Friday, 27 November 2015

Think on your sins, Europe

A lot of smart people are shaking their heads at the end of 2015 asking when was the moment that the Western world took its eye off the ball.

Last week this column showed how the answers to ending the Long War with Islamism are simply not available to those in the West. It is a conflict between and amongst Islam, and the conversation about how Islam will deal with modernity will be decided by Muslims alone.

The Paris attacks won’t change anything important. Yet they are a symptom of something dangerous which has already changed. What caused the attacks was a fundamental refusal by Western lawmakers to accept that this world’s main security threat has something to do with Islam. It is an absolute failure to grasp how this is Islam’s battle and the West is collateral damage.

Zooming out to a higher level to view the foggy landscape of the past 15 years, a few influential people knew how difficult the Long War would become after 9/11. Al Qaeda wasn’t an unknown quantity, and neither was radical Islam. Both had been telling Western ears their plans and motivations in explicit terms for decades before that terrible day.

Two strategies became obvious in the months and years afterwards. First was the impossibility of influencing Islamist thought with a counter-narrative. We may as well have been on other planets. But we weren’t on other planets because the second strategy focused on avoiding thing intra-Islam conflict spilling out again with bombs in the West.

In response, Western leaders took the fight to the enemy. If al Qaeda was using Afghanistan as a sanctuary, then Afghanistan was where the bombs would fall. Holding Islamists at arm’s length while they sorted themselves out became a job for intelligence and military personnel.

But Afghanistan wouldn’t be enough. It was never going to be enough. The county is high in the Hindu Kush, broken into hundreds of tribal regions and barely a country at all. Sure, many residents consider themselves Islamic, but whatever the outcome of the Afghanistan war it would not alter the global jihadist mind set.

The West knew it would never get a decisive battle with the jihadists, as Europe did with the Ottomans at Lepanto. Yet Western strategists knew the centre of Islamist fervour was in the Arab world, not Afghanistan. This strategy birthed the decision to invade Iraq. Of course, this wasn’t the only calculation, but it was a driving factor.

The decision was to use a big stick to foil the potential for Arab states to coalesce into a force capable of denying the US access to the region and potentially using its combined strength to attack outside the region. This concept is fundamental to US grand strategy. It was exactly the reason the US militarily intervened in Europe in the 20th century three times, for instance.

An obvious target was Saudi Arabia, given its ties to radical Islamism. But the better choice was Iraq, considering Saddam Hussein had committed every human right violation the world has a law for. The US coalition force entered the country in 2003 and so began the “ring fence and honey pot” strategy.

The exact region hosting most of the world’s Islamists became a virtual cage for the angry fighters where they could attack Western soldiers, not civilians, on a somewhat reciprocal battlefield. Islamists in other regions flocked to Iraq, and in the process many were killed by Western soldiers. This strategy has saved countless lives, given that many potential terrorists are now dead. The effect is similar to painting the negative space – what is invisible is important to the larger context.

For 15 years this strategy was mostly working. Some Islamists did escape the ring fence, but most took the bait. Then Europe, in all its wisdom, opened its gates this year to receive a flood of “refugees” from the Levant. It changed what was a trickle of manageable immigration to a destruction of the only workable strategy available to the West in combatting the Long War.

Take a look at the demographics of these new arrivals. Count the numbers of fighting-age males and know this is not a humanitarian crisis, but an invading army. The current situation at the close of 2015 is precisely what the West has wished to avoid for over a decade. What happens next could well make our nightmares a reality.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Sitrep - Nov 25, 2015

Gunmen linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) killed 22 people in a Mali hotel in central Bamako, before being overrun by security forces. The assailants showed impressive preoperational surveillance using vehicles with diplomatic licence plates to bypass security. This should be a lesson for all that hotels are an attractive target for militants and terrorists of all stripes.

In the security community, hotels are often referred to as “embassies of the future, given how many Western business people, spies, diplomats and officials now use these venues. Yet in places such as Mali, where jihadists are dissipated across the country, hotels are vulnerable. In more developed countries hotels possess higher security, but travellers should take care wherever they are staying.

The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed to establish an EU-style common market by the end of the year. The agreement, made at this week’s 2015 summit, will remove many tariffs from traded goods, however sensitive industries such as agriculture and automobiles weren’t changed. Non-tariff and cultural barriers will be difficult, if not impossible, to remove.

ASEAN is attracting serious investment attention from all corners of the globe. It is one of the fastest growing regions boasting almost 700 million citizens. China and the US wish to build or retain influence over the bloc, and ASEAN is playing the two against each other for maximum benefit. The bloc’s common market should now make it less reliant for trade on either the US or China.

In Israel, a series of seemingly spontaneous stabbings and serious assaults by Palestinians continues. The attacks began two months ago and show no sign of being under control. Jerusalem has countered by banning the Islamic Movement, although it is unclear whether the attacks are coordinated by any single group and whether the banning will unite moderate Palestinian groups with radical groups.

Security services in Israel are at a loss for what to do. However, the decentralised nature of the stabbings suggests Palestinian groups are experiencing internal dissolution. Hamas and Fatah cannot agree on many policies, and elements of the Islamic State are challenging Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Whether this is a new intifada will depend on these groups’ ability to cohere, an unlikely prospect.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Why the War on Terror is so hard to fight

This fight is extremely difficult. Much of the international community has been in near constant combat with militant Islam for almost 15 years, and what has been achieved? If there was an easy way to win this fight, we probably would have found it by now.

The amount of resources poured into the Long War boggles the mind. The US alone has spent approximately $US1.6 trillion since 2001. The funds were spent on boosting its intelligence operations, sustaining two combat theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan, coordinating allies, smaller combat engagements in over 100 countries and protecting the US homeland.

And yet eight people could still walk through the City of Lights this week killing more than 120 people with seeming impunity. Witnesses say the killers yelled Islamic justifications for their actions, and afterwards the group calling itself the Islamic State claimed responsibility. If people want to know where this horror comes from, the clue is in that name. It shouldn’t be this hard to say that for 15 years this fight has something to with Islam. But just saying this doesn’t lead to answers.

That’s where this problem becomes difficult. Islam is a civilisation, a mind-set, a belief structure clashing headlong into its polar opposite. It is an idea that shares with the West none of what US President Barack Obama calls “universal human rights”. A belief system which, although it emerges from the same beginnings as Christianity and Judaism, travelled in an entirely different direction over thousands of years.

Now that modernity – the atavistic legacy of Christianity – and pious Islam meet once again in the 21st century, our leaders discover to their dismay that they can’t even talk to their enemy. This is not about the differences between Arabic and English. The breakdown of communication goes far deeper.

In order to understand why the Long War is probably intractable and why the West will conduct targeted killings for the foreseeable future, one must consider Europe’s 30 Years War. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed. The idea was that while Christian Europeans would continue to kill each other for many reasons, they did not need to keep religion on that list.

So began the West’s lengthy process of separating the sacred from the secular. Today the result can broadly be called “modernity”. However it isolates the question at the heart of the Long War: is this arc unique to Christianity? Or, might Islam follow a similar process and achieve its own Enlightenment?

To be fair, there’s absolutely nothing compelling Islam along the arc, and perhaps the process will only happen once in human history. And of course Islam doesn’t need to trace those steps for the world to be safe. Yet if Islam is such a transcendental religion, is the West only shouting in the wind?

Remember that Christianity was translated through Aristotelian thought as it moved into Europe. There is no equivalent marriage of reason with faith in the Islamic world. In fact, Muslims say it is sacrilegious to place an intermediary between the creature and the creator: so what’s all this talk about voting?

This is our world today. The West has prosecuted the Long War in the only way it knows: by dividing the battles into the close fight and the deep fight. The close fight deals with people already wishing to do its citizens harm. The deep fight deals with the production rate of such violent people.

This dynamic featured during the Cold War too. The close fight could be seen with the British Army on the Rhine and the American Marine Corp outside the Fulda Gap, each attempting to contain the Soviet Union. The deep fight was largely ideological. After all, Communism was an Enlightenment idea too, which meant the West had some legitimacy in discrediting or arguing against it.

The Long War against militant Islam is nowhere near as straightforward. The West has done extremely well on the close fight. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq ripped up al Qaeda and the CIA’s secret work in removing terrorists from the battlefield raids continues to be an unarguable success in preventing attacks after 9/11.

But the west’s ability to influence the deep fight in this war has been disastrously limited. In 2001 Western leaders were convinced that something should be done about the deep fight, but it was hard to figure out what exactly that was. They discovered that the production rate of Islamic terror was an immensely tough nut to crack.

This current fight is equally ideological to the Cold War, but Islam is an ideology about which Westerners have little legitimacy to argue. To suggest an alternative interpretation of the Koran, or explain the significance of a passage out of the Hadith, is to turn a Westerner’s argument to dust the moment it leaves the mouth.

Instead, ending the Long War requires a conversation between and amongst Islam alone. What the West struggles to understand is that this is largely Islam’s civil war and we are only collateral. Islam may well be on a similar arc towards separating the sacred from the secular, but there is no guarantee. Until Muslims decide how to deal with modernity, Paris will happen again and again.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Sitrep - Nov 17, 2015

Eight attackers in three coordinated teams attacked six locations in Paris over the weekend including the Stade de France sports stadium and the Bataclan art center with AK-47s, grenades and suicide vests. The total casualties inflicted by the group – claimed by the Islamic State – as of November 16 is 129 dead and 352 wounded.

The attacks reveal the extent to which the situation in Syria, the immigration crisis in Europe and international terrorism are interconnected. These were homegrown violent extremists, directed by a well-funded international organisation that controls vast resources and territory in the Middle East, hitting purely civilian, soft targets in a sophisticated manner.

While not a game-changer, and not entirely unsurprising given the frequency of the Islamic State’s threats against France throughout 2015, the attacks indicate how effective the group’s recruitment campaign has become and the ease at which it can call on this broad network of sympathisers and sleeper cells to conduct attacks in Western countries.

The Paris attacks however betray a weakness in the Islamic State structure and narrative. While the group clearly possesses the capability to strike Western countries, the military situation on the ground against the group in Iraq and Syria (where it is based) is no longer favourable to the group which is forcing it to lash out at foreign targets instead.

In Iraq, government forces backed by US airpower are encroaching on the city of Ramadi. The Islamic State has controlled the city for months, and will be deeply dug-in with fortifications and improvised explosive devices covering the approaching roads, slowing down government advances. Baghdad is nevertheless moving steadily from house to house in heavy rains. A win for the government in Ramadi will severely undermine the militant group’s narrative of being unstoppable.

Meanwhile in Iraq’s Sinjar province Kurdish forces work to sever a crucial supply line along a road connecting Iraqi city Mosul with the Islamic State’s de-facto capital Raqqa, located in Syria. Controlling Sinjar will hamstring the group’s overall combat effectiveness.

In Syria, Russia continues its airstrikes targeting mainly anti-Assad rebel forces. The regime, supported by Russian airpower, retook the Kweiris airbase where loyalist forces had been under siege for three years. East of the Euphrates River, Kurds and US forces appear ready for an imminent ground campaign against Raqqa. And west of the river, Turkish and US forces prepare for a similar campaign.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Deadly attacks will rip up France and EU politics

More than 120 people are reportedly dead after multiple waves of terror attacks in central Paris. As the aftermath now evolves, France and Europe will likely enter a new phase of potentially disastrous political and social unrest.

In what appears to be a coordinated attack against at least three locations in the French capital, civilians were targeted by individuals carrying explosives and firearms. The Bataclan concert hall was the site of the night’s deadliest killings in which gunmen took hundreds of hostages before being overpowered by French special police units.

Early reports suggest a handful of individuals were responsible for what are being called terrorist attacks. Police, army and military special forces have mobilised and will be attempting to secure critical areas of the central city. Firefights between authorities and suspected gunmen are ongoing.

French authorities have also declared a state-of-emergency and closed the country’s borders. French President Francois Hollande, who was attending an international sporting match close to one of the attack sites, has vowed to fight the attackers “without mercy.” The government is implementing a Plan Red, the country’s highest level of emergency.

The attack profile emerged in waves, beginning with multiple suspected suicide bombings or explosions near crowded public spaces. Following the explosions, a series of drive-by shootings began targeting restaurants filled with people enjoying the bustling Friday evening.

The Bataclan concert hall was then invaded by a third wave of gunmen, who reportedly also carried grenades. It is unclear how many people were killed at the hall, but French police have stated an unidentified number of gunmen were engaged in intense exchanges of gunfire with authorities.

Elsewhere in France, a refugee camp in Calais known as “the jungle” is reportedly on fire. It is unclear why the fires are burning or whether they are in relation to the killings in Paris.

French police look for next steps
As always in quick-moving events, the first reports are generally incorrect. Details are still emerging, and will continue to arrive over the hours and months, from the city so a complete picture of what exactly happened is presently unknown. Nevertheless, the French authorities and its international intelligence partners and allies will be attempting to answer a number of immediate questions.

It is as yet unclear who the attackers were, what their motivations are, whether this attack event is finished or more are planned, why the targets were chosen, how many attackers are still on the loose and whether Paris is the only target. It is likely that many, if not all, of the attackers were known to French police before the strikes, so organising what the authorities already know will be one of the first steps.

Unless a known terror or militant group claims responsibility, attribution of the attack will also be difficult, but still important. Although Twitter accounts belonging to the Islamic State militant group are celebrating the attacks, the group has not yet claimed responsibility.

This is unsurprising, as the militant groups has not yet been unable to conduct a transnational terror attack outside the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January was claimed by members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The French authorities will attempt to secure the central city of Paris, but given the amorphous nature of modern terrorism, they will need to be on every corner and in every building to prevent further attacks.

Since this is a scenario clearly beyond any police or government’s capability, the police will focus on the initial attack sites and reports of other suspicious persons. Aside from displaying returned state control and security for panicked Parisian citizens, authorities will need to prioritise their limited security resources and neutralise any confounding factors such as municipal transport systems. Once the city of Paris is secured, the police will begin to put the pieces together of what they know and what they do not know.

The threat of grassroots terror
Despite the high death toll, the type and style of attack is not terribly difficult to conceive of or conduct for a small, determined terror group.

From Mumbai in 2008 to Moscow in 2002 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris this year, the decision to use simple small-arms coupled with small group tactics and explosives can have devastating effects. Modern firearms do not require much training to be effective tools for killing in crowded public areas - known as soft targets in security jargon. Mixed with basic military small group tactics, a person with a firearm can essentially kill unarmed people at will until they either run out of bullets and/or targets, or is stopped by authorities.

Over the past few years, a spate of isolated terror attacks around the globe have been largely conducted by “grassroots” actors - people with terrorist goals who do not require central coordination from an umbrella terror organisation. In order to assess the possibility of follow-on attacks, it will be crucial for the French authorities to establish whether the gunmen are indeed members of a grassroots cell, known or otherwise, or whether the attacks were coordinated by a larger terror organisation such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State.

Generally speaking, given the diverse and evolving history of terror attackers, smaller grassroots-style attacks do lack the necessary group infrastructure, funding, planning and logistics to conduct large-scale terror attacks or sustain the attacks over a long period. Larger groups with higher levels of planning can create much greater damage, for instance the September 11 attacks in New York, but those groups are more bulky and easier to spot with modern intelligence and police resources and therefore simpler to foil.

So while they do not have the advantages of scale and top-down instruction often associated with more structured groups, the flipside means these grassroots actors are also more difficult to monitor or to discover by authorities. Yet, what grassroots actors lack in size they make up for in surprise and agility. As seen in Paris today, their disparate and hidden nature means the cells can still cause significant damage.

Penalty kicks
Although the attacks feature an impressive level of coordination, likely requiring sustained pre-operational surveillance of the targets and days or weeks of a high level of operational security as the attackers prepared, they are not entirely unexpected.

In many ways, the game of security is similar to the football rule of penalty kicks, where in this analogy kicking the ball into the net is a successful terror attack. Every shot must be saved by the goalkeeper, yet the kicker can strike from and at anywhere inside the net - at any time. In other words, a terrorist can miss hundreds of times, but inevitably the ball is going in the back of the net.

The French government has an almost diametrical view in how it balances security and privacy for its citizens compared to the US or New Zealand. The French internet is highly monitored, as is its growing immigrant population. The country has been targeted for decades by terror attacks, which is the reason French authorities both understand the reality that attacks eventually will occur and will now deal with this event in a very heavy handed and French way.

As this site has pointed out recently, the demography of immigrants arriving in Europe from North Africa, the Middle East and further abroad is heavily weighted towards male between 18 and 30 years old. Other commentators have pointed out this disparity and questioned whether the immigrants should truly be called refugees if such a small percentage include women, children and the elderly. The enormous numbers of young males arriving in Europe over the past few months is probably better described as an invading army.

In other words, what occurred in Paris today was entirely predictable given the geopolitics of the wider region these immigrants generally hark from. Much of the Middle East and North Africa is struggling to contain significant militancy and terrorism, and members of these groups have for years announced to the world their desire to “take the fighting” to Europe and other Western countries.

European border laws have also made it incredibly easy for hundreds of thousands of refugees to enter the bloc and essentially disappear into Germany, France and other member states. European intelligence services will be already aware of the potential for terrorists to be among the arriving refugees, but as pointed out before, are likely overwhelmed by the sheer number. A few penalty kicks will have gotten through.

The Islam connection
French combat aircraft will begin flying bombing missions against Islamic State positions from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle next week. This is the second time the carrier group has operated in a combat role in the Levant, but other French forces have been bombing the Islamic State since September alongside the US-led multinational force in Iraq and Syria, of which New Zealand troops are supporting.

It is unlikely that the presence of a French aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf would have caused the Paris attacks, but France’s involvement against the militant Islamic group will be a factor in spurring the attackers on if they are indeed Muslim. France will likely ramp up its engagement in Iraq and Syria should the Paris attacks be connected to the Islamic State group.

What must be made perfectly clear at this point is that the identities and motivations of the attackers is unknown. However, the history of terrorism in the last decade is essentially a single story of Islamic persons wishing to and conducting such attacks. It will therefore be no surprise to many people when and if the perpetrators claim to be Muslim.

That the Islamic State is supporting the attacks, and early reports indicate the captured attackers claim to be “from the Islamic State”, suggests a connection to the Islamic community will be made. This fact, along with the wider problem of unsuitable European immigration laws, which are already under intense pressure throughout the bloc, will have serious ramifications for the integrity of a struggling political union.

Reprisal attacks against Muslims will most likely increase over the next few days and weeks, and will not be isolated only to France. Other European countries and its many regions are similarly frustrated with the Islamic community and will put pressure on their governments to enact more control over Muslims and other immigrants.

That the French president decided immediately to seal off the country’s borders following the attacks indicates the government was planning to do so anyway. France is unlikely now to open its land borders for days, or potentially weeks or months.

On the other hand, the huge numbers of young Muslims, both recently arrived as refugees and permanent citizens, are likely to respond violently to any reprisal attacks. And many who feel ideological and religious affinity with extremist Islamic groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State may choose to replicate the Paris attacks in coming weeks and months.

Regardless of whether such actions occur, the politics in France are now sure to change drastically. France is not the only country in Europe vulnerable to such attacks, and considering the style on display and ease of accessing lethal weapons, all of Europe will now be on high alert.

In the charged atmosphere of present-day Europe, and France in particular, the French government will now face considerable pressure to act in more serious ways to bolster security than it has since the Charlie Hebdo attacks and could even collapse if it is seen to be enacting insufficient measures in the wake the tragedy.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The inequality debate or, why the modern Left is failing

It’s official, the inequality debate is way off the rails. If this country is serious about solving this issue, we’re going to need some better ideas. Ironically, the very people who should be supplying the better ideas are the ones with their arms around the system. Yes, that’s a bad thing.

Case in point. A story by Jess McAllen ran in the NZ Herald this week about a new book by Max Rashbrooke entitled Wealth and New Zealand. The tome lays out new income data about New Zealand citizens and concludes that inequality is getting worse.

No real surprise there. The question is why this narrative is being displayed in the media, in 20XX. If the message sounds like something you’ve heard before and agree with, listen up. You need to stop letting the system tell you who you are. This inequality narrative will fail because it must fail.

I’ll be honest, I saw a picture of Max Key in the teaser for Ms McAllen’s article and immediately knew exactly what its thesis would be. And it didn’t disappoint. Max Key is a privileged white male in a society becoming more unequal every year. And the punchline is that he pays for his haircut, DJ gear and travel with his father’s money. This sounds like it should be a good thing, except that the article appears in the NZ Herald, which means the story will try to describe how even the existence of Max Key is a bad thing.

It’s simple and satisfying to hate Max Key, and nothing would make most of us happier than clipping him square in the back of the head with a TV remote. But I also know I’m being told to hate him and his rich friends, so of course I had to take a step back and look for why it is so important I hate him. So I did. I should have just reached for the appliance.

“Eyebrows have been raised about the antics of the wealthy young ­after their rapid rise into the public eye. … their social media accounts are littered with pictures of helicopters, diamond rings, BMWs and spirulina smoothies. “The best known of them, The Ya Ya Club, came to media ­attention at the end of last year when the Prime Minister's son Max Key and his DJ group, Troskey, debuted at one of their events at an Auckland bar. But they have found themselves targeted for seeming to boast about their privileged position.”

Let’s break this down. On one side are those claiming modern society is about to rip itself apart because too few people have too much of the money. The assumption is that this is a bad thing although it’s never fully explained why. On the other side a group yells back that the status quo is fine, thank you very much.

At least, that’s how the debate is delivered. It’s treated as a binary choice between doubling down or finding a way to redistribute wealth more equally. The problem is, there aren’t two sides. It’s painfully clear that – painted in this way – there really is only one side: a nice, sharp boost to the status quo. Although social justice warriors fighting against inequality see themselves as saviours, no one actually wants to change anything. If they did, they’d have asked why there aren’t more than two sides to the argument. There are always more than two sides.

“Twenty years ago, the idea that power, success and wealth could be distributed according to ability and diligence, rather than accident of birth, defined New Zealand.

“We've always had rich and powerful families but also held fervently that the humble Kiwi could rise to become part of that elite.”

It’s probably not fair to bring the journalist into this, as my point is the overarching and broken ideology of change she represents. But Jess McAllen – as a freelance journalist writing about New Zealand’s pop culture and social issues – has started to win awards for her writing. so she’s not an idiot. Which means she should know the differences between power, success and wealth and why they’re not synonyms and why they shouldn’t appear in the same sentence. 

Believing that those concepts ever appear in the same room is a fantasy, the room is always a movie studio or the mind of someone who uses “Rothschild” as a curse word. This suggests Ms McAllen wants those words to designate the same concept, which means something far more sinister is going on. Whose generation does she blame for creating the idea of ever-rising Kiwi income levels? Was it her parents’? In 1990? I don’t think so. Who does she think is running the advertising agencies now? Who is running for politics? She’s not criticising her parents’ generation, she’s describing hers.

She doesn’t see this, not because she refuses to, but because she can’t. The process of thinking about systems necessary to notice the long con at the bottom of the inequality argument is purposefully unavailable to her (and mine) generation. The very newspaper in which this article appears now offers condensed versions of its news stories. Why? Because its target demographic of 18-35-year-olds goes into cardiac arrest if their screen displays a text-to-white-space ratio greater than 40%. This is the same demographic that gave up on Occupy Wall Street sit-ins after a trimester because the protests didn’t have Wifi access. And that’s is the audience for this call to change? Good luck.

Ms McAllen’s article could only be written by someone from a generation raised on the assumption that power, success and wealth are a package. That the attainment of one must lead to the automatic attainment of the others. It is a generation so inculcated in this assumption that it will never know why their arguments lack the force to change anything.

None of them stop to think why it’s so easy for their articles to be published. Or why every time their arguments are elucidated, someone from the “other side” engages with them in a civil and public rebuttal. None will pause to ask how they ended up on this particular battlefield and what exactly they’ll gain if they win.

People writing books on inequality, people yelling about the 1%, people fighting corruption, people angry at the prime minister are allowed to exist because they serve as tools of the system. Think on this and contemplate your own freedom. Any advanced Western democracy is too highly evolved and complex to let a bunch of angry 25-year-olds have any effect on it whatsoever – or any group without real power for that matter. How could they? Few people understand at any real depth how “their” anger is manufactured by the system for the system. This is why protesters who do not throw rocks should not be taken seriously. I’m not telling them to throw rocks, I’m just explaining why their protest will fail.

Maybe this is too abstract, so here’s a concrete and current example of this nonsense. Take the growing political battle around the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Once again, there aren’t two sides to this debate, there never were, but the media delivers this narrative. It’s not a conspiracy – most journalists have neither the knowledge nor the time for nuances. The default is to transform every cultural debate into binary. It saves on paper, and subscriptions sell faster when readers can choose a side to reinforce their worldview. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a reader’s view is binary too.

Most people characterise the TPP debate as between those wanting greater trade freedom and those suspicious of how free that trade actually is. Take a step back and ask what would change if either of those two sides are victorious. On the one hand there would be freer trade. On the other there would be less-free trade. Guess what ingredient is remaining? Think of the question you’re not allowed to ask.

Either way, the continued existence of trade as a concept is not on the table because that’s how people make money. Those fighting against the TPP often provide an identical argument about inequality to Ms McAllen’s. Not once do anti-TPP campaigners (and pro-TPP) ask why the argument framework is structured like this. The form of the question is never dissected, it is only assumed.

“[Mr Rashbrooke] suggests reducing income ­imbalances, narrowing the initial distribution of wealth, using taxes and endowments to further close the gap, taking the heat out of ­housing and building a more democratic ­society. Specifically, he suggests increasing benefits, introducing a living wage, a capital gains tax (exempting the family home), estate taxes and better rights for renters.”

Stop it, look around! How can you possibly not find it suspicious that these solutions already exist in society, and the author just happened to choose them as a solution? Is Mr Rashbrooke really not curious about where he got these ideas? Did he not think something was fishy when he expended no effort in choosing these solutions? Those are integral parts of the system he’s trying to change, they weren’t harmlessly floating through the ether. Perhaps he can’t, but I can spot a long con at 1000 paces.

Both Mr Rashbrooke and the TPP debaters are fighting on a battlefield not of their choosing. Of course, they haven’t a clue this is happening because they believe they’re “leading the debate.” Pointing out that too many people have too little wealth does not have the force to change reality. Here’s a question that does: when someone says money exists, why do we believe them? That question is why the inequality debate is broken. The practical use of money isn’t the issue. It’s the semiotics and reification of how much money people have and what it symbolises to others about social status.

What boggles my mind is that the very people who should be able to see this dynamic, and counter it intelligently, are those most easily duped into fighting within the system’s framework. The inequality debate is run almost exclusively by self-proclaimed socialists and progressives. But just because you call yourself a socialist, doesn’t make it true. Since it’s clearly no longer the case that modern socialist passions are emerge from proper socialist thinking, these “debates” may end up setting the political left back 200 years – that’s right, 200 years. What the inequality debate doesn’t recognise is that the existence of welfare is also the entrenchment of the aristocracy. Read it again if you didn’t get it the first time, it’s important. Marx (Karl, not Groucho) talked about this – Marx, for crying out loud!

I’m sure he gets this a lot, but Bill Gates is part of the problem. Ms McAllen’s thinking represents an entire generation that admires Mr Gates for his selfless philanthropy. It should be obvious to anyone who considers their ideology as part of the counter-narrative that he’s the aristocratic epitome Marx warned against. Yet Mr Gates has become a role model to people on the left, not because Mr Gates is a businessman, but because he “freely” chooses to make life better for poor people using his money. I know, I know, I have no real power – but maybe someday a rich person will give me some. Marx would be rolling in his grave to hear this.

The modern left has been tricked into cancelling its quest for real power and change, by replacing it with a quest for money instead. They subsumed the system so deeply it has become a default assumption in every argument. Do you see? This is the long con. Rather than power, most on the left will settle for $300k salaries and ‘CEO’ embossed on a business card (only “sustainable” companies, of course). The people with real power know those are just symbols, the trappings of power, which is why they were happy to give them away. If the framework was set up to show how money is the measure of power, then the “debate” will never be won - which is the entire point. Why else does Ms McAllen think she can get away with discussing this in public?

If socialists and progressives want a real debate, the framework must not be about wealth inequality. Mr Rashbrooke had a chance to show how money doesn’t need to be considered a symbol of power, success or wealth, or reflect to others the individual’s “social status”. If the opposition to modern capitalism is serious about this debate it should say: “let them have money, life is more than bits of paper,” just like their systems-thinking forebears once did. But they always fall into the trap of accepting the form of the question.

Who do you think wins win an inequality argument structured in this way? You can’t fight to attain power and wealth if you think they’re the same thing. Let this be the litmus test for future culture wars: do retail sales go up or down? Exactly. The system has won. You cannot defeat the system if you play by its rules. You need rocks.  

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Sitrep - 10 Nov, 2015

Catalan secessionist parties took a step closer towards their goal of independence this week as its regional parliament approved a “solemn proclamation” of the beginning of the independence process. While it isn’t a formal declaration of independence, it puts Catalonia on a path to potential secession from the larger Spanish state.

Madrid and the Catalonian regional officials are so far progressing within the Spanish state’s existing legal parameters. However, the independence movement has a significant level of regional support. Madrid and Brussels will need to tread carefully to avoid an escalation of political conflict and spark civil unrest.

Another kind of civil unrest could be growing in Greece as the embattled country’s creditors threaten to renege on the delivery of its next bailout tranche. The ruling Syriza party was enjoying a cooling of tensions since the painful third quarter of this year, but hasn’t enacted sufficient reforms, according to the Eurogroup creditors.

One of those reforms is lagging mortgage repayments which could bring even more turmoil to Greece’s population as wider house evictions accumulate. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has purposefully avoided dealing with the required reforms for fear of stoking greater unrest. However, the deadline for Greece’s bank recapitalisation looms in 2016 and reforms will need to be made.

In Myanmar, the country appears to have elected democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s party the National League for Democracy (NLD) into power. While official results are yet to be released, the party could come close to gaining the required two-thirds majority to govern without a coalition.

The military junta will remain in control of 25% of the parliamentary seats, a key constitutional factor in its decision to allow the democratic election process. Taking its cue from Thailand, the military will remain the final the arbiter of Myanmar’s politics regardless of the election outcome. It is clear the Southeast Asian country is entering a period of splintered politics and ethnic tension as it opens to the world.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Sitrep - 4 Nov, 2015

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a snap election on November 1, gaining more significantly more support than it achieved in June. Rising as it did from 40% to 49%, the AKP – and by extension President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – can now govern Turkey alone.

Although the AKP narrowly won the June election, it was unable (or unwilling) to form a coalition. The November elections however are unlikely to change the direction of Turkey’s foreign and domestic policy as Mr Erdoğan continues to look south to Syria while reinvigorating Turkey’s stagnating economy. Mr Erdoğan does lack a supermajority in Turkey’s parliament, so will be stopped short of drastically transforming internal policies.

At the other edge of the Mediterranean, a Metrojet flight travelling from Egypt to Russia broke apart at 31,000 feet over the weekend, killing all 224 people on board. Initially the crash was claimed as a terror attack by the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, but no evidence yet supports this theory.

Russian commercial aircraft companies have a poor reputation for maintenance, as does Russia’s airforce. The crash highlights this deadly lack of funding and expertise, and potential ambivalence, for the industry’s aircraft operations. While investigators search through the rubble for clues, the possibility of a more nuanced terror attack such as a smuggled explosive device cannot be ruled out.

In Vienna recently, 17 regional and world powers gathered to discuss a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict. The notable dynamic of this second round of talks was the inclusion of Iran. This reflects the new status quo in the Middle East as Iran emerges from its cocoon of isolation following the nuclear deal with the US and Europe earlier this year.

However other countries in the region do not appreciate this new normal. But lacking any real way of changing it, those countries will have to get used to it. Russia and Iran are strategic partners in many projects as well, so a boost for Iran will circle back to being a boost for Russia too. The US is trying to balance the many competing interests in Syria, but the long-term strategy of calming the region will compel it to continue inviting Iran for future talks.

Monday, 2 November 2015

US and China square off in South China Sea

Last week, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroy USS Lassen navigated within 12 nautical miles of an artificial landmass claimed by China in the Spratly Islands near the Subi Reef. It was the first time the US has directly challenged China’s maritime assertions.

The Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) simply shouldn’t have made it onto mainstream media. This doesn’t mean the operation wasn’t important, far from it. But the whole point of FONOPs is that they are supposed to be a standard, unimportant and expected action.

USS Lassen
Sending any surface craft 12 nautical miles from a landmass is part of the agreed United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which China is a signatory. Interestingly, while the US recognises the treaty as a codification of customary international law, it has not yet ratified it. Perhaps that’s a topic for a future column.

Three dynamics were at play in last week’s FONOP. Firstly, one must consider the timing and the political contexts in China and the US. Second is the intended audience of the operation. And third is the system of the international legal environment driving the two Pacific powers’ actions.

The setup is relatively simple. China considers its territorial waters in the East and South China Seas part of its national borders. As such, Beijing thinks foreign vessels should register with it before passage, which, if the islands are islands, would be a reasonable wish. China has also been dredging artificial islands to qualify for greater territorial control, much to the chagrin its neighbours.

Of course, the story gets a bit trickier depending on the definition of the geography in question. There are four basic terms. An “island” is natural, habitable and visible at high-tide. It is then granted a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. A “rock” is natural, uninhabitable and visible at high-tide with a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea but no exclusive economic zone.

A “low tide elevation” is covered by water but visible at high-tide, and gets no territorial sea. An “artificial island” however is unnatural, habitable and visible at high-tide, but is only granted a 500-metre safety zone, not a territorial sea. The US and China use the same nomenclature, but have different interpretations about what other nations can do inside those waters.

China interprets its landmasses as “islands” and therefore as sovereign territory. If this is true it comes with a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The US argues the landmasses are only “low tide elevations” or “artificial islands,” which means US warships are following international legal structures to steam within the 12-nautical-mile limit.

So, what really should have been a standard procedure actually has a number of dangerous moving parts. The operation was announced to the media eight hours before the USS Lassen entered the region, but the game began earlier this year. Newly-appointed US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter then boldly stated the US Navy would conduct FONOPS regardless of Chinese actions.

But then nothing happened for months. The US paused all FONOPS in the region but continued to decry China’s special claims around the islets. Then suddenly last week the US decided it was time to go. It might seem surprising, but the political climates in Washington and Beijing can explain.

Chinese President Xi Jingping has consolidated power faster than his predecessors, but this power is fragile. He is struggling to hold onto Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership as his anti-corruption campaign targets the big players. The Chinese economy may also be slipping into a period of prolonged low growth, forcing Mr Xi to painfully upgrade the system.

All of this is leading to high political uncertainty behind the scenes in Beijing. While the anti-corruption campaign will help the country develop, it threatens to split the CCP apart. Chinese state media reports that more than half of the 205 members of the central committee had been moved to different positions or fired. Mr Xi is also aiming at military officials.

In response, coup rumours are becoming more common. A British newspaper says one attempt was foiled as recently as March. This could be interpreted as a sign of Mr Xi’s overall power, but there is an air of theatre around the Chinese leader. The CCP’s focus on the water ticks two boxes by distracting Chinese citizens with nationalism, and displays the military as in prime position. But Mr Xi needed a win at Subi Reef and doesn’t appear to have got it.

In the US, President Barack Obama is transitioning his country away from a war-footing. He sees an opportunity in Asia to create a “new normal” for the US in a post-9/11 era. The rapprochement with Iran aside, although a major part of this overall strategy, it becoming clear Mr Obama’s Middle East efforts are hands-off.

Not so in Asia Pacific. This year has proven the US must engage with its allies in the region which, if it plays coolly, can achieve remarkable geopolitical success. The completed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) for example, is integral to Mr Obama’s “Asia Pivot”. It’s really no coincidence then that Mr Obama timed the Lassen passage to occur within a month of signing the TPP.

And the intended audience knows this to be true. The Lassen’s home port is Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. Coupled with this fact is that the Japanese government has reformed its defence policy to allow greater bandwidth in foreign operations. The US/Japan relationship is all but unbreakable, but no one in East Asia, and least of all China, is keen for a reinvigorated Japan throwing its weight around.

Bear in mind that the Lassen also steamed within 12 nautical miles of other islets claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, proving the FONOP was not aimed at China. But it also showed that the US is serious in maintaining security in the crowded seas. The US wants for its allies to share in the security burden, but most can’t yet contend with the Chinese navy alone.

Overarching all this is the rarely-discussed facet of US grand strategy for the high seas. Washington guarantees the safe passage of any vessel in international waters according to UNCLOS stipulations. It does this by fielding the largest naval force in history. The concept of the international community is therefore parallel to US grand strategy and it will not let another country splinter that model.

The US argues the Lassen operation met the standards of “innocent passage”. But it also called the bluff that Beijing would aggressively defend the waters. It didn’t, and there’s a deeper reason for why.

China could have rejected the UNCLOS or announced new rules, but it didn’t. Beijing is fighting back against those international rules, in doing so shows it wishes to operate within that framework, however aggressively. In other words, China wants to be part of the international community, the question is whether it or the US will be the custodian of those rules. The Lassen shows the score.