Fiddling While It Burns

Afghanistan: respecting expertise, seeking knowledge

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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

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

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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

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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.

Since when do we argue over whether torture is wrong?

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Note: this was originally posted as “Just Briefly…”, before being expanded.

I know I’m hitting the Tom Tomorrow comics pretty hard lately, but as I said to my sponsor, just one more and then I’ll give it up for real.


On a separate but related note, never, ever Google “comic” and “torture” together. Even with SafeSearch on.

From Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh:

Friday April 24, 2009 13:05 EDT

I can’t believe it’s not torture, redux!

I was tempted to write to Clark Hoyt, the admired public editor for the New York Times, after reading Friday morning’s convoluted piece, “Obama Resisting Push for Interrogation Panel.” It contains this remarkable weasel-wording:

“Although a full-scale independent inquiry now appears unlikely anytime soon, the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding and other techniques that critics say crossed the line into torture could still be examined by a variety of Congressional panels in addition to the Senate Intelligence Committee.”

Why was the issue framed that way, as though the question of whether waterboarding is torture, and torture is illegal, is still a matter of debate? And will it ever be New York Times style to flat-out say that?

I want to strongly recommend Salon’s coverage of the Bush administration’s torture programs. Salon made history by pushing the Abu Ghraib story when the New York Times wasn’t too fussed about it; they continued to be strongly critical of the Bush administration while other news sources stuck to the spurious model of objectivity where journalists repeat uncritically whatever the government says; they give a home to the angry but rigorous writing of Glenn Greenwald; and they’ve pioneered a new journalism where the audience are treated with respect and offered the chance to view primary sources.

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld introduced systematic torture to the CIA and American military. They did it despite strong evidence that it was ineffective, and they did it in such a way that many innocent men were caught up in their net, and killed. In 1974 the New York Times and the Washington Post were willing to go hard on Nixon, but only Salon truly held Bush to account.

For ANZAC day, here’s something to think about: torture gave us bad intelligence, increased the risk to our troops, and made us the villains. And if the mainstream media and the political elite they have allowed to co-opt them get their way, the perpetrators will get away with it. Lest we forget.


Here is a little review of how this debate continues to fail to evolve in conservative circles.

The end of the road for the Tamil Tigers?

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Well, no, probably not.

From the ABC:


Sri Lanka has ruled out an amnesty for the Tamil Tiger leader as troops press a final offensive against the cornered rebels despite a global outcry over the plight of civilians trapped in the war zone.

President Mahinda Rajapakse said Velupillai Prabhakaran, whose Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are fighting to prevent complete defeat after being pushed into a narrow stretch of coastal jungle in the north-east of the island, would not be pardoned.

“The LTTE leader has spurned the possibility of pardon by us,” the president’s office quoted him as saying. “He must now face the consequences of his acts.”

However, two senior Tiger officials surrendered on Wednesday as the military reported that more than 100,000 civilians had escaped from rebel-held territory and sought shelter with troops since Monday.

The LTTE, or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam, has been around since the ’70s, and is one of the pioneers of terrorism as we know it today. They invented the suicide belt, and are the world’s most prolific suicide bombers. They’re old-school terrorists, based on ethnic nationalist aspirations rather than the militant Islamism we’ve come to associate with terrorism in recent years.

The case of the LTTE is instructive in the way terrorism is covered by the Western media. Although attacks are dutifully reported, they are not accorded the kind of profile Islamic terrorism is. Because of this, terrorism has become associated with Islam, which in itself makes the media feel like Islamic terrorism is more worthy of attention. Combined with the average Westerner’s ignorance of the nationalist origins of Islamic terrorism, a large proportion of the electorate now thinks that terrorism is primarily religious in nature, providing a nice cover for nationalism to go on stirring up trouble.

In the case of the LTTE, in the case of Palestinian terrorist groups (and Israeli recalcitrance), the Kurds, the Basque in Spain and France, of course the IRA, and any number of other cases, it is the idea that a separate identity requires a separate state that causes bloody, fruitless conflicts.

News media consider themselves objective, but this slow reframing over decades demonstrates the perils of just reporting “the facts” based on “news value”: there is no objectivity in such reporting, because journalists report based on their interpretation of news values, and when this is done without the willingness to actively interpret and think about the context of the events they are witnessing, they deceive as much as they inform.

The objective truth is that nationalism must end to prevent these conflicts; how can a doctrine claim to be “objectivity” when it stops reporters from saying this?

As for the Tigers themselves, it’s doubtful whether any purely military defeat can end the tenacious Tamil separatist movement. The tragedy of rebel groups is that they never die, just go on and on destroying lives while never getting closer to their goals.

The Media and the Politics of Diplomacy

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Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

Moments after the handshake, the President began to wonder if he might have caught diplomacy. Photo: HO/AFP/Getty Images, via TimesOnline.

From the CNN blog politicalticker:

April 20, 2009
Posted: 11:20 AM ET

(CNN) – President Obama’s friendly encounter with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas will be used as propaganda by enemies of the United States, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Monday.

Gingrich, the second high-profile Republican to criticize the president’s now-famous exchange with the Venezuelan leader in as many days, said countries hostile toward America will view the cordial moment as evidence the United States accepts Chavez as an acceptable leader.

“Everywhere in Latin America, enemies of America are going to use the picture of Chavez smiling and being with the president as proof that Chavez is now legitimate that he is acceptable,” Gingrich said in an interview on NBC’s The Today Show.

When Barack Obama won by a massive margin, after having so publicly declared his intention to open dialogues with countries that had been frozen out as America’s “enemies”, I guess I kind of assumed that would just happen, and it wouldn’t be such a big deal.

Manichean media narratives have made diplomacy incredibly difficult since World War II. Since Reagan, it’s been a paradigm of US politics that presidents can’t talk to anyone who’s been designated as a bad guy. Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya, the Cold War, Latin American socialists – all these foreign policy challenges have at some point been massively complicated by the US just flat-out refusing to talk to the other party. Ironically, Reagan, whose overblown rhetoric cemented this tendency, was the ultimate hypocrite on the matter – think Iran-Contra.

Foreign policy makers aren’t idiots. They know that no matter how bad the other side are, it’s always more productive to keep talking. The reason they don’t is all about posturing – the thought is that it will play well in the media to be a strongman, whereas no one wants to be a Jimmy Carter. However, over time the American habit of acting against perceived enemies before talking to them has had many very negative results, most notably turning Castro Communist.

Chávez is the ultimate example of the United States making its own enemies. Prior to 2002, he was a populist, yes, and a socialist, but it’s not the Cold War, and Venezuela is no USSR. The chronic problem of South America is the control of massive proportions of resources by tiny elites. The people of Venezuela, 43% of whom were then living in poverty, chose redistributive socialism, in the form of Hugo Chávez. The Bush administraion, however, was run by Cold War stalwarts, and they weren’t about to allow socialism to take root in America’s backyard (wow, that’s some backyard, isn’t it?)

Immediately efforts began to undermine Chávez. In 2002, the Bush administration had at least advance knowledge of, if not involvement in, the attempted coup against Chávez. Afterwards, Chávez was radicalised, leading to a lot of inflammatory statements and an attempt to create a political axis in opposition to Washington.

The change of presidents is a blessing in this case; this is now an enmity which can be undone by simply being reasonable. However, the ballistic conservative reaction to this one small overture shows that the idea of moral absolutism in diplomatic negotiations is not dead yet, and reshaping the way America deals with the world will be  a rocky road.

Australians Not Racist; just don’t like people of different ethnicities

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Cartoon: The Age.

Cartoon: The Age.

From The Australian:

Rising tide of boatpeople: another vessel lands as Indonesia says it is powerless to help

Paul Maley and Stephen Fitzpatrick | April 16, 2009
YET another group of asylum seekers has reached Australian waters – the fourth in a fortnight – as Indonesian police yesterday admitted they were powerless to stop a rising tide of boatpeople heading for our shores.
Navy patrol boat HMAS Albany intercepted 49 suspected asylum seekers – thought to be mostly Afghan men – two nautical miles off Ashmore Reef, 610km north of Broome at about midday yesterday.
It was the sixth boat to arrive this year, and the 13th since September, when the Rudd Government announced measures aimed at softening Australia’s treatment of refugees from the hardline approach adopted by the Howard government.

This story was followed in a matter of hours by news that the boat had exploded, killing at least 5 refugees, and West Australian Premier Colin Barnett accused the refugees of deliberately pouring petrol over the deck of the boat. It is unknown at this stage whether he did this specifically to give me a sickening sense of déjà vu.

Note the tone of the article. A “rising tide”; “boatpeople”; arriving because of the “softening” of policies. See here for photos from the website with some very loaded captioning. The Australian has decided it’s time to bring White Australia back, despite its only having been gone eighteen months. The Coalition agrees; they’ve already launched an attack on the government which is prefigured on their own policies in government not being evil.

The smuggling of refugees to first-world nations is habitually framed as a national security issue. That, however, is complete and utter rubbish. There have been no terrorist attacks by refugees. If a terrorist organisation wants to get someone into a Western nation, putting them in the hands of people smugglers is about the least efficient and least reliable way to do it. It’s not worthy of discussion. It is to racists what the Jack Bauer argument is to authoritarians – a pathetic smokescreen.

Racism in Australian society is a reality, and a powerful social force. For years racism has been a driving force in Sydney whites fleeing to Brisbane and Perth. We had race riots in Cronulla, and every Australia Day vibrates with ugly undertones.

The king tide of Australian racial fear, however, was in November 2001. A string of rapes by Lebanese attackers had been spun into a siege mentality by extreme right-wing talkback radio host Alan Jones the previous year, never mind the vast numbers of rapes committed by white offenders. Refugees arriving by boat, always a fact of life for a wealthy nation at the end of a long, impoverished island chain, suddenly seemed like a vast, terrifying threat. The Tampa election went to John Howard in appreciation of his barbaric and outlandlishly expensive anti-refugee policies, while Australia’s international prestige sank to new lows.

Things have calmed down since then, and refugee stories are now usually covered within a humanitarian frame rather than an ugly xenophobic one. Before the 2007 election, the vile policies of Phillip Ruddock’s Department of Immigration, Multiculturalism and Indigenous Affairs (John Howard thought all brown people should come under the same minister) had been quietly neutered, and the ridiculous Pacific Solution abandoned.

Hopefully, we won’t have to fight the whole stupid thing out again.


Photo: Helena Janson

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