A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

The New Zealand Junta.

Some readers will remember that I spent 25 years in academia researching, writing and teaching about authoritarianism, among other things, and that I was a foreign policy practitioner in/for the US government for a decade, a fair bit of which was dealing with authoritarian regimes and working to promote liberalisation within and eventual democratization from them. Readers also will recall that I have written here about “constitutional coups,” which unlike military coups do not involve the threat of or acts of violence to remove a sitting government. Instead, legal mechanisms and institutional procedures are used to achieve the same end–the removal of a duly elected government, from office most often but not always before its constitutionally-defined term is completed.

It may seem like a stretch, but New Zealand has had a constitutional coup of sorts. In October an election was held in which the major rightwing party (National) did not reveal its true policy intentions, preferring to instead focus on the usual canards of lower taxes, high crimes rates and too many regulations and bureaucratic red tape on property owners. They were assisted by a compliant corporate media interested in generating clickbait material rather than dealing deeper into party policy platforms, and who supported the “change for change sake” attitude of the NZ public by focusing on personal scandals within the (then) Labour-led government ranks. It mattered little that, in public at least, the major rightwing party had virtually nothing to offer. What mattered was that it win, be it in coalition or outright. As it turns out, it needed coalition partners in order to do so.

The more extreme rightwing parties, ACT and NZ First, were a bit more honest in their campaigns about their reactionary intent, but the corporate media chose to ignore the extent of their connections to extremist groups and foreign donors/patrons such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and Atlas Institute seed-funded astroturf groups such as the overlapping Free Speech Coalition/Taxpayer’s Union that contributed to their campaigns. Nor did the political press seriously look into the worrisome backgrounds of candidates in these parties, instead preferring to focus on the leaders and their immediate subordinates.

What that made for was the instrumental use of the October election by the NZ rightwing in order to gain enough votes to cobble together an authoritarian-minded government coalition that would impose regressive policy prescriptions without full public scrutiny or consultation. It did not matter that the two extremist parties received less than 15 percent of the popular vote, or that National received just 38 percent. What mattered was the win, which was the instrument by which the coalition could impose its political will on the +45 percent that did not vote for them.

Sure enough, the new government has gone about imposing policy reforms that basically amount to dismantling much of the social legislation enacted over the last decade, including that of previous right-leaning governments. Smokefree legislation, diesel and petrol taxes, EV purchase rebates, commitment to rail and cycleway building projects (some already underway), rationalisation of water provision services via three-tier regional management–these and many more forward-thinking policies were repealed, and more backtracks (such as eliminating excise taxes on cigarettes) are on the way. It also proposes to implement wholesale redundancies in the public sector, especially in agencies that are focused on Pacifika and other minority group service provision. More existentially in terms of New Zealand/Aotearoa’s self-identity as a nation, the elected authoritarians are proposing to review and repeal sections of NZ’s foundational charter, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti, because they supposedly give “too many” rights to Maori, thereby effectively disenfranchising the non-Maori (mostly Pakeha) majority (or so they say).

However, as political scientist Kate Nicholls pointed out to me, the assault on Te Tiriti has the potential to be an own goal of epic scale. The Waitangi Tribunal was instituted to peacefully settle disputes emerging from different interpretations of the Treaty’s clauses. it was created in 1975 in the wake of numerous protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s stemming from disputes about interpretation of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty, especially about land ownership and access rights, some of which, to quote the Waiting Tribunal History page, took place “outside the law.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Tribunal calls itself a “standing commission of inquiry” but in fact is a means to peacefully settle disputes about the Treaty that could otherwise turn violent or be subject to direct action by aggrieved and often competing interests. Seen less charitably, the Tribunal is way to buy off or divide-and-conquer Maori, or at least Maori elites, so as to give them a slice of the NZ economic resource pie, stop extra-judicial protests (since the Tribunal is in effect a court with legally-binding authority) and thereby achieve social peace. In other words, the Tribunal is a co-optive device, not an instrument of revolution, reform or comprehensive redress. It is designed to preserve a (Pakeha dominated ) social status quo, not undermine it.

The direct attack on Te Tiriti, be it by putting a review of the Treaty to a referendum or by some other means (say, by legal challenges to Tribunal authority and decisions), has already occasioned Maori-led backlash, something that promises to intensify the more the elected authoritarians push their racially-motivated project. That could well mean that rather than the peaceful and legally binding settlement process overseen by the Tribunal, we could see things settled in the streets via direct action. Given how fundamental the Treaty is to NZ self-identity, at that point it is an open question whether the repressive apparatuses of the State–the police, the courts, the intelligence services, even the military–will side with the elected authoritarians. Stay tuned.

Another thing about the new government is its utter disdain for the public. Polls only mattered in the election campaign but now are ignored. Fighting crime was a priority before the election, then it was not. It did not reveal its full coalition agenda during the campaign and did not consult with other parties or the public in the implementation of its first 100 day plan of action. Instead, the coalition has rewarded its donors and supporters in (among others) the fossil fuel and tobacco industries even though their repeal policies are unpopular and in some instances detrimental to public health, environmental and other social outcomes. This is truly a government for and by the few, even if it was able to claim an electoral victory as its legitimating mantle.

For this reason I prefer not to call them something silly like the “coalition of chaos.” They are that, to be sure, because to put it kindly the talent pool in the coalition parties runs very thin while the egos of their leaders and lieutenants run very deep. This could eventually lead to their collapse and downfall, but for the moment what strikes me is their despotic dispositions. In other words, it is their way or the highway, minus the resort to repression that we see in military dictatorships.

For this reason I choose to refer to the National-ACT-NZ First triumvirate as New Zealand’s junta. In the broadest and original sense, junta refers to a military or political group ruling the country after it has been taken over. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a council or committee for political or governmental purposes.” What is important is that it does not always have to have a military component and it does not always involve a violent accession to power and usurpation of previous authority. A junta, as it turns out, can be installed constitutionally, peacefully and via normal political institutions and procedures.

It is the way how these mechanisms of political succession are manipulated that determines whether a constitutional coup has occurred. If that indeed has been the case, and I believe that in NZ it has, then the recently installed coalition government is in fact a junta. This NZ junta is comprised of the three authoritarian party leaders followed by their fawning acolytes and lesser supplicants, cheered on by rightwing media and corporate and ideological interest groups as well as revanchist voters reacting to what they see as challenges to their privileges by an assortment of “woke” and uppity usurpers. But at its core, the junta represents a coordinating committee of elite capitalist and ethnographic chauvanist (f not supremacist) interests, not the public at large.

To reprise: given the circumstances surrounding it, the October election in NZ was a type of “soft” or constitutional coup in which an authoritarian coalition gained a majority of votes without revealing its full policy agenda. It is now implementing that policy agenda by rewarding its allies and ignoring the public good. That approach–working solely for the benefit of allied groups while claiming that it is doing so in the public interest–is precisely how juntas govern.

Perhaps we should start addressing Mr. Luxon. Mr. Peters and Mr. Seymour each as “mi Comandante” or “mi Jefe” because 1) those Spanish phrases for “my Commander” or “my Boss” seem more suited to their personalities and politics than the term “Honourable;” and 2) they nicely fit with their junta-style approach to governing. In any event, the proper approach when greeting the junta members is to bend at the waist and make sure that one’s nose is pointed squarely at their footwear. Also, following established authoritarian protocol, Luxon can be called the Comandante Supremo or Jefe Supremo because he is supposedly the first amongst equals in the NZ junta, but that will likely increase the intrigue, scheming, plotting and knife sharpening within the coup coalition. If so, things could get pretty chaotic, indeed.

From somewhere in Hades, Pinochet and countless other authoritarians must be having a good chuckle at NZ’s expense.

A toe in the fire.

The decision to send six NZDF personnel to join the US-led anti-Houthi maritime picket line has a number of interesting facets to it. I made a few posts about the decision on a social media platform but will elaborate a bit more here.

It was obvious that a conservative pro-American government coalition would not only sign a US-drafted declaration defending freedom of navigation and denouncing Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, but would offer some symbolic material support (even if token) to the maritime picket line that the US and its main allies (all 5 Eyes partners) were putting together under the already extant joint task force CTF-153 headquartered at the US 5th Fleet HQ in Bahrain. The task force is led by a US admiral and operates under US Rules of Engagement (ROE). Prime Minister Luxon is an admitted “Americaphile” due to his time spent in the US as a corporate executive. Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Winston Peters was involved in negotiating the Wellington and Washington Agreements establishing US-NZ bilateral security ties and has long voiced his support for US leadership in global affairs. The third coalition party leader, David Seymour, takes his policy prescriptions (and money) from US rightwing think-tanks and conservative lobbies.

Defense Minister Judith Collins (among many other portfolios, including intelligence and security) was the odd person out at the press conference announcing the deployment (Seymour did not attend) because she has previously attempted to use her status as an MP and minister to advance her husband’s business interests in China, and remains as one of the more Sinophilic (yes, said on purpose) members of the new government. Moreover, as Minister of Intelligence and Security and Attorney General, she is now the Keeper of the Secrets of Defense, Intelligence and the Courts, which is only of concern if you worry about a corrupt politician who also is now back scheming with the bankrupt (in every sense of the word) rightwing attack blogger whose miserable antics were outlined in that chronicle of political depravity, Dirty Politics. In any event, with the Collins anomaly excepted, it should be no surprise that the government made a move in support of its security patrons.

The government argues that its contribution is done to protect freedom of navigation, making specious arguments about the impact of the Houthi attacks leading to a rise in commodity prices on NZ consumers (NZ being a trade-dependent country etc.). It rejects the notion that its actions are in any way connected to the Hamas-Israel War even though the Houthis are invoking Article 2 of the 1949 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide to justify their attempts to stop war materials from reaching Israel. It chides those who differ with their justification by saying that it is wrong to “conflate” the Hamas-Israel War with the Houthi attacks even though the Houthis have explicitly done so.

As many scholars have noted, NZ joining the coalition of the pro-Israeli military bloc runs counter to NZ support for UN demands for a ceasefire and its supposed neutrality on the larger context behind the current conflict. Whatever the pretense, the hard truth is that with the NZDF deployment NZ has openly joined the Western coalition backing Israel in its war on Palestinians, eschewing bold support for enduring humanitarian principle in favor of short-term diplomatic realpolitik. Moreover, NZ has now been suckered into, via the US request for a contribution to the anti-Houthi effort, an expanding regional conflict that involves Iran and its proxies, on one side, and Israel and its (mostly Western) supporters on the other. With Russia and PRC (among others) supporting Iran and its proxies, the conflict has the potential to become drawn out as well as involve a larger number of actors.

Mission creep for the NZDF is therefore a distinct possibility, and the claim of NZ foreign policy independence rings hypocritically hollow since it is now clear that when the US asks NZ to take a pro-US/Israel stand on a controversial international issue, NZ bows and obeys.

So what does NZ’s flag-planting entail?

Not much at first glance. Its two frigates are in maintenance or on sea trials. It would do no good to send non-combat ships even if they were available (they would just become targets), and its in-and offshore patrol vessels are not suited to the task even if they could find crews to man them and get them to the theatre of operations. The Air Force could have sent one of its new P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, which would be suited to some picket line duties such as electronic surveillance, but chose to not do so. What was left was finding a way to send ground-based assets to the theatre, and that is what the government and NZDF brass opted to do.

They have ordered the deployment of a six person “highly specialised” team to serve as “targeters” for allied forces using “precision weapons” against Houthi targets. From that description the soldiers could be a military communications/signals intelligence team or could come from the NZSAS, who specialise in long range patrol and reconnaissance and who routinely serve close to or behind enemy lines as forward target spotters (including Mosul during the fight against ISIS, if reports are correct). The NZSAS is believed to already have assets in the Middle East, perhaps stationed in Djibouti or Bahrain, likely in partnership with or as a secondment to the intelligence fusion “cells” or joint SPECOPS units that are located at US bases in those countries. Defense Minister Collins said that they would operate from “HQ and other places,” which suggests that be they military communications/signals intelligence specialists or NZSAS, they may be stationed on allied ships as well as land facilities. Because of their focus on mobility and stealth, if the team is indeed an NZSAS team, then it is doubtful that they will be spending much time behind desks or shining their medals at HQ.

Even so, a six person “targeting” team is a very thin deployment even for military intelligence or the NZSAS, which tend to deploy in platoon sized units. Unless the announced six-person team has larger backup in theatre behind it, there are no redundancies in the deployment, say, if a trooper breaks an ankle while playing paddleboard at the HQ. As things stand, the NZDF as a whole has severe retention problems that include the NZSAS, especially among non-commissioned officers, aka corporals ad sergeants (NCOs) that are the backbone of the regiment. Similar problems afflict other specialist units. In other words, the thinness of the deployment may be symptomatic of much larger problems within the NZDF.

The government says that there will been NZDF boots on the ground in Yemen. Not only do I take the government and NZDF word on this with a big grain of salt, but I will note that Yemen is contested space, the Houthis do not control all of it, and Saudi Arabia shares a border with it. Since the Saudis have conducted a murderous military campaign against the Houthis in the ongoing civil war between the Saudi-backed Republic of Yemen government and Houthi movement “rebels,” it is not far-fetched to think that it or the Republic of Yemen might welcome some anti-Houthi Western specialist forces on their soil.

(As an aside, PM Luxon has a certain form when it comes to the Red Sea conflict. He was the CEO of Air New Zealand during the Key government when an Air New Zealand subsidiary engineering firm sold maritime turbines to the Saudi Navy. Around that same time MFAT approved sale of military support equipment like range finders and fire control systems to the UAE knowing that they could be used against the Houthis (since the UAE is part of the Saudi led coalition against the Houthis), in contravention of voluntary international sanctions imposed because the Saudi coalition was committing war crimes against the Houthi population in the (still ongoing) civil war in Yemen. MFAT signed off on both deals, reflecting the Key government’s approach to such things. When confronted after the turbine sale was completed, Luxon said that he was not involved and had no responsibility for the decision, saying that it was made below his pay grade. That is a bit rich for a guy who pontificates about how he used to run an airline, but more importantly is symptomatic of how National selectively approaches relations with powerful authoritarian human rights-abusing regimes).

The government also insist that the team will not be involved in combat roles. This is an obfuscation as well as a distinction without a difference. The reason is that “targeters” are part of what is known as the “kill chain.” The “kill chain” starts with intelligence-gathering, moves through target identification and selection, then weapons and delivery platform designation, and ends with a trigger pull or launch command. The NZDF just joined the anti-Houthi kill chain. How is that so?

The NZDF “targeting” team will analyse intelligence feeds from technical (TECHNT), signals (SIGINT) and human (HUMINT) sources, including satellite and drone imagery in real time. They will evaluate the legitimacy of the intelligence by confirming the targets using a variety of means, of which getting proximate eyes on potential targets using their core skills is one possibility. In some cases targeting teams get close enough to electronically “paint” designated targets prior to air strikes (think along the lines of extremely sophisticated laser pointers). Once the target identity is confirmed and deemed actionable under the ROE, the team will pass its confirmation of the target to commanders who operate weapons platforms and who designate what sort of weapons should be used given the nature of the target (say, a sea-launched cruise missile from a destroyer or submarine or an air-launched Hellfire missile from land or carrier-based aircraft).

So what are its targeting constraints? That is unknown and the government and NZDF have not said anything about them. What is known is that the NZDF team will be operating under US command within the structure of CTC-153 operating under the name Operation Prosperity Guardian, which means they will not have autonomous say in what ultimately its designated as an “actionable” target. But the problems with the deployment go beyond the flexibility of US ROEs. It has to do with the kill chain itself.

That is why speaking of “precision” munitions is an easy way to whitewash their effects. They are precise only if the intelligence and targeting guiding them is accurate in real-time and the ROE is strictly defined. A precision guided weapon aimed at the wrong target or without regard for collateral damage is just another dumb bomb with guidance sensors and a camera. Plus, warhead throw weights matter. It is hard to be surgical with a 500lb. or1000 lb. warhead if the intelligence and target designations are not precise (they can be but not always are given the command pressures to deliver results in terms of enemies and equipment destroyed), which is why the intelligence/targeting part of the kill chain must be systems redundant before a trigger is pulled.

Again, none of this has been made public. No parliamentary consultation was undertaken before the decision to deploy the team was made. The irony is that the deployment, especially if my assumption is correct in that it involves the NZSAS, could have been done discretely and without fanfare. NZSAS deployments are done in secret all of the time and the public and politicians are none the wiser. Yet here the government chose to go public and grandstand with its announcement, which even if designed to offer public affirmation that NZ is part of the “club” John Key once talked about with regard to the NZDF presence in Iraq, also exposes the targeting team to increased physical risk and NZ to increased reputational harm given that most of the international community do not share the view that Houthi’s actions are unrelated to the Hamas-Israel war or that Israel is the good actor in it. But Israel is a close intelligence partner of the 5 Eyes network, so perhaps NZ’s choice of expediency over principle has something to do with that (rather than freedom of navigation per se).

Whatever the rationale behind the government’s decision, it seems that it is sticking a toe into a fire that may grow hotter rather than cooler. Then the question becomes one of whether the government has contingency plans ready to prevent NZ from being drawn further in and burned in the service of, to quote another Nicky Hager book title, Other People’s Wars.

War Fever, War Mongering or War Fetish?

The US has for long been known for its societal glorification of the military, a trait that covers popular culture, public and private institutions, sports and even the arts and literature. Manifestations of this include military flyovers at sporting events, military marches at parades, military honour guards at graduation and retirement ceremonies, Hollywood and interactive game productions about US wars and military prowess, active and retired military discounts for many goods and services, a 3 million-odd military troop size, high school and college military training units and rhetorical veneration of veterans on days of national significance. It is also the home of the military-industrial complex, which even if now just one such apparatus in a global network of arms manufactures, merchants, buyers and dealers, remains a centrepiece of the US economy and, as former President and 5 star general Dwight Eisenhower said at his Presidential farewell address in1961, an inherent threat to democracy because of its pervasive influence on public policy. That is as true today as much if not more than it was back then.

I mention this because recent US media coverage of the Ruso-Ukrainian, Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK conflicts appears to show more than the influence of the military-industrial complex or the ideological glorification of the military as a US institution. It appears to depict a case of war fever or worse yet, war fetishism.

US cable news seem fixated on the weapons and support platforms being used against various adversaries. Tomahawk cruise missiles, Bradley fighting vehicles, Predator and Reaper drones, F-18s, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, frigates, destroyers, air- and surface-to- surface ballistic missiles–these and more are discussed at great length and detail by an assortment of (usually ex military) talking heads. Explosive tonnages are weighed, circular error probables are measured, delivery distances calculated, enemy killed are estimated. it makes for great theatre for those whose idea of entertainment leans that way. It generates eyeballs on screens and clicks on apps. The same is true, albeit in less visceral form, in the so-called “legacy” (print-turned-to digital) media such as newspapers. The logic of US corporate media is consistent: wars showcase US technological product and prowess. They are good for business, employment and US self-esteem.

Two things are notable about this coverage. The first is that much air time and column inches are devoted to the technologies involved in the architecture of death-dealing. Relatively little is devoted to the consequences of what these technologies do because the focus is on the former, not the latter. What attention is paid to human suffering is dwarfed by the focus on complex machines and lethal delivery systems, and even then the attention to human suffering is skewed in sympathetic favour towards what the US considers to be the “good guys” in any armed confrontation. In addition, relatively little attention is paid to second and third-order implications of any given conflict, so that, for example, escalation of the Hamas-Israel and Houthi-US/UK belligerencies is simply mentioned as a possibility rather than mapped out as an increasingly probability given the interests and actors at play. In fact, relatively balanced presentations of why these conflicts have occurred is subordinated to editorialising in favour of one side or another depending on US government positions vis a vis the conflicts in question.

Worse yet, over time the US government and its compliant public just move from one enemy to another. Once it was and now again it is Russian authoritarians. But there have also been Colombian drug cartels, military-nationalist regimes with swarthy-looking leaders in the Middle East (but not repressive Sunni oligarchies), post-revolutionary Iranians, al-Qaeda/ISIS, some but not other Latin American despots, the Taliban, the PRC, various African warlords–there is never a shortage of bad guys to go after. The US public uncritically laps it up because to them the constant re-framing of the enemy does not matter. What matters is the machines, the violent action and that the US kick some a**, somewhere, anywhere.

What is even more interesting is that all this coverage ignores the fact that the US, for all of its technological prowess, has a decidedly mixed record when it comes to war. However glossed over by semi-orderly retreats (“withdrawals” in the US parlance), the US lost in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the last 50 years of nearly non-stop fighting. It won in Gulf War One (“Shock and Awe”), Grenada and Panama, but lost over 200 Marines, sailors and army soldiers in an ill-fated intervention in Lebanon in 1983, thereby paving the way for the rise of Hezbollah as a significant actor in Lebanese and regional politics. It clashes with Iran regularly and has little to show for it other than rallying Shiites around the world to the Iranian cause. It invaded Iraq on a pretext after 9/11, succeeded in ousting Saddam Hussein, but also created the intellectual and operational core of ISIS (which was organised by former Baathist officers in the Sunni Triangle as a resistance force and morphed into a broader ethno-religious movement with the objective of establishing a Caliphate in Mesopotamia and the Levant). Hundreds of US troops have fought and died in all sorts of undeclared “small wars,” from Somalia to Niger, Colombia to the Philippines and very rarely did the outcomes advance US interests or its reputation (both as a international power as well as a war-fighting culture). In the end, technological advantages were not decisive in all instances and did not lead to better diplomatic outcomes or more peace even where they did succeed. Yet the obsession with the machinery of death continues.

Perhaps it is because US society has a technological obsession, one that translates into finding ways for machines to replace humans in every walk of life, including the kinetic kill chain in war. If that is true (that US society prioritizes technological solutions to human as well as natural problems), then the larger question is whether what we see in US media coverage of conflict is evidence of war fever, evidence of war fetishism or just another instance of good ole’ fashioned war-mongering.

War fever can be characterised as a temporary state of individual and collective bloodlust caused by a desire for vengeance, righteous anger, opportunistic greed, genuine or perceived grievance or sociopathic or psychopathic arousal. It can work for good or work for evil depending on its causes, because the motivation is immediate and the objective is to vanquish by force a perceived enemy that is the immediate problem. When the enemy is vanquished, the fever breaks and people return to normal (non-bellicose) lives because, to use another medical analogy, the war boil has been lanced.

War fetishism, on the other hand, is a form of idolatry. It is obsessively fixated on war as an object of adoration. It idolizes soldiers as heroes and weapons as technological marvels. It worships the modalities of combat and the death delivery infrastructure used in them. It reifies the machines and canonizes the “good guys” who use them, even if the good guys are killing civilians in foreign lands where they are unwelcome. It wraps engagement in war in patriotic, ethnic, religious or historical symbolism, often stringing them together in a narrative of heroism and sacrifice, good versus evil, light versus darkness. The narrative in support of war is fluid and endless. Enemies come and go. They are a war-mongering cloak because the obsession is with the machinery of death and its application wherever it can be, not the (often morally, ethically and practically thin) justifications for its use.

Think of it this way. Does the US public, especially in Red States and in the MAGA crowd, really care about or even know what freedom of navigation is? Do they have a notion of what the Houthis are and why they are considered “rebels?” Or is the US public interest more about dealing violence to brown-skinned, non-Christian challengers (“terrorists!”) who defy and resist US directives in their part of the world? Again, the popular focus is on the ways in which organised violence is meted out to designated bad guys, not understanding why they are fighting, much less why the US has chosen them to be the latest in a long procession of bad guys.

(Brief historical aside by way of context: the Houthis are Shiites indigenous to Yemen but long-ruled by Sunni Saudi Arabian-backed clients. Once they rebelled they became pawns in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia and were subjected to numerous Saudi Arabian war crimes using US weapons).

In that light, war-mongering is just a sub-set of war fetishism. It is nothing more than (often opportunistic) ideological or practical peddling of justifications for going to war. When the two types of justification combine, say in the advertising of so-called “defense” manufacturers in the US (“defending freedom!”), the result is an effective propaganda blanket for purveyors of death of either stripe. It is a means to an end, but not a cause or effect.

By this criteria, the US is a war fetishist society. Not everyone in the US of course, but certainly the majority, who may not even know that they are because the fact of constant (even if passive) war-worship is an all-encompassing (yet seldom admitted) part of everyday life. This does not excuse the murderous behaviour of any number of armed actors around the world, but it does bring into light how the US has cultivated an authoritarian ethos regarding the use of violence abroad that is antithetical to the very notion of peace and prosperity for all that it was supposedly founded on. Add to that the militarisation of US domestic security forces and the unconstrained gun culture that pervades significant parts of US society, and the dangers to the US as a democratic polity are laid bare.

Houston, we got a problem.

About the Houthi Red Sea blockage.

The announcement that NZ has joined with 13 other maritime trade-dependent states in warning Houthis in Yemen to cease their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea (particularly in the Bad-el-Mandeb Strait) got me to thinking of about some finer points embedded in the confrontation (beyond wondering if NZ will send a warship to join the US-led task force being assembled to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea. After all, joining group communiques is cheap. Putting grey hulls into remote conflict zones is not)).

First, even though they are also maritime trade dependent, India, Indonesia and the PRC, among other Asian states, have not joined the coalition. This suggests that protection of freedom of navigation is not the sole criteria behind the decision to join or not, something confirmed by the fact that other than Bahrain, all of the signatories to the statement are 5 Eyes partners, NATO members or NATO partners (like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea). Bahrain is the location of the US Navy Central Command, the US Fifth Fleet and the combined task force (CTF-153) responsible for overseeing “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” the name given to the anti-Houthi maritime defense campaign. It has a strained relationship with Iran due to its suspicion that Iran foments unrest among it’s Shia majority (which is ruled by a Sunni aristocracy). Like many Sunni oligarchies, it sees the Houthis as Iranian proxies.

Some Muslim majority states may have declined to join Operation Prosperity Guardian out of caution rather than solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-Israel demonstrations have broken out throughout the Islamic world, so reasons of domestic stability and elite preservation may be as much behind the calculus to decline as are sympathies with Gazans or Houthis. Conversely, nations that are not as dependent on Red Sea maritime routes (say, in the Western Hemisphere) may see little to be gained by taking sides in a conflict that does not involve their core national interests (matters of principle aside).

The name of the Operation suggests that is focused on maritime security and freedom of navigation. Twelve percent of the world’s trade passes through Bad-el-Mandeb. There is an average of 400 ships in the Red Sea at any one time. The Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on Red Sea shipping since the Gaza-Israel War began using a variety of delivery platforms. The situation has the potential for expansion into regional war, and even if it is not, it is adding transportation time delays and billions in additional costs to the global supply chain, something that will sooner or later be reflected in the cost of commodities, goods and services.

But there is a twist to this tale. The Houthis claim that they are only targeting ships that are suspected of being in- or outward-bound from Israel as well as the warships that seek to protect them. They argue that they are not targeting shipping randomly or recklessly but instead trying to impede Israel’s war re-supply efforts (this claim is disputed by shipping firms, Israel, the US, UK and various ship-flagging states, but the exact provenance of cargoes is not subject to independent verification). They claim that their actions are justified under international conventions designed to prevent genocide, specifically Article One of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (given the wholesale slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza since October 7) and point to UN statements supporting the claim that what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank, if not a “complete” genocide, certainly has the look and feel of ethnic cleansing. The South Africa application to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, now supported by Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan, Bolivia, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and hundreds of civil rights organisations around the world, is also being used by the Houthi rebel regime (and alternate sovereign) in Yemen as justification for their attacks.

In essence, what has been set up here is a moral-ethical dilemma in the form of a clash of international principles–guaranteeing freedom of navigation, on the one hand, or upholding the duty to protect against genocide on the other.

Needless to say, geopolitics colours all approaches to the conundrum. The Houthis (who are Shia) are clients of Iran (home to Shia Islam), who are also patrons of anti-Israel actors such as the Shia Alawite regime in Syria, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and numerous Iraqi Shiite militias. Iran (and through it its various regional clients and proxies), has strong military ties to Russia and the PRC (for example remember that Russia is using Iranian-made attack drones in the Ukraine). For their part, the NATO alliance and its partners are all major intelligence partners of Israel, as is Bahrain. So the confrontation in the Red Sea may not be so much about the moral-ethical obligations in defending freedom of navigation or resisting genocide per se, but instead is part of larger balance-of-power jousting in which the principles are extra-regional but the agents are in the Middle East.

New Zealand has already chosen a rhetorical side based, presumably, on its support for the principles of freedom of navigation and its rejection of the argument that the Houthis are doing the little that they can to resist genocide in Gaza. Should NZ send a warship to join the CTF-153 naval picket fence protecting commercial ships running the gauntlet at Bad-el-Mandeb, then it will have further staked its position on the side of its Western security partners as well as put its sailors in harm’s way. Some will say that it has placed more value on containers than the lives of Gazan children.

That may be a pragmatic decision based on sincere belief in the “freedom of the seas” principle, disbelief in the Houthi’s sincerity when it comes to resisting genocide (or the argument itself), concern about Iranian machinations and the presence of Russia and the PRC in the regional balance of power contest, indirect support for Israel or simply paying, as former PM John Key once said, “the price for being in the club.” Whatever the reason or combination thereof, it appears to the neutral eye that once again NZ has put facilitation of trade ahead of upholding universal human rights in its foreign policy calculations.

Perhaps the best way to characterise this approach is to call it a matter of prioritising conflicting principles in strategically pragmatic ways. Whether that puts NZ on the right side of history given the larger context at play remains to be seen.

Social Media Link: 36th Parallel on South America’s “Strategic Paradox.”

I was asked to write a commissioned essay for a special issue on Latin America of a NZ international affairs magazine. I was told by the editor I could write on a specific subject of my choice. I decided to write about what I see as South America’s “Strategic Paradox:” increased overall (macroeconomic) regional prosperity largely brought about by the growth in trade with the PRC (rather than with the US or EU) did not translate into increased domestic social equality, security and stability (as most Western developmental economists and sociologists would believe). Instead, increasing income inequalities caused by limited domestic job growth, few wage improvements and negligible distribution of tax revenues from the expanding import-export sector exacerbated social tensions, leading to more domestic insecurity. To this is added an assortment of pathologies such as public and private sector corruption and negative collaterals like environmental degradation in the emerging primary goods sector (such as in lithium extraction). All of this is set against the backdrop of increasing US hostility to the PRC presence in the region, which it sees as a growing security threat that must be countered.

The result is that South America may be more prosperous than ever in aggregate terms (say, GDP per capita), but it is not more peaceful, stable or secure as a result. My conclusion is that with a few notable exceptions it is a lack of good corporate and public governance that explains the paradox. Meanwhile the great power rivalry in the region has taken on a pernicious dynamic of its own that if left unmitigated will only add fuel to the fire.

Unfortunately, the editor, who is not a political scientist or international relations specialist (she says that she specialises in propaganda and authoritarianism, although from her limited bibliography she shows little knowledge of the extensive literature on each!) decided that the essay was too generalised and lacking in data to be publishable as is (after asking me to limit the essay to 3500 words and write it for a general, not specialist audience). She challenged my mention of the ongoing use of the Monroe Doctrine by US security officials, even though I provided citations for both data and comments when pertinent (15 in all, including Congressional testimony from US military officials and data from the Economic Commission Latin America (ECLA)). I got the distinct impression that she wanted a puff piece, got a critical analysis instead, and decided to condescendingly ask for unreasonable revisions in order to reject the piece without seriously reading it. In other words, she did not like it, but not because of its lack of scholarship but because it did meet her expected editorial slant. In fact. from her tone it appears that she had no idea who I am before she commissioned the essay and then assumed that I am some ignoramus when it comes to discussing South American politics, geopolitics and social dynamics. Y bueno, que le vas a hacer?

The good part of this story is that since I am not paid for the work, am not an academic who needs it on my c.v. for promotion purposes, and have a couple of social media platforms on which to publish and disseminate it without editorial interference from uninformed non-specialists, I told her that I would not do as told, would not do the demanded revisions and instead would publish the piece elsewhere.

KP is one such elsewhere: https://36th-parallel.com/2024/01/05/south-americas-strategic-paradox/

Tell me what you think about it.

2023 Summary.

I thought that I would start off this New Year with a summary of KP stats for the past year. It has been a tough year for my family and I what with the cyclone and son’s illness, but somewhat surprisingly I managed to keep posting fairly regularly. I wrote 38 posts so averaged a bit over three per month. New Zealand-focused posts received the most views, with the post about Kiri Allen’s political demise racking up 498 views, followed by posts on NZ’s culture wars and PM Ardern’s resignation at 491 and 487 respectfully. Interestingly, a post from a previous year (“Miscalculation, escalation and the law of unintended consequences”) topped the list with 562 views. The post with the most comments, 36, was about NZ’s rightwing culture wars. Posts about the storms and NZ elections also got a fair bit of attention. Current events-themed posts topped the more theoretical/analytic ruminations, and the link to the “A View from Afar” podcast series received small but dedicated attention.

We received 21,399 views from 10,587 visitors in 77 countries who generated 290 comments. New Zealand, the US and China were where most of our visitors originated, although viewers came from all parts of the world (only six from Argentina, though). Kiwiblog and The Standard were our main referrers, although social media platforms contributed a fair bit. Also a special shoutout must be made to Ele at Homepaddock, which generated 202 referrals but mostly for her kindness with regards to my son in spite of our ideological differences.

KP gained some new regular readers while some longer-term readers went quiet, and was relatively free from trolls this past year. Thanks to Barbara and Di, we have more regular female commentators than in previous years, although use of pseudonyms makes an accurate count difficult even if I have access to email and IPN addresses. The latter I only scrutinise in the event of trolling so again, it was not as necessary to use the tracking tools in 2023 as it has been in previous years.

Lew is no longer associated with the blog, very regrettably in my opinion, as he focuses on other endeavours. I have been unable to secure more teammates at KP, especially those who can write from a Left perspective on gender and environmental issues and domestic political intrigue. I assume that is partly because other blogs cover those topics in spades and also because people believe that I view KP as a bit of vanity project and am unwilling to share differences of opinion. There may be some truth in that since I am the last one standing from the project begun in 2009 by Anita, Peter, Lew and I, but in my own defense I can say that it is not differences of opinion that I dislike but instead, uninformed or bad writing, especially on topics that I am familiar with on both practical as well as scholarly grounds. It reminds me of my days as a jazz radio announcer and program director in the US when I would warn new DJs that enjoying the sound of their own voices was not the point of their shows, but instead it was about the music. As a result, those who talked (too much), walked. Same with KP. Having said that, if anyone would like to take a stab at joining KP, just write me an email at pablo@kiiwpolitico.com.

We shall see how 2024 turns out. It will be a year of trial for my family for reasons that are well known, but our hope is to surmount the obstacles and get on with life. As for topics to write about, well, there are plenty of those. In fact, as I was reviewing the stats I found a post from Anita dated January 2009 that was about Israel and Gaza. ‘Nuf said. As the saying goes, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”–the more things change, the more they stay the same.e

PS. And as if on cue this fellow Slater shows up to engage in some Muslim-bashing. I have a feeling that he will not be long for this place.

Further thoughts about a couple of things near and far.

My son is back home recovering well. There are some more serious sequels to come, but for the moment we will enjoy the end of year respite and welcome in what we hope is a better 2024 even with the knowledge that he is not out of the woods yet.

I remain unhappy with much of the coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict in NZ, so threw some thoughts together on the consultancy social media account. They are just sketches designed as food for thought rather than deep analysis. I have fleshed them out a bit here.

First. What does it take for Israel to be labelled a “pariah State” and subjected to international sanctions? North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have all been branded as such and sanctioned because of their behavior (seeking nukes, human rights abuses). So what is the threshold for Israel? Or is it because it is “of” or backed by the West (specifically, the US) that it gets a longer definitional rope? I realise that there is not specific criteria for why and when a State is designated as a pariah and sanctions invoked (which themselves are not uniform or standard in nature), but surely Israel has moved into that territory. Or not?

On the other side, when it comes to those who attacked Israel on October 7, note their differences. Islamic Jihad is a religious extremist movement that pursues holy war against non-believers, Jews in particular. Hamas are an ethno-nationalist movement with some religious extremist elements that seeks to reclaim traditional lands lost to Israel. Their alliance is tactical more than strategic because their objectives overlap over the short-term but differ over the long term. They have common patrons (Iran/Russia), allies (Hezbollah/Houthis/Iraqi militias/Syria) and enemies (Israel/US/ West/Sunni oligarchies) but should not be seen as being a single entity.

The difference is important because Western corporate media tend to treat islamic Jihad and Hamas as a single organization, which implies a unified command, control, communications and intelligence-gathering (C3I) hierarchy. Although there is certainly a degree of coordination of weapons and intelligence transfers between them and their allies and integration of operational units such as what occurred on October 7, the leadership structures of the organisations differ as well as their long term objectives. More specifically, it is my read that Islamic Jihad desires a holy war and the establishment of a Caliphate in the Levant and larger Middle East, whereas Hamas wishes to reclaim what has historically been known as Palestine (hence the phrase “from the river to the sea,” demarcating the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean from the Lebanese/Israel/Syria border to the Red Sea). This well-known map shows the area of claim and what has happened to it since 1946.

The fact that Islamic Jihad and Hamas have different long-term objectives means that they are potentially divisible when it comes to both military approaches as well as diplomatic negotiating strategies.They and their patrons will resist the latter as a divide and conquer approach, and they will be correct in interpreting the situation as such. But for the larger set of interlocutors trying to achieve a solution to the current status quo impasse and endless cycle of violence, separating the approach to Islamic Jihad from that towards Hamas makes sense. Remember that Hamas wants to replace the Palestinian Authority as the main agent of the Palestinian people and has strong support in the West Bank in that regard (the Palestinian Authority is headquartered in the West Bank but is totally subject to Israeli edicts and controls). Islamic Jihad would prefer to see the current conflict broaden into a regional war out of which a new Caliphate will emerge from the ashes. The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Shiite militia attacks on US bases in Iraq are part of that effort.

Remember that Islamic Jihad and its allies do not need to win any major war in order to prevail (they militarily cannot). But their efforts have already caught the attention of the Arab “street,” where restive populations see the indifference or complicity of their oligarchical leaders when it comes to Israel as further proof that they are Western puppets. The idea is to expose who the real Masters are, undermine their Arab servants and promote jihad on a regional, grassroots level. it may seem like a pipe dream to those of us far from the streets of places like Cairo, Amman, Tangiers or Riyadh, but if and when anger takes to the streets of such places, then the outcomes are by no means certain when it comes to regime status quo stability.

It does not appear that Islamic Jihad will accept territorial concessions in order to achieve peace, as its project is larger than removing Israel and Jews from the Levant. Hamas, on the other hand, is arguably more nationalist than religious in nature, which means that the ideological focus is on specific ancestral territory rather than on religious orientation (even if Jews make for convenient historical scapegoats). It is also something that is obliquely seen in the fact that although Palestinians are largely Sunni Muslim in religious identification, Hamas’s main support come from Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite Iran and the Shiite Alawite (Assad) regime in Syria. These patrons and allies well understand that the Palestinians are much like the Kurds further to the East, claiming ancestral homelands that have long since been carved up by foreign occupiers (not just European colonialists) and who for many historical reasons are reviled by their co-religious neighbours (hence the refusal to grant or cede territory for either a Kurdish or Palestinian homeland by Sunni-majority regional neighbours or the acceptance of Palestinian refugee flows from the current conflict by these same States).

We must also factor in that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have factions within them, including political and military wings, (comparatively) moderates and militants, pragmatists versus “idealists” in their ranks. Islamic Jihad has a more unified political-military command (which makes it vulnerable) even when using a decentralised guerrilla military strategy), while Hamas has separated its political and military wings while trying to professionalize its fighters. In any case, harder or easier, these divides can be exploited if the will is there. Conversely, if the divisions are self-recognised and there is a unity of spirit against an immediate foe n face of the odds, they can be mitigated even under the stresses of overwhelming kinetic assault.

In the end, Islamic Jihad is an existential threat to the Middle Eastern status quo because it, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, want to overthrow the established order even if its current capability to do so is minimal and dependent on the help of others. Hamas is a stronger irregular warfare actor as well as an ideological movement in the local and international imagination because of its territorial focus, so does not pose as much a threat to the broader regional order other than the fact that it’s success could encourage similar insurrectionary movements in the near elsewhere.

Many difficulties exist on the other side of the road to elusive peace in Palestine. Israel will have to cede occupied territory for Hamas to even be approachable regarding negotiations, but what with the combination of recent orthodox Jewish immigrants from the US, Russia and elsewhere fuelling the settler movement, and with the Netanyahu government leaning hard right as a result of the conservative religious extremists in his cabinet, leading to the Israeli government arming of settlers and protecting them with military units, that is clearly not an option any time soon if ever. Israelis are hinting at the Sinai Peninsula as a place to re-settle Palestinians, but Egypt wants no part of that, nor for that matter do the Palestinians themselves. So the first thing that will need to happen is for the Israeli government to change and for it to abandon its settler policies. Again, this seems like a very high mountain to climb.

Another obstacle is that Netanyahu and his supporters may see the situation as a window of opportunity. They may liken the move to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and drive its population out of the Strip as being akin to the Six Day 1967 War in which Israel stripped Jordan of the West Bank, Syria of the Golan Heights and Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Moreover, given the surprise of the October 7 Hamas attack this year, it is clear that Netanyahu does not want to be seen as Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur (or Ramandan) War of 1973, when Israel was caught unprepared for an attack on October 6 by Egypt and Syria, leading to large early losses for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Even though Israel ultimately won that war in 20 days, Prime Minister Meir was castigated for the lack of preparedness or forewarning and her coalition lost a majority in the legislative election the next year, resulting in her resignation. Netanyahu is acutely aware of her fate as well of the actions he took that helped facilitate Hamas launching its attack (like ignoring intelligence warnings and re-deploying active duty troops from the Gaza border to protect illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank). He knows that politically he is a dead man walking unless he comes up with something spectacular.

In his mind and that of his supporters and colleagues, seizing Gaza may be just that. Since there is no credible international deterrent levelled against Israel and a lack of enforcement capacity to stop its prosecution of the war even if there was a consensus that it has gone too far with its collective punishment/ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza, Netanyahu makes the plight of the Gazans a UN refugee problem while the IDF consolidates its physical control of the territory. That allows him to “eliminate” Hamas (and many innocents) as a physical entity in the Strip, opening the door for Israeli occupation and settlement. If that is the case, he may well overcome domestic anger at his pre-war actions and seeming disregard for Israeli hostages and instead ride a wave of nationalist sentiment to another term in office.

Should that happen, the shrinking map of Palestine shown above will have to updated yet again.

Seasons Greetings and a personal update.

I hope that all of you kind KP readers have a wonderful holiday season and a productive and healthy New Year.

Unfortunately it looks like my family will be spending Xmas in Starship. My son’s chest very suddenly filled up with fluid in the space of a week and yesterday he had to have 2.5 hours of keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery in order to drain it They took out 800ml on the spot and another 200 or so since then. That is a lot of fluid pressure on his left lung.

Below are photos of his X-rays taken one week apart, with the right being taken 9 days ago and the one on the left taken 2 days ago before yesterday’s surgery. You can see why the surgeons decided to move quickly rather than wait until after the holidays

The surgeons were hoping to remove some of the fibrous mass from his ribs and other tissue that they think is causing the irritation that is producing the fluid (as a reaction), but it was too difficult and risky to do. That means that we could be back for more draining in a few months. We now have to start thinking about a long-term Plan B.

My son came through the surgery OK but is in a lot of pain because they seriously poked and probed inside of him with a camera while draining his chest in order to find a way to safely remove as much of the mass as possible. It was not meant to be. The mass has enveloped his upper left ribs and his phrenic nerve, which controls diaphragm breathing. The good news is that the nerve is working and the diaphragm is moving. The bad news is that if the nerve begins to be compromised then it may have to be severed and he will lose the diaphragmic breathing on his left side. it will not kill him but it will hinder his physical activity.

They had hoped that he could be released on Xmas Eve or Xmas Day for at least the day. But from the looks of things Xmas Eve is no longer an option for release since he has two drains in him and they are still draining, which means that Xmas Day is iffy at best as well. Starship is down to skeleton crews of dedicated staff, for which we are again grateful, but you can see the downsized capability in the wards. That makes it all the more difficult to get the boy up and out of there early, as most of the surgeons are on holiday leave and the rotating surgeons are reluctant to do anything more than exercise caution with patients who are not regularly under their care (which I support). My son’s surgeon actually broke away from his holiday to do the surgery and is reportedly coming by to see him today, so his dedication is admirable and my wife and I are extremely grateful for that. But he too has a family and could use some rest. So I tell the boy that this is another unique aspect of his early life. that is, how many people have had to spend the Xmas holidays in hospital (and been able to talk about it later)?

I worry about the kid’s psychological state because he has grown anxious and stressed over the pain that he is now fully aware is part of undergoing these procedures. He was in a bad way last night and needed a pain pump to cope. Since he is allergic to morphine–one of the lesser joys was to discover that his morphine allergy manifests as a full body intense itch–he has to take a mix of other opiates/non-opiates that provide “layered” pain relief. That overlap is hard to coordinate so there are gaps in his pain relief depending on the time of day, how active he is (such as sitting up, standing, trying to walk to the toilet down the hall), etc. Having some experience with pain myself (and also being allergic to morphine, but my symptoms are hallucinations), I liken his drain incisions to deep knife wounds. So think of him as a child who has been stabbed three times in this latest surgical round, on top of the full chest opening and drain procedures of exactly three months ago. Needless to say, that is a lot for any ten year old to have to experience. It takes a toll, physically and mentally.

My hope is that whenever he gets out he can resume normal life and that being active will help re-inflate his left lung (as was happening before the sudden fluid buildup, which may or may not be related to a chest cold that he caught at school). He has been stoic and staunch throughout but I can tell that this is wearing on his psyche and dampening his spirit. He is completely over the hospital experience and fears having to come back (which is very likely). But we can only do what is feasible given the mysterious nature of his rare condition (the surgeons still do not know what the underlying cause is even after extensive testing using CT and MRI technologies as well as every standard test under the sun). Although the tumor/cyst is benign, it grew undetected for a long time and is now deeply embedded/attached to him even though the removal of the main solid mass has stopped the growth. What remains is a fibrous tentacle-like growth spread over his upper left chest skeletal structure. That appears to be the source of his irritation but again, they surgeons are not completely sure. Hence the need to start think about a long term Plan B,

in any event I do not wish to burden you with a tale of woe but writing this is therapeutic for me. What I do know is that every time I walk into that ward and see the other families clustered around their precious but sick kids, I am thankful that my son’s condition is not worse than it is and for the empathy, compassion and dedication of the Starship medical staff. Let’s just hope that “Smokin” Shan Reti does not decide to take an axe to their funding as well.

Turn to nasty.

From its first actions as government, it seems that the National-ACT-NZ First (NACT1st) coalition is basing its approach to policy-making on utu (they would prefer to say revenge), racism and repaying their donors and supporters with aggressive repeals of legislation passed under the previous Labour government. The approach is brutish, brazen and nasty, but unsurprisingly was not something that they campaigned on during the general election. It seems that they knew how unpopular their retribution would be so they just winked and nodded to their silent partners (like the tobacco and fossil fuel lobbies) while yammering about crime, housing costs, foreign home buyers and tax cuts. They successfully used a compliant clickbait-obsessed corporate media to platform them and highlight personal peccadillos in the Labour caucus in order to undermine faith in the Labou-led government while avoiding answering hard questions about their real agenda.

Now in office, they demonstrate a complete disregard for democratic procedures and processes. For all the talk from the Right about the “Stalinist” bent of the Ardern government during the pandemic, the fact is that Labour spent much (often fruitless) time in public consultations and parliamentary committee hearings hashing out the pros and cons of a number of important policy issues. The actually listened to the public and to the Opposition on important matters even if not ultimately agreeing with them. The NACT1st approach, in contrast, has been to pass under urgency, without any public consultation, repeals of major pieces of legislation like the Smokefree Act, Fair Pay Agreements, Ute Fuel Tax and Clean Energy Rebates. They seek to abolish the use of Te Reo in official communications and review the Treaty of Waitangi (how they propose to do is a matter of conjecture at this point).They cancelled major infrastructure projects already underway. They want to reduce the number of ministries, specifically those having to do with Pacifika and Maori affairs. They propose to deregulate a host of commercial activities, open Conservation lands to mining and renew oil and natural gas leases.They want to privatise parts of the public health service, permit Charter schools and military-style boot camps for adolescents, and in general adhere to long since discredited neoliberal prescriptions for economic management.

In other words, they have adopted a retrograde scorched earth approach to Labour policy measures that appears to be taken out of a book written by Argentine president and “anarcho-capitalist” Javier Milei, the self-denominated tantric sex guru who consults his cloned Mastiffs for policy advice (I am not making this up). Milei has reduced the size of his cabinet from 18 to 9 ministers and has threatened to remove 100,000 public servants from the federal payroll (Argentina is a federal republic with a presidential-dominant democratic system, unlike NZ’s parliamentary democracy). The ministries of education, labor, employment, social development and social security have been absorbed into a new uber Ministry of Human Capital, and the ministries of transportation, women and gender, environment, and culture were eliminated outright.

Milei wants to close the Central Bank and “dollarize” the economy, although his more centrist advisors convinced him to hold off on that while other measures are implemented. Instead they have devalued the Argentine peso by 54 percent overnight last week, basically halving the income of anyone who did not have significant dollar reserves in personal accounts or who is paid in US dollars (one can imagine who the lucky ones might be). The fact is that most Argentines do not get paid in dollars and do not have bank accounts holding them in any significant quantity.

To top things off, Milei, who has a penchant for hurling misogynistic insults at female critics, has publicly stated that “blue eyed” people are intellectually superior (he himself is blue-eyed in a country of brown-eyed people), and proposes to repeal abortion rights and legal protections for non-binary individuals. Truth be told, Milei is a freak both personally and ideologically, a merkin elected out of desperation by just over half of the voting population tired of the corrupt politics as usual but who ignored the fact that he is not the lesser of the many evils that they are saddled with. He is no panacea for what ails the country.

Given the tone of NACT1st statements in recent days, could this be a path that it will chose to follow? Members of its coalition have voiced support for Milei and his project, so it is not a reach to think that they might want to emulate at least some of his policy ‘reforms.” Certainly the attacks on Maori seem to come from a “blue eyed” perspective.

There is something profoundly ugly about this, yet it is an approach to governing that is celebrated by rightwing groups like the Tax Payers and Free Speech “Unions,” assorted rightwing bloggers and, now that Elon Mush has opened the lid on the septic tank, a bunch of reactionary, racist, misogynistic and gay- and trans-phobic social media trolls, to say nothing of the reactionaries on platforms like Counterspin, The Platform and Reality Check Radio. It as if NACT1st has ripped a scab off the NZ body politic and out has oozed the pustulence of rightwing authoritarian-minded intolerance, greed and bigotry.

The good news is that the combination of narcissistic egos and incompetence that is the hallmark of the new government may well be their undoing.They are simply too stupid, too myopic, too crass, craven and venal to understand the subtitles and nuances involved in crafting lasting policy for the betterment of the commonweal. Or perhaps that has never been their intention.

To put it in a vulgar way more in line with the thrust of NACT1st’s approach, if Milei is a merkin, then Luxon is the bell-end on an onanist policy-making caucus.

It will be interesting to see what the public reaction to the razor gang approach will be. In Argentina Milei has already used Executive Powers to repress public demonstrations against his edicts. But Argentine civil society is often raucous and its union movement is staunch and not averse to street violence to make its case. Most of the Argentine public service is unionised, so the move to mass redundancies is going to encounter fierce resistance. Since the security forces are working class people whose families will be negatively impacted by Milei’s cutbacks on welfare, health and education services, it remains to be seen if they will stay loyal to him and follow his orders if people hit the streets in protest. Whatever happens, the next few months will be tumultuous at best.

In NZ the political culture is not as violent as that of Argentina but it does have limits of toleration. The Prime Minister in a parliamentary democracy like NZ does not have the Executive discretion available to Milei. But the NZ union movement is nowhere as staunch or as important to the productive apparatus as is its Argentine counterparts, being more of the compromise- rather than confrontation-oriented persuasion (some might call it the lapdog approach to employment relations where getting along with employers and surviving as a collective agent is more important than defending the interests of the rank and file, but I will leave it for others to decide if the characterisation fits). Whatever the case, the moment of truth has arrived for Kiwi society when it comes to responding to these assaults on hard-won social gains. Will Kiwis bend a knee in submission or stand up and fight? If they fight (even if just symbolically with acts of political theatre and perhaps episodic property damage), will the police stand against or with them? Will the NACT1st government try to resort to Emergency Powers in the face of civil unrest?

The larger issue is how NACT1st sees democracy. As readers might remember from previous posts on the subject, one can perceive democracy in two different ways. On the one hand, it can be seen as having intrinsic worth or being an intrinsic good in that it is the best possible (albeit flawed) method of giving voice to the people and substantively protecting the interests of all via a system of contingent compromises on major social, political and economic issues. It has its problems but is universally better than its alternatives when considering the heterogenous diversity of the social fabric and the need for achieving some sort of balance or equilibrium in the face of multiple competing demands in the political, social and economic marketplaces.

On the other hand democracy can be seen instrumentally, that is, as a means to an end or a tool to achieve power or partisan, sectoral or personal gain. Javier Milei has this perspective and it appears that NACT1st does as well. There is nothing intrinsically good about democracy in this view. For those who see democracy instrumentally, authoritarianism would be a better choice but it is too obvious in its bias. Instead, democracy’s worth is that it gives a veneer of representation and voice to the self-serving actions of winners of electoral contests, who then proceed to award themselves, their supporters and patrons with the spoils of governance. As Lenin put it, democracy is capitalism’s “best possible political shell.” There still may be checks and balances on the government, but those come from formal institutions like the judiciary rather than civil society itself. The latter must seek recourse in the street as well as if not more than formal channels and processes because the deck of officialdom is stacked against them when democratic instrumentalists hold the reins.

All of which is to say that the next six months should be interesting for both Argentina and NZ. Under their version of the social contract the new rightwing governments are hellbent on rolling back the clock when it comes to rights and obligations. They want to downsize the State when it comes to the provision of public goods and services, and they want to return to a social hierarchy more akin to the 1950s than the present era. Unfortunately for them, those days are long gone and both Argentine and Kiwi society cannot be remade in that nostalgic image.

In the end the fate of their regressive projects rests on whether civil society will go along with or organise against them. Because the bottom line of democratic governance is mass contingent consent to the political authorities and projects of the day, and on that score it remains to be seen if the Milei or NACT1st governments will enjoy that bottom line for any significant amount of time.

My reckon is that they will not, but that Argentines will be far less complacent than Kiwis when defending their interests.