Archive | Middle East

Pursuing the wrong enemy

Published: 29 July 2005

I’ve just read a fascinating, perceptive, well constructed series of 3 articles on the damage US conservatives are doing to their own country’s cause by pursuing the wrong enemy.

You have to get well into the 3rd part of the series to see the particular relevance to New Zealand, but it’s worth the journey.

37 years ago, when I edited, first a competing student newspaper, Camp-us, then for a short time the official Otago University student paper Critic, the world was in a state of political foment. Students took to the barricades for numerous causes that year, 1968. In New Zealand, a large percentage of the population marched in opposition to the US war against the North Vietnamese & Viet Cong regimes, and to the New Zealand Government support for that war. Harold Holt, the Australian Prime Minister whose support for the US cause introduced the phrase All the way with LBJ, had disappeared mysteriously in December 1967 when he went for a swim in the sea, but Australian governments have hardly wavered from that support of the US cause in the succeeding decades.

The article in The New Republic – How conservatism leaves us vulnerable to nuclear terrorism – is by the magazine’s acting editor, Peter Scoblic. He argues that the Bush (and wider Republican) doctrine of fighting fundamentalist terrorism with a campaign to spread the ideologies of freedom & democracy ignores what the real focus should be: capability.

He doesn’t delve so fully into what I suspect is an equally powerful ingredient of international terrorism, the reaction against having somebody else’s ideology inflicted upon your country. You might reach the same ideology over time, but having it forced down your throat is wont to cause an upset stomach.

Removal of Saddam Hussein from his autocratic presidency in Iraq was an example of focusing on regime change instead of on diplomacy to reduce nuclear capability, Mr Scoblic argues. While the US administration focused on that, it paid little heed to greater danger next door in Iran and, in the case of North Korea, again focused on the personality of the president rather than trying to defuse the capability danger.

New Zealanders who marched against the US & allies’ Vietnam campaign will be familiar with that: US soldiers travelled the world battling “wrong” ideology. In New Zealand, the Vietnam war largely set left against right, the young Left of the 60s & 70s acceded to power in the 90s & new millennium, and National Party leader Don Brash stands accused today of toadying to the US cause.

US Ambassador Charles Swindell departed from his term in New Zealand saying it was time to move on from our longstanding intransigence over the nuclear issue. The message that reached me – and which would automatically be rejected by the anti-US marchers of the 60s & 70s – was that New Zealand should soften its position.

In the New Republic article, Mr Scoblic sets out many international policy areas where the US has rejected internationally binding commitments, and highlights the US’ plans to increase its nuclear capacity as a primary cause of “increasingly widespread concern & impatience with the unsatisfactory progress being made toward nuclear disarmament” by the US, Russia, China, France & Great Britain. Among the concerned, 7 nations which have formed the New Agenda Coalition this year – one of them New Zealand.

Mr Scoblic summed up: “…..the Bush administration’s ideology is such that, not only won’t it negotiate with our enemies, it won’t negotiate with our friends – even if it would improve our national security. So, if the US wants to better protect itself, it needs to replace the ideology that’s running our foreign policy.”

He argues that the way out of that predicament is to elect a Democratic administration (after a few changes in their thinking, too), although plenty of Democratic administrations have acted similarly to the Republicans in this area of policy. In this country, the proportional voting system & range of possible government mixes make it harder to work out who to vote for (if anybody) to find a more accommodating – but not subservient – way forward.

More important, though, is the underlying anti-Americanism demonstrated by many New Zealanders – against McDonald’s or Chev SUVs or shopping concepts or numerous business models – which has been built on top of the anti-Vietnam war theme. People with that kind of thinking are entrenched, not looking for any way forward.

We operate on the small-town model, still with virtually no debate on wider issues, on how we might improve our place in the world, on how we might advance relationships with other countries. Our approach to Zimbabwe over the cricket tour is much the same as Mr Scoblic has described the US approach to fundamentalism: Reject, erect a wall, don’t discuss.

NZ Cricket’s approach has been based entirely on business, ignoring moral stands & ideology. The mainstream business approach to politics in New Zealand is to prefer the steamroller style, wanting international benefits without taking any note of the intricacies and adopting the same approach on local issues, especially those where resource management are involved.

Labour has worked hard in the past year on self-destructing as a government, paving the way for policy shifts. Internationally, it would be easy for New Zealand to veer towards the thinking which Mr Scoblic describes as dangerous to your own cause. Domestically, we have the chance of debate – particularly on resource management issues, less likely on education & business issues – to make us a more inclusive & advanced society, one that has moved on from the entrenched divides of the past 40-odd years.

Website & article link: The New Republic

How conservatism leaves us vulnerable to nuclear terrorism


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US militarism versus terror for religion: As we’re drawn into world turmoil we can produce vision & show acceptance of diversity

The clash between US militarism and proponents of terror to enforce Muslim ways threatens the entire world.

Not just peace, not just economic order. Democracy requires discussion & debate. The US response to the anarchic forces that brought terror to New York has had nothing to do with democracy, everything to do with military power.

The 2 forces – the peacekeeper who says you will all live in peace so long as you do it my way, on the one hand, and the soldiers of religion who see no value in modern consumerist society, on the other – combine to bring uncertainty to every corner of the globe.

In this war life has no sanctity. The bystander is no longer innocent.

In the Middle East there have been no bystanders for decades. It has been easy, from the bottom of the South Pacific or from various points on our OE journeys, to set aside that part of the globe as a no-go area and to have fun elsewhere.

We are drawn into the international battle by our past

But we are drawn into the international battle by our past – our traditions of supporting British & American causes because we think alike, more than because we are pressured to do so, and then because of our choice to criticise at inopportune moments.

New Zealand’s anti-nuclear stance was a statement of independence, and therefore of unreliability as a blindly supportive partner. Even in Vietnam New Zealand’s armed force was small, but welcomed as a signal of support for an ally, and in Iraq any New Zealand force would have again been small but equally welcomed by the same ally.

Instead, New Zealand chose to question the legitimacy of a military act, thereby incurring wrath once more. Taking part in the reconstruction of Iraq is a statement of the New Zealand Philosophy: we will help others, in the nature of the good Samaritan. But if our Samaritans in Iraq are not distinguished from the American forces our nation’s efforts may do us no good: having already incurred the wrath of the American administration and not yet got absolution for our crimes, we may now become a target of America’s opponents.

We are a small nation which depends on international trade, and from time to time we adopt principled positions which damage our trading opportunities. Our stands on principle generally don’t have the support of a large majority in this country, we don’t seem to make gains that offset the costs of our stands, and we don’t bring about change by the influence & acceptance of our principles (except perhaps in the case of the 1981 Springbok rugby tour).

We don’t discuss principles

We also don’t discuss our principles at length: political discussion, generally, is confined to issues of immediate practice, as in the foreshore ownership debate, rather than being relevant beyond the turn of the year, or the month.

How, you might ask, does a dissertation simplifying the complexities of international affairs find a place in a series of web pages which are essentially about property & investment?

I think it makes sense to know, preferably in advance of serious impacts, how this country is placed in foreign mindsets, and that concentrating on today’s price of a square metre of dirt can make you  forget forces which can change the value or price of that square metre overnight.

While 100% support for any principle is most unlikely, I think it also makes sense to understand what this country stands for, what it will fight for, what its population mix might be & what differences changing the mix can make.

Understanding these things will also help us make New Zealand a place we like. As you go round the circle, you get back to the lifestyle of this country and to the environment we build.

We have changes to work with & celebrate

The New Zealand lifestyle has been changing rapidly over the past 20 years. Shop doors open at weekends (and on Queen St, the Chinese or Korean shopkeeper may not close the door until 8-9pm, including weekends); Pacific Island communities are no longer new immigrants but entrenched, yet few among the rest of us look at how to build these Islanders’ lives into gains both here & in their homelands; new waves of migrants have arrived from various parts of Asia, bringing new cultures & thinking, with little consideration by anybody of how to bring most value out of the inevitable changes; many voices among the nation’s Maori are in permanent conflict with the society around them.

We are not what we were, but we have little vision of what we might – or want to – become.

The central business district of our biggest city is devoid of the character that tells a visitor this place is special, one to revisit. It is changing, but without much forethought. The city’s planners have pulled in architects to produce concepts for changing streetscapes; the wider population needs to take part in that exercise to make it a shared vision.

Some of the change is apparent as tables come out on the pavement outside the many cafés of the cbd, as Chinese students chatter their way noisily to & fro, as Asians young & old and the occasional gweilo pour into the most popular Chinese food outlets as if it were Singapore or Shanghai, as a host of other nationalities peer in shop windows to find something different, as the city centre’s streets start to look lived in.

We are learning to welcome new ways, but we live in a world where the unfamiliar & the different-looking are automatically open to question.

When Australia closed its door on a shipload of refugees – an act which seems to have stemmed the flow, incidentally – New Zealand stepped in & took a few of the unfortunates. Apart from causing a ripple in trans-Tasman relations, New Zealand’s soft-touch behaviour confused the immigration picture.

In due course these immigrants will find a place in New Zealand, though it might be a long time before they become accustomed to the New Zealand lifestyle.

The US used to be a home of diversity but its leadership now wants a society that speaks with one voice – ignoring the perils of crossing the sea to Iraq, the swelling numbers of Spanish speakers back home make that unison an unlikely dream. Over here, meanwhile, we’re only just venturing into true diversity.

In time we’ll see it expressed in our architecture & our politics, and if we don’t get on with a vision of our society we’ll wonder, when these expressions happen, what hit us.

It would help the players on the world stage if we were to do this quickly: we could show them how to take the human race forwards in celebration of diversity.

Where this began

I began writing this piece after reading an article in Le Monde Diplomatique by Gilbert Achcar, Fantasy of a region that doesn’t exist – Greater Middle East: The US plan, which advanced on my view that wielding vast military strength will not sway minds in your favour, but that trying to understand those minds and finding a way to accommodate your differences might work better. It’s roughly the view I expounded in 1968 when the US was increasing its bombing of Vietnam.

I later stayed in Brittany with a former French serviceman, by this time a ship’s captain, who had enjoyed Vietnam but was pleased to leave a war he knew they would not win. And in Paris there were the cafés where politics & philosophical points would be debated fervently.

We’re getting the good part, the cafés. We can do with a search for that vision as well.

Websites: Le Monde Diplomatique

Monthly Review, Clash of Barbarisms references

Monthly Review, David Barsamian interviews Gilbert Achcar

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