Fiddling While It Burns

Are kill or capture missions lowering the Taliban’s effectiveness?

01/09/2010
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From the Telegraph in the UK:

Quarter of senior Taliban killed by SAS in ‘kill or capture’ targeting

The Taliban in Helmand are being killed by the SAS on an “industrial scale” with a quarter of senior commanders killed since spring, leading to a dramatic drop in British casualties.

My personal bugbear is that war coverage is binary and partisan. There’s the left-leaning media, to whom war is always bad and almost everything is a new reason to drop the whole thing and level war crimes charges, and the right-wing, who revel in their jingoism, adulate ‘our men and women in uniform’, and wouldn’t oppose anything up to and including concentration camps and public executions of anti-war protestors.

War is a complex business, and military leaders and academics study for years or their entire lives to best understand and execute it, yet war policy is a slave to these two strains of empty-headed populism. (Of course, there’s also a vast empty-headed consensus populism which is neither strongly for or against, but I’ll leave that to one side.) So, both criticism and support are inadequately informed, which allows debacles both ways – the invasion of Iraq and criminally incompetent strategies of the first couple of years of the occupation when the war-drummers get their way, and the undermined bleeding-away of the war effort that’s happening right now in Iraq. It’s a situation where objective facts exist, indicating evidence-based courses of action, but two false realities obscure our views and make it impossible for the professionals to do their jobs.

That said, this article, although ridiculously canted and egregiously overstating its case, is still informative about the role of the British SAS in Afghanistan when read with a critical eye. Read in conjunction with this press release, it’s a little peek behind the veil.


A realist appreciation of Mid-East nuclear proliferation

26/08/2010
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Here is a compellingly sensible article on nuclear proliferation in the Middle East:

Who else needs a bomb? The United Arab Emirates, which has a civilian nuclear program that is further along than those in other Arab states, would want a bomb because it fears not only Iran but also its Saudi neighbor, with whom it has had territorial disputes. Kuwait, the Gulf state most recently invaded by an Arab neighbor, Iraq, has just announced it’s starting a civilian nuclear program. The fact that Egypt is restarting the program it halted several years ago suggests that it, too, is concerned about both Iran and Tehran’s ally Syria, a longtime Egyptian rival, whose own nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israelis in 2007. Jordan, which has also just started a civilian nuclear program, would want a bomb to keep at bay a Syrian neighbor that has worked to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom over a half century. Even Sudan wants a bomb, for prestige and to ward off Egypt, with whom it has frequent disputes over rights to the Nile. And then there are the non-Arab actors, like Turkey, which can hardly afford to let either Iran or the Arabs have a leg up.

It’s a nicely level-headed piece for an expressly Jewish publication (imagine Marty Peretz publishing a similarly calm appraisal of the near-certainty of Mid-East nuclear proliferation). While it neglects to discuss the Israeli and US role in compelling Arab states toward nuclear programs (the only way they can expect their territorial sovereignty to be respected), it has a refreshingly complex view of the region.

The arguments in favour of seeking nuclear weapons for smaller regimes are more compelling now than ever before. This does have the positive effect of reducing the likelihood of regional interstate conflict, but it does so by massively raising the stakes involved.

It’s worth considering in the context of the push for nuclear power as a solution to anthropogenic global warming. A lot of new reactors means a lot of enriched uranium lying around. The Cold War almost went hot and nuclear several times, in a comparatively simple bipolar equation; I hate to think how much more likely nuclear confrontation will be when dozens of nations are involved.


Time to Renew Our Commitment to Freedom

10/08/2010
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I had a piece published in the National Times, the opinion portal for the Fairfax broadsheets. It was a bit of a coup, but rather overshadowed by the birth of my daughter the day before. Anyway, the piece was about liberal democracy, the internet filter and the burqa debate, and is available here.

A sample:

The problem with banning self-expression in any way is that it’s viral. The chilling effect is an infection in human society, which soon spreads into every aspect of life. The law is an ass, and a well-ordered society is only ever an ill-considered law or a populist outrage from a police state. Yet in Australian political debate, far too often what is “bad” is treated as one with what should be “banned”.


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International Day Against Homophobia rally

28/05/2010
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I’ve just finished a multimedia project about the Sydney Town Hall march on 15 May. I’m really happy with how it turned out, so I thought I’d post a link to it, since WordPress won’t let me embed flash files.

The link is here.

UPDATE: Uploaded to Vimeo.


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Who is Anonymous?

24/05/2010
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I had a short piece published at Online Opinion, here. It’s interesting to have your work seen by a wider audience for the first time. So many people seem determined to mistake your meaning, and this particular piece had some people in a group of Scientology protestors very upset. Just for the record: I wouldn’t consider whyweprotest.net to be a part of what I’m writing about. More like a satellite with a small overlap, closer to traditional protest organisations than anything genuinely new created by anonymous online interaction. The enthusiastic participation of former Scientologists definitely changes things – Anonymous went after Scientology originally out of concern for free speech, not to defend the sort of people who are vulnerable to the Church of Scientology. And if you’re using a persistent forum identity, you have a stake in being judged smart or mature, so the dynamic is completely different. Now if /b/ had made an appearance, it would have been a lot more interesting.

I’ve also had a couple of short letters published in the Herald in the last couple of weeks, and at least one character has tracked me here (that’s you GlenWriter). This post would be a good place to comment if I’ve incensed you in some way.


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Obama Axes Pentagon Plan To Build Billion Dollar Tank In Shape Of Dragon

19/07/2009
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This is the problem with civilian command of the military – they don’t understand strategic priorities.


Celebrating Cronkite while ignoring what he did

18/07/2009
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Sometimes I forget just how beautifully Glenn Greenwald can describe the problems with mainstream journalism. From Salon.com:

“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

09/07/2009
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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

21/06/2009
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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

16/06/2009
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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.


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