anything but virtuous in intent. For some on the US Right the turn to primordialism is a return to their darker ideological roots.

The irony is that the Right’s politics of primordialism is not necessary. In spite of victories in health care and finance industry regulation, the successful rescue of General Motors and its ahead of schedule withdrawal of combat troops  from Iraq, the Obama administration has shown itself to be vacillatory and reactive across a broad range of policy issues. Rather that set a firm agenda it appears to bounce from crisis to crisis, blaming its predecessor for problems that are not of its making (such as regulatory failures that led to the Gulf oil spill, inherited federal deficits and the 2008 financial crisis). All this does is convey the image of an whinging Administration out of its depth or indecisive at the point of engagement, aided by a venal Congress disconnected from the realities of common voters.  Coupled with the usual anti-incumbent and anti-Washington sentiment and an unusual amount of hatred for the federal government, this leaves the Democrats in a perilous position in the lead up to the November midterm elections. 

Hence, in the current context of an impending “double dip” recession and mounting fiscal deficits, ongoing high unemployment and continued foreclosures and mortgagee sales as involvement in foreign conflicts drags on, the Democrats can be defeated in November on issues of policy alone, even if the alternative is incoherent on specific points of remedy. The diversion into the so-called “culture wars” consequently is not a political necessity for the GOP, but a choice.  The choice is to engage a raw backlash at everything Obama represents as a social construct.

Not surprisingly the focus on primordialism obscures and mystifies the increasing gap between the US corporate elite and investment rich, on the one hand, and the salaried middle and working  classes on the other. Cloaked in the language of individual “responsibility,” “free enterprise” and “freedom,” this is a return to the late 19th century-early 20th century era of ethnic divide- and-conquer anti-unionisation efforts played by the robber barons and their Pinkerton thugs, and which finds resonance in the anti-union, anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic militia-style rhetoric of the present day. It also is wrapped in a strict constitutionalist interpretation that sees anything not explicitly mentioned in the US Constitution, such as universal health care, as insidious attempts to undermine the White Christian foundations of the nation.

There is an irony here. The descent into primordialism could spell trouble for the GOP at a time when it should be easily crafting an alternative agenda for a return to political dominance. The libertarian and moderate wings of the Republican Party are being made to choose between the xenophobic Right and disaffiliation. The plight of Florida governor Charlie Crist is instructive.  A popular moderate Republican who is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and reformist on immigration in a state with large Hispanic  and Black populations and a heterogeneous mix of Whites, Crist was losing badly in the polls for the Republican Party Senate candidacy in favour of a more conservative, less experienced candidate. Faced with a primary loss next week, Crist is now running as an Independent in what will be a three-way Senate race in November that looks increasingly hard for the GOP to win given the vote-splitting caused by Crist’s presence.

Similar centrifugal tendencies can be seen in the Tea Party movement, which has found its “small government” origins hijacked by a reactionary culturalist agenda that harks to the Anglo supremacist views of the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s and early 1960s. That leaves Tea Party economic liberals and fiscal conservatives at the mercy of the new segregationists and isolationists, thereby dividing the movement at a time it should be uniting around a common agenda for change. That opens space for conservative Democrats to make common cause with the economic, as opposed to socially conservative Tea Party adherents.

The Democrats are not immune from the primordialist temptation. The controversy over the proposed Islamic Cultural Centre in NYC has seen a number of prominent Democrats, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid and former DNC Chairman Howard Dean, come out against it. Spurred by electoral considerations and like the Republican primordialists, they have abandoned support for the supposedly sacrosanct freedom of religion in favour of arguments that constructing a “mosque” close to Ground Zero is a “provocation.” Turning the debate on its head, some such as Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin have likened the “provocation” to having Nazis build a monument at Auschwitz or the Japanese building a shrine at Pearl Harbour, conveniently ignoring that the fact that the former was a political movement with genocidal pretensions and the latter was a state declaring war, whereas Islam is the religion of 11 extremists who committed an atrocity (much as Christianity was the religion of the Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh).  In fact, the more appropriate analogy might be to propose to build a Christian church on the site where a murdered abortionist practiced, something that has in fact happened at the place where Dr. George Tiller had his Women’s Health Care Clinic in Wichita, Kansas. Although unsuccessful, this deliberate insult to Tiller’s memory and work on behalf of the pro-choice movement met with little outcry and more than a passing wave of approval on the part of the same people who now most avidly decry the Ground Zero “mosque” (I put the word mosque in quotation marks because the proposal is for a multi-use facility that includes prayer rooms for men and women).

Nor has the “provocation” argument had to reconcile with the fact that two established mosques are located four and six blocks from Ground Zero, respectively, or that various porn shops and strip clubs are located across the street from the hallowed site itself. Even so, few mainstream politicians have spoken out against the inconsistencies of the “provocation” argument or the defamatory tarring of Islam with the genocidal Nazi-Japanese “sneak attack” brush, in no small part for fear of being seen as pro-Islamic. That is sadly telling of the current state of affairs.

In fact, that Howard Dean and Newt Gingrich can make common cause on an issue involving religious freedom demonstrates how debased the US political debate has become. Worst yet, after initially framing the controversy as a matter of religious freedom, President Obama backtracked in the face of conservative criticism and said that it is a matter of local opinion and religious sensitivity to broader public concerns, thereby ceding the argument to the primordialists while confirming the impression that he is indecisive and thin-skinned.

The impact of the return to primordialism has yet to be seen, but two logical inferences can be made if it continues. First, that it will have an atomizing effect on US politics and society, as conservative White and minority ethno-religious communities grow increasingly alienated and see their collective fortunes in zero-sum terms. Rolling back 50 years of improving race relations is a recipe for instability and conflict which cannot be solved over the long term by Whites stockpiling arms and joining civilian militias in a country that is dependent on migrant labour and which will have a majority non-White demographic in 25 years regardless of illegal immigration controls. Secondly, the return to primordialism will confirm in the minds of foreign adversaries that the US is, in fact, a Christian White supremacist imperialist state that seeks to impose its values on non-Whites and non-Christians at home and abroad.  That means that international conflict, in its “clash of civilisations’ mode, will continue unabated until such a time as the US abandons the politics of primordialism. Nothing indicates that will happen soon.

Then there is the final implication: united they will stand, or divided they will fall.

‘Come back Helen Clark, all is forgiven’

Thus spake John Ansell, who’s back with another cracking demonstration that he’s the nation’s pre-eminent racial fearmonger. He really is peerless in this regard.

And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Incidentally, you can read Scott Hamilton’s (and others’) thorough and systematic destruction of Ansell’s rather slippery and Victorian views on race, ethnicity, culture and religion (yes, Virginia, ‘Māori’ is a religion) in the comments thread of this post at the excellent Reading The Maps.


Blog Link: NZ and the R2P applied.

This is going to be my last comment about the NZDF in Afghanistan for a while. It concerns an overlooked aspect of why it is there. One aspect of this is that the R2P commitment was made by the 5th Labour government and National seems disinclined to continue it. Given that R2P does not have domestic or international legal authority since it is just a public commitment rather than  a convention, law or binding agreement, it will be interesting to see how National deals with this particular aspect of its foreign policy, and how MFAT (which committed NZ to the R2P doctrine), will react to any reneging on that commitment.

Brief thoughts

No time for anything substantive, but here are a few thoughts, in no particular order:

  • This ad for the Aussie Greens, made by Republic of Everyone for the ABC’s election campaign showThe Gruen Nation, is political-symbolic advertising done right. George Darroch tipped me off to it and describes it as “a political-emotional cluster bomb”, which is about right. It frames up some current issues in an explicitly normative, socially aspirational fashion by posing a set of questions which essentially answer themselves. It presents these issues — particularly gay marriage and boat people — in a way which permits cross-ideological consensus, opening the door to support from Coalition-supporting classical liberals. It’s so good the party itself wants to run the ad on TV, and I would too.

  • If the Climate Science Coalition wants science decided by the courts, rather than by scientists, then they’re welcome to open that door. It speaks volumes about their relationship to science; as a chap on Morning Report said this morning, neither judges nor lawyers can make this determination; if they have scientific experts who can legitimately challenge the record, let’s see them do so. But I have one proviso: They must be bound by the court’s findings. If the court rules, as I expect them to do, that there’s nothing wrong with the NIWA record, then I expect the CSC to take their lumps with good grace. But I expect instead to hear shrill shrieks about activist judges and political-ideological conspiracies. By the same token, of course, if the courts rule against NIWA then I expect the same, and will want to hear some answers from them. Science welcomes scrutiny.
  • KiwiRail continues to fail horribly, this time citing ‘unexpected complications’. The only thing ‘unexpected’, as far as I can tell, is that they’re advising commuiters of the problems in advance now, rather than days after the fact. Just another reason I’m thrilled to be working from home at the moment.


On the road again, this time to the Great Satan.

It has been a busy year for travel. I was in OZ in January (pleasure), NZ in Feb-March (business and pleasure), Greece in April-May (business and pleasure), OZ again in June (pleasure) and am now headed to the US for five weeks (business and pleasure). My daughter is getting married (to a Republican!) and I have work to do on the Florida house, plus will vote in the state Democratic primary (where everything from dogcatcher to Senator is in play) and scout out opportunities for the political risk/market intelligence/strategic analysis consulting firm I have just re-started (I used to do this sort of consulting before moving to NZ, then switched into a media expert commentary focus, but now need to get back into the bigger game because I have been locked out of NZ and OZ academia as a result of well-known events). I am going to try and base the consultancy in SG and NZ with a Australasian-Latin American focus given my past experience and networks in the latter region. If things go to plan it will be the first dedicated political risk/market intelligence and strategic analysis consultancy based in and focused on NZ’s relations with the Pacific Rim.  However, the US offers more opportunity for a range of work along the lines in which I have some expertise, so I am going to use the trip to visit with old colleagues and work on any networking opportunities that may arise. 

Depending on how things go I will likely do some more traveling before the end of the year. My partner would prefer that I not take assignments in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, which I find understandable. So I suggested to her that I will instead focus on Yemen and Somalia as possible work sites. You can imagine her reaction. All joking aside, there are plenty of places in which my background and experience could be of help to potential clients (both public and private), so I will try to use the US trip as a springboard to work that will allow me to return to NZ and at worst divide my time between there and SG (my partner still has the full time university job in SG and there is no point in her giving it up until such a time as there are academic openings for her back in NZ or OZ).

Put another way: I may no longer be able to work in academia, but that does not mean that a lifetime accumulation of research and analytic skills need go to waste. Plus, I am not good at being idle or a “kept” man. Hence I need to find intellectually stimulating work that will allow me to contribute to society, with my personal ethics and values being the guide as to what sort of work I accept or reject. The US trip is the first step towards doing so.

All of which is to say that I may be a bit quiet for the next week or so. I will try to post about events in the US as I see them in the build up to the mid-term elections in November. Things have gotten very strained in terms of political debate in that country but it is hard to judge what really is the public mood without living there. The wedding and related visits with friends and family should provide a good cross-section and sounding board on how people feel about Obama, the economy, foreign affairs in general and the wars in particular, and contemporary social issues often overlooked in the foreign press or export news industry.  With any luck that will provide material for posts. Otherwise I shall work on my open water swimming, which has been neglected since I moved to SG because, to put it mildly, the locals waters are not exactly the cleanest on earth. Since the Florida place is 50 meters from the beach and the water there has not been affected by the Gulf oil spill (it is on the Atlantic side), it will be a nice opportunity to regain some of my surf swimming skills with a view towards using them in NZ once I finally make it back there.

Just don’t think about the offspring

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows, and so it is that Chris Trotter finds common cause with Peter Cresswell in selectively revising the story of Ngāi TÅ«hoe to frame them up as our very own Khmer Rouge, and the Tino Rangatiratanga movement as the mortal enemy of civil society as we know it. I do not seek to defend Te Kooti and his followers: it’s not necessary to do so to abhor the brutality of the Crown response. But even that isn’t the point of this post: I’ve covered that ground before. The point is that their reading is anitithetical to the ongoing development of a peaceful and modern Aotearoa.

Both frame up the Crown position as a matter of swordright — TÅ«hoe ‘picked the wrong side’ in their war and were justly punished for it. Should have been punished more. Both Chris and Peter seem to be of the view that the Crown would have been entirely justified in leaving not one stone upon another, not one man, woman or child alive. And more than a century later, based on their own (conveniently one-eyed) assessment of incidents surrounding Te Kooti’s succour in Te Urewera, they argue that TÅ«hoe still deserve whatever they get: nothing if they’re bloody lucky. Frankly, I expect this sort of thing from permanent-state-of-jihad Objectivists; not so much from an actual historian claiming the mantle of a peace-loving social democrat.

Because the end justifies the means, you see. The brutal and systematic dispossession and wholesale slaughter of Māori throughout Aotearoa was perhaps unfortunate, but necessary in ‘civilising’ the uncivilised hordes of savages found here by the noble white man of 1840. I asked Chris a while ago whether he thought that NZ would have been better off if Europeans had just landed with boatloads of armed soldiers and done to the natives what they did in the rest of the world. He responded by saying I was “not mentally wired for this sort of historical argument.” But I guess I have a fuller answer now.

These are people who claim to want to ‘move on’ from our colonial history, for Aotearoa to become ‘one nation’. But doing so on the basis of swordright cannot result in a nation of two people joining together as ‘iwi tahi tatou’, but of one people who set the rules and another who live by them; the former wielding the righteous sword of civilisation, the latter’s efforts to work with the former rather than under them cut down by it, and even their efforts to work within the rules viewed with eternal suspicion and distrust. This is beyond misery — it is ignorant, paranoiac hatred and fear of ghosts long passed which has brought these two bedfellows together. Just don’t think about the offspring they might bear.

Update: Fresh approval from PC.


Circumstance, Context and Consequence of New Zealand’s first combat death in Afghanistan.*

Events in Afghanistan this week prompted me to write on them as well as their implications. This is the full version, which did not appear in the mainstream press.

Until this week the 140-troop NZDF mission in support of the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province was considered the “softer” of the two NZDF deployments in that country. Given their status as elite combat troops, the 2001-05 and post-2009 NZSAS missions in Afghanistan have received more attention as the presumably “hard” edge of New Zealand’s military contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) charged with bringing peace and stability to that failed state. The death of Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell has changed that view.

Lieutenant O’Donnell was killed while on routine patrol northeast of the city of Bamiyan. NZDF patrols are undertaken daily as part of the PRT’s responsibilities, which are to provide security and undertake civil reconstruction and nation-building projects such as the construction of schools, roads, medical clinics (including the combat medics to staff them), water treatment facilities and other infrastructure required for local governance to operate efficiently. Although Bamiyan province is largely populated by the non-Pashtun ethnic Hazaras (a Shiia minority elsewhere in Afghanistan) who are generally friendly to ISAF forces because they were discriminated against under Taliban rule, the Taliban presence, although not as dominant as in Helmand or Kandahar provinces, has remained as an ever-present threat that has increased over the last two years. In fact, the ambush in which Lieutenant O’Donnell died was preceded by at least three similar attacks in the last 14 months, all using the same combination of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire.

Despite the previous attacks, the NZDF did not vary its operational routine and continued to use three or four vehicle convoys for its patrols along well-established routes. The vehicles in question were US-provided reinforced Toyota Hiluxes and armed “uparmoured” Humvees in which electronic counter-measures (ECM) were reportedly used to thwart electronic pulse-detonated IEDs (UPDATE: official details are sketchy as to whether the convoy was a mix of vehicles or all of one or the other, but non official reports suggest that Hiluxes have not been used on those patrols for 18 months and the vehicles in question were all “uparmoured” Humvees). Although state of the art, such ECMs cannot prevent a command wire or pressure plate detonated IED (especially at night), one of which was apparently used in this latest attack.

In previous instances the Hiluxes suffered minor damages in IED attacks, but this time the IED was much more powerful. No NZDF Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVIIs), out of an inventory of 106, were provided to the NZDF/Bamiyan PRT because their characteristics were deemed unsuitable for the Bamiyan AOR because most of it is single track dirt paths (even though the NZSAS has two available for operational duty in Kabul and the US has deployed ECM-equipped and reinforced armoured Stryker (the name it gives to the LAVs) units in the Afghan theater of operations). Although very agile in rough terrain (especially in its 6×6 version), the 321-strong NZDF Pinzgauer Military Utility Vehicle (MUV) fleet was not requisitioned in Bamiyan even though it fulfills the NZDF Light Operational Vehicle (LOV) role, most likely because even in its “uparmoured” version it remains vulnerable to combined small arms assaults and is underpowered when traversing steep terrain in its uparmoured version.  Unlike in previous instances, air cover was not able to respond to the latest attack due to bad weather conditions in the area. The official line is that the patrol was able to find cover and establish a defensive position while returning fire, leading to a prolonged firefight before the assailants were repelled. In all likelihood given Taliban  hit and run tactics, the actual firefight was quite short and most of the damage to men and machines was done by the IED rather than the ensuing exchange of small arms fire. Whatever the exact circumstances, this combination of contributing factors proved to be lethal for Lt. O’Donnell and injurious to his comrades.

The ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is a macrocosmic reflection of what the PRT mission is in Bamiyan. It conducts counter-insurgency operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in order to physically secure the country and prevent the re-establishment of both Taliban rule and al-Qaeda safe havens and training camps within it. In parallel, it attempts to train Afghan security forces and provide the infrastructural conditions so as to consolidate the control of the Western-backed Karzai regime centred in Kabul. As with the Bamiyan PRT, success in the first task is deemed necessary for success with the latter two.

In many ways the death of a Kiwi soldier was inevitable given the balance of the conflict. ISAF has not succeeded in routing the Taliban even if it has denied them and their al-Qaeda allies much territory and space for maneuver. Its nation-building efforts have been thwarted by endemic corruption by the Karzai regime and a motley assortment of tribal warlords and drug barons. For all its rhetorical commitment to supporting the ISAF mission from its side of the border, Pakistan remains a suspect ally, if not a covert adversary in the conflict. Given the announced timetable for a US troop drawdown and ISAF withdrawal beginning in July 2011, the Taliban have increased their attacks in order to raise the costs to ISAF, undermine public support for the mission amongst coalition partners (such as the Dutch, who have just exited the theater), and thereby hasten the inevitable. In fact, both ISAF commander General David Petraeus as well as US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Millan have said that ISAF casualties will increase over the next months as coalition forces push into Taliban strongholds in a final effort to degrade its ability to mount effective guerrilla operations against Afghanistan police, Army and ISAF targets.

However, true to form, the Taliban have responded with a classic guerrilla tactic when confronted with superior military forces: they employ a “balloon” strategy whereby they retreat from areas in which they are being squeezed by superior ISAF forces and regroup in areas in which the ISAF presence is relatively thin on the ground. The key to their success is to respond to mass with maneuver, avoiding the friction of large conventional forces via fluidity of movement towards areas in which the odds are in their favour. In other words, the Taliban like to” hit ’em where they ain’t.”

One such area is Bamiyan, which means that there is nothing soft about the NZDF/PRT role there. The hazards are not just military. Given the Taliban resurgence and the inevitable withdrawal of ISAF forces, it is prudent and rational for the Hazaras (as much as all other tribal groups throughout the country) to begin to look the other way when it comes to Taliban movements in Bamiyan, if not cooperate with or simply accommodate the insurgents. After all, the Taliban will be a armed and political presence long after the ISAF forces are scaled back or gone. That makes the NZDF position in the Bamiyan PRT harder to maintain the closer it approaches to the announced ISAF withdrawal date. In plain terms, without reinforcement the NZDF/PRT position becomes more tenuous given the shift in local loyalties as the withdrawal deadline approaches, and tenuous in military terms means a high probability of increased casualties as the adversary grows in confidence and receives more support or acquiescence from the local population.

The National government has reaffirmed its commitment to the Bamiyan PRT mission through September 2011 and is considering extending thr NZSAS deployment past its scheduled March 2011 end date. But the possibility of further fatalities now haunts its commitment. The larger question is whether the New Zealand public has the stomach to support continuing NZDF participation in the Afghan conflict in the face of increased casualties. That will be a critical juncture in New Zealand foreign relations, because public support is essential to maintaining the political will to continue fighting—and dying—in support of broadly defined foreign policy objectives. Since the measure of a military commitment is ultimately taken in blood, it behooves New Zealand’s political leadership to make a strong case as to why Kiwi lives are worth sacrificing in a seemingly futile conflict in far off place that appears, on the face of things, to have little strategic value to core New Zealand interests. It is also incumbent upon the opponents of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan to make an equally convincing case as to why Kiwi lives should not be risked in Afghanistan in pursuit of vanity, favour, treasure or ephereal benefit.

Out of that debate a true public consensus can be formed that gives clear direction to the government’s approach to the ISAF commitment in the year leading up to general elections.

*A short version of this essay was published in the New Zealand Herald on August 5, 2010 under the title “Death makes it clear Bamiyan not “soft” option.”