Thursday, 28 November 2013

Iranian deal fails to hit the nuclear brakes

A deal struck late last Saturday night between western powers and Iran over the latter’s controversial nuclear programme was termed a “first step” by US President Barack Obama towards a normalisation of relations between the international community and the pariah government.

Reports from Tehran indicate the regime considers the deal to be a significant win for the radical Islamic leaders; large street demonstrations in support of the regime apparently broke out after news of the deal was released.

The deal arose during the third round of multilateral talks in Geneva. Few predicted a successful agreement after the tough conditions implemented by French President Francois Hollande before the talks began. But the crippling sanctions on Iran and their new leadership, coupled with Mr Obama’s sense of urgency and a series of secret meetings leading up to the talks, all set the stage for the latest deal.

Many experts are sceptical the agreement will do much to halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Billions of dollars worth of investment and frozen assets are expected to pour into the Iranian economy as the rest of the sanctions may be lifted in the year ahead.

But all those next steps are at best tenuous because Tehran’s history of adhering to other negotiation deals is less than satisfactory. According to the text of the agreement, the following steps must be followed by Iran over a maximum of six months, during which time a more comprehensive text will be compiled.

Iran must halt its enrichment of uranium above 5% U-235 (which is the isotope necessary for a specific type of nuclear weapons), and any uranium already enriched above this grade must be reduced below.

No further centrifuges should be built or any additional enrichment facilities.

Iran also must not increase its reactor-grade fuel stockpiles, although it can continue to produce this grade to maintain current levels.

The heavy water reactor plant at Arak will not be commissioned or fuelled. Other work on the reactor will be permitted.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspections must be legally recognized on most nuclear sites without restrictions.

In return, Iran will have “limited, temporary, and reversible relief” of economic sanctions. Much of this relief will be resumed access to frozen funds held in Western banks, estimated to be some US$4.2 billion. Other sanctions on gold, precious metals, Iran’s automobile sector, and even its petrochemical exports will also be lifted.

The White House made it clear many sanctions will remain in place on Iran’s oil, finance, and banking sectors. But no new sanctions will be imposed on Iran during the next six months. Western powers also reiterated these sanctions could be returned and reinforced if Iran does not comply or shows duplicity.

Already official responses from Tehran indicate the regime is looking for gaps. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said November 26 that the text of the Geneva agreement released by Washington is inaccurate, Fars News Agency reported. The ministry's spokeswoman said parts of the White House's fact sheet contradict the text of the agreement.

And even though the agreement specifically curbs enrichment to above 5% and for the Arak reactor to cease much of its construction, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said construction at the Arak nuclear facility would continue but that no new fuel would be produced and no new equipment would be installed.

This reactor will be a source of plutonium, but wasn’t planned for completion until at least a year from now. The wording of the agreement neatly sidesteps the provisions of adding new components to the reactor while leaving the existing plans free to continue as they don’t violate the new deal.

Mr Zarif also said in front of lawmakers November 27 that uranium enrichment at the Natanz and Fordow facilities will continue at levels around 3.5-5% purity, but the facilities' capacities will not be expanded.

Over the next six months, Iran is likely to keep its current levels of reactor-grade uranium and refrain from increasing them, because it doesn’t need to. Increased monitoring from international agencies should keep them on their toes.

However, their existing stocks of uranium can still be converted to 20% enrichment - where it would be suitable for weapons-grade - in a timeframe of perhaps only a few months should the regime choose. All the machines necessary for this are already in place, according to assessments.

Analyses by the American Enterprise Institute, the Institute for Science and International Security, and the Nuclear Proliferation Education Centre suggest Iran already has enough enriched uranium to produce seven or eight nuclear weapons if they decide to enrich it further.

None of the provisions in the latest agreement do anything at all to limit the amount of uranium Iran currently possesses. Much of what Iran uses for their reactors is uranium oxide. This can be converted back into the uranium compound known as uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, which can be enriched to weapons-grade.

Ultimately, while Iran wanted to appear to be bowing to harsh sanctions and making significant concessions, Tehran has managed to pull off a huge ideological victory with this deal and the regime is likely to get a popularity boost. The happy crowds in the capital understand the agreement will only suspend Iran’s weapons programme, not end it.

But signing the deal effectively told the Iranians their years of circumventing sanctions would go unpunished. Even more worrisome for international security, in not specifically leaning on the regime to shut down its nuclear programme, and instead only asking for existing facilities to not be increased, western powers are effectively condoning Iran’s nuclear programme.

Just like in North Korea in 1994, when a framework for freezing that country’s nuclear programme was enacted and IAEA inspectors were allowed in, the Geneva agreement for Iran has many gaps. North Korea never quite complied with all of its provisions at the time, even secretly developing a parallel nuclear weapons programme before exploding their own bomb about a decade after. The exact details around Iran’s ability to create a nuclear weapon are still obscure, but that is the problem. The Geneva deal doesn't fill these gaps.

The latest agreement brings Iran and the US closer together, and sets the stage for further steps in the future. Iran’s economy will bounce back, the Islamic regime should be strengthened which may encourage greater civic freedoms, Tehran will enjoy deeper influence around the region, oil prices should drop further, and the precious metals trading market shouldn't feel too much effect once Iran can return to using its own currency again.

However, the deal is a gamble that Iran will adhere to the path set before it and look kindly on a more robust agreement in the future. It is difficult to predict, but the US and western powers might have conceded too much ground in favour of a political quick-fix. The way it stands now, there is nothing compelling Tehran to agree to conditions where its entire nuclear programme will be shut down. Essentially, they can continue on as they please with secret reactors while looking like they are fully complying at known plants.

Most arms control and non-proliferation agreements are intended to be permanent. Things might change as the months progress, but the Geneva deal is of limited duration and everything could revert back to square one in six months.

Reader reply - Deal in Geneva

Hi Tiresias,

Thank you for your comments on Geneva talks outcome.

The deal was above all a deal between Iran and the US. And for the first time in three decades, a will to go through the diplomatic path emanated from both sides. During the Khatami era, Iran showed openness and a desire to ease up tensions through Khatami's Dialogue among civilisations. After 9/11, there was even a cooperation between Tehran and Washington to fight against the Taliban.

Unfortunately, George W. Bush branded Iran on the axis of evil and Iran went for a hard liner president with the election of Ahmadinejad. The latter adopted a provocative discourse against the West and Israel, using the nuclear issue to divert attention from domestic problems, their disastrous economic situation, and human rights issues.

The former French ambassador to Iran told me that at some point, President Sarkosy, once elected, was ready to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue but Ahmadinejad made things not happen. On the other hand, the former Iranian Ambassador to France told me that he had met with 400 French officials and that all diplomatic or trade negotiations were booked once reached to Sarkozy. In fact, after the lack of success to negotiate with Iran, the French adopted a harder line. We also saw that in 2010 the Iran/Turkey/Brazil deal did not convince the Great Powers to negotiate further with Iran. And this despite US previous approval of Brazil going ahead. This showed any deal had to be done between the US and Iran and that the will to dialogue was each time absent from one side or the other.

I don't think that the Iranians who have made all these efforts and have the support of the supreme leader will not respect the deal they have just reached with the P5+1. This is a little step, but a very good start.

Hi ....,

Very happy about the Geneva result. The imperatives and geopolitical realities leading to the agreement have been taking shape for years. It could be a very significant geopolitical pivot in the Middle East. This first step required only very mild concessions by Iran for sanctions relief. The next step will be much more difficult and apparently will require Iran to make much more significant concessions. The deal was reached because both the US and Iran believe cooperation is in their interests both now and in the future. Mr Obama looks like he’s been under some serious pressure and urgency lately to get this sorted out, but I think the greater movement in the end came from Mr Rouhani.

Overall, this deal gambles that small steps now might create political space for Mr Rouhani to agree to more extensive agreements down the road. A final agreement resolving the nuclear threat should include halting all uranium enrichment, removing all enriched uranium from the country, dismantling all centrifuges, halting work on the Arak reactor, and full access by the IAEA to suspected nuclear sites. There are no indications this pact will lead Iran to agree to such conditions and it could instead be read by Iran that it will retain the right to enrich reactor-grade uranium which could be one day be quickly converted into weapons-grade nuclear fuel.

Baby steps though. It’s very early in the progress, but it is a good sign.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

US bombers transit China's air defence zone

A pair of US long-range bombers carried out a pre-planned training mission November 26 through international air space designated last week as an 'air defense identification zone' (ADIZ) by China, The New York Times reported...China said November 23 that it reserves the right to oversee air traffic in the contested East China Sea region and to take action if necessary...None of the protocols insisted by Chinese defence forces were reportedly observed by the two US aircraft...Pentagon officials said the unarmed B-52s took off from Guam on a routine training exercise called “Coral Lightning” - scheduled before China's announcement - and that the United States will continue to assert its right to transit what is regarded as international air space...China’s options to enforce its own rules in the ADIZ are likely more rhetorical than physical, in many ways its military looks stronger than it really is, but Beijing is not likely to back down from its maritime expansion...With this latest move, the Pentagon is strongly responding to China’s unilateral demarcation and not letting the ADIZ affect its military’s transit schedule...Washington, realising the potential for heating relations between China and Japan, has wisely but still dangerously used its own aircraft in “bomber diplomacy”, rather than let Japan react in its own way...Tokyo is not pleased with the recent Chinese announcement and will respond by increasing its sea patrols and become even more militarily assertive, but the United States would prefer if the US airforce acted as a third party to the conflict...Japan has been relying less on the US military for protection over the past two years, so sending bombers flying over the disputed islands tells China that Washington will not be bullied by artificial lines while at the same time tells Tokyo that the US is still in overall control of the situation and is ready to step in at any time should the flashpoint ignite.

China’s blurry plan for market reform

China held its eagerly anticipated Third Plenum earlier this month, a closed-door meeting of the country’s top party leaders, to compile a reform package with the goal of avoiding the risk of an outright hard landing as its economy moves into a new phase of growth. The meeting set the year of 2020 as the date when many of the expected breakthroughs charted in the major reform areas can be expected to be achieved.

That date is a long way off, but the reform package itself is broad and will require time anyway. 11 key policies were enacted during planning sessions according to a white paper, but few details were provided in the communiqué.

So far they include: a new role for market-driven resource allocation, SOE restructuring, fiscal reform, integrated rural-urban development, greater democratic consultation, judiciary reform, a brief nod to President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, social media and internet management, a new State Security Committee, environmental protection, and the creation of a group to coordinate these reforms.

These are the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) - and more importantly President Xi Jinping’s - set of plans to guide their policymaking over the next decade. Their current economic model, and to a great extent their social and political model, is quickly reaching its effective limits and it is time for a change. But there remain serious ideological obstacles and potentially whole structural upheavals waiting just around the corner, so just how the party intends to put their reforms into practice is the question they cannot ignore for much longer.

Two aspects immediately jump out about the new proposed direction. First, the language around the public and private sectors suggest the two are declared equal, but the contradictory statement in the communiqué that the reforms must “bring about the leading role of the public-owned economy” points to some unfinished hierarchical disputes at the highest levels in Beijing.

Second, it is an encouraging sign that the party plans a move to let the market play a larger role in resource allocation. China’s inefficient and uncompetitive public sector is already stunting the country’s economic development. If the Communist Party is to prevent economic stagnation it will need to create a wealthy middle class and a buzzing private sector. To achieve this, ending the monopoly status enjoyed by state-owned enterprises will be important.

For a very long time, their standard growth model has been high-volume manufacturing of low-margin products. Chinese central planning artificially subsidised both efficient and inefficient businesses associated with such goods. This created excess capacity, large-scale employment, and rising wages – all good things for the ruling party. But declining profitability over the past few years and rising global competitiveness offered far cheaper low-margin goods from other developing countries. To fix this, rule-bound markets are increasingly being seen as the right path for China’s economy, and Beijing says it wants to extract itself from the top-down administrative approach which has served it so successfully over the past 33 years. However their actions indicate they may not be comfortable loosening the reins just yet.

Perhaps the communiqué revealed so few details because the scope of China’s desperately needed economic changes is so overwhelmingly large. Letting the market become more involved, or at least indicating a motivation to open the doors a bit more, doesn’t immediately answer the question of how comfortable Beijing will be to let the natural market cycles of boom and bust equalise the Chinese economy.

Left to the natural forces, many inefficient Chinese businesses will simply bow to global and domestic competitive pressures, potentially sending thousands of semi-skilled people onto the streets in search of ever-rarer jobs.

There is little doubt that China’s leaders recognise a need for some kind of change. The party is saying all the right things, but the real test will be the implementation. The emerging ideological tug of war in Beijing might be enough to keep the party ahead of the expected changes their policy pronouncements and their shifting global position will create. But the general feeling from the Third Plenum is that this will be a struggle.

The meeting was not about westernising the Chinese economic model. It was all about reshaping the association between the CCP, the fluttering economy, and the Chinese people while ensuring the legitimacy and centrality of the ruling party. In this contest, the self-preservation of the CCP will always take priority. Much of that legitimacy rests on the promise of continued employment for everybody and a steadily rising income level. Let the assured jobs fall away while the economy adjusts to a new market-centred path and Beijing can expect social instability, which it greatly fears. Real changes will take much longer to implement in a system as complex as China’s, and 2020 might not be far enough away.

Market forces are strong and Darwinian, so the exact meaning of “market involvement” and how it will fit into the unique Chinese framework without upsetting too many elites either will be the trick. Ultimately the party will need to find a way balance a contradictory desire to both increase market forces in the economy and bolster centralised control. And that’s going to be tough.

It appears the best thing the party can do for the foreseeable future is try to keep the weak and dying businesses alive for as long as it can while espousing a rhetorical commitment to reform. Unfortunately it looks like the party will sit on its hands and keep the existing model in place until there really is no other option but to change its entrenched ways.

This looks distinctly like a contradiction and disconnect between political and economic policies. The Third Plenum can only be considered a success if its reforms lead to more precise changes in the future to invigorate China’s governmental and economic system. If not, China faces a grim period of economic stagnation and social instability.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

China escalates tension in the East China Sea

China has demarcated an "air-defence identification zone" (ADIZ) over an area of the East China Sea that includes the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are also claimed by Japan, the Chinese Defense Ministry announced November 23, BBC reported...The ministry said aircraft entering the zone must obey Chinese rules - such as reporting flight plans, responding to logo and transponder identification inquiries, and maintaining two-way radio communications - or face emergency defensive measures...The Japanese Foreign Ministry lodged a strong protest over what it called a unilateral escalation that risks leading to an unexpected situation, causing the Chinese Foreign Ministry to summon the Japanese Ambassador to express its displeasure with Tokyo's response...The proposed ADIZ is approximately two-thirds the size of the United Kingdom sitting right on top of the disputed islands and puts Japan in a tight spot and directly challenges the United States...Japan has previously said it would shoot down any Chinese UAV entering Japanese airspace, causing Beijing to say such a move would constitute an act of war...In response to Beijing’s ADIZ, both Japan and the United States indicated they will continue to conduct operations in the area without any changes...Tension is already high and both countries appear unwilling to formalise anything like a standard Incidents at Sea-type agreement, relying on tit-for-tat military escalation instead...Adding more unilateral protocols will increase the chances of a diplomatically embarrassing interception or even a miscalculation sparking conflict.

Egypt severs diplomatic ties with Turkey

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Egypt has asked Turkey's ambassador to the country to leave, accusing Ankara of backing unnamed organisations intent on spreading instability, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman said November 23, Reuters reported...Ankara is attempting to influence public opinion against Egyptian interests, the spokesman said...Though Turkish President Abdullah Gul expressed hope on Turkish state television that bilateral relations would soon be normalised, a Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman said Ankara would respond with reciprocal steps...Both countries recalled their ambassadors in August after Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of people protesting the removal of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi - diplomatic relations are now effectively severed...Turkey's ruling party has been a close ally with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and it was Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “provocative” statements about Egypt’s military leaders which led to the expelling of the Turkish ambassador...Mr Erdogan used the MB’s control in Egypt to increase Turkey’s influence in the region, and both Ankara and Mr Erdogan took a strategic hit when the Egyptian military removed Mr Morsi...Egypt’s military leaders realise shunning Turkey hurts their future and will exacerbate Cairo’s worries of seclusion, but there is an aspect to the recent diplomatic events of purging old ties before forging new ones.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Iran-US deal reached, questions remain

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif
hugs French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius
in Geneva Nov. 24, 2013
Initial leaked reports indicate that the nuclear deal reached between Iran and Western powers in Geneva on November 24 includes a recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium and a cessation of oil sanctions, Iran's Fars News Agency reported...Iran will be allowed to sell oil at current levels, and its oil revenues will be released...Other sanctions against Iranian transportation, gold, and insurance industries will also be lifted...US Secretary of State John Kerry said the International Atomic Energy Agency will gain daily access to key nuclear facilities according to a statement...He also said that if continuing negotiations toward a more comprehensive deal over the next six months falter and Iran does not honour the terms of the deal, sanctions could be ratcheted up once again...Some $4.2 billion from these sales will be transferred to Iran, while remaining oil revenues - roughly $14 billion to $16 billion - will remain frozen...The Geneva deal was reached because both the US and Iran believe cooperation is in their interests both now and in the future...US President Barack Obama pushed very hard to sort out the Iranian nuclear program, but in this case the greater consolation came from Tehran...The next six months will be crucial in estimating whether Iran is serious about the agreement or whether it is obfuscating once again to ease sanctions without giving up too much too early...Overall, this deal gambles that small steps now might create political space for Mr Rouhani to agree to more extensive agreements down the road...This first step required only very mild concessions by Iran for sanctions relief...Any next step will be much more difficult and will require Iran to make much more significant concessions...Nonetheless, if the agreement holds it will be a significant geopolitical pivot in the Middle East...However, completing a robust deal with the US could boost Iran’s image in the Middle East, encouraging Tehran to increase its use of proxies like Hezbollah now that the US have shown their hand.

Sinai jihadists target Egyptian troops with suicide bomb

A suicide bomber slammed a vehicle-borne explosive device (VBIED) into a bus carrying Egyptian troops between Rafah and el-Arish, AP reported November 20...11 soldiers were killed and 35 were wounded...The Egyptian troops, in agreement with Israeli security forces, were deployed to destroy militant tunnels along the southern border of Gaza...More than 100 Egyptian soldiers have been killed over the last two months by jihadists retaliating to Cairo’s ongoing security clampdown in the Sinai...Suicide VBIEDs are a significant escalation in any conflict, but in Egypt they are extremely rare...Even though the explosion occurred near the border with Gaza on the Sinai it still targeted Egyptian troops and not Israeli troops, indicating the attack was responding to recently destroyed arms caches and militant hideouts...The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Cairo is working hard to keep jihadists under control by focusing on al-Qaeda-linked jihadists in the Sinai, hoping the lawlessness and radical Islamism thriving in the peninsula does not spread westward...There are still some ongoing protests in Cairo by Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters which the SCAF hope to keep unconnected to the Islamist terrorism elsewhere...From the SCAF’s perspective, if bombs keep exploding far near the Israeli border just who the jihadists were targeting or who is responsible will be ambiguous...The closer the bombs creep to Cairo however – and the closer the militants align with MB supporters - the more politically dangerous they become. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Jihadists violently strike at Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon

Twin explosions at the Iranian Embassy in Lebanon on November 19 in Beirut's Jnah neighbourhood killed 23 people and wounded 146 others. The al Qaeda-linked group Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility for the attacks. The explosions are Sunni jihadist’s response to Iran’s heavy involvement with Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but are unlikely to deter Tehran from further support for the regime.

Hojatoleslam Ebrahim Ansari, the Iranian cultural attache in Lebanon, was among those killed in the Beirut embassy bombing, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman confirmed. The Iranian Embassy in Lebanon's cultural adviser, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Ansari, was also killed in the blasts.

Initial reports from the scene said rockets hit the Embassy, while others said it was a car bomb. However, security footage emerging later showed a man in an explosives belt rushing toward the outer wall of the Embassy before detonating the explosives, Lebanese officials said. Different reports describe the first bomber on either a motorcycle or on foot.

The first explosion was likely meant to weaken or remove the outer gate of the compound in preparation for the second strike with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). However, it is also possible the first bomber succumbed to environmental pressure, panicked, and rushed the plan before his associates were ready with the second strike.

Lebanese officials said the second explosion was caused by the VBIED. According to CCTV footage, a Renault Rapid van was used to deliver explosives to the Embassy gate about a minute after the first blast. That explosion damaged the facade of the Embassy, but did little structural damage, suggesting the van was either unable to breach the Embassy gate or the amount of explosives was too little to cause large-scale damage. Judging by pictures of the damage at the scene, estimates that the van carried about 50 kilograms of explosives are likely fairly accurate.

The high casualty rate reflects the early morning timing of the attack. Both explosions occurred in succession around 9:42 am local time, indicating the bombers intended to inflict maximum casualties. Many of the Embassy staff would have been arriving or setting up for the day when the blasts struck. Many pedestrians would also have been moving past the Embassy at the time, increasing the amounts of people injured.

Both the Iranian Embassy and the ambassador’s residence were targeted in the attack. This was the third successful jihadist strike on a hardened target in Hezbollah-controlled territory in Lebanon in the past five months. The attack ruptured more than two months of relative quiet in Lebanon. Violent spillover from the Syrian civil war has given Lebanon plenty to worry about in 2013, and a return of violence could disrupt the fragile political atmosphere in the broken nation.

Sunni militants, probably operating out of Syria, targeted the Iranian Embassy in response to Iran’s heavy support on the side of the Syrian regime. The objective for this particular strike was meant to hit back unexpectedly in Lebanon at a distracted and fatigued Hezbollah and at an Iranian regional command centre while both of those forces focus on supporting the Syrian regime in its fight against rebels.

Secondarily, Sunni militants have been trying to erode Hezbollah’s political influence in Lebanon as much as possible with similar attacks in the past. The latest attack is a continuation of this pattern.

But instead of deterring further Iranian and Hezbollah assistance to the embattled Syrian regime, these attacks are likely to encourage more support for Syria from Iran and could precipitate tit-for-tat attacks on Sunni targets in Syria or elsewhere in the Levant. Tehran and Hezbollah understand the need to stay firmly behind the Syrian regime at this time. Iran is entering into deeper negotiations with the United States to discuss both the Iranian nuclear program and the larger issue of influence over the Middle East.

Alongside this, Iran and Syria hold a strong position in the civil war while the rebel’s only arms provider is Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Western support for the rebels is on hold while the negotiations continue. The latest bombings against the Embassy will likely be brushed aside as tragic but not strategically important for Iran or Hezbollah.

This leaves the secondary goals. Stirring the political waters in Lebanon will probably be more successful, but not entirely predictable.  More attacks are certainly likely in the future which could lead to potentially harsh reprisals on Lebanese Sunnis by Hezbollah members attempting to crack down on militants.

Crackdowns will exacerbate the already deep sectarian fissures in Lebanon. It will also facilitate wrenching the Sunni population and Hezbollah further apart, further undermining Hezbollah’s already struggling political power in Lebanon. Hurting Hezbollah’s political gains in Lebanon will indirectly help the Syrian rebel effort, but this particular effect will likely take time to emerge.

Iran has been involved in Syria’s internecine conflict since the beginning of the uprising in 2011. As a long-time ally to Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Iran supported the Syrian regime through thick and thin. Tehran dispatched members of its elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to Syria on multiple occasions to assist Syrian loyalists in their fight.

Syria was an integral part of Iran’s effort to extend influence across the Middle East and Levant, but the raging uprising scuttled Tehran’s plans. Now Iran is trying to salvage as much of their influence in Syria as they can, even though the Syrian President actually more closely resembles the country’s strongest warlord rather than a functional head-of-state.

As well as IRGC troops fighting in Syria, Iran also activated its Shiite Muslim proxy militant group Hezbollah. The group’s involvement in the Syrian conflict has significantly helped the regime to push rebel forces from key positions in southwest Syria. During 2013, Hezbollah have also lost substantial numbers of troops in the conflict which has made the group hesitant to commit further.

Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria have fatigued the group immensely, both politically and operationally. Losing hundreds of fighters in the war is clearly having an effect back in their traditional enclaves in Lebanon as the explosions indicate. While the attack might still have occurred if the group were at full strength, their control over large areas of Beirut, and Lebanon in general, has limited attacks in years past.

More attacks by Sunni rebel forces acting out of Syria can be expected in Lebanon. The goals of the militants have not yet been fully realised. Hezbollah and Iranian strongholds and neighbourhoods will continue to remain attractive targets. However, these attacks are unlikely to deter Iran or its proxy into limiting their involvement in Syria.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The quiet daily humanitarian benefits of the US Navy

Before one of history's most powerful typhoons made landfall, the United States was speedily losing important credibility in Asia. The loss came not because Washington decided it would continue with its historic path in Asia, but because it tried to do something different with US President Barack Obama’s “Pivot”.

Mr Obama might not have been able to attend some recent high-profile international meetings in South Asia, choosing instead to remain in his office to deal with the fiscal partisan belligerency conducted by his political rivals. Acting as the US President, Mr Obama’s first responsibility is to the American people, and of course fighting political fires at home is always going to be more important than any chin-wagging in Bali.

But his absence left a nasty taste in the mouths of long-time allies in the Asia Pacific, especially the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia.

Symbolism is very important in Asia, so when an American head of state declines to meet with other leaders in the region, many consider it an insult first and a cultural difference second. US plans for the region appeared to be unable get off the ground.

Then Typhoon Haiyan tumbled over the southern Philippine islands on November 8.

Thousands of locals were killed by the storm as Manilla seemed powerless to help its citizens and the serious limits of governmental control over the country were exposed. Food and water for the survivors were suddenly not available and disease became a real threat.

America responded to the disaster in a truly American fashion: by sending in its military.

The US aircraft carrier group CVN 73 George Washington is underway near the Philippine region of Leyte where US General Douglas MacArthur’s force landed on October 20, 1944. US military forces are currently ferrying supplies to the stricken country and will continue until the job is complete, according to a Department of Defense spokesperson.

Washington has also pledged more than US$37 million in humanitarian aid, which is expected to rise as the extent of the damage is assessed. China, which is locked in a bitter dispute with the Philippines over desolate islands in the South China Sea, has to date raised US$1.64 million in aid.

So if symbolism truly is important in Asia, then the US effort in the Philippines has to be speaking thousands of unsaid words. The Philippines was already one of the tightest US allies in the region before the typhoon, but almost any country facing similar humanitarian tribulations would probably receive the same response from Washington. That’s just the way the US Navy works.

That’s because every day of every year hundreds of US ships steams across the world’s oceans, patrolling hotspots, exercising with allies, and protecting international trade routes. Billions of US treasury dollars are spent annually on safeguarding the world’s market system and logistics.

US aircraft carrier group CVN 73 George Washington
Sure, this political strategy directly boosts the American market first and foremost, but the ancillary benefit makes it possible for every nation to trade effectively on the world’s oceans. US power, for instance, makes it possible to send Fonterra’s dairy products halfway around the world, with the expectation they’ll arrive safely.

In times of struggle, the quiet power and effectively unlimited reach of the enormous American naval forces moves temporarily into the spotlight. There is effectively no competition to the US Navy and it will always be a maritime merchant power.

And for all the frets about a rapidly growing Chinese naval capability, Beijing cannot yet field anything like the US carrier group for humanitarian relief – even if they wanted to.

Yet the US Navy not only has supremacy over the world’s oceans, allowing nations without robust navies to rely on the US Navy for protection - thereby limiting the chances of more wars - it can bring huge amounts of relief to countries facing horrific natural disasters with simply breathtaking speed.

As the US troops fly helicopters with tarpaulins and meals to the Philippines, Mr Obama’s slowly unfolding strategy for the Pacific could be getting new life. This impressive display of American hard power should translate very clearly into an important step for its other soft power strategy in Asia.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Summer of attacks expected in India

As many as 700 members of Islamic suicide squads could already have crossed into India to conduct attacks, according to a leaked intelligence report, reported by Headline Today…The intelligence report suggests the militants in India are being tasked to attack schools, hospitals, marketplaces, and temples around Diwali and Dussehra…Pakistan has historically assisted and controlled Islamic militant groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Hizbul Mujahideen… Indian security services apparently lost track of the militants soon after they entered Indian Kashmir and are unable to continue to intercept their communications, even though the wireless callsigns of the group are known to be “88” and “Hotel 4” on a compromised frequency…Pakistan has become increasingly aggressive over the disputed Kashmir territory by turning more often to militants to better leverage their position against India…The ISI also appear to be in implicit control of large sections of Pakistan’s foreign policy… A recent report by India’s Ministry of Home Affairs found that 60 percent of militants in Pakistan are controlled by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate (ISI)…What makes these events more worrisome is that generally, silence on a known wireless communication router indicate impending attacks or a change of communication protocols, either way the Indian Intelligence Bureau will be looking hard for the suicide squads…The leaked intelligence report warns of attacks during summer 2014, but strikes could occur sooner…These militants will be used as a tool to affect the expected political transition and departure of ISAF troops in Afghanistan in Pakistan’s favour…On top of this, Pakistan’s Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is set to retire next year and his as-yet unnamed successor could use the groups to establish credibility…And the upcoming Indian election will introduce a new Prime Minister looking to show his strong nationalist credentials also…India will likely endure a summer of militant attacks as both countries fight a low-lever proxy war…Because of this, progress in bilateral relations will deteriorate but outright war will probably be avoided.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Hezbollah clashes with pro-regime Shiite forces in Syria

Several militants were killed in clashes between Hezbollah and the Shiite pro-regime Abu al-Fadl Abbas Brigade, Now Media reported November 12, citing a November 11 report by the Saudi Al-Watan newspaper...Hezbollah members reportedly described the Abu al-Fadl Abbas fighters as mercenaries...Clashes between loyalist forces in Syria are unusual...Hezbollah have publically disparaged the brigade’s behaviour in the past, calling it thuggish...If the reports are accurate - coming as they are from a Saudi newspaper with incentive to embellish any news negative to Syrian President Bashar al Assad - they might point to breaks appearing in the regime ranks...Multiple Shiite groups operate in Syria, and not all of them cooperate, so clashes could be possible even while motivation for the arguments are presently unknown...But unless more skirmishes occur in the near future, this incident will remain an isolated event and probably not undermine the Syrian regime’s strategy...Pro-regime forces in Syria will be fighting in close proximity potentially for years to come, so clashes like this will be relatively common.

Details of proposed P 5+1 negotiations emerge

Negotiations between Tehran and the P-5+1 group of world powers over Iran's nuclear program in Geneva ended without an agreement on November 9, diplomats said...The talks are stuck on what to do about Iran's half-built plutonium reactor and how to deal with the country's stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said November 9...Fabius said France does not want construction of the Arak plutonium reactor to continue during final negotiations over the nuclear program, which could take six months...The reactor will be capable of generating huge quantities of plutonium, and France is absolutely firm on this point, he said...France also wants a provision for converting most of Iran's stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, which can be easily upgraded into nuclear bomb fuel, to a low-enrichment status, Fabius said...While the talks have stalled, they are planned to renew in late November...Some kind of agreement is likely to be reached due to mutual strategic benefits for both the US and Iran...The proposed deal reportedly on the table over Iran's nuclear program calls on Iran to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level, but it allows Tehran to continue enriching uranium to 3.5 percent at all of its enrichment sites and fails to placed a limitation on the number of centrifuges in Tehran's possession...Rewards to Iran include unfreezing $3 billion worth of fuel funds, easing sanctions on the petro-chemical and gold sectors, easing sanctions on replacement parts for planes and loosening restrictions on the Iranian car industry...The US and its Western allies apparently believe that a partial deal limiting Iran’s uranium enrichment under supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency is as much as they can get Iran to agree to since Tehran insists that it will never agree to halt uranium enrichment...Resuming talks November 19-20 will give opponents of the talks time to rally against the Obama administration for a tougher approach.

How a possible US-Iran handshake helps the world

Watching the world from behind government windows in Manila, Tokyo, or Bangkok to see the United States spending all of its diplomatic effort in the Middle East, still, after more than ten years, must be disconcerting. Not long ago anticipation permeated Asia when US President Barack Obama promised a regional “Pivot”. That excitement dims with each talk Secretary of State John Kerry schedules with Middle East leaders instead of Asia Pacific ones.

But Washington’s relentless focus on the Middle East is understandable. The United States is not trying to be the world policeman any more, at least not in the sense reminiscent of the early 2000s, however it has some tidying to do in the region before it can move on. Cleaning up the mess it in many ways created for itself.

Today, a major obstacle to settling the region is bridging the political gap of the broken US-Iran relationship. Mending that relationship will send ripples throughout the world, despite France calling the negotiations a “Fools game”.

The P 5+1 group, or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, and France) plus Germany, are involved in negotiations this month with Iran over the country’s nuclear program. However, there is no mistaking the fact that this is an American and Iranian issue at heart.

The first round of talks in Geneva, which ended November 9, failed to produce a deal despite the distinct feeling of progress among the participants. The talks ended but were not unsuccessful - this is just the beginning of what could be an important turn. They might lead to continued division, but the geopolitical realities predict a budding rapprochement sooner rather than later. And it’s been a long time coming.

Negotiations should resume November 19, where the main contention will be sorting out Iran’s nuclear program and hopefully ease the internationally-imposed sanctions effort. After that, finding a way to contain the rising Sunni Islamic influence in the Middle East and creating a mutually beneficial balance of power will be the long term goals.

It won’t be easy. Each country considers the other to be manifestations of evil. Fiery rhetoric lasting more than 30 years has led to military blockades, terrorist bombings, threats of war, harsh economic sanctions and political manipulations between the two nations. The US is the “Great Satan” in Iran’s view, while Iran is part of the “Axis of Evil” according to America.

In decades past, friction between the two countries served a greater geopolitical purpose. But those days are long gone. The political reality, with the rapid regional changes underway in the Middle East, dictates that Iran and America need to cooperate more than they can afford to remain at odds.

This is why meeting this month in Geneva could be the beginning of a real fix for the two. A wider look at the region reveals the deep reasons behind the negotiation’s timing.

Iran’s new leader President Hassan Rouhani and US President Barack Obama are far less irascible than their predecessors. Each would like to see their respective strategic imperatives met by negotiations rather than forcibly changed by military threats and posturing. This was the status quo for decades.

Throughout the American-led invasion of Iraq, Iran worked to undermine US efforts in Iraq. Strategically, Iran’s goal was to give itself breathing room for an expansion of influence once Western troops inevitably withdrew. To achieve this, it bolstered Shiite militant groups in Iraq which were closely connected to Tehran.

After the Americans departed Iraq (leaving no residual US troops in the country, as per Shiite President Nouri al Maliki’s request), Iran moved to stretch its growing influence over an arc from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean coast in Syria. For a while, this tactic seemed to be going all in Iran’s favour, much to the chagrin of Washington.

But the current Syrian situation is the utter collapse of Iran’s grand strategy. Syria’s leader is still nominally in control, but only over small sections of his country. And Sunni militant groups now control huge swathes of lawless Syria and northern Iraq. Add to this the crippling of the Iranian economy through sanctions, and Iran is now in its most vulnerable position in years.

Nuclear power plant in Iran
The United States on the other hand have welcomed new negotiations with Iran because they too seek a long-term cooperative strategy with Iran. American troops will soon depart Afghanistan leaving another noticeable vacuum in the region. The US is tired of war and doesn’t want to remain handcuffed to the Middle East. But right now, there are few choices for the US to entrust regional security in the region without the cooperation of Iran.

The Cold War is over and the struggle against Sunni militancy requires an updated strategy. So in order to establish any hope of reliable stability in the region, Washington needs to bring Iran into a partnership. Iran can help contain Sunni militancy - which will allow the US to focus elsewhere around the globe - and in return Iran can receive economic investment from eager American and international businesses to help rebuild its economy.

Iran’s diplomatic opening and America’s effort to clean up the security in the Middle East require a lot of concentration from Washington. This of course puts other US political efforts around the globe somewhat on the backburner, especially in Asia. But ultimately a handshake between Iran and the US should benefit the rest of the world in time.

After all, it took seven years for the US and China to ramp-up their cooperation after a similar rapprochement in the 1970s. Sorting out the pressing issue of Iran’s nuclear program would be the first positive step to welcoming the country back into the international community, giving the United States breathing more room.

That is the takeaway point to these negotiations. Because the longer the United States is distracted by chasing terrorists and fighting fires in the Middle East, Russia and China and other regional powers all have more time to consolidate influence over their own traditional spheres and maybe cause trouble. This directly undermines the American position, as well as their allies.

If the Iran-US negotiations do break new ground, we can expect to see the United States slowly return to its other commitments around the globe. Countries in the Asia Pacific especially, but Europe also, will be watching closely for any sign of the two belligerent historical enemies coming closer as the negotiations play out.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Fixing Democracy - Part 3: The Romans were on to something

Many critics of democracy point out the flaws in almost every step of the process. It’s the voters who are the problem; they need more education or are too selfish.

No, it’s the politicians with their ignorance or delusion lacking moral backbone. Maybe the country itself is hard on people, splitting them up rather than cohering them. It could be the society around the people, it’s just not as developed as it could be and too many people care less about building society than about staying alive from day to day.

All of these might be true, and some countries tragically experience each flaw at the same time along with other imperfections. But the problem in most advanced societies is not democracy, but the divisive politics.

Those artificial schisms people make for themselves and the tribal mentality sucking them further apart tend to distract them from the realities of how easy things can be to fix, playing right into the hands of that special breed of humans who can exacerbate those differences to gain extra power: the politicians.

A truth not widely known is that most social ills can actually be really easy to fix. The key is to start from the bottom with the rest of a hurting or disenfranchised society.

When was the last time an elected leader ever led from the front in trying fix a problem felt at the lowest corners of society? Real change is always a bottom-up process, almost never a top-down imposition (unless that top-down change is disastrous, like in Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin). This way of changing things in our world doesn’t exactly ring an endorsement for casting votes and elected officials.

Those fantastic Rights Revolutions started at the bottom. When it came time to create the laws to ratify them, the politicians were only useful to debate over the details and eventually push pens across paper. They sometimes come from the ranks of the people in the movement, but they didn’t start the ball rolling from their positions of power. They simply followed the will of the voting public who ultimately hold the reins to their power and who could find someone else to represent them if they wanted. Elected officials are the result, not the cause, of people wishing for change.

I agree this might be an oblique endorsement for keeping some sort of power in the hands of a few officials placed at the top, although it doesn’t endorse voting them there under the guise of fixing the problem. We do that by ourselves with popular movements. We should only need officials to sign the papers we put in front of them. That should be their job, nothing more.

Government officials should be ceremonial at best. After all, with the gravity of signing new things into law, we need to have a few people with the relative “power” to do this thankless task. But it by no means endorses the process by which these people gain “power” in the first place.

The thing many people confuse is position with legitimacy. Just because a person is at the top does not mean they’re suitable for that position, and just because a person is at the bottom does not mean they shouldn’t be at the top. The only legitimacy a government official should ever have is for listening to what the people and the experts are saying and then to sign proposed changes in to law. Their position should give them no further power. Their name should not be remembered. They are pen-pushers, that’s it. But I’ll get to the details later.

It’s important to remember how the better parts of the ancient Roman Senate encouraged their officials into positions of power. The understanding around what type of Roman should govern is highly instructive because it tells us who is not fit for the job today.

Although it didn’t always turn out like they hoped, none of the best officials ever sought the power they gained. They all felt it was a duty and a burden. Probably all of them would have preferred to be out tilling their fields, building structures, playing music, or pondering the mysteries of the universe. Wasting their time in the futility and fickleness of power was to be avoided.

If they were summoned to govern, they would grudgingly accept, do what was necessary and no more, before happily trading in their pens for a plough once more. They didn't want to be there, they did not chase power, and yet they had a stake in the well-being of the country or city-state they belonged to. The decisions they made - sometimes foolish but mostly considered - were very often in the interests of their own lives and the lives of those around them. If their country was to fall, so they too would fall.

And so they worked to limit this possibility as best they could and build their society up to benefit everyone without much temptation for continued power. Once their time was over, they departed, never to glance over their shoulder again.

The people we vote into power these days all volunteer. This is a major psychological problem. Our leaders wish to be in power to change things they feel need to be changed. They will convince as many people as they must to ensure it is their path and their politics everyone will follow and no one else’s. Put them into power, they say, and the people will see how utopia can be arranged.

This is folly. The old saying goes, “for evil to be victorious requires only that good men do nothing”, and fits remarkably well in this context. Instead of the pseudo-intellectual and the power-hungry, the people best suited for power are those who actually have real answers to the questions and problems so many of us need answered or fixed. But they can’t act on these answers because they either do not want to be in power, or the nature of politics is so capricious and arbitrary that as soon as a good process or fix is proposed the whole system spins in a new direction.

Many changes take time to implement completely, and just when they get started, a new government rolls through brandishing arbitrary sweeping changes. Constancy is non-existent. The people in power don’t know, and the people who know aren’t in power.  

Sure, these people, the experts (and I use that term sparingly), are actually included in the ruling democratic party’s assisting team. They sit behind the curtain thinking and measuring to discover the best steps forward. The leader is generally just a figurehead or lightning rod for the rest of their team’s plans and expert advice.

But this begs the question, why bother with a figurehead at all?

Especially when a leader must subscribe to a particular political slant which distorts the measurements coming from the behind-the-curtain team who try so studiously to ensure their recommendations are accurate. Is having someone in charge a process just to appease our very-human need for a leader and somewhere to direct our praise or criticism? If it is, this isn’t giving us the best results. Haven’t we moved past needing an ultimate leader? Wasn’t that the idea of democracy?

A nation’s leader should be like bowing to a judge as they enter the courtroom, acknowledging the gravity of the position that this one “special” person holds. The power to judge and condemn other people is the trait worth bowing to, not acknowledging anything special about the judge as a person.

Given the tribal nature of humans, I suspect this sort of system would inevitably devolve into partisan ideals too, but why should this be a strike against the idea? Just because humans are flawed does not mean we shouldn’t fight against those flaws and try to invent new and better ways of living. We vote people into power with the naïve expectation of changing things for the better, as if this will be enough. The problem with the current system is that we vote people into power, rather than methodologically-sound plans.  

Because most people couldn’t give two strokes about politics between the times they travel to the voting booths to “do their civic duty”. Let’s say a country votes once a year. Maybe a week prior to the annual vote is when people actually start thinking about who they want in government as representation. Most people even then will only think about their ideologies as they walk up to the voting ballot.

What do they do for the other 364 days of the year? Do most people think as deeply about politics on those days as they do on Election Day? No, of course they don’t. And in light of this obvious fact we’re to believe that these voters are qualified to choose the direction of the country? Something’s wrong here.

So does having a leader actually matter or can we do without them? Is there a way to govern without bias, ideology, or politics - just facts and measurement? Because, if all that existed were a group of expert people without bias or political bent scientifically testing different theories to narrow down better ways of running a society, what need would there be for politics? 

Part 2 here, Part 1 here

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Fixing Democracy - Part 2: Get involved, sure, but know where you need to go

When things do get better in society, most voters think it was because of them. Pats on the back all round. WE made the right decision, WE voted the right people in for the job.

And sure, to take just one successful example, the various formulations of the Rights Movement over the last few hundred years was mostly a bottom-up approach. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Children’s Rights, Gay Rights, Animal Rights. Each started in the hearts and minds of normal, every-day people moving together to create a critical mass. Eventually electing a representative from their own ranks, they push their cause into or out of law through sheer weight of numbers.

Good things (and bad things) have been given to us by fervent crowds of people. And for the most part, we’d all be in a worse place if they didn’t push as hard as they did. There’s still a lot more work to be done on many fronts and thankfully some of us are still trying to get there. But the aggregate for a healthy society and the realisation of the Just City really does seem to move in a positive direction. Especially in societies with democratic values and processes. But I believe it’s difficult to unambiguously laud politics and the electoral process as the method responsible for many of these societal evolutions.

It seems more truthful to say that both miniscule and giant societal leaps occur in democracies not because of the process of voting, but mostly in spite of it.

Because having a champion rise from the ranks of a movement is not always a desirable outcome for the good of a society. Perhaps a Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. appears, sometimes gaining ultimate power in that country. This has been an unmitigated good for the vast numbers of oppressed people. (Of course, those leaders probably weren’t so useful for the hegemony they dislodged, but the force of numbers and determination of the public pushed their societies in better directions nevertheless.) The American and Indian nations both function better for almost every sector of those cultures because of such leaders. They all came from a bottom-up movement, not a top-down approach, that’s the key.

But then so too can the politicians who buy their way to the top by taking campaign donations to influence whichever sector of society they say they’ll support. Both the good and bad politicians are always beholden to their fickle masters in the voting public. Should they stray, or respond to other competing sectors of society, alternative leaders can always be found. This gives some leaders the incentive to mould their decisions towards those members of the public with the most influence or power. While those leaders appear to listen to the cries of the people, their ears are bent only towards those with the loudest voices.

As quickly as they reached the top, both the good and bad leader’s wings can be clipped. If the public doesn’t like what they see, all they need to do is vote to change it. At least this is what’s advertised on the cover. In reality, the quagmire of politics and the minefield of ideology get in the way. The tendency to recognise the most influential parts of society over the least is human nature, especially if it agrees with pre-conceived notions of politics and ideology. 

Healthy democracies and a well-educated voting public might be more equipped to see through the dangers of ideology, but even they do not always vote for impartial and rational reasons. Popular movements often become special interest groups ready to manipulate the democratic outcome in their favour long after the initial goals have been realised or diverted, continuing into successive generations who might not possess even remotely similar ideologies to their forebears.

What might have started as a noble cause can very often morph as the sand slips from beneath their feet and mission-creep sets in. And this is supposed to be the benefits of politics and voting? This is how our society perpetuates? Remember that just because you’re shouting and people are listening, doesn’t mean you’re right. Maybe we’re mistaken and our idea lacks verifiable data? It might put fire in your belly and frustrate you with how simple and obvious the fix would be. But not every good observation comes from common sense. It’s great for things which don’t really matter - like not touching a hot stove with bare skin - but common sense tells us the world is flat too.

This is the problem with a system set up to listen to those who shout the loudest with the most influence. Very often the people who form movements from the bottom-up are the ones who get it their way in the end, if they persist.

They rise out of the ranks of activism, and, if they’re smart enough and choose their time correctly, a few of them might rise high enough to help along the movement from the top rather than from the bottom. Even if a movement is clearly beneficial to many people, such as Civil Rights, just championing a cause and becoming powerful does not necessarily indicate that cause’s objective worth. After all, the Nazi’s came to power using the system of democracy perfectly.

Very often this sort of self-filtering power drive run by movements or activists neglects the needs of the many for the wants of the (relatively) few. Or, as can happen occasionally, the system neglects the needs of the few for the needs and wants of the many. Neither are good outcomes if you’re on the sharp end of getting nothing.

To say it another way, if our world really is complex with layered chaos, why should one of those fractals dictate how the rest of us should live? Decisions by governments informed strictly by what their voters “believe” out of “common sense” is asking for trouble. Moral panics, revolutionary fervour, ideological ferocity, or political myopia are all useless and destructive if they snowball before the data is truly in.

So many sections of society get a disproportionate share of attention for their needs, while others get trampled, but why? Why do people in the aging, hippie-era parts of our society get so much attention from the politicians? Why do rich people get tax havens and favourable business rules? Simply because they choose to vote. They vote, and they game the system to carve out more for their personal desires. Their needs often end up trumping emerging needs in the rest of society.

For some reason, the act of voting into power those willing to listen to the retirees or aging hippies is sufficient to ensure the old folks getting what they want. I only use pensioners as an example here, but the argument can be made for every sector of voting society as well. We are each of us just as guilty if we vote on what we think would be best from our perspective, when most of us cannot point to the data or methodology which will prove ours is the perfect societal model. They can’t all be the perfect model.
So few people listen to the folks who actually have the data, because our old friends Politics and Ideology stand up to get in our way. Changing our minds is both the most difficult and most important learned trait, yet so few of us appear ready to embrace objectivity to find the balance.

The question is, why should the self-described and admittedly (even by the voters themselves) selfish ideals and needs trump every other need? Why is it that a sufficiently strong group of people (the exact size dependent on the democratic voting system, of course) should, if their movement’s representative is elected into power, control where the focus and resources of a society concentrate?

A common response is that if you don’t like it, go out and vote for your own ideals. If you don’t like it, try to counterweight the prevailing lean and push the decision a little more towards where you think resources should be spent.

But this misses the point entirely. I’m perfectly happy to criticise the political ideals held by others, as both contradictory to my own and lacking sound reason, to trump all other ideals held by society. At the same time, I’m perfectly happy to let my own beliefs meet the same scrutiny. Why should my ideals trump others’? I could be wrong, and I may need to change my mind, but suppose the damage is done if I acted politically on those beliefs before the data was in?

It seems that without an objective process to determine methodologically which model best suits the greatest amount of people, then there will always be corruption in a democratic system. Those with the clout will direct society every time, even if they’re wrong. But gaining clout as a counterweight only lumps the same problem on your shoulders, it does nothing to fix it. People always believe their views are the right views, they wouldn’t hold them if they thought they were bogus.

And I understand the dilemma binding any forward progress in which trying to please everyone inevitably pleases no one. There must be a balance, and to find it we need to start recognising the importance of science and methodology. There will always be someone who comes off worse if one model is preferred over another, but refusing to do nothing out of fear of hurting even one person is not the recipe for a healthy society.

Well neither, surely, is choosing the direction for your society arbitrarily based on politics or through a manipulating voting process. Playing the politics game to drive a belief very often refuses to employ anything like a rational scientific method to determine whether that belief is useful or not. The voting public usually doesn’t care whether the politicians they support stand on foundations of sand or rock. Even the politicians themselves cannot point in every case to rigorous studies by experts which back up their policies or decisions.

The way the brain works explains this. Beliefs are formed in a human mind before reasons to believe them are researched. We go out and get data only after we’ve made up our mind. It’s crazy, but it happens all the time. Few people have the time or inclination to studiously compare or contrast the myriad differing governing ideals rationally, relying instead on their predetermined beliefs to direct their decisions. Politicians prey on this very natural human tendency.

We can’t keep playing the politics game where everyone thinks their governance model is the best for society, but no one can rigorously show with verifiable data which one actually is. Falling back on an ideology or a pre-packaged political belief is the laziness and natural human reaction most voters choose when faced with the humbling mound of complexity in a modern society.

Getting involved in government is honourable, and interest should be applauded. But running an intricate system like a country or city is hard. It takes guts, time, and brains to figure it all out. That’s why treating the questions of society like they have simple answers by ticking a few boxes based on what your “common sense” tells you every few years I suspect does more harm than good.

Part 1 here, Part 3 here

Japanese power tilts against China and US

With both China and Japan organising serious military exercises this month, the old days of swallowing any reservations about contested borders are gone as both stretch their nationalistic legs in the East and South China Seas. Compounding the issues with this regional rivalry, other Asian nations are relying less on a depleting American military umbrella, preferring to take their safety into their own hands.

Japan is also one of these evolving nations. Considering its past economic struggles, and their destructive military adventures of last century, Japan’s re-emergence into the strategic “big Pacific players” is intriguingly - and a bit surprisingly - pleasing smaller Asian nations, rather than churning the waters.

Yesterday, Japan could not focus on building a healthy fleet of modern ships. It chose to funnel government effort into high-tech industry rather than into military purchases. This was made possible because of an American security guarantee and the internationally recognised restrictions on creating a strong Japanese military following their defeat in World War II.

Today, with the Chinese navy and coast guard grabbing implicit control over critical waterways around Japan, their priorities are changing. Tokyo is furiously working to upgrade their legal provisions against possessing armed forces, while turning the giant cogs of the efficient Japanese economy once again.

The Tohoku earthquake and subsequent nuclear meltdown forced Japan to scale back its production of nuclear energy and divert funds to rebuild the destruction along its coast. However this will take time, and as Japan notices opportunity in its near and far abroad, repercussions of the earthquake still threaten to knock their economy off balance. But Japan pushes forward, just like they always have.

Japan suffered two “lost” decades of abysmal economic growth, but never lost its ambition to be a great power once again. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the first Japanese leader in a long line to consolidate the country’s bickering political spectrum and push for a stouter international profile. Mr Abe’s plan to revive the sleeping Japanese giant and return it to global power now runs on all cylinders.

Mr Abe has travelled the world talking to leaders, forging relationships, and trying to free up trade with initiations like the Tran Pacific Partnership (TPP). His so-called “Abenomics” is breathing new life into the struggling Japanese stock exchange. At the same time, Japan is championing human rights on the world stage, even going so far recently as to offer to take control of the United Nations effort to dispose of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.

One important factor motivating their re-invigoration is Japan’s fluctuating reliance on America. If current strategic trends suggest the pattern for the future, they may not be able to guarantee American assistance if relations took a sour turn with regional rival China. Something needs to change if Japan wants to future-proof itself.

Japan already has one of the strongest naval forces in the Pacific with a deep pedigree of experience and leadership in modern naval surface warfare, much more than China.

Another factor lies in the eyes of the smaller, less geographically or technologically blessed Asian nations who see Japan’s growing prestige as very timely. They feel distinctly overshadowed by a gathering China. Beijing so far has not made many overtly aggressive military threats towards those nations, but China’s superior military capabilities would put them all at a disadvantage were hostilities to break out.

So while America dawdles with its plans for Asia, Japan is moving quickly into the resultant vacuum to offer a security alternative for countries like the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and others to help counterweight China. Those states recognise the historic rivalry between the two behemoths.

There is plenty of geopolitical fodder for the surrounding Asian nations to leverage good deals from both Tokyo and Beijing. Both China and Japan have narrowly avoided coming to blows over a particular string of windswept islands. And there’s a simmering public relations war going on revealing some chilling rhetoric spoken not just quietly by leaders in the background, but by their respective publics as well.

Curiously, although not exactly unanticipated, even fewer Asian nations now look to the United States first for security. US President Barack Obama’s no-show at the recent APEC meeting offended many Asian leaders who consider face-to-face meetings with their international equivalents culturally indispensable, especially for resilient agreements like the TPP. US Secretary of State John Kerry attended APEC in Mr Obama’s place.

The American president understandably felt his own domestic political trials trumped the meeting, but his absence feels like just another nail in the coffin for his purposed re-engagement with Asia. Mr Obama’s hailed Pacific “Pivot” strategy, meant to build stronger ties between Asia and America, now appears distinctly flimsy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping at APEC in Bali 2013
Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, did attend the conference and took centre stage, both for the watching media and in the minds of the rest of the attendees.

In some ways this was encouraging: planned Chinese investment in Asia with some newly proposed multilateral trade agreements could help many emerging Asian countries to collect much-needed foreign direct investment. But for others it is a further sign of China’s encroaching hegemony in the region.

This is where Japan’s re-emergence as a global power will meet its test. If Tokyo can play their cards right they could develop lasting security and economic relationships throughout the Asia Pacific. Japan needs their cooperation for cheap manufactured goods, strategic access and raw materials just as much as they need Japan’s advanced technology, and their military umbrella.

But there remains a possibility that Japan’s military restructuring could frighten and encourage some Asian nations to reject Japanese defence projection and choose Chinese partnership instead. Tokyo will have to play this one out carefully.

Ultimately, no matter what the sensationalist headlines suggest, Japanese bolstering of its naval capabilities does not simply reflect their significant differences with China over a few windswept islands. Rather, what drives Japan’s concentrated militarisation is a wider geopolitical rivalry. Japan is poised both to contain China’s expansion and give other Asian nations more options for strategic partnerships.

The United States will have to decide whether it wants to be a part of these partnerships, or whether it will be happy to take a back seat. If history has anything to say about this, the answer is obvious. It just might be too late for the Americans to clean up their diplomatic act and convince the Asia Pacific region that they’re here to stay.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Fixing Democracy - Part 1: Does anyone else get that sinking feeling?

There’s something wrong with the democratic process. Plenty of people complain, but democracy’s problems aren’t easy to spot. On the macro scale, we have impossibly complex nation-states at loggerheads constricting the free-flow of critical agreements and cooperation, while down at the micro scale our cities and cultures all seem to function perfectly fine in spite of the incompetence in higher levels of government.

As our societies have become almost autonomous, the justifications necessary for national leaders and political ideologies subside with each election year as more voters realise the redundancy of the political-spectrum form of democracy and yearn for a more rational system which can both advance our society and listen to their needs.

Democracy has been a wonderful system for a long time, and it still mostly works well today. No one’s going to deny its marvellous gifts to humanity. About 400 years ago, homo sapiens, mostly from the Western world, developed a process for governance without the need for ultimate rulers, monarchs, despots, or tyrants.

The plan was novel for its time - although it was a modern upgrade modelled on an idea seeded thousands of years earlier in ancient Greece - and of course incredibly disconcerting for those monarchs, despots, and tyrants. The idea placed power back into the hands of everyone else so they could find a consensus on where their society needed to go. Creating democracy and fine-tuning its ideals ushered in a new fantastic era of invention and unprecedented social health.

It was good for a long time, and still works, but perhaps the model we’ve used up to now is meeting its historical expiry date? Or perhaps, considering the troubles and corruption observed throughout the democratic world, it already has expired – we just didn’t notice?

My plan with this series is to outline the issues I have with the way we do democracy today. My criticism falls mainly on the platform of voting and the divisive repercussions of politics, neither of which offer democratic societies good unbiased or reasoned methodological avenues in which to move.

The paths society eventually takes are so regularly perpendicular from the prevailing political expectations that the reality seems to question the usefulness of politics itself and question the existence of politicians as a public role. The efficacy and utility of both politics and politicians is a most prudent and, indeed, urgent issue to solve if we are to grow as a species and survive as an interconnected global society.

I do want to get one thing clear at the outset: I don’t vote. And I’m not a politics expert. My forte is international relations and intelligence matters. On the other hand, I’m not apathetic or ignorant about the electoral process or politics: I truly would participate if I thought the system actually worked. But it doesn’t work, and instead of sitting around twiddling my thumbs or hurling adolescent insults at the establishment, I intend to roll up my sleeves and figure out an alternative.

And this scares me a little bit. Not because I might be swept up by a modern-day version of the Stasi or invasively snooped by the United States’ NSA eavesdroppers. It’s just that so many people have already sneered at the idea of inventing democracy’s alternative, saying the governing process we have is already a crowning culmination of human cultural thought - an “end of history” if you will - so there’ll be no more political structures invented, ever. That’s it, over, call the taxi. It’s time to go home folks.

That might actually be the case, and I’d be happy to concede premature defeat if my mission was aiming at inventing a new government system. But perhaps our democratic structure doesn’t need changing all that much. The details might just require evolving or upgrading for the 21st century.

After all, many in the Western world live in cultures entirely alien to any of democracy’s great founders yet we insist on using a governance model invented hundreds of years ago. A model which hasn’t changed much over the intervening period. That particular model doesn’t seem to fit anymore. I don’t know why it refuses to fit, but do I know it isn’t just me who thinks there’s a sparking disconnection between our modern culture and democracy.

Nevertheless, it’s a bit strange talking about this, especially when I keenly watch elections around the world all the time. They remind me of sporting events mostly: not too interesting, but if you follow the trends close enough they’re entirely predictable. Some I enjoy more than others and some are simply unimportant in the big scheme. But whatever happens, the process is always fascinating.

I’m intrigued because no matter where I look, people are adamant that their vote will change things; either for the better, or for the worse. They’re so sure voting is powerful, so aware and involved for that one 24 hour period rolling around every few years. And I know democracy is the best-worst idea humans have invented for governing each other. It’s more of a community event giving the public a chance to feel like they're included in governance, to direct which way their society is heading and not just take a permanent back-seat.

So to be fair, it’s a bit ironic that I don’t participate in the theatre of elections in my own country but want to explore some ways to conduct it better. If you were to query me at a ridiculously fancy dinner party for my reasoning, I’d probably tell you the reasons behind my abstinence. But I don’t go shouting it from the rooftops or drag people over to my way of thinking, that’s just nasty and dinner parties just aren’t suitable for that kind of raucous behaviour.

Most people, to be honest, react to my non-participation with an ironically religious passion. As if I’d uttered blasphemous words before some holy idol. If I don’t vote, how can I respect the very foundations of a free society which tolerates fancy dinners? It always seems like a kick right in the teeth of everything they know. An unreasoned, belligerent, middle-finger to society from a naïve, recovering juvenile. Or a poorly thought-out adolescent personal rebellion, sticking it to the man - full of revolutionary tones lacking substance or foresight. A thought made only possible because it slips from the mouth of a privileged white person with obviously zero knowledge of the pain other societies endure just to feel the hint of a semblance of democracy. How dare I say such things?!

But, after the predictable scoffing and harrumphing, if they haven’t spat or laughed in my face or walked away, they generally get around to asking something like, “Well, what do you propose to replace it with?” And that’s a fair question. Because it’s alright to defer, so long as one has a plan.

I usually carry the conversation on, not because I want to convince the other person, but because I want to refine my own ideas. And there’s no better way to sharpen ideas than on the grindstone of other people’s minds. Even though, at the end of all things, I may be justified in taking my contrarian stance against voting, niggling doubts about its positive efficacy gnaw at the back of my mind and I want to find out why I feel like that.

I want to discover if I’m just being anarchist for the hell of it or whether it’s because I see the charade for what it really is. I never know, this person might actually offer a useful critique, getting me closer to the truth (with a lower-case ‘t’) by a measly step or two. I don’t know why I’m explaining myself in this way…

Anyway, I decline to vote not because there’s no candidate representing my exact set of political beliefs. It’s also not because I believe things can’t get better under the current system. It’s not because voting “doesn’t change anything”. And I certainly don’t vote from of an unhealthy dose of apathy (I care deeply about my society), or from an anarchist sense of realising a utopia lies just around the corner if only we all refused to participate in the current system. Viva la revolution.

My reasons will follow, and I have a few of them.

Most people vote, I believe, because they’re happy to let others do the hard work of governance for them. I believe they also truly think their votes will make a difference by carving chips off the world just that little bit more in their desired shape. Everyone has their own ways of looking at the world, but they’d rather nurture a family or work at a cool job than waste time governing their society for all the other ungrateful slobs.

So the leaders elected into power are apparently the best representation of the public’s own values and ideals. They are entrusted with completing the important tasks - the hard tasks – with wisdom and methodology, while avoiding the things done out of selfishness, poor guidance, power intoxication, or other drivers of very-human fallibility. And sure, some of these supposedly “necessary” governance tasks are accomplished by our dear leaders, but many aren’t. I suspect that’s down to the nature of a fluctuating human society and the limits of our knowledge. But silly partisan politics has a great deal of dysfunction to answer for in the stagnation of some parts of society.

Unfortunately, my fellow citizens keep the electoral system ticking over presumably because, in the aggregate, things eventually do get better. Just keep voting every couple of years, and let the big folk do their jobs. Sounds good in theory, but this sentiment is probably only half correct.

Perhaps the answer lies in refining democracy, not overturning it. Maybe we can use democracy and all its benefits to forge a far grander version ready to tackle the unique issues we know we’ll face in the future. We’ll just have to recognise where it’s been forsaken and spin a few knobs to bring it in line with our contemporary, knowledge-based society. I’m of the opinion we’re smart enough to do this, and the time is well ripe for action. So I’ve compiled a few thoughts on what those actions might look like.