In the most recent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop I examine the broader context in which General Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign from his position as commander of US and ISAF forces in Afghanistan. Beyond the issue of his insubordination and civilian control of the military in a democracy, the incident has brought to the surface the tensions between two competing views on how the US should prosecute counter-insurgency. One involves hearts and minds and nation-building, the other involves what I describe as a “drones and bones” approach that focuses on discrete operations against high value targets using high technology weapons and special forces. Although both are in place at the moment, there is competition between the two views with regard as to which ultimately will prove more successful at countering Islamicist threats to the West. Whether or not the ISAF mission succeeds may well depend on which perspective gains greater traction in coalition circles during the next twelve months (since the timetable for the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan begins in June-July 2011).
(Note to readers: this post has been updated as it reflects my deeper engagement with the subject within the confines of a short blog post. It may seem academic but I post it here as a first swipe at an extremely policy-relevant subject).
We are living in an international transitional moment. Transitional moments are the periods of time that occur during the change from one status quo to another. Transitional moments are, by definition, one of flux where outcomes are uncertain. Even if attempts are made to “manage” the transition, the outcome is more likely than not to be different than what was envisioned by the “managers” when the process began. This is as true for national regime change as it is for international regime change. Consider the leadership succession process in North Korea that I mentioned in a previous post–whatever the desires of the contending elites, it is likely that none of them will get exactly what they want. Or consider the post 1990 US attempts to remake the global community in its preferred image. Moreover, most transitional moments are not managed. Instead they happen, punctuated by critical choices (including paths and actions not taken), tipping points and precipitating events, all of which steer an uncertain course to an unknown outcome that cannot be determined apriori. It is only after the fact that the fluid dynamics of the shift from one status quo to another can be discerned.
As such transitional moments are inherently uncertain. What is the best defense against uncertainty? Hedging. Hedging is the practice of keeping one’s options open and balancing strategic choices until such a time as the new status quo is apparent. Hedging is more than fence-straddling, although that is one strategic option. The point is that hedging plays a vital role in transitional moments and has several modalities.
The transitional international system that began its life in 1990 is characterised by three dimensions of change. On an economic level it has seen the shift from state-centred economics to market-driven economics to, most recently as a result of the failure of largely unregulated financial systems, Â a move towards increased state oversight of national macroeconomic management within a larger system of international exchange and trade. On the security dimension it has seen a shift from notions of conventional collective security amongst states to multinational cooperative security back to a asymmetric and unconventional collective security between states and non-state actors. On a systemic level it has moved from a bipolar balance of power to a unipolar world to an emerging multipolar balance of power led by the so-called “BRIC” nations and in which US preeminence is being challenged on a number of fronts.
The response to these multidimensional changes has come in the form of broad acceptance of hedging strategies as a nation’s best option. It is largely true of small and medium strength states given the power asymmetries between them and the bigger global players. But large powers also hedge, albeit in different ways than their weaker counterparts. Thus, while the preeminent strategic role of hedging is universal in the transitional international system, its specific modalities differ amongst states depending on the specific attributes, location and power capabilities. What works as a hedging strategy for Peru or South Africa may not be appropriate for Viet Nam or New Zealand. Let me give some examples of the variance using the concept of a “horizontal” Asia as a case sample (“horizontal Asia” refers to a geopolitical view of Asia as extending from the Western Pacific to Western India, south to Australia and New Zealand and North to Siberia).
One hedging strategy is power maximisation and internal (regional) balancing. States seek to maximise their power projection capabilities in order to ward off hostile intent. However, the quest for power maximisation leads to a security dilemma whereby one state’s move to acquire more power (usually by improving its military capabilities) leads neighbouring states to fear its intentions and arm themselves in response. That leads to arms races and the possibility of unanticipated conflicts due to misperception or inadvertent offense, particularly in regions with simmering border disputes and lacking in collective security institutions focused on conflict resolution. That is exactly the case with Southeast Asia at the moment, where most states are spending more than 3 percent of GDP on weapons upgrading amid ongoing territorial conflicts (including in the South China Sea) that have not been mitigated by the presence of multinational forums like ASEAN. In this instance what is individually rational as a hedging response to an uncertain and insecure security environment is collective suboptimal because it increases rather than lessens the possibility of regional conflict.
Another hedging strategy is to engage in hard (re)alingment or bandwagoning with a more powerful state or states (alignment is with one state, bandwagoning is with a number of states on specific issues). The (re) alignment strategy sees weaker states align themselves more firmly with a new or traditional stronger partner, under the assumption that an alliance with a stronger actor will dissuade potential aggressors from pressing the advantage in a regional context. This strategy has been used by Bangladesh, the Phillippines and Indonesia among others. The bandwagoning strategy is designed to combine forces with other like-minded states on given issues such as trade or diplomatic approach as a type of “force multiplier” or megaphone for a specific national interest. Brunei’s approach to trade is an example of the latter.
Then there are hybrid hedging strategies. Countries may develop economic linkages to one state or group of states while pursuing military alignments with others. New Zealand is a case in point in that it has shifted its trading focus to non-Western regions while maintaining (and under National, strengthening) defense and security ties to its traditional patrons in the West (although the priority has shifted from reliance on the UK to reliance on Australia and the US in the first instance). Another hybrid strategy is to go for power maximisation and hard (re) alignment. This is arguably what has happened with Australia, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Viet Nam (in the case of alignment with the US) and Burma, Laos and North Korea (in the case of alignment with the PRC).
Another hedging option is to play non-aligned or to engage in issue-balancing (where a nation’s stance on any given issue is driven by immediate strategic priorities rather than broader commitments). This strategy usually can only be played by countries with significant resource bases such as India and Russia today (and indeed, both of these nations are playing the issue-balancing strategy).
A less used by nevertheless feasible hedging option is to place priority on international or regional institution-building in the area of conflict resolution and defense and security relations. By being vehicles of first recourse when it comes to resolving potentially armed disputes, such institutions act as collectively self-limiting agencies. Although much has been said about moving forward on institutionalising regional security-building projects (such as at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue attended by Defense Ministers from the Asia-Pacific region), little concrete work has been done in Asia to date in translating the high-minded words into action.
Great powers such as the PRC and the US also hedge, but on a grander scale. The PRC has expanded its diplomatic and economic reach into Sub-Saharan Africa and the South Pacific as a means of filling the power vacuum left by US disinterest. It has begun to assert a stronger military presence in the Western Pacific region while at the same time trying to gain diplomatic leverage via multilateral fora, particularly in South Asia. Seeing that its hard power has limited utility and generates so-called “blowback,” the US is attempting to use trade negotiations as a strategic wedge against Chinese expansion (primarily via investment) in the Pacific Rim. Current negotiations over expanding the Transpacific Partnership (TPP, which includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore) to include Australia, Viet Nam Peru and the US are being used by the US as a strategic hedge rather than out of an interest in trade per se.
Needless to say there are more types of strategic hedging. The larger point is that in times of international transition and uncertainty, hedging becomes the most dominant geo-strategic approach adopted by nation-states as well as many non-state actors. If successful, a hedging strategy may turn into a longer term foreign policy stance, depending on the nature of the emerging international status quo. But successful or not, hedging is an immediate solution to a temporary problem born of the uncertainty of transitional moment. Â It is not a long-term strategy of itself.
Like longer term perspectives, hedging strategies may be based on principle, realpolitik or some combination thereof. Â However, they may not always result in a more secure geopolitical environment, especially when allies and adversaries see them for what they are and respond in non-cooperative or incongruous ways. Counterpoised hedging strategies can lead to increased rather than diminished conflict, and this is exactly the conundrum of “horizontal” Asia at the Â moment. Which is precisely why the role and modalities of hedging during times of international flux need to be understood by policy-makers and the informed public alike.
The facts are still not completely in and will undoubtedly be the focus of much dispute, but it appears that while it was in international waters Israeli forces stormed the “freedom flotilla” headed to Gaza with humanitarian aid and several hundred pro-Palestinian activists, including Turkish parlamentarians, a holocaust survivor and a nobel laureate. The Israelis claim that their commandos were attacked with clubs and knives as they rappelled onto the lead vessel, and that soldiers opened fire when one of the commandos had his weapon seized by an activist. Estimates are that around 16 people were killed and 30 wounded. The flotilla is now being towed to Haifa, were the six vessels will be inspected and the surviving activists presumably arrested and deported. Since the flotilla sailed from Turkey and was organised in part by a Turkish-based Islamic charity, the Turkish government has demanded an explanation from Israel as to why it resorted to force.Â
This is not a good look for Israel and no amount of PR spin is going to undo the image of soldiers gunning down unarmed civilians. I will not be surprised if the Israelis produce weapons caches found on the boats and a number of purported Hamas infiltrators amongst those on board as proof that the flotilla was up to no good, but even if that were a true discovery and not a staged justification, its reputation for callous disregard for the lives of those who even peacefully oppose its policies will be reaffirmed. On the other hand, deliberately attempting to break the three year old blockade after being warned by the Israeli navy to not enter its waters was a foolhardy, if courageous thing to do given Israel’s reputation and track record when it comes to the use of force.
Some might wonder why on earth Israel would do such a thing knowing full well that it will be universally condemned for doing so. The answer is simple. Like North Korea they have a garrison state mentality in which internal political dynamics and an oversized conception of threats far outweigh any concern with external reactions. Israel gave up a long time ago worrying about how its actions will be perceived by the international community. Its major concern is to not appear weak. Whatever their other differences, the Israeli political elite is virtually unanimous in its support for a hard-line defense policy, to include the blockade. It is a mindset that external actors do not share but which is compelling to them. Anything that could appear to be an exploitation of a point of Israeli weakness (such as successfully running the blockade) is seen as an existential threat. Â Thus killing activists who dared to challenge Israel’s commitment to enforcing the blockade is seen as a fair price to pay for maintaining its image of toughness. What is more, the Israeli government believes that its Arab neighbours as well as others in the international community quietly respect its toughness, which serves as both a deterrent as well as a reaffirmation that it is here to stay, on its own terms.
Since the Palestinians receive little more than rhetorical support from the Sunni Arab world, Israel also knows a hard fact that the North Koreans understood when they torpedoed the South Korean frigate in March: there is nothing anyone can really do about the kilings beyond rhetorical condemnation and meaningless UN sanctions (and it will be interesting to see if Israel receives a UNSC sanction while North Korea does not). Although it may engage in some diplomatic retaliation, Turkey is not going to declare war over this incident. No other state or coalition of states are going to mount a counter-blockade that would invite an Israeli armed response, and economic and trade sanctions, even if they were to be applied, will be happily circumvented by the numerous “quiet” partners Israel has around the world. As an old Latin American phrase puts it, impunity has its own reward.
The point being that what appears outrageous to the outside world makes perfect sense to Israeli decision-makers given their garrison state mentalities. Had the flotilla organisers understood this, perhaps they would have thought twice about challenging the blockade. Had the Turkish government understood this, they would have been better served by dealing with the political wrath at home caused by their denying the flotilla permission to leave port rather than deal with the violent protests now occurring in the aftermath of the commando raid.
One thing is certain: specific differences notwithstanding and adjusting mutatis mutandis for context, ideology and circumstance, Israel is the North Korea of the Middle East. Both have been in a de facto state of (undeclared) war with their closest neighbours since the moment of creation/partition. Both of are driven by extreme security rationales born of the perception of imminent threat, real or imagined. Both have gone both nuclear and ballistic. Both see conspiracy in the far abroad. Both have repeatedly practiced a remarkable disregard for international convention. Both believe that they have the moral high ground. Both use military diplomacy as the leading edge of their approach to regional conflict. Both have hawk and dove political factions (and in society) Â that are nevertheless united in their stand on the physical integrity of their borders. Both have larger patron states that provide them with physical and diplomatic cover. Both have hard-line zealots in positions of governmental authority. Both will kill innocents to make their point.
In that light Israel’s bellicose (ir)rationality, just like that of the North Koreans, may seem odd to us. It makes perfect sense to them.
Given the pacifist tendencies of many KP readers, the question in the title of this post may seem unusual and of little importance. Little attention has been paid by most public media, much less the Left-leaning ones, to the issue of strategic culture both in general and with specific reference to Aotearoa. My interest in the subject has been sparked by my current book project, where I try to analyse the post Cold War security politics of three “peripheral” democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal. Among other things that I have discovered as part of the project, it appears that there be no, or at least different conceptualisations of, a unique kiwi strategic culture. Let me elaborate on both the subject and the specifics of this.
Strategic culture refers to the security perspectives, traditions, institutions and behaviour of a country. Although it has often been confused with it, strategic culture is more than just a military war-fighting tradition. It is more than a diplomatic posture. It encompasses the full array of security concerns, from intelligence-gathering techniques and priorities to trade orientation and diplomatic alliances, that make up the larger framework with which policy-making elites perceive the strategic environment in which they operate.
As an example of one dimension of strategic culture, let us look at the core feature with which it is most often confused: war-fighting tradition. Much has been written about different cultural and national â€œstylesâ€ of warfare, be it, among others, Arab, American, Australian, British, Chinese, German, French, Israeli or Russian. Â Some emphasise mass over maneuver, others prefer tactical flexibility to centralisation of command, and still others prefer deception and stealth across ill-defined fronts rather fixed lines of combat in well-demarcated battle spaces. The array of war-fighting styles also extends to unconventional or guerrilla war-fighting—urban guerrilla warfare is not the same as rural insurgency, nor is the ratio of ideological-psychological work to kinetic operations the same in all contexts. Although there is plenty of overlap in all war-fighting styles, each is a unique adaptation, based on terrain, culture, technology, organisational capacity, leadership characteristics and the ethno-religious and national make-up of the fighting forces involved, as well as the ideologies that justify what they are fighting for.
The question thus begs: does NZ have a distinct war-fighting tradition? If so, what are its characteristics? Whatever the answer, that is only part of the picture.
That is because strategic culture involves geopolitical perspectives and geostrategic orientation, institutional morphology and historical practice. Countries with large land masses and multiple borders see things differently than do island states. Â Countries with ample resources and robust economies of scale in value-added manufacturing conform their approaches to trade and security differently than resource poor agro-export platforms. Countries with on-going territorial, cultural or political disputes tend to “see” threats differently than those that are not encumbered by such conflicts. Countries governed by authoritarians often perceive things differently than well-established democracies. So do countries with long histories of warfare (internal as well as external) when contrasted against countries with peaceful internal histories and little involvement in foreign wars.
Domestic political dynamics over time, as well as specific histories of military and diplomatic alliances, also impact on the specifics of strategic culture. Â The number of variables is larger and more varied than this, but the point should Â be clear: strategic culture is a product of national character molded by historical practice, current political dynamics, institutional framework and geopolitical context.
In highly simplified fashion the equation looks like this: strategic culture—> geopolitical orientation—> geostrategic perspective—> threat environment assessment and contingency planning—> security force orientation—> force composition—> force staffing, training and equipment—> force deployment and operations. This includes intelligence and police services as well as the military, because it includes internal and external security roles. The most important thing to note is that strategic culture is the point of departure for all that follows; absent a strategic culture there is little basis for a coherent strategic vision over time , which in turn impacts negatively on all of the other variables arrayed along this particular chain of causality.
Which brings up the point of this post: does NZ have a distinct strategic culture? One of the things that emerged during my discussions with numerous observers during my visit to NZ in February and March was an unspoken consensus that NZ does not have a strategic culture to call its own. This is in part a product of the apparent ad-hoc approach to policy-making I mentioned in a previous post. But it also appears to be rooted in organisational dysfunction and incompetence as well as a dependence on foreign patrons for strategic guidance. Many of the most informed people I spoke with were openly derisive of the competence and vision of the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS leadership, particularly the civilians that ostensibly provide the MoD, NZDF and NZSIS with policy guidance (the name Mark Burton was mentioned more than once as absolute proof Â of how ineptitude can still find its way into the upper echelons of security policy-making). Plus, advancement within the security bureaucracies is seen as being tied to toeing both the (incumbent) party line as well as the extant corporate culture, however misinformed or dysfunctional they may be. Thus, even though there are futures forecasting shops in various security agencies, very little is actually forecast that the bosses do not want to hear or read, and most of what is forecast is make-work destined for annual reports rather than designed to serve as a basis for strategic planning over the medium term.
The same accusation has been made of the plethora of security agencies that have emerged since 9/11, which may be in part why the National government has made the decision to convert the External Assessments Bureau into a National Assessments Bureau with oversight authority over the whole lot. But the latter does not indicate a move to develop a defined strategic culture. It is just an attempt to impose some form of managerial rationality on the intelligence-security combine in order to overcome areas of duplication, overlap and turf battles.
There was also the view expressed that when it comes to security, NZ has traditionally looked to Australia, the US and the UK (in the current order) for strategic guidance rather than develop a distinctive strategic culture of its own. This is believed to be a result of NZ dependence on these countries (and others, such as France) for military equipment and training and intelligence flows. But NZ has a distinctive approach to things like nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and peace-keeping, so surely that is reflected in a unique perspective on the external security environment and the role that NZ should play in it. Here again, my supposition that NZ has a distinct way of viewing things from a security perspective was contradicted or dismissed by the knowledgeable interlocutors with whom I spoke. Yet I remain unconvinced that their skepticism is fully warranted. Surely there is an appreciation of the need for a uniquely Kiwi approach to strategic affairs?
Which leaves me with my opening question. I know that Chile and Portugal have distinct strategic cultures that informs the way in which they engage the post-Cold War world on security matters. These distinctive strategic cultures give them coherency and predictability when construing threats, organising their security forces and engaging in security planning. Can we say the same thing for NZ?
Forensic evidence examined by three independent experts confirms what was suspected all along: the 1200-ton South Korean frigate Cheonan was sunk on March 26 by a North Korean torpedo while cruising in South Korean waters near their common maritime border, with the loss of Â 46 lives. Not only were traces of RDX (a military grade explosive whose chemical signature can identify its source) found in the salvaged wreak. Pieces of the torpedo itself have been recovered, including the propeller assembly and housing. The finger of guilt points heavily in Pyongyang’s direction. A secretive commando unit with direct links to Kim Jung-il, unit 586, is suspected of staging the attack using a mini-submarine as the launching platform (since such platforms would be harder to detect using standard anti-submarine detection methods). The fact that Mr. Kim awarded the commander of Unit 586 with his fourth generals’ star in a ceremony held shortly after the attack is seen by some analysts as proof of its involvement as well as Mr. Kim’s direct authorisation of the attack.
The question is why would the North Koreans do such a thing? Admittedly, they have a track record of unprovoked attacks on South Korean targets, including a 1967 attack on a South Korean navy vessel that killed 39 sailors, a 1987 bombing of a South Korean airliner that killed 118 people, an attempted assassination of the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma in 1983, plus a series of bloody naval skirmishes dating back to 1999, including an incident last year when a North Korean gunboat was heavily damaged, with loss of life, in a confrontation with South Korean naval forces. Some argue that the torpedoing was simply an act of revenge over this last incident, but it appears that there is much more at play than immediately meets the eye.
The North Korean torpedo attack is alarming because the two Koreas technically remain in a state of war. The 1953 armistice is not a peace treaty, so a state of war continues to exist between the two countries in spite of the episodic thawing in relations between them. That serves as both the justification for the attack as well as a major source of concern. Usually a cross-border raid into a sovereign nation’s territorial waters during peace time that results in an unprovoked attack on a military vessel would be construed as an an act of war deserving of commensurate, if not overwhelming response. But since the two countries are already in a state of war, each is free to pursue aggression as it sees fit. That has resulted in a (mostly one-sided) low intensity conflict between the two states for the last 57 years, and is why US forces are stationed in and around the demilitarised zone (DMZ) that constitutes their common land border (US troops in the DMZ serve as a “trip wire” in which an attack on them will trigger the US security guarantee for the South Koreans, meaning direct US military involvement in the response). Â Thus the North Korean torpedo attack is just a continuation of an on-going limited war rather than an outright declaration of war. Even so, it is an outrageous provocation and therefore runs the risk of escalating into something bigger.
South Korean public outrage demands blood in revenge, yet in practice South Korea has few options at its disposal. North Korea has already declared, with its usual bluster, that any military response will be met with “all-out war.” Although North Korea does not have the capability to launch a nuclear strike in spite of its efforts to build an effective nuclear arsenal, it does have ample capability to launch significant missile attacks on Seoul and other parts of South Korea as well as beyond (to include Japan and US bases in Okinawa and the Western Pacific). It also has a Chinese security guarantee to match the American compact with its southern neighbour. That means that a South Korean military response runs the risk of escalation into high intensity conflict that could lead to both security guarantees being invoked, thereby forcing a US-China confrontation. It is not in either power’s interests to see this happen, so pressure is on South Korea to not call North Korea’s bluff and retaliate in kind. Yet, most analysts agree that no response will only embolden the North Koreans and result in further incidents with a greater potential for escalation. Hounded by this dilemma, South Korea has so far limited its response to calling for UN Security Council condemnation of the attack, something that so far has not occurred.
Shadow warriors and covert operations specialists point out that more discrete means of retaliation are available that can make the South Koreans’ point just as effectively. All that is needed is patience and planning in the execution of a discrete mission against a select target. But even this approach needs to factor in the motivations of the North Korean regime in staging the attack, because understanding of its rationale can better inform the response not only of South Korea, but of its allies and the larger international community as well.
It appears that the attack was staged as a result of divisions within the North Korean hierarchy over the issue of leadership succession. It was more than just an “unfortunate incident” resultant from miscommunication or misreading of intent. It is clear that Kim Jung-il is on his last legs after a series of strokes and other ailments. Thus the jockeying for position as heir to the Kim throne is now reaching fever pitch, with hard-liners and soft-liners attempting to out-maneuver each other in the run-up to his death (hard-liners are regime defenders, soft-liners are regime reformers). Some intelligence analysts believe that Mr. Kim authorised the attack in order to to shore up hard-line support for his son, Kim Jong-un. The younger Kim has no power base outside of his father’s closest associates. He has no administrative or military command experience as far as is known. This leaves him vulnerable to the machinations of veteran Communist (i.e., formally named the Workers) Party and military authorities whom may have leadership ambitions of their own. Some of these heavyweights may accept a power-sharing arrangement where the Kim dynastic line is continued more or less along the lines presently operative. Others may prefer that the younger Mr. Kim serve as a figurehead while real power is distributed among a broader array of bureaucratic cadres, thereby decentralising policy-making authority (and power) in a slow process of regime reform. Still others may prefer to dispense with the Kims entirely and assume power directly, in coalition or as part of a small cadre, either as part of a reformist or retrenchment project. All of these factions are hard-line in the views of the world, which means that whatever happens democracy and major liberalisation of the regime will not be on the menu.
On the other hand, there are soft-line factions with the DPRK regime. These are drawn from elements in the Communist party and civilian bureaucracy who have had to wrestle with the deterioration of North Korea’s infrastructure, living standards and health during the last twenty years. These people are well aware that North Korea is an economic basket case that feeds and arms its military at the expense of its people, who have been subject to famine, starvation, an array of diseases, homelessness and unemployment as they eke out what for all purposes is a Dickensian existence. It is these people who know that there are two North Koreas, one for the elites and one for the masses (as a Stalinist version of the “dual society” thesis that has been used to explain comparative underdevelopment), and it is these people who are most acutely aware of how far behind North Korea has fallen behind its ethnic kin to the South under the vainglorious and rigid Kim dictatorship. It is these people who understand that Kim Jung-il’s death provides an opportunity to open up the regime, if not immediately on the political front, then certainly on the economic front. Â After all, even after the Russian, Vietnamese and Chinese abandoned communism as the major organising tenet of society, the DPRK dinosaurs cling to it as an insurance policy against threats to their rule. Hence the soft-liners are working to persuade leadership contenders that their support depends on a major opening of the regime, even if still under one party authoritarian aegis. In fact, for the soft-liners, their continued support for one party rule is contingent on economic liberalisation.
That is why the torpedo attack was carried out. It had to do with internal dynamics in the Kim regime rather than the war with South Korea itself, which merely served as an excuse (by hard-liners) to Â launch the attack. A tried and true authoritarian method of shoring up elite unity and public support is to stage a militaristic diversion that rallies the public along nationalistic grounds (some might argue that this happens in democratic regimes as well–witness, say, the US and UK attack on Iraq in 2003). The torpedo attack was a sucker ploy designed to incite a South Korean response that would help consolidate the position of one of the North Korean leadership factions. But therein lies the rub, because history also shows that diversionary attacks staged by dictatorships often end in defeat and regime collapse, either immediately or in time. The Greek colonel’s regime collapsed after its defeat in the 1973 Cyprus War, a war that it started at a time when it was facing rising domestic discontent and increased disunity within the armed ranks. The Argentine junta collapsed in 1982 after its defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands campaign, a war that it also started in order to divert public attention from pressing economic problems at a time when, again, political in-fighting amongst military and civilian elites was increasing. The fall of Saddam Hussein had its origins in his invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and even if eventual rather than immediate, the end of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime was predictable from that point on.
To this can be added the problem of succession in authoritarian regimes. It is considered the Achilles Heel of authoritarianism, especially in heavily personalised, dynastic or military-dominated regimes (North Korea is all three). Because power is so tightly centralised in such regimes, even where institutionalised under one party aegis, the benefits of leadership are virtually unfettered and unlimited. There are little or no checks and balances or separation of powers in such regimes, so the material and political rewards of leadership are astronomical when compared with even bureaucratic authoritarian regimes such as Singapore or (now) the PRC. Hence the stakes of the succession game in places like North Korea are extremely high for all contenders, and the competition for leadership succession gets, to put it mildly, quite rough.
All of which is to say that the response to the North Korean attack should be subtle rather than overt. Devoid of a militaristic opportunity to engage in jingoistic stirring of popular fervor, the declining Kim regime will be forced to turn back inwards as the leadership succession issue gets more factionalised and hostile. That will likely lead to more attempts to use the military diversion option, perhaps as a desperate last resort by a losing faction in the internecine battles over leadership in the post Kim Jung-il era. But it is only a matter of time before the DPRK regime enters into terminal crisis, which is why it is best to not answer this latest provocation with force. That time may well come, but first the nature and course of the North Korean leadership succession must become apparent.
In the meantime, then, perhaps it is best for the South Koreans to move in shadows rather than in light when countering North Korean aggression.
I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.Â I must say that it is one of the more amateurish, cringe worthy attempts at symbolic politics I have seen in a long time–not quite as bad as George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” carrier charade, but of the same ilk. Let me explain why.
First, the good part. I think it was entirely sensible for the National spin-meisters and military brass to tie the AfghanÂ detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attendÂ the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added toÂ his Â message of military support and remembrance. As for the greedy economic opportunists who have criticised him for abandoning the arse kissing trade mission to the Arab Gulf Coast, they need to realise that given the circumstances in which the tragedy occurred, Mr. Key had no political option but to return for the funerals. How would it have looked if he choose to continue to brown nose the Arabs while some of the nation’s service people were laid to rest?Â The likes of one Mr. Langely may put personal self-interest before recognition of service, but most Kiwis understand that not only was it politically necessary for Mr. Key to return, it was the right thing to do.
But that is about as good as it gets. Contrary to the fawning editorial opinion of the NZ Herald, Key’s tiki tour of Afghanistan showed how out of his league he is on international security affairs.
He started out by mentioning that he was flown by helicopter from his arrival point (presumably Bagram Air Force Base, the site of a notorious US “black” detention centre) to the SAS location. In doing so he managed to convey the message that the most heavily defended areas of Kabul are still too dangerous for Western VIPs to drive through, and that the SAS is not located in Kabul as he claims but is actually based elsewhere. He then pointed out that he used heavily armed motorcades to travel in Bayiman and elsewhere because he and his entourage were “juicy fish” for insurgent targeters.
Well, not quite. In a country thatÂ is awash inÂ visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more likeÂ an anchovy. Â Moreover, heavily weightedÂ Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immuneÂ to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle).Â In fact, given that they have to travel onÂ main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so,Â convoys such as Mr. Key’sÂ actuallyÂ make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded inÂ a resentfulÂ local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). IfÂ leaving a light footprint is what hearts and minds are partially about, then his mode of land transport was a tactical failure.
Mr. Key prattled on about how he wanted to experience the conditions in which the NZDF operate in that theater. But he choose to spend his evenings at the British embassy. That is a double insult: first to the UN and ISAF patrons of the NZDF mission, which have their own housing compounds or use heavily guarded hotels for visiting VIPs; and secondly to the NZDF itself. Mr. Key could have stayed in officer quarters in any number of bases including at the PRT in Bayiman or the SASÂ operations centreÂ (which is likely to be onÂ the Afghan militaryÂ base where its anti-terrorism Crisis Response Unit is headquartered). But instead he choose to take the poncy route and accept accommodation from the colonial master. How quaint of him, and howÂ much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZÂ troops face.
Mr. Key managed to offend the Bayiman locals by trying to shake hands with a girl, a cultural taboo in that region. So much for MFAT and NZDF giving him a head’s up about local customs, to say nothing of his lack on intuition about the context in which he was operating. For him, ignorance on that occasion turned out not to be bliss. For the NZDF PRT team, this could have been ther moment where 6+ years of good civil-military relations became unstuck. The question begs: would Helen Clark have been so, uh, uninformed? >>Note to Red Alert and The Standard–while I appreciate your views youÂ must notÂ use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan Â issues such as this>>
In defending their role,Â Mr. Key Â said that the SAS had not fired their weapons. This is laughable to the point of tears. The very nature of their “training” mission, as well as the fact that they have participated in at least two well publicised firefights (evenÂ if weÂ accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SASÂ employ their weapons, even if merely as covering or suppressing fire for their Afghan comrades.
And yet, the supplicant NZ press uncritically lapped up his patent lie while he hid under the doctrine ofÂ Â plausible deniability (that is, becauseÂ Mr. Key may haveÂ believed the lieÂ to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take theirÂ word at face value and he had no reason to doubt them because he simply does not know better). Here, Mr. Key’s ignorance truly is a measure of political insulation, if not bliss.
Mr. Key told this same press that he was “considering” extending the deployments of the Bayiman PRT and SAS past their respective termination dates in September 2010 and March 2011 respectively. This was a forgone conclusion given that the NZDF wanted to do so and given the government’s obsession with tying a bilateral US-NZ free trade agreement to its military commitment in Afghanistan as well as the recent military-to-military reapprochment between the two countries. Heck, the foreign press was told before the trip that the extension had already been authorised but Mr. Key played cagey with the NZ press. Could that be because he wants to appear to be considerate of opposition voices in parliament when in fact he is not?
Mr. Key did his usual name-dropping act. He met with Karzai and General McCrystal. He met with local leaders. Although he waxed lyrical about what they had to say, he made no mention of what he had to say to them. Did he tell Karzai that his corruption and the drug-running antics of his cronies would not be tolerated? Did he press Karzai on not back-sliding on human rights, especially for wimin and ethnic minorities? Did he query McCrystal on continued civilian casualties at the hands of ISAF forces, and did he make clear to the General what the NZDF understanding of the rules of engagement are?Â Â Nothing of the sort has been mentioned, so for all the NZ public knows he could have been exchanging cricket scores and family photographs with the Big Boys.
And then there was the piece d’resistance: John Key fitted out in a journalist flak jacket and helmet, his blood type outlined like a bulls-eye on his chest, grinning like a kid in a GI Joe costume. Then there were the photos of him acting friendly with the pilots on the RNZAF C-130 and acting pensive on the US Blackhawk ‘copter that did the bulk of his tour transfers. Dang. I have no doubt that he needed the body armour when he was not sipping tea with the Poms, but did his minders really think that a photo op in thatÂ outfit would come across as warrior-like and decisive? If so, they are clueless because he just looked goofy, somewhat akin to the infamous photo of Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis sitting in a tank turret wearing a helmet in the 1988 US presidential campaign. In both cases the image spells out L-O-O-O-O-O-S-E-R.Â As for the aircraftÂ photos: stagedÂ and contrived from the get-go. He looked like he was on one of those Air NZ tourist charters to the Antartic summer solstice. Another photo op FAIL.
Mind you, the NZDF brass as well as the troops on the ground would have appreciated the gesture, albeit for different reasons. So there was symbolic worth in the venture. It was in its execution where the enterprise failed.
Because they are clueless National PR flacks will congratulate themselves on a job well done in getting their message about the PM out to the masses, and the supplicant invited press will play the role of willful lapdogs by writing positive stories based on National PR releases (in part, because they share the government’s contempt for the intelligence of the general population, and in part because they would like to be invited along on other future junkets of this sort). But the cruel truth is that the exercise showed yet again how far out his depth the PM is when confronting the intricacies of even the most rudimentary aspects of foreign affairs. For those with a better sense of judgement, the exercise was embarrassing, not encouraging. Or as Pauly Fuemana would have said, “how bizzare.”
So the Crown, having had their appeal against the Waihopai 3’s acquittal (about which Pablo wrote an excellent post) dismissed, is considering a civil case against them, to recover the $1.1 million cost of the damage to the dome and fences surrounding the satellite dish.
In politics it is usually best to fight symbolism with symbolism; once a topic or policy matter is being debated in symbolic terms, in general no amount of fact or logic or reason will prevail against it. This often promotes an arms race — the party to a debate who introduces symbolic aspects to their discourse gets to set the agenda, to define what the debate is about, and this is clearly so with the Waihopai 3. While the customary analysis of the protest action is that it took place one morning in April 2008, with a slight return in the criminal court during March 2010, but all this demonstrates is that people don’t really understand the nature of this protest. It is ongoing. This morning, Peter Murnane responded with some puzzlement to Sean Plunket’s question “Do you have any further protest actions planned?” by saying “No […] well, we’re busy with this one.” That’s the point: Defending their actions on truthful, legitimate and principled grounds in the full glare of public scrutiny is the protest. Contrary to another current case, the Waihopai 3 have stood up and said the non-blasphemous equivalent of “you’re goddamned right I did”, and are willing to accept the consequences of their actions — but only once they’ve made their position clear. And they expect that their commitment to principle and legitimate due process is reciprocated by the Crown, and if sued will call for representatives of the GCSB to face them in court. This places the Crown in an invidious position: it cannot permit senior intelligence and security staff to be dragged into this matter, but if it fails to do so it will cede the symbolic field to Ploughshares, and the legitimacy of its position will be further eroded.
For the Crown to seek reparation would be fair and just: the actions of the Waihopai 3 cost the NZ taxpayer money and the Crown has a right to recover that via legitimate legal means. But because the Waihopai Three have set the terms of the symbolic debate and have everything to gain and nothing whatsoever to lose from the case, it is a fool’s errand. While, as Bill Hodge says, the Crown has an “invincible case” in the civil court, the battle is not being waged in the court, but in people’s hearts and minds. The Waihopai 3 claim they have no money, and this seems plausible. So the only reason for the Crown to take a case against them is to demonstrate that the organs of power are not to be trifled with, and that even if a jury will acquit for a good cause, an appealing idealistic argument, or an integrous and principled stand such actions cannot be undertaken with impunity. A display of power, if you like, though not an especially vulgar one. Such a display may serve the social purpose of quelling the urges of overenthusiastic and legally (not to mention ethically) illiterate anti-abortionists, and will have some currency among the not-so-closeted authoritarians who bayed for the blood of these peaceful protesters in April 2008 and again in March 2010. But to the extent that the government seeks to retain its dignity, this will be cold comfort indeed.
As promised the latest “Word from Afar” column at Scoop focuses on the 2008-2009 NZSIS annual report. As I anticipated in an earlier post, there are a few nuggets of information about its work amid all the PR jargon and managerial double speak. Check it out here.
Â It has recently been announced the the External Assessment Bureau (EAB) has become the National Assessment Bureau (NAB), combining external as well as internal intelligence assessments in the lead up to the 2011 Rugby World Cup (although I believe that the claim that the move was needed to better coordinate threat assessment for the World Cup is a bit specious, especially since the recommendation for an integration of internal and external intelligence assessment came from a report by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Simon Murdoch that was commissioned independently of the World Cup bid). There has long been dissatisfaction with the lack of coordination between New Zealand internal and external intelligence collection and analysis agencies (to say nothing of their professionalism and competence). Although there is a veritable alphabet soup of such agencies, there was until now no single unit that coordinated all of the intelligence flows into one coherent assessment brief for the PM. Some believe that this rendered the EAB ineffectual because it was a duplication of resources (since all of the operational agencies also have analytic branches that formulate their own assessments). Others simply claimed that it was a waste of space because PMs usually dealt directly with the operational agencies themselves (since the PM is also the Minister of Security and Intelligence). Thus the options were to disband the EAB or refocus it. The government has chosen the latter course.
The important thing to note is that the EAB/NAB is an analytic group located in the Prime Minister’s cabinet, and is responsible for providing intelligence assessments for the PM. Â It is not an intelligence-gathering (spy) agency even though it handles classified material. Yet, news that it has now assumed an internal focus along with its ongoing external assessment duties has alarmed civil libertarians and elements on the Left. The Greens put out a press release expressing concern over the move, with Keith Locke offering the humorous observation that the only area of growth in the public service seems to be the spy agencies.
Well, not quite. Although I respect Keith Locke’s position, I disagree that giving the revamped NAB an internal focus is a bad thing or that this reform signifies a growth of the spy apparatus. The NAB budget and those of the operational agencies have remained relatively consistent the last five years (after major increases post 9/11), and the NAB is not targeted to increase the number of personnel working within it (which means more responsibilities for the same number of people assigned to it). Hence all that has been done is to give the intelligence assessment unit with the PMs office access to more rounded intelligence streams from both internal and external security agencies so as to be able to better prepare unitary and coherent net security assessments for the PM. Before, the EAB only looked at foreign issues as fed to it by MFAT, the SIS, the GCSB, Customs, Immigration and the NZDF intelligence units. Now it will get streams from the Police, CTAG (Counter Terrorism Assessment Group, which is an inter-agency unit that does both internal and external terrorist assessment) and from the SIS/GCSB and the other mentioned agencies on internal issues of concern. That way the NAB can provide a more comprehensive picture of any given security matter to the PM, since often times threats have what is known as a “glocal” character–a mixture of global and local characteristics. Think organised crime and its potential nexus with terrorism….the “glocal” or “intermestic” overlap is broad and variegated
In a way the change makes the NAB the NZ equivalent of the US National Security Council (NSC)–the primary assessment agency working for the President/PM. It is an assessment unit, not an intelligence collection (operational) unit. It is full of analysts, not spies. With a 3 million dollar budget covering 30 people, it does not have the capacity to do anything other than read and assess what the operational branches provide them. From my perspective, were I to be offered a government job, this would be the best place to be (knowledge being power, etc.).
This is not to say that the announcement is worry-free. The troubling parts are: 1) whether this means that both internal and external intelligence assessments will Â now be politicised, much as the Zaoui and Urewera 18 cases were; and 2) no Parliamentary consultation or inputs were done in the build-up to the change. Although the Murdoch report is correct (there was a need to rationalise the flow of intelligence to the PMs office), it might have been more transparent and democratic to run the proposed reform past the country’s elected representatives rather than to just do it by executive fiat. There are also issues of accountability, since the NAB is not required to deliver specific reports to the the Intelligence and Security Committee (such as it is) or Parliament in general (although it does maintain a web site and issues and annual report on the generalities of its mission). The latter is not an insurmountable obstacle, however, because the PM can be made to account for the actions of his cabinet.
Thus, unlike many of my learned counterparts on the Left and in politics, I do not see the revamping of the EAB/NAB as an assault on civil liberties or an expansion of the security apparatus. Instead I see it as an effort to streamline and lend coherency to what the PM receives as informed advice on matters of security and intelligence. Time will tell if I am correct.
The “Waihopai 3” have been acquitted. Their act of civil disobedience, which resulted in damage to one of the domes covering eavesdropping equipment at the Echelon Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering station near Blenheim, was deemed by a jury of their peers to be justified because of their sincerely held beliefs that the listening post contributed to human suffering on a world scale.
This is a remarkable verdict. The Plowshares group clearly trespassed and clearly did damage to the dome (they cut through both a perimeter fence and then the dome in order to access its interior). But their motives clearly outweighed, at least in the minds of the jury, the criminality of their actions (the charge of burglary against them was a grave mistake on the part of the Crown). The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges of trespass, burglary and criminal damage and left the court as free men and as an inspiration to other direct action activists discontented with the status quo. One wonders if this Â decision will establish not only a legal precedent but also encourage others to follow suit in pursuit of anti-status quo objectives.
I must confess to being at a loss for an explanation. As I wrote in “A Brief Comment on Spy Bases and Civil Disobedience” over at Scoop, (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0805/S00039.htm), active acts of civil disobedience involving direct action (as opposed to the passive act school of civil disobedience exemplified by Ghandi and followed by his adherents after he was murdered) are most often premised on the perpetrators willingly understanding that their actions are in violation of conventional law, and that their actions will be punished accordingly. More often than not they plead guilty in order to make their political case at sentencing, something that spares the taxpayer the court costs of defending the charges while at the same time providing a courtroom soapbox for dissemination of their claims. Seriously committed activists often/sometimes (depending who is talking) never reach trial because they die trying. None of that occurred in this case.
I am sympathetic to the Plowshares cause although I seriously disagree with their view of the Echelon network. I applaud their willingness to stand up for their beliefs, and their use of unconventional, yet basically peaceful means to make their case. But for the life of me I cannot understand why they were acquitted, and I fear that the verdict has opened a Pandoras Box of unintended and perhaps dangerous consequences. But then again, we are talking about activities that occurred in New Zealand, although to be honest, if this action merited acquittal, what does that say about the case against the Urewera 18, who did not trespass, damage or burglarise anything?
Imagine what the outcome would have been had the Plowshares engaged their direct action in the US, UK or Australia. I reckon the verdict would have been different, and the sentences severe.