Monday, February 12, 2007

Armageddon worried

The American military's announcement that Iran is supporting Shi'ite militias in Iraq is more significant for its being made, than for any insight it offers. For anyone who had looked at a map for five minutes before the idiotic invasion could see that, of course, as soon as Sadaam's vicious Sunni regime was destroyed, the Persians would trickle down the mountainsides, across the border and begin supporting their co-religionists in the fertile crescent below. Its an incusion as old as civilisation so it should not surprise anyone that its happening again.

But when the American military announces something of this kind it generally is not in the form of a idle observation. It usually means that the American military is planning to do something about it. Something unpleasant.

And combined with sabre rattling over Iran's development of nuclear weapons it is definitely very concerning. Altogether it suggests that regardless of the results of the mid-term elections the Commander-in-chief is not above lighting the blue touch paper even as the sun sets officially on his presidency.

Worst case: we could be looking at World War Three. The question is how twitchy the Russians, who have always regarded Persia as their backdoor, would be about having Americans bombing near by. I suspect the answer would be very twitchy indeed. Then all it would take is for Hezbollah (Iran's army in Lebanon) to get a nuclear device or any other WMD and use it on Israel. Preventing Israel from retaliation would be all but impossible. Next stop, Russian - Israeli confrontation with the US siding with Israel. One wrong move and the MADness begins.

Hopefully the worst case is also the unlikely case but unfortunately there are plenty in religious right who are fundamentally armageddonists - and I'm not just talking about the religious right in the US. Iran's president Ahmadinejad is just as ideologically committed to the end times as extremists in Bible belt.

What to do? Should the US attack Iran? Should it stay in Iraq? Or should it withdraw?

Optimists in the Administration would hope that an attack on Iran could topple the hated Mullahs. This might be so if "Shock and Awe" were as good as its advertising. But even the military know it isn't. Asked by one exasperated senator who had led questioning suggesting that the US Airforce could knock a flea off a dog from five miles up what the airforce could do, the reply was a sobering "kill people and destroy things in the name of the United States of America"." Unfortunately the fact is the United States is not God. It is not omniscient, nor is it omnipotent. Its capability for "surgical" strikes is actually quite limited and anything which is not surgical will merely inflame Persian nationalist sentiment - which since the ousting of Mossadegh has never been wildly pro-American anyway. The US has had enough difficulty dealing with 16 million deeply divided Iraqis. If it had to contend with 60 million outraged and united Persians it would simply lose.

If as Senator Obama has proposed the US simply withdraws Iraq will collapse. The Kurds will want a separate state which will, defacto become a satellite of Turkey, and the Shi'ite Iranians and Sunni Arabs will fight a long and bitter civil war by proxy. The only difference if the US stays is that the fighting will be more covert and more Americans will be killed in the cross-fire.

It is instructive at this point to look back in history at the record of the British Empire in this region. The British combined brutality and Machiavellian politics to achieve some quite stunning successes. The most important of these was the war in Aden where communists fighting an insurgent war completely failed to beat a British led coalition. The basic reason for this was the British enlisted support from the Royalty of the region who were, not surprisingly, most unhappy about a communist revolution on their doorstep. This meant the British led coalition spoke Arabic, operated both by helicopter and embedded among the people on the ground and aligned themselves with the values of the inhabitants. In the end they were more popular than the communists were. Nobody could say that of the Americans in Iraq.

Another lesson is the way the British extracted themselves from India. Yes it resulted in a bloodbath, but both the Pakistanis and the Indians retain a soft spot for the British even today. Why? Because they both thought they'd won, when in fact it was the British who ended up with all the wealth and none of the costs - just as they did later in Africa.

The fundamental trick the British always used was to get locals to do local dirty work. They de-escalated slowly but shrewdly until the web of intrigue allowed them to extract themselves under cover of someone else's war. Honorable it was not. Effective it certain was, as it always led someone (usually one of the losers) to wish for the days when the British ran things.

The American invasion of Iraq was a travesty of the legacy of President's Roosevelt and Truman who established the United Nations. It was an unprincipled military action of industrial greed. It makes no sense for the Administration to haul up the star spangled banner and let fall a tear in the name of duty now. Iraq is a battleground as old as civilisation. No number of American "cops" are going to pacify it, just as no number could pacify Vietnam. Only a British style withdrawl has any hope of de-escalating what could soon be a global war back into a tribal one.

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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Five Ways Keys Can Lose

The new National Party Leader, John Keys, has adopted a novel approach to tackling the incumbant Labour Government: Raise the issue of poverty.

On the face of it, with record low unemployment and an outrageous fiscal surplus, one might imagine such an approach is suicidal. The Labour Party rests its considerable electoral weight on its record of caring for the underdog. But what Keys has cunningly realised is that under that weight there is a great deal of chafing going on.

Nobody has highlighted this better than Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. With strong street credentials Mr Sharples is a high profile opponent of welfarism which he says has led to a loss of motivation and mana among Maori people. While white liberals may be only be too happy to hypocritically pay Maori their miserable benefits to keep off the posh streets where they live, those who actually work with Maori beneficiaries say welfarism is killing the once fiercely entrepreneurial spirit of Maori.

Unfortunately, while Keys has clearly signalled a step back from his predecessor's apparently anti-Maori stance, some of the basic planks of that anti-Maori policy remain. The crux of this is the future of the Maori electoral roll and the Maori seats in Parliament. National says they are a racist anachronism while the Maori Party argues they are a crucial legacy of the Treaty of Waitangi on which New Zealand was founded.

In a sense both are right. I personally am 1/16th Maori, as are a good many other New Zealanders. Both I, and my sons, are, and will be entitled to opt for the Maori roll. If history records that Maori fought fiercely for their rights against the colonial oppressor geneology shows that Maori and European have intermarried for generations.

On the other hand looking to the future Maori quite rightly anticipate a growing wave of Asian immigration. The prospect of being the third race rather than the second must be, given that Maori are unique to New Zealand, somewhat sobering.

Before the arrival of Don's brash Maori policies the National Party had an extremely good relationship with Maori. The ethnically Irish NZ Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his Treaty Negotiations Minister Doug Graham were determined to ensure past injustices were fully and fairly dealt with. By contrast the Labour Party's Seabed and Foreshore legislation has in no way enamoured rural Maori to the Labour Party: hence the meteoric rise of the Maori Party.

John Keys has however foolishly reiterated National's policy to disestablish the Maori seats. This effectively rules out any chance of a coalition with the Maori Party and could rule out National's chances of forming a government.

Another mistake Keys has made has been to downplay Brash's strong play for the middle class by highlighting tax cuts. Irritation over this policy is growing to simmering anger as the Government last month announced that its surplus was 21% over its own original outrageous forecast. As of January the Government could pay for the $800 million shortfall on the Western Ring Route or the entire Kyoto Protocol shortfall out of petty cash and not notice the difference. The Middle Class, who gain no benefit from Labour's quasi-Marxist "Working For Families" package (whereby the upper middle class get to subsidise the poorer middle class to make up for inadequate wages)are apopleptic over the size of the surplus and, quite seriously want to see something done about it. While reducing tax rates marginally might not make much difference changing thresholds, which do not adjust with inflation, and pegging them to a proportion of incomes, would.

And National has still to find a convincing voice on international policy. Its knee-jerk reaction which is to accuse the Government of upsetting the United States at every available opportunity simply finds no favour with the New Zealand public. New Zealanders still recall David Lange proudly as the Prime Minister who told the US where to go, which when one considers the fatuous irresponsibility of his premiership in all other respects, tells one more about New Zealanders than it does about Mr Lange. National seriously needs to stop sucking up to Uncle Sam. It is an electoral liability.

Keys has also not yet done enough to win the hearts and minds of women. Brash largely lost the election by failing to appeal to women. Brash's treatment of his female caucus members was shabby and demeaning and it was simply a turn-off. Women do not vote for other women just because they are women but they sure don't vote for men who act like jerks to other women either. Appealing to women largely means showing in a tangible way that a leader respects and admires women. Bill English was successful at this largely because he made the most of his large family, highlighting his wife's dual role as a doctor and partner of a potential Prime Minister. Keys has yet to fully overcome the sneaking suspicion in the back of many people's minds that the National Party is a club full of fat old brat boys.

Finally the National Party would be foolish to abandon Brash's very effective 'corrupt' attack on the Government. Vicious and nasty as it was it was definitely hurting. The Labour Party has many soft points of attack on this accusation and while Nicky Hager's book the Hollow Men, was a king hit (taking out Brash entirely) there are limits to the number of those the Government can rely on. Moreover Hager is more an agent of the Greens than the Labour Party and will not come to the rescue of Taito Philip Field, the suspended immigration minister, nor of the Labour President Mike Smith.

In taking over the reins of the National Party Keys has the scope to mount a very serious run at the next election. New Zealand First will almost certainly collapse and ACT's leaders are effectively on holiday. Labour support is substantial but it is reliant on a number of minor parties to hold on to power. If National eroded more Labour support and got over its brash Maori policy the incumbants would have a great deal to worry about.

There are, however many many potential slips yet, between that cup and the lip.

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