Fiddling While It Burns

Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

Leave a Comment

Photo: Department of Defence

I’ve got a piece published on Crikey. An extract:

Part of the problem is that military expertise is simply not accepted as real expertise. Current and former military personnel are treated as biased and unreliable. Consider Senator Bob Brown’s admission on The 7:30 Report last night to having never sought a Defence briefing on Afghanistan to confirm his strongly held position; similarly, an academic recently told me that Lateline was irresponsible for interviewing David Kilcullen on Afghanistan, because his position makes him biased. To some, the only time soldiers can be telling the truth is when they’re criticising the war or their superiors.


A different kind of war


Here’s a project I did for radio journalism. I think the biggest failure of the news media around Afghanistan is not giving interested generalists an understanding of the strategies and realities, instead preferring to sensationalise and trivialise, so I’ve tried to cover some of the basics of counterinsurgency, a doctrine central to understanding what’s happening in Afghanistan right now.

A different kind of war

The bravery and tragedy of the local war correspondent

Leave a Comment

I found this story particularly moving.

Picture: NYTimes

August 31, 2010, 7:30 pm

A Colleague Killed, a Conversation Cut Short

Correspondents who covered the war in Iraq are reflecting on their time there and the official end of U.S. combat operations. James Glanz covered Iraq from 2004 to 2008.

On my last afternoon in Iraq, in December 2008, I drove to a graveyard in Baghdad to have a conversation with Khalid Hassan, who had been dead for over a year. All I could do when I got there was kneel in the dust and say, over and over, “I’m sorry.”

Maybe it’s my own bias, but hearing about the death of locally-employed journos in war zones always seems particularly poignant to me. Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece.

<!– — Updated: 9:06 pm –>

Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did


Sometimes I forget just how beautifully Glenn Greenwald can describe the problems with mainstream journalism. From

“Media stars will spend ample time flamboyantly commemorating Cronkite’s death as though he reflects well on what they do…. In fact, within Cronkite’s actual moments of real journalism one finds the essence of journalism that today’s modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.”

It’s a pretty narrative story so I recommend reading the whole thing.

In the post-Bush world, many have been just a little too keen to move on, without reflection or reform. The fact is, everything that happened in the last 8 years was due to the failure of those who should have done something about it, from Congress to the courts to the electorate.

Painted Into a Corner


Things have gotten crazy with China.

Wait... what happened? Photo: AAP/ Dave Hunt, via ABC.

Wait... what happened? Photo: AAP/ Dave Hunt, via ABC.

The Rudd government has faced criticism for its close relationship with the Chinese government from the start. Kevin Rudd’s facility with Mandarin was an important factor in making him look like a modern alternative to the Sino-phobic John Howard in the 2007 election, but in government it was clearly a double-edged sword, with the Coalition quickly implying that Labor’s loyalties might lie a little too close to Beijing. It first became an issue through Joel FitzGibbon’s foolishness, and has been potential political dynamite, particularly when it comes to state-owned Chinese companies buying Australian mines.

Look at this photo. It is a truly great photo. You can see in (Australian Foreign Minister) Stephen Smith’s eyes that he suddenly sees exactly where everything is going.

From the ABC:

Detained Rio exec accused of spying

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith has revealed that an Australian employee of the mining giant Rio Tinto has been arrested in China on suspicion of spying.

It seems – seems – like this is some sort of fit of pique on behalf of some part of the Chinese government, a retaliation for the rejection of advances to buy a stake in Rio Tinto.

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

Last month the miner turned its back on a long-running courtship from the state-owned company Chinalco, and is presently engaged in tense iron ore price negotiations.

Barnaby Joyce certainly thinks so – from ABC Radio National’s PM program:

The Nationals leader in the Senate, Barnaby Joyce, says he believes that the failure of the state-owned Chinalco to buy an 18 per cent stake in Rio Tinto could be behind the arrest….

BARNABY JOYCE: Well we know that four of them worked for Rio. We know that they disappeared in Shanghai. We know that they’re held by an arm of the Chinese Government. The reason for them being held, we don’t know. We know that we’re failing to get proper diplomatic access to them, to Mr Stern Hu. And what we can deduct is that there’d have to be a relationship between Chinalco’s failure in its purchase of Rio and the ramifications that go beyond a state-owned enterprise all the way to the Chinese Government.

That all these state-owned enterprises and the Chinese Government itself or the Communist People’s Republic of China’s Government, is one and the same and ramifications to one is ramifications to all.

BRIGID GLANVILLE: So what makes you think there’s a link between Chinalco and its battle to buy a stake in Rio Tinto?

BARNABY JOYCE: Well I suppose I only have to look at the blog sites after the bid failed and to realise and that there was an immense well of feeling held in china. They felt that they’d been personally slighted. But of course even these personal slights are scripted via the Chinese Government and the Chinese Government I think we shouldn’t confuse with the Chinese people. But what we should acknowledge is that the direct ownership of state-owned enterprises by the Communist People’s Republic of China is part of the same plan.

All investments overseas go through a central organising authority to where they’re going to purchase overseas and that the disappearance of these four people, one of whom is an Australian citizen, if it’s nothing to do with Rio, then why can’t we get diplomatic access to them and find out exactly what’s going on.

Australia has always been caught in China’s gravity well to some extent, but the People’s Republic meteoric rise over the last decade became a crucial part of Australia’s prosperity. The choice of the Rudd government (and the more grudging choice of the Howard government) was to embrace this rather than resist it. However, now Labor is learning the disadvantages of a realist foreign policy – that is, if you abandon principle, you are no longer protected by it. When your best friend the expansionist totalitarian empire starts acting like one, no one can feel too sorry for you.

Labor is caught between a rock and a hard place. They must either try and exert some leverage to force the Rio Tinto employees’ release (which would likely fail miserably while causing an enormous and expensive international rift), or do nothing and brave the wrath of an Australian electorate who already thinks they are giving too much ground to foreigners. This incident makes it clear that, no matter how close Labor might consider their relationship with China, the Chinese government is running its own agenda, and will happily run roughshod over their allies in Australia if it suits them.

If you’ve ever had a falling dream, you know the sense of horrible inevitability as you wait for your body to hit the ground. That’s the sensation you’re seeing when you look into Stephen Smith’s eyes.

Of course, there’s always the chance that the four Rio Tinto employees were actually stealing state secrets – a possibility that Stephen Smith will be desperately hoping for right now.

Playing chicken with the lives of others

Leave a Comment

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

No rush to placate North Korea

Hamish McDonald

June 20, 2009

There are several countdowns going on in North Korea, all of them related to the survivability of Kim Jong-il’s regime. One is to a deployable nuclear arsenal, with the markers being the test explosions of plutonium bombs (two so far) and firings of the three-stage missiles intended to carry the warheads.

Another is to the leadership succession, following Kim Jong-il’s reported stroke last year, his gaunt reappearance and the apparent nomination of his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent.

A third is the largely overlooked rundown of North Korea’s food stocks. According to some analysis from Seoul, supplies of food staples for most of its 23 million people will run out by the end of next month, and for the regime’s nomenklatura a month or so later.

 This article nicely sums up a game that’s been going on for a long time. Basically, the West (here including South Korea and Japan) has all the leverage it should need over North Korea: the nation starves to death or grinds to a halt not long after they stop feeding it and supplying it with oil. The only cards North Korea holds are nuclear brinksmanship and a potential first strike on Seoul or Japan, and the lives of its peasantry. Between one and the other North Korea has managed to get what it needs to keep going for two decades after the end of the Cold War.

The combination of unwillingness to starve millions of North Koreans, and unwillingness to risk major regional destabilisation, such as a Korean peninsula at war (and the millions of lives a North Korean first-strike could easily cost), has meant that North Korea can offer to unload the gun when it’s in dire straits, as it did last year when it appeared to be accepting some extent of de-nuclearisation when harvests were low,  then never actually follow through, as this year when it refused access to agreed-upon observers and followed up with nuclear and missile testing

The Obama administration is playing hardball right now, refusing to concede to North Korea’s demands:

Neither Washington nor Seoul is rushing to placate the North Koreans. “I’m tired of buying the same horse twice,” the US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, said. Meeting Lee Myong-bak this week, Obama said he would end a “cycle” in which North Korea created nuclear crises to win food, fuel and other concession, before inventing excuses to start again. “This is a pattern they’ve come to expect,” Obama said. “We are going to break that pattern.”

Calling North Korea’s bluff is a dangerous game. Obama is proposing to corner the regime; no one is yet sure how Pyongyang will react. They will certainly sacrifice millions of North Korean lives to starvation before yielding. We can assume that if Obama is still willing to sabre-rattle like this, he has reliable evidence that the North Koreans have yet to weaponise their nuclear capabilities, but conventional forces are more than enough to destroy Seoul.

The moment of reckoning may seem to be coming with North Korea, but it’s seemed to come every year or so for the last decade. We’ll have to watch and see whether it actually comes this time.

Iranian protests continue

The first genuine massacre of protestors has been reported from Iran. Barack Obama has issued his first statement firmly supporting protestors. Not sure which happened first.

The situation definitely needs a light touch – the Iranian regime would love nothing more than to have an outside agent interfering right now. If Obama had called for regime change two days ago, the conservatives would have ordered everyone mowed down in the streets, and still retained their legitimacy in the eyes of a significant proportion of the population. By couching this purely in the terms of human rights, and only then after a massacre, Obama is showing the support Iranians need without giving the regime the excuse it wants.

How far this ‘green movement’ goes really depends on the regime itself; the protests might die nonviolently if left to run for a few weeks. However, it’s become pretty clear that the hardline conservatives must now choose between an Islamic Republic slowly evolving toward a freer society, or spending the rest of their lives fighting the turning of the tides with the blood of innocents, before a final defeat. True men of religion would choose the first option; on the other hand, true men of religion would have dedicated themselves to pursuing religion within themselves, not using paramilitaries to beat it into others, so I suspect the latter option is more likely.

New essay

Leave a Comment

I got my History essay back today, entitled ‘Did George W. Bush Strengthen or Weaken the American Empire?’ Hit the Essays page in the navigation bar on the right to see it.

It’s not a spectacular essay, but it should interest anyone enjoying the site, and I’ve done it now, so I may as well use it for something. Thanks for reading.

Electoral fraud in Iran


Extremist president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has gained a second term in a rigged election in Iran.


Iranians protest the faked election result in Sydney. A woman conceals her face; Iranians worldwide still fear potential reprisals from the Iranian secret service. Photo: Salar Niknafs

Why am I so confident it was a rigged election? There are some basic signs. Ahmadinejad was unpopular, particularly overseas, and a large Persian diaspora vote in Iranian elections. His core audience are the hardcore conservatives, who vote in all the elections, so high turnouts should run against him, yet after a record turnout he won. It was no narrow win, which I might have believed – it was landslide territory. Finally, we know it is possible for a reformer to win a large proportion of votes in an Iranian election – in 1997 former Iranian President Khatami gained 70% of the vote, and in 2001 he gained 78% of the vote, with a similar profile to Mousavi’s. For Mousavi to receive less than 40% of the vote is ridiculous. Here is Juan Cole, Middle East expert and columnist with some more technical reasoning.

What happens in Iran is of great concern to the rest of the world. The Islamic Republic underwrites and influences both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. It is believed to have a large number of sleeper agents throughout the world, providing a second-strike option in the event of a military intervention in its affairs.  (The loyalty of long-term sleeper agents is questionable, but we’ll take that on face value.) It would be a wonderful thing for world  progress if Iran was allowed to liberalise; it would be a wonderful thing for spirituality if the Islamic Republic realised religion should be chosen, not enforced.

It is unlikely, however, that the election of any reformer could have achieved these things. The elected government in Iran has little power – real power is in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the councils of clerics and judges. The former president Khatami came to office with enormous fanfare and hope for the future, yet after two terms had achieved nothing, resulting in the hopelessness and disillusionment which allowed the conservative rural population to elect the disastrous Ahmadinejad.

This is a tragedy. A new President Mousavi could have dealt with a new President Obama. Both nations, and the world, can only benefit from normalised relations. At the present rate of progress, Israel will attack Iran unilaterally within the year, provoking a regional conflagration that could well end in a nuclear exchange. This is a real setback on the road to Fukuyama’s world order.

What’s surprising to me is that this was allowed. I had assumed Mousavi would win, not out of any faith in the Iranian system, but because the regime understood the true value of democracy to ruling elites: as a release valve for popular ill-feeling, a way to avoid social unrest while not allowing the plebeians any real ability to change things. Look at Australia or Britain – the supposedly social democratic Labor parties have been in power on and off since the 19th century, but they in no way change the fact that those nations are ruled by a plutocracy built on inherited wealth. Democracy is not a cession of power to the people; it is a minor inconvenience that avoids major inconveniences, like revolutions and anarchy in the streets. The very nature of Iranian democracy implies an understanding of this; it seems it’s a machine more complex than the mind of its operators.

I don’t mean to sound like a revolutionary – better to be ruled and live than free and dead. The violence in the streets of Iran should be a lesson, however: let the people rule themselves – if only a little bit.

Violence in the streets of Iran. Photo: AFP - Olivier Mattan-Labei.

Violence in the streets of Iran. Photo: AFP - Olivier Mattan-Labei.

And remember – reform is coming eventually. Better to be a De Klerk than a Mussolini. (Content warning – dead Fascist)

UPDATE: A BBC report and footage of the street demonstrations in Tehran.

Also: I just finished a detailed research essay on the Australian print media’s coverage of refugees arriving by boat in the three months to 9 June 2009, which of course encompasses the SIEV 36 explosion off Ashmore Reef. I’m very happy with how it turned out, I’ll be deciding what to do with it over the next few weeks.

Still here…


It’s been almost a month since I posted, so I thought I’d let anyone reading know I’m still alive.

The rocky part of the semester is almost over, within three weeks I’ll either have handed in all my assignments or failed. I’m still keen to keep up this blog, and it’s still getting a trickle of hits, so with a little more free time I might be able to go back to posting on a weekly basis.

I need some sort of incentive though. So if you’re enjoying the site, leave a comment. Don’t ask me why I want comments. It’s some sort of perverse validation.


North Korea has tested a second nuclear device. Graphic: ABC.

North Korea has conducted another underground nuclear test, this time with considerably more success.

From the ABC:

The United Nations Security Council has unanimously condemned North Korea over its latest nuclear test.

All 15 members of the Security Council, including North Korea’s traditional allies Russia and China, have condemned the isolated regime for detonating a powerful underground nuclear explosion yesterday.

The test was followed quickly by two missile tests and a threat of another test.

Interestingly, it seems that this is more about domestic posturing and jockeying for power among generals in anticipation of Kim Jong-Il’s eventual fall from power. I love it. Combined with all the other foreign policy driven by domestic posturing (I’m thinking specifically of Bush’s speeches that made the world hate him, deepened his problems and made Alabaman hicks cheer, or Ariel Sharon kicking off the second intifada trying to score macho-points),  I’m moving closer to a theory that all actions in international relations are driven by the need to impress the terminally stupid.

(It still needs work.)

Also, since the last time I posted, the conventional military resistance of the Tamil Tigers has collapsed, and their legendary leader, Velupillai Prabakharan, has been killed.

Velupillai’s death came as a surprise to me, as I had tipped that he would have cut out weeks ago in the waves of escaping refugees. I guess he was a little too recognisable, after a few decades of terrorising South Asia.

The military defeat itself, however, was pretty much inevitable from the moment the Tigers decided to make the conflict conventional. Nationalist separatist rebels never, ever win by force of arms.

The most interesting part of the whole tragedy, however, is how the violence has rippled out through multicultural societies. Violence between ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese has broken out in Australia and around the world. Protests have turned violent, and retaliations have been particularly nasty. It’s a fascinating consequence of globalisation, this idea that there would be communities all over the world, who identify so strongly with an ethnicity or nationality that they are willing to kill each other over events thousands of kilometres away. It’s the last remnants of the poison of nationalism in the veins of a global society, like a bad hangover.

David Kilcullen and Hugh White

Leave a Comment

By spending a few hours in the car over the Easter holiday, I managed to catch a couple of Radio National programs, and was once more blown away by the quality and depth of journalism this national treasure provides. Two programs, the Late Night Live story on retired Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel David Kilcullen, Ph.D.,  and the “White on White” program on Life Matters, reinvigorated my faith in Australian foreign policy journalism.

It’s my own fault, of course. I’m a newsprint guy. I love newswriting, and I either get my news from a hardcopy paper or online, but in Australia the very best news source is the ABC.

Both of these programs, available for download are very much worth a read. David Kilcullen, who I came away with an enormous intellectual crush on, was one of the architects of the “surge”, which was actually a reformation of the Iraq War using modern counterinsurgency tactics, which due to the political appointment of incompetents previously had not yet occurred. Kilcullen speaks from a depth of both thought and experience, with a genuine understanding of the cultural complexities which have been so important to both the Afghanistan and Iraq theatres of engagement. He believes in war only when necessary, but also believes that war, once engaged, should be conducted as something which can be done well by experts – exactly the opposite of a neoconservative.

Anyway, I don’t want to get stuck on what was wrong with the Iraq War – that’s a thesis in itself, or a thousand theses.

White on White is a significant piece of journalism. There is far too little consideration of strategic foreign policy in Australian media. Australia will spend $24 billion this year on defence, yet very few Australians have even a shallow level of understanding of our spending priorities. Hugh White has drawn to common attention something that I discussed at the end of a post a few weeks ago – Australia is at a critical strategic juncture. As Asian economies grow and increase their defence spending, and particularly as China reaches comparable levels of influence with the US, there are only two logical moves for Australia in terms of defence spending: either radically expand spending, to, as White advocates, double submarine numbers and increase our order of the (probable white elephant) Joint Strike Fighter, or accept a slide into strategic irrelevance.

Hugh White, as a strategic studies specialist, of course leans towards the former option; think-tank types are a little like Warhammer 40 000 nerds – they want bigger armies to move around on their tabletops. The difference is, for the sake of intellectual rigour, they need to get real governments to buy real versions of their miniatures before they can get the miniatures for themselves.

I, of course, would push for the latter, for two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think there’s any way Australia could keep up – in population terms, we are less than 1/12th the size of Indonesia, and 1/60th the size of China. That means to maintain parity with Indonesia while its GDP grew at 1% per year, Australia would need to raise its defence spend by 12% per year; while to keep pace with China growing at 1% per year, Australia’s defence spend would have to double every eighteen months. It’s simply impossible. As difficult as it is for post-colonial majority white nations to accept, if it ever comes to all-out war our fate is beyond our control.

Still, I was incredibly impressed at the existence of either of these programs. Funnily enough, I spent over an hour listening to the fate of quality journalism being lamented on Radio National some weeks ago, simply because for-profit newspapers may be on their way out. I’m now conclusively convinced, however, that the capitalist media model only ever provided quality journalism by accident, whereas non-profit models such as the ABC, BBC, or the Guardian have worked incredibly well.

So, things look good for the way our area of interest will be reported in future.

Next Page »