Thoughts about Key’s Afghan PR Exercise.

I have seen and read the reports of John Key’s much anticipated “secret” trip to Afghanistan.  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 Afghan detour to the Gallipoli celebration trip. The unfortunate RNZAF chopper accident on ANZAC day forced a change of plans so that the PM could attend  the funerals of the ill-fated crew, but that only added to his  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?  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 that is awash in visits by heavy-hitters from a number of countries, Mr. Key is more like  an anchovy.  Moreover, heavily weighted  Western motorcades involving a half dozen armoured SUVs and armed escort vehicles are not immune to roadside bombs (and I bet he traveled in the third or fourth vehicle). In fact, given that they have to travel on main arteries and disrupt local traffic and pedestrian flows as they do so, convoys such as Mr. Key’s actually make for better targets for opportunistic guerrillas deeply embedded in a resentful local population (especially where well-prepared guerillas can deploy efffective IEDs on five minutes notice). If 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 SAS operations centre (which is likely to be on the Afghan military 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 how much it tells us about his sincerity in wanting to understand the conditions that NZ 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 you must not use this post to score political points because to my mind you are little better when it comes to partisan  issues such as this>>

In defending their role, Mr. Key  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 (even if we accept the argument that they did so in “support” roles, which is ludicrous), requires that the SAS  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 of  plausible deniability (that is, because Mr. Key may have believed the lie to be true because his advisers or the NZDF command told him to take their 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?  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 that 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.  As for the aircraft photos: staged 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.”

Being pro-Israel is not to be pro-Zionist or anti-Palestinian. To be anti-occupation is not anti-Semetic.

One of the ironies of the perennial Middle Eastern conflict is how the Western democratic Left shifted from a pro-Israeli position (held until the 1970s), to an anti-Israeli position during the last three decades. Much of this is Israel’s own fault, as its continued expansion into, and occupation of Palestinian lands in violation of the 1967 and 1973 war settlements, to say nothing of the Camp David accords, has re-cast its image to that of an imperialist oppressor rather than besieged liberal democracy surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab despots and medieval theocratic zealots.

 

Yet Israel remains the sole functioning democracy in Middle East (Turkey is further afield and excluded from this analysis for argument purposes), one that if, in a process of increasing decay (think the Olmert and Sharon corruption scandals),  internal polarisation (think of the political ascendence of the rabid orthodox Right and its impact on Israeli settlement policy) and restrictions on the political  and civil rights of Arab Israelis and the Arab inhabitants of the occupied territories, remains in stark contrast to the autocracies or facade democracies that, even if pro-Western, surround it. In terms of social toleration, gender and economic equality, and freedom of expression, Israel remains ahead of all of its neighbours. In fact, Israel is a classic social democracy whose betrayal of its basic principles has also been seen in the negative fortunes of its Labour Party, something that has only been partially been compensated by a rising peace movement in opposition to Likud and its religious zealot allies (it should be noted that most of the orthodix Jewish zealots are fairly recent foreign immigrants from the US and Russia, and not second or third generation Israelis).

 

But the view that Israel, in spite of its grave flaws, remains a country worth supporting  is a view that can no longer be safely voiced in Left circles and is in fact now a minority opinion. Instead, the Palestianian struggle has become the main Left cause celebre as an expression of anti-imperialism, no matter that both Hamas and Fatah are intensely authoritarian political organisations with little socialist inclination, the former acting not only as militant counter to the “betraying” moderation (and corruption) of the latter, but also acting as a proxy (along with Hizbullah) for Iranian influence in the Eastern Mediterrean (Iran being an elected authoritarian-theocratic regime in which basic civil liberties are, to put it gently,  seriously curtailed). Moreover, Hamas in government in Gaza has been anything but democratic in its treatment of internal dissent, so even if it was voted in fairly (much to the US and Israel’s dismay), it has not made good on its promises to bring democratic governance to its beleaguered people. The larger point being that Israel may suck as a democracy, but its neighbours and opponents may suck just as bad or worse.

 

Thus, if one is on the Left side of the Western political spectrum and expresses a sympathy for Israel in spite of its flaws, even if only in comparison to its neighbours and the character of Palestinian political society,  then one risks being pilloried by ideologically kindred spirits.

 

On the other hand, if one points out the illegality of Israeli occupation of land in Gaza and the West Bank, and the illegality of the ongoing settlement of Palestianian lands, and/or notes the deterioration of Israeli democracy, then one risks being labeled an anti-Semite by Israeli sympathizers and the political Right. These see no fault in Israel and no good in Palestianians. Their fear of Islamicism overrides their concern Israel’s political decadence and its overtly bellicose approach to regional affairs. They see and hear no evil when it comes to Israel.

 

There is no point in arguing, as many do, about who came first to that part of the world–Jews, Arabs or Christians. Arguing about who came first 2000+ years ago does not advance one iota the prospects for a peaceful settlement of current disputes (there is a parallel here to the “we were here first” arguments of some Maori activists). Nor does it do any good to re-visit the circumstances surrounding Israel’s founding as a nation-state (much like there is little point in arguing the legitimacy of European colonisation of Aotearoa). The fact is that Israel (like Pakeha) is (are) not going anywhere.

 

Israel is here to stay regardless of whether its neighbours or non-state adversaries may wish it not to or plan for its demise. Thus, the real point of departure for any prospect for peace is admission of the fact. Sadat recognised this and paid for it with his life. In turn Rabin recognised that Israel needed to deal as equals with its Palestianian counterparts and paid for that view with his life. Perhaps it is fair to say, then, that there are those on both sides (and inside and outside the Middle East) who have a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict rather than solving it, and they do so by dredging up historical grievances and past offenses as one means of doing so.

 

Needless to say there is a fair bit of anti-Semeticism in the opposition to Israel, particularly that voiced in Muslim and some Christian fundamentalist circles. And, needless to say, the heretofore seemingly blind US support for Israel has very much made it the tail that wags the US dog when it comes to Middle Eastern policy and has contributed to Israeli intransigence and defiance when it addresses international conventions (something that may be shifting as a result of the Netanyahu government’s latest affronts to US attempts to re-start the so-called “peace process”). But opposition to Israeli occupation is not reducible to anti-Semeticism or anti-US beliefs. Instead, it can rest on a principled opposition to illegal behaviour on the part of a democratic state that more than most should understand the long-term consequences of oppression and inequality. Israel may continue to feel besieged (although truth be told many Arab states de facto accept its existance, so much of the siege mentality is driven by domestic ideological competition) but much of the opposition to it now has to do not with its origins or ethno-religious character but with its current behaviour.

 

The current rift in US-Israeli relations is a moment to drive that point home, devoid of the emotional and ideological baggage that has impeded rational discussion about the way forwards towards a durable peace. It remains to be seen whether those with a vested interest in perpetuating the conflict, be they from the Left or Right, will accept that to be the case.

 

Forewarning: Comments that attempt to rehash historical disputes (i.e. the “who came first” or “Israel’s founding was illegal” arguments) will be deleted simply because they add nothing to what has been said ad nauseum already. Likewise for personal attacks on what some might take to be my position one way or the other. In the latter case the point will have been missed that what I am trying to do here is steer a middle course through the ideological minefield that surrounds discussion of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. 

Outsourcing Counter-Espionage.

The SIS recently released its 2008-2009 annual report. I will be analyzing it in further detail in a future “Word from Afar” column over at Scoop. However, I thought I would provide readers with a glimpse of one aspect of its activities that called my attention.

On page 14 (out of 29) of the report, in the section titled “Intelligence and Advice to Government,” under the heading “Counter-Espionage,” the following quote summarizes the SIS approach towards countering foreign espionage activities in NZ: “The Counter-Espionage (CE) efforts identifies and frustrates acts of espionage against New Zealand or New Zealanders. We give advice to internal and external stakeholders and disrupt, where appropriate and usually via a third party, espionage activities prejudicial to New Zealand’s national security” (emphasis mine).

Beyond the fact that the SIS does not mention whether, in fact, any foreign espionage actually occurred during the time period in question (I would assume that it did), much less the precise nature of such activities, two points in that sentence are worth noting. First, the mention of external stakeholders. Who might they be? It is obvious who the internal stakeholders are-the government and other NZ agencies. But who, exactly, are the external stakeholders? Who would have a “stake-holding” interest in foreign espionage activities in or involving NZ: Australia? France? The US? UK? Private agents/ies?

That brings up the second and more interesting point. The SIS claims that it usually disrupts foreign espionage via “a third party.” Again, who is this party or parties? We can assume that the SIS uses the Police, the GCSB (for electronic and technical counter-measures), the NZDF and perhaps Customs and other government security agencies as part of this effort (since it would be alarming if it it used just one third party for all of its counter-espionage “disruption” tasks). But does the reference to third parties include foreign governments and/or private or non-governmental agencies such as private security firms? Given that private security agencies have recently spied on environmental activists on behalf of  public and private corporations in NZ, it is not a stretch to wonder if this type of out-sourcing is also used by the SIS. Such a privatization of intelligence operations opens a potential cans of worms with regards to civil rights and the blurring of the lines between proper governmental authority and profit-driven interest. If indeed private agencies are used for counter-intelligence operations, who are they? Does that include foreign firms as well as NZ privateers (such as Xe, the re-branded name for Blackwater, which has its own intelligence and counter-intelligence branches)? Hence, an explanation as to who are these third parties appears to be in order (not that I expect that we will receive one).

Moreover, could it be possible that the SIS also contracts to foreign governments counter-intelligence tasks on NZ soil or on behalf of NZ “interests?” Is that not a violation of sovereignty? Or is it simply expedient to do so given NZ’s lack of capabilities in this field?  Does the public have a right to know about such things? More specifically, does the parliamentary committee on intelligence and security (all 5 members) have knowledge of who these third parties are? If so, are they content with the arrangement, and on what specific grounds (such as oversight and accountability)? Again, the questions raised by this simple mention in the SIS report are both numerous and troubling.

I will leave for the larger essay the implication that the SIS does not have the capability to engage in counter-espionage operations on its own, particularly in its human component. That is worrisome in itself, but also is the reason for the third party outsourcing.

The full report is here: http://img.scoop.co.nz/media/pdfs/1002/nzsisar09.pdf

Fragile Democracy, Authoritarian Persistence and Strategic Competition in the Western Pacific Rim.

That is the title of the talk I will be giving at the AUT Pacific Media Centre in Auckland on Friday February 12 at 5PM. I am starting to formulate the bases of the talk now because I arrive in Auckland just a couple of days before it happens, so I thought that I would kill two birds with one stone by outlining my thoughts on the matter here. Call it a trial run.

For all the comment about growth, Asian Values and a geopolitical shift towards the East, SE Asia (Indochina) and the Western Pacific are a region suffering from poor governance, primordial divisions and simmering conflict. All of this is influenced by the US-China competition for influence in the Western Pacific, and has significant consequences for the long-term future of places like New Zealand.  Let me outline the major reasons why.

1) Democracy. Where and such as it exists, democracy in SE Asia and the Pacific is a joke. Looking from the South China Sea southwards, the “democracies” in question–Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand (if it can be called that),  the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and those grouped under the rubric of the Pacific Island Forum, are hotbeds of populist demagoguery, corruption, criminal influence, ethno- religious division and electoral manipulation. With the exception of Indonesia, which has made good strides towards holding legitimately open and competitive elections and which has seen the “democratization” of civil-military relations for the first time in its history (but which below the procedural level remains profoundly authoritarian), the state of democracy throughout the Western Pacific Rim is pallorous to say the least. Taiwan is essentially rule by organised crime with a semi-civilised electoral facade using Cold War ideological precepts as dividing points (the same corporate/criminal networks fund and provide organisational support to both major parties and economic prosperity buys off any pointed examination of the regime). The Philippines and Malaysia are oligarchic rule with populist veneers in which ethnic and religious appeals contribute to centrifugal, often outright conflictual political competition (Malaysia still has Sultanates who lord over their geographic areas and the Philippines has regional overlords who rule as neo-feudal political bosses). Thailand is a certifiable basket case on too many levels to count (e.g., thieving politicians, sectarian mobs, a comatose monarch that cannot be criticised because of purportedly god-like attributes, a seriously fractured military hierarchy involved in political skullduggery and murder). East Timor is a failed state that has shown little or no signs of development in spite of millions of dollars of UN aid and a contingent of Kiwi, Australian and Portuguese peacekeepers and civilian nation-building advisers. The Cooks, New Caledonia and Tahiti are post-colonial protectorates in which what gets protected is the corporate interests and life-style of the servitor local elite. Or in other words, the Pacific Island democracies are oligarchic or crony rule by another name.

That gives legitimacy to the authoritarians in their midst. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore are all relatively “soft” authoritarian regimes with electoral facades. Myanmar is a hard authoritarian regime whose best trading partners are its authoritarian neighbors (especially Singapore, and to the North, China). Brunei is a semi-medieval oil Sultanate. Fiji is a military-bureaucratic regime, Tonga is a degenerate monarchy that Samoa is working hard to emulate.  All of these dictatorships, be they junta, party, personalist or elected in nature, point to the inefficiencies and disorder of their democratic neighbours as “proof” that Western style (read: liberal) democracy is ill-suited for Asian/Pacific societies. Often couched in “Asian Value” or “Island style” arguments (which is no more than an ideological justification based on revisionist historical interpretations by authoritarian elites that have no basis in current actual fact), the authoritarian claim is that the Asian and Pacific Island psyche and civil society (such as it exists) is simply not amenable to Western-imposed democratic standards. There may be some truth to the Asian civil society argument, because there is a noticeable absence of volunteerism and solidarity with non-ethnic, religious or linguistic kin regardless of common nationality. But that is not the issue. Whatever the root cause, the bottom line is that the quality of democracy in the Pacific Rim is poor at best, miserable at worst, and in all cases a comparative justification for authoritarians throughout the region writ large.

2) Arms races. SE Asia is in the midst of a dramatic arms race. Fueled by strong economic growth and spurred by emerging power rivals China and India’s military modernization programs, every single country in SE Asia is upgrading and expanding its military capabilities. All of the SE Asian countries spend more than 3% of GDP on “defense,” (in line with Chinese and Indian outlays as a percentage of GDP),  with some like Singapore allocating 6% of GDP to  its military. Beyond the controversial US weapons sale to Taiwan that has the Chinese in a snit, Malaysia has ordered new submarines and an entire tactical air wing from European and Russian suppliers. The Singaporeans, Thais, Filipinos and Indonesians are preferred US weapons customers all in the midst of major force upgrades, whereas Myanmar purchases a mix of Chinese, North Korean and Western weaponry (often using Singapore as a conduit and middleman). In the case of the authoritarians, defense expenditures include regime defense as well as external threat deterrence and countervailing. The democracies focus more on a mix of internal security and traditional external concerns. This has led, among other things, to a counter-insurgency focus in the Philippines and Thailand (in which Islamicist insurgencies show no signs of being defeated), with external defense taking a secondary role, whereas in Indonesia and Malaysia the external defense role is now paramount. Among other things, the mix of strategic perspectives and push to rearm has led to armed border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia (over the border placement of a temple), Vietnam and Cambodia, and Myanmar and Cambodia (one might argue from this that the Cambodians have issues). Malaysia has picked arguments with both Indonesia and Singapore about relative weapons capabilities, piracy and border controls. The reason why these fragile democracies act belligerently is that irresponsible politicians pursuing electoral agendas engage in both domestic ethnic/religious/race-baiting as well as jingoistic appeals in order to consolidate popular support. Be it originated in government or opposition, these appeals have a corrosive effect on both domestic democratic tolerance as well as regional peace. Even piracy, a problem that all of the region’s governments agree is a common scourge, is in fact abetted by willful government inaction–for example, Malaysian pirates ply the Eastern Malaysian coast with some impunity (especially east of Tiomen Island and North of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), while Indonesian pirates do the same in the Western reaches of the Malaccan Straits. In each case the pursuit of pirates is seen by rivals as a drain on military resources better spent elsewhere, which makes passive facilitation of pirate activity a neat form of low-level proxy attritional warfare. The same goes for cross-border guerrilla havens (say, in northern Malaysia or Sabah), where insurgents are provided sanctuary by governments with ethno-religious rather than national interests at the heart of their concerns.

3) The China-US strategic competition. Since I have written about this before I shall not repeat myself. The bottom line here is that the competition between the US and China over strategic influence in the Western Pacific Rim has seen both powers increasingly disregard issues of good governance in favor of straight influence-peddling. This adds to the issues mentioned above, as arms and influence buy favors in a measure that principled support for democracy does not. Beyond so-called cash diplomacy, foreign aid and military-to-military relations, this includes ostensibly “free” trade relations with authoritarians or weak democrats whose interests are more self-serving than what the language of trade agreements suggests, and who use the legitimating mantle of trade with liberal democratic states as further proof that their rule is just.

I shall leave aside for the moment the role of organised crime in all of this, particularly with regard to its relationship to trade and elected government. Suffice it to say that the picture is not pretty.

Thus my tentative prognosis is that, rather than moving towards an era of peace, stability and growth in the Western Pacific, we are about to find out what the dark side of globalisation looks like, at least in terms of its manifestation in this part of the world. And that can be summed up in one word: conflict, both of an internal as well as of a cross-border sort.

Lesson for the NZ government (not that it would listen): Know exactly who you are dealing with and the context in which your dealings occur. Be risk adverse, pragmatic and principled in your approach to medium term futures. Hedge against uncertainty  and beware of the temptation of  positive short-term economic horizons that are divorced from the political risk environments in which they occur. Do not allow ideological belief to blind you to the political, social and economic realities on the ground. This is not a Lehman Brothers world–and it ain’t Confucian either.

Blog Link: Why the NZDF is in Afghanistan

Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist  ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation. 

To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.

On resuming intelligence sharing with the US.

I must confess that this one has me stumped. In her joint press conference with Murray McCully today, Hillary Clinton said that the US would resume intelligence-sharing with NZ as a sign of the strengthened security ties between the two countries.  It might have been a slip of the tongue, but McCully seemed unfazed and the comment was made as part of her prepared remarks, so it appears that the mention was deliberate. But what does it really mean? The US and NZ already share signal intelligence streams via the Echelon network, which has two collection stations on NZ soil. The NZSAS has a least one officer seconded to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia (as well as NZSAS liaison officers designated to  MI-6 in the UK, ASIO in Canberra, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the French DGSE).  The CIA more than likely has a station officer in Wellington (most likely a political (affairs) officer). These connections presumably are already involved in intelligence sharing. So what gives?

Since I am not privy to the decision-making involved, let me just speculate on what this announcement may mean. A few weeks back word slipped out that NZ had intelligence operatives in Afghanistan. Then the NZSAS were deployed there (to Kabul, as it turns out, in a counter-terrorism and CT training role rather than their previous long range patrol and reconnaissance role, which is an interesting story in itself). Putting these two lines together, I suspect that what Mrs. Clinton was alluding to was a resumption of tactical intelligence sharing between US and NZ forces in theater (rather than first report back to their respective superiors at home and allow the bosses to determine what gets shared). This would obviously be of priority in Afghanistan, but frees up US and NZ intelligence collectors to share information throughout areas of mutual interest such as the Western Pacific Rim. On the latter, subjects of mutual interest could include Chinese intelligence and military activities in the region (as alluded to in the Scoop series I linked to last month), money laundering and arms trafficking, organised crime activities (which would also be shared with INTERPOL), as well as leadership analysis and political and  economic trend forecasts.

More broadly, what this means is that NZ is returning to the US fold on security matters. If Australia is the US sheriffs deputy in the Southern Hemisphere, NZ under National is positioning to become the deputy’s adjunct. What is different is not just the extent of the bilateral cooperation involved, but the fact that the Ozzies make no bones about their belief that their middle power aspirations are tied to the US mantle, whereas NZ has carefully cultivated an image of being a neutral and honest broker in international affairs. With this revelation, that image is bound to be altered, and it remains to be seen if the benefits of closer security relations with the US (which I do not necessarily object to based on the principle of necessity) may translate into to a loss of mana, reputation and prestige in the eyes of the larger international community. Perhaps the diplomatic community is jaded enough to understand that pragmatism requires that NZ play all sides of the fence, that “it has to do what it has to do,”and that its rhetorical lip service is a mere cover to its real, pro-US orientation (I touched on this in the previous post titled “John Key Rides the Fence”). However, I wonder how the Chinese, Malaysians, Iranians and Arab trading partners will feel about this revelation, to say nothing of European partners who have trusted NZ to speak to truth to power on issues as varied as non-proliferation and environmental sustainability. Although Mrs. Clinton was at pains to laud NZ’s role on the latter two subjects, it remains to be seen what (negative or positive) spill-over effects may occur as a result of this closer bilateral security relationship, or, as National will undoubtably argue, whether the issue of intelligence sharing is safely “compartmentalized” and thereby insulated from the broader foreign policy direction of the National government. In three years we should know, but by then the consequences, good or bad, will be inescapable.

Is Iran a Menace?

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

John Rides the Fence

Besides serving as a prop for some Letterman piss-taking, John Key’s visit to the the UN allows us to finally see the contours of National’s foreign policy. It can be captured in a neat phrase: firmly straddling the fence.

At the UN Mr. Key made all the right noises, speaking about fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions, supporting multilateral approaches to conflict resolution and nation-building, promoting free trade and economic transparency. But his actions elsewhere speak volumes about what National really intends, at least in core areas of international relations. I shall break them down in order of importance to NZ.

On trade, NZ is gradually but decisively shifting to an Asian/Middle East orientation. National clearly sees that NZ’s competitive advantage lies in its traditional comparative advantage in primary good and derivative exports rather than value added manufacturing (except in niche industries such as weapons componentry). The bulk market for primary goods and their derivatives is in the East not the West, and even if certain NZ niche export industries such as wine prosper in the advanced liberal democracies, National’s future bet is with consumption growth in Asian and Middle Eastern autocracies. The recent championing of the growth in NZ-PRC trade since the 2008 bilateral FTA was signed demonstrates that National cares less about the after-entry effects of the FTAs (to say: labour market conditions, environmental standards, corporate responsibility to share holders and the general political climate in which export/import Kiwis make their money) and more about profit generated from trade volume growth.

On aid, NZ is privatizing the lot. The recent NZ$1 Million disaster relief assistance offered to Samoa and Tonga notwithstanding (already in the NZAID budget formulated by the Fifth Labour government, and directed to an afflicted area where the cost of recovery will run into the US$ 100 millions), the focus of NZ aid assistance under National, as Lew mentioned in a post a while back, is to promote private entrepeneurship and trade rather than poverty alleviation and social welfare. Moreover, the broader philosophical instinct betrayed by this approach is the National disbelief in nation-building efforts. Now it is clear that National believes that nation-building is a self-help issue: no matter if there are intractable pre-modern conflicts at play, or the  prospects for peace and security for millions are at stake, the answer is to promote capitalist entrepeneurship. In other words, the pursuit of profit trumps all humanitarian concerns when it comes to National’s approach to using taxpayer dollars to provide foreign aid. For National market approaches and trickle down effects are all that is needed to make the world right.

(I should note that this market fetish is now reaching deep into university planning schemes and in efforts to attract foreign fees paying students. As I have experienced directly, the impact on quality of instruction is negatively impacted by the rush to profit from ‘bums in seats.’)

Then, of course, there is national security. Here market logics may or may not apply. National has ramped up its commitment to play the role of Australia junior, which is to say a role in which it actively participates in the foreign military missions of its traditional partners. Afghanistan is the testing point for this re-orientation, because National has re-committed the NZSAS to front line combat duties while at the same time signaling its intention to withdraw the NZDF nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) contingent in Bayiman province. Something tells me that the costs of the NZSAS re-deployment will largely be borne by others (which makes it affordable),  whereas the PRT came mostly at NZ expense (whcih makes it unaffordable in spite of its excellent work). It appears that cost-cutting without principle abounds in these NACTIONAL daze. Given National’s downplaying of nation-building efforts in favour of market-driven logics, the Bayiman PRT is gone-burger (incidentally, the majority of the people who inhabit Bayiman are traditionally the slaves/servants of Pushtuns, so they are natural allies of UN/NATO reconstruction efforts).

So, on security issues National wants to curry favour with Australia, the US and the UK. On trade grounds it wants to curry favour with China, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to mention just a few favoured trade partners. At the same time it appeases the UN with platitudes about environmental protection, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is a three-sided foreign policy that is designed to be all things to all people divided into selected audiences. Although professional diplomats will work admirably to overcome the difficulties in reconciling these positions under the “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy stance that has obtained since 1990, one has to wonder–beyond the ridicule incurred by not even getting an invite to sit down and talk with the host on the American TV show but instead agreed to lip-read a bunch on American written deprecatory one-liners– if John Key’s loins not were chaffing under the strain of keeping a straight face while enunciating what is basically a  (N.8) wire-top foreign policy for the next three years.

PS–the NZ bid for a rotating Security Council seat is another case of splitting the difference. NZ will clearly be western on security matters but as a small state with an Asian trade orientation, will toe the multilateralist, non-interventionist “open border for trade” policy line, all the while getting to have a temporary say in how threats to the international community are perceived. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. That places its trade orientation at odds with its security stance (since Iran has become a major export destination). Presumably MFAT has thought this one through and contingency planned accordingly.

Blog Link: China on the Horizon, Part One.

I have been working on a project focused on the growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific. It will eventually materialise as a magazine or journal article, but as I worked on the draft I decided it would make for a decent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop. Because of its length I have cut it into two parts as well as expanded or modified some aspects of the original text. This first part explores China’s growing influence in the Southwestern Pacific Rim.

Next week I shall cover the US response.