Thoughts about contemporary troubles.

This will be s short post. It stems from observations I made elsewhere about what might be characterised as some macro and micro aspects of contemporary collective violence events. Here goes.

The conflicts between Israel and Palestine and France and Kanaks in New Caledonia are two post-colonial legacies born of reneged settler promises and betrayed agreements leading to dispossession, occupation, poverty, alienation and generational hatreds. Israel and France must recognize this for peace to obtain. So far they have not. Israel has opted for its own version of the final solution, something that, if not a “full” genocide in the formal sense of the word, sure has the looks of ethnic cleansing. That includes the West Bank, where the IDF is demolishing 2,500 Palestinian homes safeguarded under a previous pact in order to clear land for more Israeli settlements. Given Israel’s defiance of international norms and conventions, it appears that it has gone full “rogue” in its quest to drive the Palestinians from their ancestral lands.

Israel’s support in the West derives from its history and strategic location and orientation. It is a major provider of intelligence to Western governments and is a nominally pro-Western bulwark in the Middle East. Its patrons and supporters do not want to alienate it for fear of losing access to its formidable intelligence collection capabilities in the Middle East, which until recently meant casting blind eye on the increasingly apartheid-like behaviour it exhibits towards Palestinians. Israel operates with impunity against Palestinians and other antagonists because, in a sense, it has a Western insurance policy or “get out of jail free card”because of its geostrategic role. This has turned it into lightening rod for Global South versus Global North confrontation.

With that as the bottom line, peace in the Levant does not look possible anytime soon.

In another North-versus-South friction, France has opted for a different path but with a similar, albeit less catastrophic result. With the 1998 Nomuea Accords it proposed an incremental, referendum-based 20 year process towards national independence, or at least considerable political autonomy for New Caledonians. Instead, the French encouraged mass immigration by French mainlanders, (including ex-police and military members) before each referendum (three in total, in 2018, 2020 and 2020). 40,000 French immigrants entered New Caledonia between 1999 and 2021. This skewed the electoral demographics in favour of the anti-independence blocs, something accentuated in the final referendum when representatives of the indigenous Kanak people, particularly the FLINK political movement, boycotted the plebiscite because of disagreements about post-Covid impact on Kanak turnout. The 2018 and 2020 referenda saw 56, then 53 percent of the vote go to the anti-independence bloc. in 2021, with the boycott and an overall turnout of less than 44 percent of eligible voters, the anti-independence vote climbed to 91 percent, opening questions about its legitimacy. This did not deter France from moving ahead with drafting a new political charter for this “sui generis” overseas territory.

With independence rejected, France continues to control the military, police, justice, immigration, higher education, Treasury and civil service under the Noumea Accord, with limited autonomy conferred to the New Caledonia government in diplomatic affairs, taxation, border control and local governance. It is now in the process of drafting a New Caledonian constitution that gives recent immigrants more voting rights in local and provincial elections (diluting Kanak voting influence) and consolidating French administrative control of core aspects of public policy. That is the cause of the current troubles.

Incidentally, for a very good independent source on South Pacific issues, see Prof. David Robie’s Asia-Pacific Report. Here is a sample article but there is lots more.

It appears that France never intended for New Caledonia to achieve independence because the sui generis territory is too strategically important for it to relinquish full control. It is the home to the French Pacific Army (5,000 troops) and military aviation and naval units now increasingly engaged in anti-PRC containment operations in the Southwest Pacific. With PRC inroads made in other Melanesian countries such as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, France and its Western partners (also former imperial powers or servitor imperialist allies) fear a type of domino effect occurring should New Caledonia “fall” under Chinese influence. This concern is compounded by the fact that New Caledonia is the 4th largest producer of the world’s nickel, accounting for 20-30 percent of the world’s nickel reserves, 90 percent of New Caledonia’s non-tourist export revenues, 20 percent of the country’s GDP and 40 percent of its employment. Given the taxation revenues accrued to France as a result of the nickel sector and the fact that the sector does not (yet) have a dominant Chinese presence in it, France has strategic reasons to want to retain control of the territory in which it operates.

The bottom line of the French position vis a vis New Caledonia is geostrategic, and its approach to the issue of independence a cloak for its real intent. Here too, the prospect for a long-term peaceful resolution seem distant even if the amount of violence is much less than in Palestine.

On a micro level, video has surfaced of young female IDF soldiers captured by uniformed Hamas fighters after an assault on an IDF base in Southern Israel. The video was released by families of the soldiers in order to exert pressure on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate their release. To be clear, the soldiers and their male counterparts are prisoners of war and therefore protected by the Geneva Convention. They might be freed in a POW exchange but Hamas must abide by the Convention in any event. It is in Hamas’s self-interest to do so, both for negotiation purposes but also as a sign of its accepting international norms as part of its claim to legitimacy as an agent of the Palestinian people. It is then up to the global community as to how to respond, and in this regard the move by Ireland, Norway and Spain to recognise a Palestinian State is a step in the correct direction because it might encourage moderation in the Hamas leadership with an eye towards that end.

On the other hand, although the international criminal court (ICC) charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Israeli and Hamas leaders is salutary albeit largely symbolic given the geopolitical realities of the moment, it adds a complicating factor in any attempts to get Hamas to moderate, much as is the case with the hardliners in the Israeli government. But if used as a coercive negotiating tool (i.e., as a stick rather than a carrot) to encourage moderation on both sides in pursuit of a durable ceasefire in exchange for dropping of the charges (known in the human rights literature as an ethical dilemma), then perhaps it too can help construct the bounded rationality in which moderation, negotiation and compromise is seen as the best option by both sides.

In the meantime we can only hope that when it comes to the treatment of prisoners held by Hamas and the IDF, the rules outlined in the Convention are respected. I shall not hold my breath on that.

Setting things straight.

Seeing that, in order to discredit the figures and achieve moral superiority while attempting to deflect attention away from the military assault on Rafa, Israel supporters in NZ have seized on reports that casualty numbers in Gaza may be inflated by Hamas (even if corroborated by international agencies), I thought I would recap the truth behind this spin game.

On October 7 Hamas fighters attacked Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. They were initially said to have killed more than 1500 people (mostly civilians), but after scrutiny that figure was reduced to below 1200 (including military personnel). At least some of the deaths attributed to Hamas were later found to be the result of friendly fire from responding Israeli (IDF) forces. Israeli sources claimed that babies were cooked in microwaves, women were sexually tortured and mutilated and that mass rapes were carried out, but that has not been independently substantiated. Scores of hostages (closest reliable count is 250) were supposedly taken back into Gaza, presumably to serve as human leverage in subsequent negotiations with Israel. A few have been released but many of those have died, not just at Hamas’s hands but as a result of IDF assaults on the places that they were being held captive.

Here are some facts. The killing of IDF soldiers by Hamas is not a crime, as it can be classified as the product of clashes between an armed resistance to an illegal occupying force on Palestinian land (one look at the 1947, 1967, 1973 and recent maps of Palestine/Israel demonstrates the steady annexation of Palestinian land regardless of the formal agreements in place). In other. words, as ugly as that sounds, in a fight with an armed opponent IDF soldiers were fair game.

What is a war crime is if Hamas tortured, raped or murdered soldiers after they surrendered. But in order to prosecute the Hamas individuals or units involved would require international recognition of Hamas as a legitimate fighting force acting on behalf of a recognised State or political community. Although Hamas has a political wing that is related to but separate from the armed wing and has been the de facto government of Gaza since its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, leading to the 2007 Hamas-Fatah war that resulted in Hamas gaining control of Gaza while Fatah and other Palestinian Authority factions retreated to the West Bank, the International community (read: the West) does not recognise it as a State or government and instead has designated it a terrorist entity because of the irregular warfare operations, including terrorist attacks, conducted by its armed wing. That may be convenient for Israel and its Western supporters, but it makes it more difficult to hold Hamas accountable for the actions of its members, armed and unarmed (because not all Palestinians, or Hamas supporters for that matter, are fighters). So, in spite of the obvious fact that Hamas was a governing entity in Gaza at the time the war started, charging Hamas fighters with war crimes is difficult because they are not seen as representative of any duly constituted political organisation. They are just terrorists, and if one is to believe the Israel apologists, so are the people they are ostensibly fighting for.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about non-recognition. There is irony in non-recognition of Hamas as a legitimate representative of at least some Palestine people. Hamas exists as a political movement with an ideology (nationalist-religious in this case), as well as a physical presence that extends beyond its armed wing. It will not go away just because it is not recognised abroad, is not liked by many, or if its armed cadres are decimated. And it holds equal if not more legitimacy than the Palestinian Authority of which Fatah is part, which is a corrupt gerontocracy that serves as a laptop of the Israelis in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel itself is not like in many quarters and is not recognised by a number of Muslim-majority States, but it certainly exists and is not going anywhere no matter what other’s may wish or think. In addition, the State of Israel was created in part due to the “terrorist” operations of the likes of the Irgun (which was designated as a terrorist organization by the British), so not recognising Hamas because of its irregular warfare activities in the contemporary era is a hypocritical specious reasoning.

The bottom line is this. Non-recognition may be an attempt at de-legitimation and ostracism, but it is more akin to closing ones eyes and putting fingers in one’s ears while shouting “you are not there” to someone you dislike. The reality says otherwise, and in the international arena non-recognition only serves to absolve political actors from assuming full legal responsibility for their actions. Not recognising Hamas as having a legitimate claim when it comes to representing Palestinians is therefore an own-goal (remember, Hamas won the largest plurality in the parliamentary elections of 2006 and would have been required to form a coalition government before Israel, the US and other Western states backed Fatah’s rejection of the results and subsequent armed assault on Hamas in Gaza. This only played into the hands of the hardline Hamas cadres and strengthened their resolve to prevail in the fight against Fatah, which they did. That set up the subsequent chain of events that has led to the current disaster).

In any event, killing, raping and abducting civilians are crimes against humanity even if the actions of the Hamas fighters are not technically classified as war crimes when it comes to their treatment of IDF soldiers. Remember that it is not the method or instrument of violence that defines a war crime or a crime against humanity. Nor is it the number of victims. Instead, it is who commits atrocities (war crimes are committed by military forces) and who is targeted. Regardless of who the material authors may be, for there to be war crimes or crimes against humanity, the victims must be defenceless. In the case of Israelis attacked by Hamas on October 7, most but not all of them were, so the scale of the atrocities was significant and cannot be downplayed.

In response, Israel unleashed a scorched earth collective punishment approach to the residents of Gaza, and has meted out come collateral punishment to Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Some see the IDF military campaign in Gaza as genocidal in intent–and it may well be–but at a minimum it is ethnic cleansing in effect: entire swathes of Gaza have been cleansed of their inhabitants. The NZ apologists for the IDF approach want to make it seem that 15,000 or 20,000 Palestinian dead is significantly different than 30,000 or 40,000 dead claimed by Hamas (never mind the wounded and maimed or those now enduring mass starvation due to Israeli (including Jewish settlers!)) interference with aid convoys. But at the same time they use the malleable 1200+/- Israeli body count to argue that the IDF response is proportionate to the October 7 attacks. They also clamour for the release of the Israeli hostages but are silent about the thousands of Palestinians detained by Israel since October 7. It seems that Israel also understands the hostage-taking-as-leverage game. Perversely, for the Israel supporters scale and scope of dehumanisation only matters when the numbers favour a particular victimisation narrative. In other words, 1200 Israeli dead is comparable with 20,00 rather than 40,000 Palestinian dead, so moral equivalence applies. That is not a winning argument.

That is in large part due to the fact that collective punishment is illegal under international law and classified as a war crime, most specifically Convention 4, Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. The same convention, article 34, notes that the taking of hostages is prohibited, even if it does not specify the means by which hostages are taken by belligerents (presumably the 3,000 or so Palestinians held in “administrative detention” without charge by the Israelis since October 7 would fit into this category regardless of the institutional/legal facade used to cloak their real status). So although only Israel is guilty of violating the convention when it comes to collective punishment, both sides are in violation of the Geneva Conventions when it comes to hostage taking.

That brings up the truth of the matter. Both Hamas and the IDF have committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Both have committed serious breaches of international law. Fiddling with and sniping about numbers do not alter this fact. Moral relativism does not alter this fact. Trying to comparatively scale and scope the atrocities does not alter this fact. No amount of spin alters this fact.

Most of all, both Israel and Hamas apologists cannot escape this fact.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on the moment of friction, and more.

After a hiatus of over four months Selwyn Manning and I finally got it together to re-start the “A View from Afar” podcast series. We shall see how we go but aim to do 2 episodes per month if possible.

Here we start of with a catch up on events since the last podcast of 2023. Selwyn liked the KP moment of friction post from April 1, and so we used it as the stepping stone into a discussion that incorporates material from several recent KP posts and other news. I hope that you find the podcast of interest. You can find it here.

The Israel/Palestinian metastasis.

In the weeks after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Southern Israel I wrote about the possible 2nd, 3rd and even 4th order effects of the conflict. These included the possibility of new fronts being opened in the West Bank (with Hamas), Golan Heights (with Syria), Northern Israel/Southern Lebanon (with Hezbollah), with the Yemeni Houthis (at sea and in the air) and with Iran (now directly) all of which seemed a fair possibility back then and most of which have indeed eventuated. Israel has needed allies to help fend off some of the widening attacks, while Palestinians have had to place themselves at the mercy of the international community for humanitarian aid because Israel will spare them little of it while prosecuting what for all intents and purposes is a scorched earth war policy in Gaza. Other than Iran and its proxies/allies, no one is coming to the military rescue of Hamas or Palestinians in general. In other words, it is now a one-sided meting out of punishment on a largely defenseless population.

What I did not envision is what is happening on campuses in the US and around the world nearly seven months after the Hamas attack. The ensuring conflict has become a lightening rod and trigger not just for those disgusted by the events in Gaza but also for those who espouse a number of other grievances, including climate change, racism, global inequality, imperialism and colonialism, political corruption and even capitalism itself. In response, the Right labels them all “radicalised” commies and terrorist lovers because that is an easy way to introduce culture war themes into the mix rather than debate the complexities of what is happening in the Eastern Mediterranean. Apparently the war on Gaza is less about Israel and Palestine and more about a host of other (not all unrelated) things. The moment of friction that I wrote about recently has now come to American academe.

This has turned campus protests (and the coverage of them) into partisan events, with rightwing entities backing pro-Israeli demonstrators and leftwing and progressive forces, including those in the Democratic Party in the US, siding with the pro-Palestinian side. The protests include non-students as well as students, confirming what I wrote in the last post about outside agitators and infiltrators using the opportunity to advance their own agendas (which often go beyond the Israel/Palestine conflict). This includes Antifa and the old Occupy Wall Street crowd, now resurrecting old peeves (some well justified then and now) on the back of the Palestinian cause. For the US Right it is another way of showing how Democrats are soft on crime and Joe Biden is a doddering old fool while demonstrating that, like Republican Governors Abbot of Texas and DeSantis of Florida have done, you show strength by ordering cops to bash in heads of people wearing masks and keffiyeh–but not those waving Israel flags.

Unfortunately, this has lifted the scab on long-festering hatreds in many societies, including the US. Long dormant anti-semitism has been inflamed by Israel’s actions in Gaza, which however heinous the October 7 Hamas attacks were, are grossly disproportionate to them (including using starvation as a weapon), and are therefore a form of collective punishment that, if not genocidal in the strictest sense of the term, certainly seems to have ethnic cleansing as a purpose. Conversely, Islamophobia has been resurrected by the Political Right, including conservative Christians and Jews and an assortment of rightwing media outlets and political organisations. In the pro-Palestine protests there are now people who believe that the main problem are Jews rather than Zionists or the the State of Israel’s actions. In the pro-Israel camp there are people who believe the root cause of the conflict is Islam, Arabs or the both combined. Primordial hatreds have been resurrected and brought to the fray, which now encompasses pre-modern, modern and post-modern fault lines covering a broad spectrum of divisive issues.

Then there are those who are not quite sure who to hate more. Take for example representative Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA), who believes that all Muslims are potential terrorists and therefore should be deported from the US and Europe, but who on the other hand, when it comes to “the” Jews, well, there is that problem of their space lasers causing forest fires….

This is why I refer to this evolution as a metastasis of the conflict. It is malign in nature and it is spreading well beyond the original boundaries of the conflict qua disease. The pro-Palestinian protestors have degenerated in some places into glorification of Hamas’s atrocities and a Holocaust denying Jew hate fest. Likewise but in mirror fashion, pro-Israeli demonstrations rejoice at the civilian death toll in Gaza, paint all Muslims/Arabs as savages and call for their extermination as such. Neither is really interested in a legitimate “debate,” and both are using protests to stake antithetical claims. That is not good and does nothing to change minds, much less advance any peaceful resolution or long-term solution to the impasse in the Levant.

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, appears to have struck a good balance by allowing an encampment to be established on the central university mall but not on footpaths or in front of buildings. The university makes a distinction between free expression versus disruption, drawing the line when the former is used to justify the latter. It seems to be working so far, as the protests are loud but constrained when compared to other universities. That being said, MAGA frat boys have tried to storm the encampment, only to be repelled by the U Chicago police (as a private university U Chicago has its own accredited police force dating back to the 1960s). The rightwing frat guys have a history of racist antics and in this case appear to be less interested in supporting Israel than in scoring physical points against woke “commies.”

Other places that I have taught at, including the University of Arizona and University of South Florida, have descended into chaos, including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas to roust pro-Palestinian crowds. As for the University of Auckland, where I also taught, Students for Justice in Palestine (they dropped the “Peace” from their name a while ago) abandoned their attempts to set up an encampment when the University informed them that as a registered university club they would be in violation of university policy regarding club rules if they did so and therefore become liable for suspension, etc. They still have the freedom to conduct peaceful protests outside the main library on a daily basis, which is what they have agreed to do.

That is somewhat ironic– student protesters accepting the orders of their institutional masters when it comes to how to behave. Ah, the kiwi way! But where are the old “Minto” types of direct action these days? (Minto himself was down in Christchurch yesterday protesting National’s support for Israel, so at least that old dog still has some bark left in him). Is it true that today’s generation of NZ leftist activists have gone a bit soft? It is not for me to say since I am just a Trotteresque keyboarding observer these days, but the starch seems to have gone out of the current protester’s shirts when it comes to Israel and Palestine. On the other hand, when it comes to vaccinations, government mandates, Qanon and the Deep State, those on the NZ Right have shown in March 2022 how far they are willing to go in order to prove their points (and mettle). In fact now that I have mentioned them, given the attitudes of many on the NZ Right when it comes to Jews and Muslims, where might they stand when it comes to the Middle East? Perhaps Kyle Chapman or one of the Counterspin or Action Zealandia weirdos can enlighten us.

Let’s be clear on this. The Right demonstrate over matters that they feel affects them personally (like vaccines and mandates), but not over matters of solidarity with or concern for others. Their protests are about infringements on themselves, not on infringements not he rights of others. The Left, such as those involved in the student protests, demonstrate out of humanitarian concern for people that they do not even know, but whose basic humanity is under lethal siege. To be sure, there are the bad-intentioned actors among them who bring other agendas into the mix, but the motivations for Right versus Left protests are often quite different in origin.

That brings up a larger issue. Are not protests supposed to be disruptive? Much is said about the Vietnam War protests but what about the freedom marches in the US South that brought about the civil rights movement and eventually the Civil Rights Act? Were they not disruptive? What about the Springbok Tour protests? Did no good came from their disruptions? How about the Stonewall protests, which opened the way for gay rights in the US? What about general strikes? Are they not disruptive but have served to improve wage and working conditions for a multitude of employees? This the fundamental question that needs to be asked.

Instead, riot porn is the clickbait of the day.

That makes the coverage of the student protests pretty shabby. More emphasis is placed on the protection of property and supposed public order (even though the violence that has occurred has been confined to campuses) rather than on the original cause and the motivations of others now involved in the unfolding events. More time is spent on political blame-gaming than on considering whether divestment from companies doing business, especially military business, in or with Israel is a reasonable demand given what is unfolding in Gaza. In fact, few Western media outlets appear to have asked the basic question as to whether it is ethical for corporations, and the US and other governments for that matter, to do business with and sell weapons to Israel while it reduces the Gaza Strip to rubble. And when they do, the answer is always the same–“but what about Iran and the terrorists?”

In any event, I use the US examples as illustrative of the fact that the Israel/Palestine conflict has galvanised as well as polarised world opinion, creating an ideological vortex into which a number of causes and actors have been sucked into. This may well have a tornado-like effect on several political landscapes, including in Israel but especially in the US this election year, where not only the presidency and Congress undergo elections but also a multitude of State and local governments as well. How the protests evolve and end–if they do before November–may be critical to those election outcomes.

More broadly, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a malignant scabrous wound that may not be cauterised any time soon. In fact, regardless of the outcome of the war on the ground, it is doubtful that Israel will recover much diplomatic goodwill other than from its Western backers and the Arab oligarchies that side with it against Iran. Much like Russia with its invasion of Ukraine, the question Israelis have to ask themselves is “will we be better off for having prosecuted this war they way that we have?” If the answer is anything other than “yes” (and that would be delusional), then they have already lost. Israel’s supporters abroad need to understand this basic fact.

As I have written before, hypocrisy is the currency of diplomacy. But when governments like those of NZ, Australia, the UK and US mute their criticism of Israel with their “whataboutism” comparisons with Hamas and Iran, they lose all moral ground for chastising other States for their treatment of subject populations. Because in some liberal democracies, for all the talk about supporting a “rules-based” international order, when it comes to Israel the rules are made to be broken.

The student protests are a reminder of that.

Arguing about a moot point.

I have been following recent debates in the corporate and social media about whether it is a good idea for NZ to join what is known as “AUKUS Pillar Two.” AUKUS is the Australian-UK-US nuclear submarine building agreement in which the US and UK will provide Australia with the know-how and training on how to build and operate a small nuclear submarine fleet beginning in the 2030s. It has two components.

Pillar One involves the submarines themselves, which will be home ported at HMAS Stirling outside of Perth. Beginning in 2027 US Virginia-class and UK Astute-class attack subs (from which the future AUKUS-class Australian submarines will incorporate design features) will start rotating through HMAS Stirling so that Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and civilian personnel at HMAS Stirling can become familiar with nuclear submarine technologies and home port surface operations. The US will sell Australia up to three Virginia-class Block IV and Block VII subs beginning in the early 2030s and delivery of five new AUKUS submarines (designated as SSN-A’s) will begin in the mid 2040s. RAN crews are already attending the US Navy nuclear propulsion school in South Carolina and they will also join UK and US Astute- and Virginia-class boats on deployments as a part of their training. The project envisions the Royal Navy receiving SSN-A boats to replace their Asute-class fleet beginning in the early 2030s, and for the RAN to have a nuclear fleet of eight boats by 2050. Although nuclear propelled, they will not be nuclear armed. They are attack submarines whose main roles are to kill other submarines, surface vessels and land-based targets with conventionally armed torpedoes and cruise missiles. They are also tasked with intelligence-gathering missions involving technical, signals and even human collection methods.

Pillar Two of the AUKUS agreement involves complex technology research, development and transfers. The primary areas of focus will be on computer and cyber technology (including Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing and classified undersea technologies), hypersonic and counter-hypersonic platforms (already in progress), and Radar Capability, including the Deep Space Advanced Radar Capability (DARC) that will see tracking stations built in the Pillar One Countries. Pillar Two is designed to move beyond basic systems interoperability between the military allies, which is already in place, and integrate the military-industrial complexes of the three partners in ways that will not only lead to more seamless integration of complex technologies but also help create and expand high tech development hubs in each country, but especially in Australia and the UK. This is seen as having tremendous “trickle down” benefits for the civilian economies of each country as the flow-on effects of Pillar Two ripple into related industries up and down the supply, service, and delivery chains and their associated labour markets.

In March 2023 then Defense Minister Andrew Little of the Labour Party said that NZ was interested in discussing potential involvement in the non-nuclear aspects of Pillar 2, and in July 2023 US Secretary of State said that the “door was open” for countries like NZ to join the agreement. In December 2023 new Prime Minister Christopher Luxon reiterated his government’s interest in potentially joining in the non-nuclear aspects of Pillar Two, something that was followed by an announcement in February 2024 by Australia that it would begin to brief NZ officials on developments with regard to Pillar Two. However, after losing the October 2023 election the Labour Party reversed course and announced its opposition to participating in Pillar Two, and even the Grande Dame of the Labour Party, former NZ Prime Minister and UNDP chief Helen Clark, came out strongly against it. She has been joined in her opposition by a number of prominent NZ academics, peace, non-proliferation and disarmament campaigners, human rights and environmental activists, civil society organisations and left political movements as well as former diplomats.

Their concerns range from not wanting to jeopardise NZ’s trade relationship with the PRC, which has strongly denounced AUKUS as a provocative attempt to militarily counter and encircle it in the Western Pacific (and there is truth to that), which has a history of using trade as a retaliatory weapon in order to show its displeasure with other State’s behaviour, and upon which NZ is significantly trade-dependent, to fears of a nuclear arms race and/or great power conflict in the Southwestern Pacific that would have a disastrous impact on Pacific Island societies, economies and environments.

That latter point is significant because the permanent basing of nuclear submarines at HMAS Stirling appears to be in violation of the 1997 Treaty of Rarotonga declaring the South Pacific to be a nuclear-free zone.The maps of the South Pacific nuclear-free zone attached to the Treaty include the Australian West Coast fronting the Indian Ocean, and the Treaty prohibits the storage of significant quantities of fissile material or nuclear-processing facilities within the Zone. So the AUKUS agreement is seemingly in violation of the Treaty, which if so sets a dangerous precedent (AUKUS supporters claim that at worst the signatories exploited loopholes in the Treaty that make the agreement compliant with it). This can now open the door for other States to station nuclear powered submarines in the region, say for example, the French in New Caledonia or French Polynesia or the PRC in the Solomon Islands (thanks to the recently signed bilateral security agreement between the two countries). That would not be good from a strategic or arms control standpoint and would fulfil the darkest dreams of the non-proliferation community.

These opposition voices are countered by security experts and conservative political observers who see closer relations with AUKUS as enhancing NZ’s security in a rapidly deteriorating international security environment (in which militarily aggressive Russia and the PRC are seen as leaders of an authoritarian, anti-democratic, anti-Western bloc emerging from the Global South), and which also has great economic benefits for NZ should it join Pillar Two.

That is the foundation of the debate I mentioned at the beginning of this essay. Put crudely, Lefties do not want NZ involvement in Pillar Two. Righties do.

All of this seems to me to be a bit of a moot point. I hopped on the consultancy social media account to outline two reasons why, and I have expended them below.

First: the NZDF and GCSB (as part of 5 Eyes) will share AUKUS-related military technology and signals and technical intelligence collection advances because of their ongoing integration with Australian and US maritime operations and 5 Eyes partnership, especially when it comes to Western Pacific Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) roles. The incorporation of new P-8 long range patrol and ASW aircraft into the RNZAF and upgrades to the RNZN frigates have been done with that complex interoperability in mind. The NZDF already uses the principle of interoperability when working alongside its military partners–the US, UK and Australia being foremost among them– so whatever systems integration upgrades that result from AUKUS will be shared with NZ in any event. As it is, the NZDF already communicates with US and Australian submarines as a matter of course, so it will continue to do so once the nuclear-propelled ships come on board (remember that submarine hunters and surface patrol platforms need to distinguish friend from foe, and the best thing to do in that case is to ask upon contact or be alerted in advance by friendly forces). So as far as non-nuclear military technology sharing with the NZDF goes, it is a done deal. NZ does nothing (at least publicly) and yet it still gets to play with the military “big dogs.”

Also keep in mind that submarines are excellent signals intelligence collection or intercept platforms, particularly when it comes to undersea fiberoptic telecommunications cables. So upgrading to nuclear powered subs by the RAN will expand the range and operational capabilities of its maritime signals intelligence collection platforms as well as improve its ability to monitor hostile naval movements above and below the water line. The NZDF and GCSB will benefit from that, again, without having to do anything different than what they are doing already but with improved intelligence-gathering capabilities as a result.

Secondly, Australia, the UK and the US high technology sectors will not gift NZ firms a slice of the Pillar 2 pie for competitive and political reasons. Why allow the small high technology sector of a non-nuke “freeloading” country to benefit when AUKUS firms can benefit instead? Plus, AUKUS high technology sectors employ voters, have entrepreneurial lobbies and involve established economies of scale, so why share the Pillar Two market with what essentially would be a start-up upstart that has no political influence and electoral impact in the AUKUS countries themselves?

In effect, for operational as well as economic and political reasons, NZ involvement in Pillar Two is improbable. It will be briefed about Pillar Two as announced, but an invitation to join the endeavour faces opposition both from within and from without NZ. It therefore seems that the current government is engaging more in political and diplomatic posturing when it speaks of NZ’s involvement in Pillar Two rather than realistically assessing the prospects of that ever happening.

In that light, perhaps the fears of Pillar Two opponents are overblown?

A moment of friction.

In strategic studies “friction” is a term that it is used to describe the moment when military action encounters adversary resistance. “Friction” is one of four (along with an unofficial fifth) “F’s” in military strategy, which includes force (kinetic mass), fluidity (of manoeuvre), fog (of battle) as well as uncertainty (of outcomes, which is usually referred to in military circles as the “oh F**k” factor)). Friction comes from many causes, including terrain, countervailing force, psychological factors, the adversary’s broader capabilities and more. As German strategist Karl von Clausewitz noted, friction can be encountered at the three levels of warfare: strategic, operational and tactical.In other words, “Clausewitzian friction” is not just confined to the battlefield.

The notion of friction is drawn from the physical world and has many permutations. It is not confined to one particular element or dimension. It is about opposition, even if of similar elements or forces, including the element of will. For example, when they meet, fluids and air of different weights create turbulence. Fire on different fire extinguishes or expands. Earth on earth leads to crumbling or inertial momentum. The product of the combination of these physical forces, say fluid on air or earth or fire, depends on the relative weight of each. The same goes for psychological factors in human contests. Mutatis mutandis (i.e., with the necessary changes having been made), this is applicable to international relations. It may seem like a conceptual stretch but I see the use of the notion of friction in terms of international relations more as an example of conceptual transfer, using Clausewitz as a bridge between the physical and the political/diplomatic worlds (more on this later).

In the past I have written at length about the systemic realignment and long transition in post Cold War international relations. The phrase refers to the transition from a unipolar post-Cold War international system dominated by the US (as the “hegemon” of the liberal internationalist world order) to a multipolar system that includes rising Great Powers like the PRC and India and constellations of middle powers such as the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, South Africa and recently added members like Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Ethiopia and perhaps Argentina (if it ratifies its accession)) as representatives of the rising “Global South.” In spite of their differences, these rising power blocs are counterpoised against what remains of the liberal institutionalist order, including the EU, Japan, South Korea and Australia. I have noted that the long moment of transition is characterised by international norm erosion and increased rule violations and the consequent emergence of conflict as the systems regulator until a new status quo is established (and from which that new status quo emerges). That conflict may come in many guises–economic, diplomatic, cultural and, perhaps inevitably, military or some combination thereof. When conflicts turn military, the moment of force has arrived. And when force is met by opposing force, then friction is inevitable.

Here I extend the notion of friction to include the international moment that we are currently living in. That is, I have conceptually transferred the notion of friction to the international arena because “transfer” in this instance means applying the notion of friction to a wider environment beyond the physical plane without distorting its original meaning. That allows me to avoid the methodologically dubious practice of conceptual stretching (where a term is stretched and distorted from its original meaning in order to analytically fit a different type of thing).

The long transitional moment is what has taken us to this point and allowed me to undertake the transfer, and it is here in the transitional trajectory from unipolar to multipolar international systems where the future global status quo will be defined. It is a decisive moment because it is the period where force has become the major arbiter of who rises and who falls in the systemic transitional shuffle. Given that there are many competitors in the international arena who are capable and willing to use force as well as other means to advance their interests, I suggest that the global community has reached its moment of friction, that is, the turning point in the long transitional process. Everything that has come before was the lead-in. Everything that comes after will be the result of this conflict-defined moment.

It is no exaggeration to write this. Besides the Ruso-Ukrainian war and the Israel-Hamas war, there is the armed stand-off in the Red Sea between Iran-backed Houthis and a naval coalition led but he US, the ongoing skirmishes between PRC naval forces and those of the Philippines, Vietnam and Western naval forces as well as the PRC military threats to Taiwan, the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict along the Israel-Lebanon border, Islamist violence in the Sahel and Eastern Africa as well as in Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other other parts of Central Asia, ongoing conflict in Syria between Assad’s Russian-backed forces, the remnants of ISIS and Western-backed rebels, the Turkish-Kurd conflict along the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi borders, the civil war in Libya, escalating fighting between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda over mineral rich areas in and around the eastern Congolese city of Goma (in which private military companies and irredentist militias are also involved), narco-violence in Latin America that has reached the level of challenging state monopolies over organised violence in places like Ecuador and parts of Mexico, piracy in the Indian Ocean and in the Malacca Straits, cross-border ethno-religious conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, the PRC and Gaza, tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea and more. Norms and rules governing interstate as well as domestic forms of collective behaviour are honoured in the breach, not as a matter of course. Individuals, groups and States are increasingly atomised in their perspectives and interactions and resort to the ultimate default option–conflict–to pursue their interests in the face of other’s opposition..

Friction extends to economics. The era of globalisation of free trade has ended as nations revert to post-pandemic protectionism or focus on “near-“and “friend-shoring” in order to avoid supply chain bottlenecks resultant from commodity production concentration in a small number of countries. Although not a trade pact strictly speaking, the PRC Belt and Road Initiative undermines Western trade agreements like the TPPA and lesser regional arrangements because it ties developmental assistance and financing to Chinese industries and markets. Intellectual property and technology theft is wide-spread despite International conventions against them (endnote just by the PRC). The era of Bretton Woods is over and the agencies that were its institutional pillars (like the World Bank, IMF and regional agencies such as the IADB and ADB) are now increasingly challenged by entities emerging from the Global South like the China Development Bank and BRICS common market initiatives.

In addition, as part of international norms erosion and rules violations, many diplomatic agreements and treaties such as those prohibiting the use of chemical weapons and even genocide are also now largely ignored because, in the end, there is no international enforcement capability to reinforce what is written. The International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court can impose sanctions and issue arrest warrants but have no enforcement authority of their own. The UN can authorise peace-keeping missions and issue resolutions but is subject to Security Council vetoes on the one hand and belligerent non-compliance in the other (besides Israel ignoring UN demands for a cease-fire and humanitarian pauses in Gaza, people may forget that there are UN peace keeping missions in the Sinai, Golan Heights and Israel-Lebanon border, including NZDF personnel among them, because these “blue helmet” missions have had no ameliorating impact on the behaviour of the participants in the Israel-Hamas-Hezbollah-Syria conflict). Adverse rulings in international courts have not stopped the PRC island-building and aggressive military diplomacy in the South China Sea. The examples are many. Given that state of affairs, States and other actors increasingly turn to force to pursue their interests.

Whatever restraint was promoted by the laws of war and international conflict-resolution institutions during the post-Cold War interregnum has been abandoned or become exceptions to the new anarchic rule. One might even say that the international community is increasingly living in a state of nature, even if the terms “anarchy” and “state of nature” are loose interpretations of what Hobbes wrote about when he considered the Leviathan of international politics. But the basic idea should be clear: the liberal internationalist system has broken down and a new order is emerging from the conflict landscape that characterises the contemporary international arena.

Again, the friction is not just things like the military confrontations between Russia, Russian and Iranian-backed proxies in the Middle East and the PRC against a range of Western and Western-oriented nations in the Western Pacific. The BRICS have proposed to develop a single unitary currency to rival the Euro and are openly calling for a major overhaul of international organizations and institutions that they (rightfully so), see as made by and for post-colonial Western interests. But the question is whether what they have in mind as a replacement will be any better in addressing the needs of the Global South while respecting the autonomy of the Global North. My hunch is that it will not, and will just add another front to the moment of friction.

I shall not continue enunciating the reasons why I believe that we have arrived at an international moment of friction (e.g. cultural degradation and social vulgarisation, etc.). That is because I cannot specify what will be come given that push has now led to shove, nor can I offer a solution set to the problems embedded in and underwriting this sorry moment. What I can say is, just like the fact that we need to learn to embrace uncertainty in the transitional process since outcomes are not assured and guarantees cannot be offered (although some industries like tobacco, liquor, weapons and insurance all profit during times of uncertainty and market hedging strategies become the common response of risk-adverse actors to uncertain economic times, so can be calculated or anticipated), so too we must, if not embrace, then learn to prepare for an era in which friction will be the dominant mode of international transaction for some time to come.

For small countries like NZ, repeating empty mantras about foreign policy “independence” no longer cuts it even as a slogan. The moment of international friction poses some existential questions about where NZ stands in the transitional process, how it will balance competing international interests when it comes to NZ foreign and security policy, and about who to side with when conflict comes.

Because it will.

Forget the date. This is no April Fools joke.

NZ on Hamas and Zionist Settlers.

Here is one for the road before I shut down for a while due to the previously mentioned family medical issues. It is about NZ designating Hamas as a terrorist entity, adding its political wing to the 2010 decision to call its armed wing a terrorist entity under the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act. I believe that the decision is mistaken. Here is why.

The move is more about tightening NZ’s alignment with its Western security partners with regard to the Israel-Hamas war and broader Middle East conflicts than about hindering Hamas’s ability to sustain itself. Hamas is supported by Iran and other states, so the move to sanction it under the TSA is more symbolic than substantive. It will have little discernible impact on Hamas’s operations other than to prevent it from hiding assets in NZ or receiving funding from it, be it by individuals or groups, under penalty of law. What it does allow is NZ to more fully commit to the anti-Houthi coalition now ring-fencing the Red Sea maritime channels because it can argue that the Houthis are supporters of a terrorist entity and therefore punishable as such (since the Houthis say that they support Hamas in its struggle with Israel and argue that their attacks on shipping are justified by Article 2 of the Convention on Preventing Genocide and are limited to Israel-bound or departing vessels and their naval support convoys).

However, most of the international community recognizes the difference between Hamas’s political and military wings, so NZ, its 5 Eyes partners and the EU (all of whom have designated both Hamas wings as terrorist entities) are at odds with the majority view. That view understands that resistance, revolutionary, nationalist and independence movements have armed and political wings that share broad objectives but behave according to principles of operational autonomy. Under those principles, armed wings provide coercive leverage that creates space for political wings to negotiate favorable settlements on disputed matters with adversaries. This is also a type of “moderate-militant” strategy that is a mainstay of collective action, but with armed force as the sharp end of the stick. Examples include the IRA and Sinn Fein (with whom the UK signed the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreements and the IRA laid down its weapons), the Taliban during the ISAF occupation (where its political wing based in Qatar negotiated the withdrawal of US and ISAF forces with the Trump administration, paving the way for the calamitous allied retreat and Taliban return in 2022), Kurdish separatists in Iraq (who fought to secure political autonomy from the central government in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein and US troop departure) and more. The point is that armed and political wings are, within the limits of operational autonomy, the yin and yang of many mass movements and enjoy a symbiotic relationship as a result. The relationship between political and armed wings may be akin to that of glove and fist, but the glove is a deliberate loose fit.

Under the principle of operational autonomy armed wings do not share information about real-time military details and planning with their political wings because that risks leaks and intentional or inadvertent disclosures that can be exploited by enemies. In turn, political wings do not share information about negotiating strategies that may involve compromises because that can risk backlash, division and fracture with militants in the armed wings, which are also exploitable by adversaries and often are lethal.

It is important to note that in the exercise of operational autonomy the armed and political wings of a mass movement aim to influence each other. The armed side wishes to present a fait accompli on the ground that backs the political wing into a bottom line negotiating corner when it comes to common enemies. That was the case with October 7. The political wing attempts to restrain the use of force and use the threat posed by the armed wing as a bargaining chip in order to extract concessions from its adversaries. That makes for a two-level game, one internal and one external. It is the internal dialectic between the two sides that ultimately determines the external strategy employed by the movement as a whole.

In other words, the two wings share broad strategic goals but not tactical approaches. Operational autonomy promotes operational security. That is why lumping the Hamas political wing (based in Qatar, as were the Taliban) with its military wing (based in Iran and Gaza) is a case of specious logic on the part of the NZ government. For security reasons the political wing was uninvolved in planning the October 7 attacks for which it is now blamed as a co-conspirator by NZ. It is still needed as a Palestinian agent if any negotiated settlement is to be achieved because like it or not, it will not be fully eliminated as a political entity even if the armed wing is destroyed (and even then, only temporarily). Denying that reality is misguided, especially since the Palestinian Authority is corrupt and discredited at home and abroad even if recognized by Western nations as a puppet Palestinian “government” in the occupied West Bank. With its foreign backers behind it, Hamas is here to stay regardless of how it is “designated” by NZ and others. (As an aside, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are currently in talks in Moscow about a post-war Palestinian government, which shows that at least the PA understands the reality of the situation).

Put another way: For those who think that cutting off recognition of Hamas is a good idea, remember that there must be someone to talk to if a resolution to the war is to be had. They will not be destroyed because they are more than an army–they are an ideological movement that will outlive its militant fighters. You may not like them, and in fact hate them, but like Israel itself, they will not go away. Best then to talk to their political wing even as part of a divide and conquer strategy because the ultimate resolution is political, not military.

The NZ decision on Hamas also demonstrates the lie that is the claim that NZ enjoys foreign policy independence, since NZ has simply bowed to the wishes of its 5 Eyes and other Western security partners against a rising tide of global public opinion about the Hamas-Israel war. That, in the words of a former NZ PM, is the price for being in the Anglo-centric big boys “club.” But there is more costs involved–that of the impact on NZ’s international reputation as a good global citizen and honest interlocutor.

The NZ government also declared that it was imposing travel bans on about a dozen Israeli settlers know to have committed violent acts against Arabs in the West Bank. But let’s be clear: that is just trying to have a diplomatic bob each way when it comes to Israel and Hamas, since the chances of Zionist extremists seeking to travel to NZ is about the same as finding a nun in a brothel. That makes it an empty symbolic gesture rather than an effective diplomatic tool.

It is said that the currency of diplomacy is forged by hypocrisy. NZ’s behaviour with regard to Israel and Hamas is a case in point.

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.