- Jeremy Agar

A Film by
Errol Wright and Abi King-Jones

Operation 8” is a documentary on the “anti-terror” raids in the hills behind Opotiki (see Peace Researcher 35, December 2007, “A Bad Case Of ‘Terrorism’ Hysteria”, by Murray Horton, Ed.). Those who believe NZ to be a country where terrorism is an unlikely prospect would have wondered what was going on. The Ureweras, the range that separates the eastern Bay of Plenty from Gisborne, are one of the more remote places in a country that, in the eyes of the big countries in the Northern Hemisphere, is itself remote. This is an honest and intriguing film, well worth the viewing for any New Zealander, but anyone not up with the play will go away still wondering. The terrorism charges were eventually dropped but the 18 people charged now face weapons charges (of those 18, one has since died. And, in September 2011 – after this review was written – a completely suppressed Supreme Court decision led to all charges being dropped against 13 defendants. The remaining four are still scheduled to face the long delayed trial, in 2012. Pre-trial appeals are ongoing. Ed). There might have been pig hunting rifles involved but not a terrorist’s smoking gun.

The immediate background is that the Clark government enacted the 2002 Terrorism Suppression Act* as a response to 9/11. That was ill-advised. Ten years ago any connection between Osama bin Laden and his mates and the issues that face NZ society were invisible and nothing’s changed. Unfortunately at the time a global panic meant there was little intelligent or honest debate in the House or the country. One of the more sensible comments has come from retiring Green MP Keith Locke, who has pointed out that existing laws are sufficient to deal with any plots against the peace and good order of the country *You can read the Anti-Bases Campaign’s submission on it at Ed.

Rubbing Tuhoe’s Nose In it

The more interesting background dates back to early European settlement. The very remoteness of Tuhoe country meant that it was never fully absorbed into post-Waitangi NZ either by conquest or land sale. Tuhoe’s relationship with the Crown remains ambiguous and occasionally uneasy and over the years, talk of the implications of Tuhoe’s unique history and how Tuhoe might assert autonomy is never far away. For the rest of the country, though, the Police raid on October 15, 2007 was a total surprise. We’d heard nothing to indicate tensions; which suggests that the media were similarly unprepared. So, it seems, were the locals. The effective opening and closing shots introduce us to women whose children’s bus was intercepted by the Police on the way to school. Even had there been serious plotting by the adults in the hills behind, the scale of the Police response was disproportionate to whatever might have been needed. As the women speak, a helicopter stands behind them. Beyond are the village goal posts against a backdrop of Urewera bush.

The Police set up their line on the road at the point of the 19th Century Government land confiscation line, the cause of subsequent resentment. It could turn out that this was an oversight, but it was certainly seen as a provocation. In his history of NZ Michael King quoted a Pakeha judge who sentenced the charismatic Tuhoe leader Rua Kenana in 1917 with the warning that “in every corner of the great Empire to which we belong the King’s law can reach anyone who offends against him. This is the lesson your people should learn from this trial”. The local interpretation would be that nothing has changed.

A century on, have we all learned more positive lessons? One of the film’s many virtues is the seamless connecting of its several strands as it moves from Waioeka to Wellington and beyond to look for the terror. Howard Broad, the Police Commissioner, didn’t seem to have his heart in it and what we hear in the way of justification is unconvincing. He refers to “training camps”, which had “an element of illegality” about them, constituting “a risk” to the peace, so it had been “prudent to act now”. He’s qualifying his responses, and if all Broad’s testimony is in the same vein, it suggests he doesn’t think a crime had taken place, as if he’s trying to explain away what he regards as an overreaction by his subordinates.

An ex-undercover cop and Ross Meurant, a former policeman and politician (well-known for his role during the 1981 Springbok Tour protests), are contemptuous of Police operations, saying that lying and the planting of evidence “were the norm” in the force. Evidence of this kind, which comes across as the settling of scores, needs to be regarded sceptically. More germane is their point that the mass of evidence in this case - apparently there are 30,000 pages of it - means the cops were on a fishing expedition. Compromising evidence would come in short specifics. The authorities probably never have had much beyond a few rifles and wild words.

Catapulting A Bus Onto George Bush’s Head

We are shown a clip from the court, where evidence of a Tuhoe plot against a certain GW Bush was being presented. From Urewera apparently terrorists were hatching a scheme to catapult a bus onto the President’s head. How many of the 30,000 pages are like this? It’s reminiscent of the reports we hear of passengers being detained at airports because of “jokes” about bombs. NZ spy agencies have a long record of being humourless and lacking in judgement. And ignorant.* It’s even possible that whoever sifts through the material can’t see the difference between chat after a day’s pig hunting and a plot against the State. *For a comparable story, check my review of “I Almost Forgot About The Moon” by Selwyn Manning, Yasmine Ryan and Katie Small, an analysis of the Ahmed Zaoui episode, Watchdog 107, December 2004,

There are other comical moments, not least the sight of Rodney Hide bellowing to a deserted Parliament. To his credit, Hide was scathing. Traditionally the cops harbour an intense dislike of middle class radicals. It remains to be seen what connections, if any, existed between Tuhoe locals and other critics, but anarchists especially are a species that tends to baffle and infuriate the Police mind. Urban North Islanders were rounded up, as was a Taupo couple’s computer, apparently because its owners were environmentalists, greenies.

An academic suggests that the State needs to stir up trouble to justify its powers to repress dissent. An enemy is a handy thing for a Government to maintain itself, and if one doesn’t exist it might have to be invented. Usually these are external foes, potential invaders and suchlike, but internal threats are all the more potent. Our most abusive political language is reserved for those who can be tagged as subversives or traitors. All power structures (including those involving personal relationships) employ this tactic, so it’s a valid point to make. It’s a matter of degree. NZ is regularly deemed to be one of the world’s safest and most peaceful countries (making it “boring” to the young graduate males who tend to compile these lists) and it’s hard to imagine where a real terrorist threat would come from.

Wikipedia describes Annette Sykes as a radical lawyer, “an advocate for Maori independence and a nuclear free, genetic engineering free independent Pacific. She is a Mana Party member”, so she comes as close as anyone on view to being able to claim to tie the various strands. For Sykes, “sovereignty” means the “right to secede”. There can be only one sovereign. She’s right. That’s what the word means. So if a Rotorua lawyer wants the Ureweras to be sovereign she means she wants it to be an independent country. Yet it’s become the norm to chat about “sovereignty” to allow it to mean whatever the speaker feels like. For some sovereignty equates to mana or self-esteem. For Auckland authorities hanging what’s called a Maori sovereignty flag on the Harbour Bridge for a day as a feel good exercise, it’s a bit of branding. Loose terminology doesn’t help understanding.

State Terrorism

When we talk of something we call terrorism we’d be well advised to be precise. Has NZ seen terrorism? By one activist’s count there have been just three acts of terrorism in our modern history and none of them came from progressives or activists. They came from the State or the State’s agents, from reaction. The best known terrorist act in NZ was the most recent, the 1980s’ blowing up of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour by agents of the French government, an outrage that killed one person. This was terrorism by anyone’s definition, but the other two acts should be too. During a strike at Waihi mine in 1912 a mob of Police and scab strike breakers, themselves starving and desperate for work, killed Fred Evans because in the eyes of the Prime Minister, William Massey, as a striking miner he was one of the “enemies of order”. A third murder, also in the 80s, of a caretaker killed when Wellington Trades Hall was bombed, remains unsolved.

Three violent acts to defend power from democracy. Three deaths. Historians might not agree about whether the death of Evans, from wounds in a scuffle, resulted from an act of terror, as both sides had arms and were prepared to use them. The charge of State terrorism stems from the fact that the violence, strike breaking, was instigated by the Government and the mine owners for reasons that were entirely selfish. The miners were merely defending their jobs from an overwhelming force. In the context, where there was no alternative work, this amounted to self-defence of themselves and their families.

It would be useful to know whether people like our Prime Minister (any Prime Minister), our Attorney General, our Police Commissioner, our Supreme Court judges or the chief executive officers of transnational corporations would agree about the three instances, but it’s probably a safe bet that they would see Evans as having been responsible for his own demise. A disquieting detail from the film, about which we need to learn more, is that new discoveries of evidence were being made as late as March 2011, when it was already known that terrorism charges weren’t in the offing. If so, who was looking for what or whom and why?

Privatisation Of Spying

It could well be that interest in whatever was happening in the Ureweras will fade away as attention focuses on systemic questions. The scope and balance of the film hints at a wider relevance, inviting us to consider if the raids might turn out be a prelude to a new, repressive era. There’s a significant discussion on the privatisation of spying. In the neoliberal “free trading” world, which is keen to erase the barrier between the interests of Big Business and the ability of democracy to act in the interest of all citizens, security firms spy for corporate interests. The governments of the US and UK, for instance, already treat the needs of big corporations as their need, and are happy to collude with corporate interests to shut down popular criticism*. NZ governments don’t have the reach and the power of the big countries, but we shouldn’t doubt that the present NZ government has the same ideological prejudices. Were the raids a gathering of information in case some yet unknown future crisis provides a pretext to extend a similar surveillance and control of dissent? *I discussed an example, the Tesco case, in which a British supermarket chain prosecuted environmentalists, in a review of “Global Intelligence” by Paul Todd and Jonathan Bloch, in Peace Researcher 30, March 2005,

Another matter of language arises. The persistent cliché that one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter does little to clarify matters because - pacifists possibly excepted - practically everyone in the world sees some people as terrorists and some people as freedom fighters. But they’re not the same people. Terror as a tactic is not, in itself, Leftist or Rightist. If you think militants are terrorists, you’re saying you don’t like them. If you think they’re freedom fighters, you’re registering support.

From modern NZ, when we think of discussions over the place of civil disobedience or popular resistance to authoritarian regimes, we tend to think of Vietnam or South Africa. North American liberals think of Cuba or Nicaragua. Europeans might think of the Algerian war for independence. From these instances progressive opinion learned to regard guerrilla war as an act of liberation, and in all these cases it was. Those “terrorists” merit being honoured as freedom fighters. But what of the skinheads and Nazi gangs of 1930s Germany? Or Christopher McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber? Or, in our era, the men who coerce innocent women and children into suicide bombing? All these fascist acts of violence are terror and nothing else.

The difference is that Rightist violence is reactive, waged against the wishes and interest of the mass of the people, and unlike the self-sacrifice of progressive liberation, it doesn’t work. The most famous of all the freedom fighters, Mao Ze Dong, said that a guerrilla was like a fish in the sea. To succeed, the guerrilla needs to be at one with the population where, together, they swim. If he’s not wanted, he is indeed a terrorist - and he’ll flounder. The urban terrorists of post-war Europe were less than unsuccessful because by blowing up people in Rome or Frankfurt they did nothing to advance the cause of Italians or Germans but a lot to alienate the mainstream. This is where we get back to NZ. There is probably no country in the world where terror is less likely to succeed and more certain to consolidate opinion behind reaction than Aotearoa. In a place like the Ureweras, where there is no-one to fight, and no sharks infest the ocean, the prospect becomes farcical. Fortunately it’s most unlikely that anyone in Tuhoe country fails to appreciate this.

by Tony Judt
London, 2011

Compile a list of the incidents and issues that have generated public concern in the first decade of the century and it looks something like: school bullying, parents killing babies, dog attacks, epidemics of obesity and diabetes, the world-topping rate of Maori female smoking, school zoning, dog attacks, the high rate of incarceration and the building of new prisons, teen pregnancy, petty crime, alcoholism, violence, mental illness, the financial crash.... They have a common origin, whether direct or indirect. They result from NZ’s increasingly unequal share of resources as the gap between rich and poor widens and the middle class shrinks.

When Tony Judt chose his title the land he had in mind might have been the UK, where he started life, or the US, where he subsequently lived. His critique of neo-liberalism and the social pathologies it brings about applies to either, as it does to NZ. Judt thought of both countries as home and has written brilliantly about his love for them. But among the many things they share has been their disastrous dalliance with what’s called the Anglo-Saxon model of “free trading” economics and the way it makes a few people very rich and many people increasingly hard up.

Social Democracy

Judt, one of the most perceptive and most civilised interpreters of his generation, died recently from a debilitating disease. This book, published posthumously, was dictated in what must have been agonising circumstances, during his final days. It’s a final testament from a passionate champion of liberty. Always precise with his terminology, Judt describes himself as a social democrat. For him, the two words are equally important, democracy being a social thing and society being a democratic concept. Judt looks back to childhood memories of post-war Britain, when the ideal of an egalitarian society inspired a national project to provide all children with education and good health, their parents with jobs, and all citizens with the products of civilisation, previously the private domain of lords and ladies. The arts could be brought to towns and villages by funding the BBC, theatre, ballet, galleries. The social democratic project sought opportunity for all.

Just to say these things now invites scorn from the powerful, and Judt was probably said to be unrealistic or nostalgic for a vanished world. That has been the parrot call in NZ, where the attempt to revive such opportunities is derided as elitist and unaffordable by local millionaires, the people who have profited from the withering of the collective ideal. The hypocrisy has been unashamed, justified in the name of increased wealth and mobility. America is said - endlessly - to be the land of opportunity, where a boy from Kenya can be President. Where else could that happen? Yeah, right. Whatever. Americans will go on believing in “the American Dream” but we shouldn’t, not if we want to understand reality. Judt shows that the myth of social mobility reverses fact. Of all Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) economies, the UK and the US are the most rigid and the most unequal. He could have compiled graphs to show that the social pathologies that afflict NZ are prevalent there too.

Because of our smallness, NZ isn’t often mentioned. If it had been, it would have been shown to be grouped with its Anglo-Saxon mates as leading the rich world in denying opportunities to its people. Judt of course knows that NZ has lost its way at least as much as has the country of his youth. The world’s Labour parties are the obvious expression of the social democratic impulse, and the analysis is specifically relevant to NZ. It’s not just that Labour has been one of the two dominant parties here for the last 80 years. Before the first Labour government, elected in 1935, the Liberals around the turn of the last century introduced policies that came to define the NZ ethos. This Liberal-Labour tradition was strong enough to convince the National Party (formed in order to undo progressive laws) that if it wanted to be elected it had better go along for the ride.

Ah, the good old days, days when the word “liberal” was synonymous with “social” and “democracy”. Judt thinks we might well go back to them. For him “a liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others, who is tolerant of dissenting attitudes and unconventional behaviour”. That was certainly how the European founders of liberalism saw the matter. An appealing detail of Judt’s critique is his recognition of the way a degraded corporate curriculum in secondary schools has compromised social democratic values. His example is the UK, but it could have been any of the “Anglo-Saxon”.. Education is one of the many activities which governments do better than private interests. He concedes that sometimes the popular folklore that governments can’t run anything well is true. His examples of post-war State failures in the UK are town planning and council housing.

The Austrian Tight Five

Judt, a historian who specialised in modern Europe, has provided an insightful look at liberalism as a way of seeing the world. His scope allows him to answer the question which vexes many: Why is the ideology that inspired the contemporary attack on social democracy - liberalism - called neo-liberalism? Judt traces this to five men, collectively known as “the Austrians”, a quintet who fled (liberal) Vienna to escape the Nazis. One of them finished up during World War 2 at Canterbury University, where he wrote “The Open Society And Its Enemies”, the most rigorous exposition of “Austrian” philosophy. Karl Popper contrasted the open society, the liberal society, with the closed society, as represented by Adolf Hitler and his mates. In the 1930s much of Europe was ruled by dictatorships, a situation which Popper et al blamed on the indecisive governments they were replacing. That encouraged the idea that states, public authorities, were the problem.

Friedrich Hayek, an “Austrian” economist regarded as a prophet by latter day neo-liberals (though in reality he was more a conservative moralist than an economist), “blamed social democrats for having ‘destroyed the belief in Western civilisation in Germany, and created the state of mind in which Nazism could be successful”. His answer was to despise and shrink the democratic state in the name of individual liberty. For obvious reasons, Communism, as represented by the Soviet Union and China, came to replace Nazism as the target of “Austrian” mistrust, and as Communist ideologues referred to themselves as “socialists” both components of the phrase “social democrat” came to be anathema. In this, Judt concurs. He repeatedly reminds us that he has no use for what is called socialism.

John Key has been a refreshingly direct Prime Minister, his one message being that he wants the country to be open for business. He’s as sunny as he is because he seems not to comprehend that there might be any plausible alternative view as to a government’s role. He is like this because he is an “Austrian”, the first Prime Minister whose view of the world has been shaped entirely within the ethos of neo-liberalism. He’s a politician who catches the non-political mood of the times by pretending he’s not a politician at all. Key is our first PM to come across as a bloke you might invite to a barbie. That’s why he’s so relentlessly relaxed about doing the wrong thing. If we compare the list of NZ’s ills to a list of National policies we can see how the Government is doing all that it can to increase inequality. Key and English have inflicted society with tax cuts for the rich, rises for GST for all, a mindless assault on the very idea of a capital gains tax, cuts to Kiwisaver, asset sales, and, the keystone to the arch of irresponsibility, a feverish search for “free trade” deals.

To ensure that the public realm is further weakened they resist boosting public transit and chip away at public radio and television and public childcare. They want to dedicate a big chunk of Auckland’s central business district to a big corporation so that it can addict more lost souls to gambling. They’re dementedly keen to tie us into deals so that Big Tobacco can sue the NZ public if we try to discourage cigarette smoking and Big Pharma can sue if we want to provide affordable medication. A suggestion that lobbyists might be making to the Government: further indulge the purveyors of crime, sickness and poverty by bringing in a bill to allow smoking in casinos. That would fatten profits and kill off more of the underclass. And if the wowsers could be retired for good, deregulation to allow cheap alcohol and drugs could expand the youth market. Children could drug up in the casino, and. Auckland could be branded in the marketplace as a fun place for tourists.

Judt quotes from Adam Smith, the man often dubbed the world’s first economist. In Smith’s world, the 1770s, there was a huge gap between an ostentatious and tiny elite and an impoverished multitude and so the economy didn’t work. In this context, any thought of a rational, democratic consensus being inconceivable, social relationships were artificial, devoid of solidarity. Smith noted that a resulting “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise or... neglect persons of poor and mean condition is ... the greatest and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments”.

Once the certainties slide away, as we revert towards the extremes of 18th Century Europe, corrupted neuroses fill the vacuum. Smith could have been looking at the Kate and Wills wedding. Or at TV’s Oprah or Ellen Degeneres, with their fanatical, cultlike fans. He could have been listening to the Rapture Man’s radio show. He could have been in Christchurch, suffering from quake fatigue, noting a frequent preference for the Moon Man’s moony lunacy rather than the unsatisfying uncertainty of seismology. Modern democracies, in which strangers constantly intersect, cannot work without trust. In NZ, where trust has been embedded as a civic virtue to the extent that it is implicit, we assume it. Judt points out that trust is the sister of equality, the ethic of efficient and tranquil economies like those of Scandinavia and Japan. Inequality erodes trust. It helps, he adds, if the society (like Norway) is small, homogenous and contained. This, unfortunately, is probably true, so it’ll be hard to make progress as long as primitive passions based on tribal, ethnic, religious and sexual differences persist.

The Dangers Of Individualism

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Judt’s analysis - because it so urgently yet rarely commands the attention of people with progressive instincts - is his perspective on how the “Anglo-Saxons” allowed their societies to revert. Judt blames the ‘60’s, the decade that we’ve been accustomed to regard as the era that liberated us, because the very success of social democracy in attaining a wide measure of collective security induced a new generation to assume it. This encouraged a new ”assertion of every person’s claim to maximised private freedom and the unrestrained liberty to express autonomous desires and have them respected and institutionalised by society at large.... ‘Doing your own thing’, ‘letting it all hang out’....: These are not inherently unappealing goals, but they are of their essence private objectives, not public goods. Unsurprisingly, they lead to the widespread assertion that ‘the personal is the political’”.

Judt elaborates: “The individualism of the New Left respected neither collective purpose nor traditional authority: it was, after all, both new and Left. What remained to it was the subjectivism of private - and privately measured - interest and desire. This, in turn, invited a resort to aesthetic and moral relativism: if something is good for me it is not incumbent upon me to ascertain whether it is good for someone else...” Retaining elements of a previous language, the New Left often spoke of something called Marxism, but usually it had only a nominal connection to the theories of Karl Marx. Judt writes of a “rhetorical awning under which very different dissenting styles could be gathered together - not least because it offered an illusory continuity with an earlier radical generation. But under that awning, and served by that illusion, the Left fragmented and lost all sense of shared purpose”.

Judt goes further, accusing latter day Lefties of being “selfish, self-regarding and self-promoting”. This is harsh, but certainly they lost any coherence and potency. The collective ideal lingers on in rhetoric for progressive causes as long as they are distant and Western support can be offered in a patronising way. It remains the case that the attention of Leftists from the OECD world for the “Third World” seems to depend on the extent to which the recipient is seen as exotic. The more exotic, the more virtuous it must be. This impulse gave us a critique known as “post-colonialism”, a catch-all term introduced to soften the rigorous methodologies it replaced.

In the new language everything was said to be “post” or “new”, we being the centre of the universe. So were spawned post-structuralism, deconstruction, the New Age, post-modernism. The flaw was that all these nervous tics boasting of novelty and escape had in common a propensity to adapt to the status quo rather than challenge it, and thereby they themselves became expressions of the market economy. When the gap between any residual memory of radicalism became too wide to be ignored, it could be claimed that irony was in play. An example of this is the affectation of architects to put random dents and bumps into otherwise vast match-box skyscrapers. This, trendy critics like to suggest, is ironic, or playful. It’s said to be a nudge and a wink, a “reference” to a naive past. The rest of us, innocent of “theory”, know that it’s just another high rise housing just another transnational corporation.

For all its early, obvious, and long overdue, benefits - most obviously with issues to do with gender and ethnic equality - this is where identity politics has taken us. It’s dumped us in a New Age, where there is nothing but the market, where all the neurotic symptoms of a degrading civilisation can be spin-doctored as “lifestyle choices”. Aging identity politickers rebrand themselves not as citizens but as vegans or surfers, as products occupying a niche in the market. Experience has been privatised. It is not coincidence that our national obsession with the Treaty of Waitangi originated when identity politics was the vogue in Europe and (particularly) North America. A generation hence we might well see the Treaty less as a unique expression of what defines Aotearoa and more as a local variant on an international - if mostly positive, in our case - trend.

Can Democracy Defeat Neo-Liberalism?

A century ago, as the last great age of liberal capitalism was marching its sons to die in the ditches of France and Belgium, WB Yeats lamented that “the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. We too have seen our centre crumble and have learned to celebrate its loss. The market’s achievement has been a forced increase in inequality, the root cause of most of the world’s worst troubles. Here in NZ, where the legacy of Liberal and (old) Labour lingers, they can still be presented as good things, as “diversity”, say, or as the fruits of freedom.

Because of this proud tradition, our social malaise, in comparison with the places we hear about on the international news, is still mild. Despite the local version of neo-liberalism having been the most determined of any of the rich world’s assaults, and despite our trend to inequality being matched among the OECD only by the extremist US and the UK, we’re said to rank as high as fifth globally when it comes to (real) wealth, if this is measured in terms of quality of life rather than gross domestic product (GDP). For that we can thank not just our geography but our history of social democracy. The neo-libs have tried to tear away our culture but NZ is still a great place because trust remains.

The retiring head of NZ Treasury was interviewed on TV1 in June 2011. Two points came up. He agreed that GDP was not a good way to measure economic health and he thought that economic inequality was a bad thing. These opinions could not have been expressed at work as for decades now Treasury has insisted that GDP, and its associated bean counter conclusions, was just fine thank you. And as for inequality, its swift increase in NZ is the result of Treasury advice and recommendation. It could be that the man had seen the error of his ways but it’s not uncommon for senior bureaucrats to recant once they don’t have to worry about peer pressure and promotion.

Another Treasury orthodoxy has been under pressure since National and Act politicians started talking about catching up with Australia. One reason we won’t soon catch Oz is that Treasury’s specific advice has been that it wouldn’t be a good idea. As a low wage minion in the global free trading labour market, we shouldn’t fuss about it. If you want more money, Treasury has advised, emigrate. Not long ago, Bill English slipped into this default mode before he remembered the line had changed. Then there’s Ireland. A couple of years ago it was the model for NZ. Now the same ideologues say it’s a PIG (the derogatory acronym for the Euro zone’s basket cases – Portugal, Ireland and Greece. The full acronym is PIIGS; the other two being Italy and Spain. Ed.). In all these cases - and others - there hasn’t been a murmur from the Government that it was wrong.

The question the rest of us are beginning to ask ourselves: are we turning full circle, away from neo-liberalism? Just as post-war Europe rejected the old empires, will post-crash capitalism usher in a renewed democracy? Will the Arab Spring produce a “free trading” neo-liberalism or might it blossom into a democratic freedom for its peoples? A hundred years ago the original 19th Century era of gross capitalism seemed permanent, yet it was about to lurch into what we now call World War 1, the Great Depression and World War 2. Arrogant to the end, world leaders never saw the disasters coming. Eventually, hung over, most Western governments came to recognise that they needed to moderate their ways or they’d collapse for good. Thus we got social democratic reform. Judt hopes that this time we can finish off neo-liberalism by restoring democracy before yet another catastrophe does it.

by Dominic Streatfeild, Atlantic Books, London, 2011

“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”. That was the response of a regular commentator on Fox Television in the US, a network owned by Rupert Murdoch, to the events of September 11, 2001.With Fox and its mates providing daily misinformation, the American heartland was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. Dominic Streatfeild tells the story of a murder, a crime that would otherwise have been ignored, even locally. A high school dropout with all the usual money, woman and job worries wanted to get even with Osama bin Laden, but, unlike the US Army, he couldn’t invade their countries because he was stuck in a cleaning job in Texas, he didn’t think about their religion, and he had no idea what countries he had in mind or who lived in them. Inevitably a racist, the cleaner couldn’t resolve his frustrations, but he knew he hated Arabs. On a bad day he shot dead a stranger, an immigrant from India. Close enough.

Streatfeild’s title is about events like this, mundane acts of desperation that originated in the collapse of the Twin Towers. When alienated men are deprived of education or hope by a Foxite culture of guns and lies, random violence is inevitable. It’s a stimulating approach. There are plenty of top-down histories, each with their own take on military strategy or international relations. Streatfeild’s more original interest is in investigating the connections between grand policy and the lives of apparently uninvolved people. Corrupt leaders pollute the lives of citizens by bringing about all sorts of careless and unremarked pathologies.

“Boat People Threw Babies Into Sea”: A Lie

That’s Chapter 1.Then we go to Australia, where John Howard’s Liberal government was facing likely defeat in an election called for November 10, 2001. Seven miles from Australian territorial waters at Christmas Island a boatload of asylum seekers approached. They’d left Indonesia in September. On the 12th - 9/11 plus a day - the Solicitor-General declared his resolve to “protect Australia from the sort of people who did what happened in New York yesterday”. An influential talkback radio man asked: “How many of these people are sleepers?” (a sleeper is a terrorist or spy who waits, undetected,. in the host country). The Defence Minister chimed in with the thought that the boatload could be “a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities”. It might all have been scripted by Fox’s Aussie boss.

Just before the voting, Prime Minister Howard told the country that “there’s something incompatible between somebody who claims to be a refugee and somebody who would throw their own child into the sea.... I don’t want in Australia people who would throw their own children into the sea”. Fair comment, John, it might be thought, throwing children into the sea isn’t nice. But that’s not what happened. The refugees had sabotaged their boat to thwart the Navy’s order to turn around. In the ensuing panic aboard, they held up babies to show imminent danger. In the end the asylum boat sank and sailors (who behaved honourably throughout the episode) recued all. But a hasty phone call to the Minister’s office, mentioning “children” and “overboard” in Canberra was misheard.

In the three days between the misunderstanding and the Navy’s docking at Christmas Island and realising the mistake, no information was available to correct the Government‘s version of events. The Liberals were gaining in the polls, so when proof was given that no children had been thrown overboard, the PM and his senior Ministers denied the truth. Photographs were released to the press with captions and dates altered so that the original mistaken account seemed to be accurate. Governments often mislead with half truths. This was the creation of a flat lie. Uncontroversially, because other matters were to the fore, all the refugees eventually got to Australia anyway, but Howard got his new term and his “Pacific Solution” is still roughing the waters. Without 9/11, it wouldn’t have happened this way, but Streatfeild suggests another link. The Christmas Island nonsense had a precedent ten years earlier when the US sent Haitian refugees to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the 9/11 lot now languish.

Streatfeild’s energetic interviewing allowed him to glean from a staffer for then Labour leader Kim Beazley that Beazley had reacted to 9/11 with “there goes the election”. He claims that it was clear almost immediately, which was two days before the poll, that Howard was lying, but that Beazley didn’t think opinion would swing his way. True or false, it was the Liberals’ issue. Labour could have won if the topic had been asylum seekers or if it had been 9/11, but not with both together. If true (memories involving one’s own good judgement can be elusive) it’s an interesting insight into the importance of timing and perceptions.

Saddam Hussein’s WMD: A Lie

The boat saga coarsened sensitivities. There’s a second story involving the manipulations of the Australian government and how it abused its own citizens to grease the gears of the American war machine. The essential lie of post-9/11 schemings, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction [WMD], the weapons that never were, are the topic of Streatfeild’s central chapter, the most intriguing of them all. An Iraqi professor answered a cryptic ad on his university notice board. It turned out to be the Iraqi government needing advice about a rocket project. The professor said they should contract a metals expert. Next, a businessman in Sydney spotted an Internet ad from a Jordanian company needing aluminium tubes. His Australian company indicated interest and got the contract, but the e-mails between Australia and Jordan had been intercepted by the National Security Agency in the USA. Suspicious, they briefed the Minister of Defence in Australia. A man from the Ministry paid a visit to the aluminium manufacturer. His mission: Find out if a company in Sydney was part of a secret plot to build nuclear weapons for Saddam Hussein.

It wasn’t, and there was no doubt that the company was acting in good faith. It immediately cooperated, providing full specifications and specimens. From these it became clear that the tubes were for a known weapons system and could not have been designed for a nuke or a new WMD. Scientists, the UN inspectors and the US Department of Energy were certain. Everyone agreed there was no problem - apart from the US spy agency and the US government. Vice President Cheney said there was “absolute certainty” that the tubes were evidence of WMDs and the head of the Central Intelligence Agency misinformed his own Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to ensure Powell, who could not be trusted to lie, kept on message. War hysteria was brewing.

Streatfeild points out that when Alexander Downer, the Australian Foreign Minister, subsequently referred to “a little gem of intelligence we passed” to the US to make the case for going to war he was alluding to this incident. To fan the flames Bush and Cheney gave interviews, spreading panic, quoting the September 8, 2002 New York Times [NYT] where a headline shouted: “US Says Hussein Intensifies Quest For A-Bomb Part” (this has been a recurring practice in Washington. Powerful insiders leak rumour, innuendo or - as here - lies to the NYT so that they can quote themselves the next day to justify whatever schemes they’re hatching). Streatfeild found lots of people angry that they’d been manipulated or cowed into complicity. From his research he gained the impression that they never thought their governments would brazenly lie, not when the truth was available and would soon be revealed. A common factor was that everyone assumed someone else knew something they didn’t. This was going in Canberra at the same time as the saga of the overboard babies.

Looting Of Iraq A Deliberate Strategy

A chapter on the invasion that followed reads as grim comedy. The American war plan was for a swift attack that would topple Saddam in short order. Not many troops would be needed. Then it was just a matter of declaring Iraq to be a democracy and awarding contracts to the neo-liberals. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Like most writers on this topic, Streatfeild sees what happened next - looting on a massive scale - as negligence, but it could well have been a deliberate strategy, a tactic to shake out Baathists and make the country dependent on the US. Of 23 Government ministries, 22 were ransacked, the exception being the one you’d expect if the US did have a plan. While the State’s institutions were ignored and the country’s museums and galleries were robbed, the Ministry of Oil was guarded.

Certainly the invaders were arrogant. Hubris gets you every time. By not bothering to understand the history and culture of Iraq, American leaders were able to believe that, as one top gun put it, the Yanks would be greeted in Baghdad as the boys had been in Paris in 1944. Another official knew that “when we cross that border into Iraq they’re going to throw flowers at us’. Other agents of the US government, the people looking for bin Laden and the weapons inspectors, warned Dubya that there’d be trouble ahead, but the Bushites didn’t want to know.

Close to Baghdad Saddam had built a huge weapons complex. 14,000 staff worked in 1100 buildings on a 36 square kilometre site. While Saddam’s statue toppled in the capital and the Commander in Chief stood on an aircraft carrier to declare his mission accomplished, Iraq’s arsenal lay unprotected. So al-Qaeda made itself at home there. First they befriended local farmers around the complex, paying good money for explosives. Once established at the base, they killed locals so they could have a free run. One US observer estimates that 98% of al-Qaeda’s firepower came from Saddam’s arsenal. All the time the US was around. Streatfeild says that at one point soldiers stood on a nearby bridge looking down at the activity.

Officialdom measures looting in “phases”. In Somalia, where tar was stripped from roads for fuel, concrete walls were smashed to get the steel rebar inside to melt down, and every accessible door and roof was stolen, the chaos reached Phase 4. The looting in Iraq was Phase 6. Patterns keep repeating. This was election time Stateside so the lies came thick and fast. When John Kerry raised questions about security in Iraq, Fox TV, Bush and Cheney, serial liars, got audiences to boo their Demcratic opponent as a coward who was undermining the troops.

Book Deserves Wide Audience

Another common but inevitable factor in all the mess is that nothing worked out as intended. Other chapters deal with rendition and what happens when you kidnap the wrong man. In this case US liars had to out-lie the governments of Germany and Macedonia. Then there’s the wedding party in Afghanistan which the US strafed in error. The most intricate series of misunderstandings traces the way US Middle East policy subverted a highly successful vaccination programme. Scourges like polio and smallpox had been on the brink of global eradication, with the governments of countries like Pakistan and outfits like the Taliban insisting on inoculating their children. Streatfield describes why epidemics now endanger whole continents, and why Islamic opinion, formerly rational, came to express the view that it was better for their babies to die as “martyrs” than give them a simple injection.

Streatfeild has a command of narrative that’s unusual in writers dealing with heavy topics, which is a reason that political books aren’t widely read. This one has a sure sense of the big picture but it’s written like a thriller. It’s not often that global politics are presented with such immediacy and yet with such a wide understanding. The chapters range around the world, describing what might seem unconnected events. They’re not. Streatfeild lets his stories speak for themselves, his light touch permitting us to join the dots. When we join them, we see that the history of the world since 9/11 is a history of what happens when evil governments lie. His book deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to enjoy.

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Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2008.


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