Friday, 29 June 2012

Peak Oil and the Lost Message of the Carbon Tax

Whether or not one believes in human-induced climate change, with the Carbon Tax's introduction on Sunday, it is worth remembering the fundamental reasons for its conception. The Carbon Tax debate, which has been memorable for its hyperbole, but not its content, has obscured why we contemplated it in the first place.

The concept of an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has two core aims: firstly, the reduction of carbon emissions with the intention of retarding global warming. and secondly, to shift our economy away from reliance on fossil fuels. This second aim, arguably far more compelling, has been neglected in the national discussion.

Global Warming and Opposition Dominance
Despite some conservatives and quarters of the media having cast doubt over the validity of the science of climate change, the scientific community is far less divided in its conclusions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels have risen by 36% since 1750 with ice-core data indicating levels are higher now than in the last 800,000 years and geological evidence suggesting as long as 20 million years.  This has been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels, which in the last few decades accounts for three-quarters of human emissions (the remainder from deforestation). 

While the majority of Australians continue to believe in human-induced climate change, their faith that an ETS in Australia will help rectify this has fallen dramatically. When it was the "greatest moral challenge of our time", over half of people felt that "if we didn't act now [on climate change], it would be too late"; but most recent polling suggests only a third now support aggressive climate change action.

Some concern is well founded. It is true that Australia, while having very high per-capita carbon emissions contributes only a small fraction of global industrial output of the gas and our ETS alone would not make a substantial impact. With the giddy days of Copenhagen behind us, national governments are faced with more pressing financial concerns and the uptake of complementary schemes internationally will be significantly delayed, possibly leading to capital leakage. Moreover, comparisons to other international schemes suggest that Australia will ultimately tax carbon at an unfavourably higher level than its competitors.

However, domestically, the dramatic reduction in support is due to a very successful campaign by the Coalition. The Opposition has deployed a consistent, vehement approach to the Tax, telling voters that it will spell existential crisis for exposed industries, and more importantly, financial pain for average Australians. On a point-by-point basis, much of what Mr. Abbott has argued can be identified as hyperbole, or in some cases simple untruth; but the tactic is aimed at inducing electoral fear and shutting down more substantive debate, and it has worked very well. Voters are fearful of manufacturing job losses and cost of living increases, and will ultimately move with hip-pocket concerns over high-minded environmental aims. The real failing of the Government, and the Greens, is that they have been goaded into tit-for-tat rebuttal of Abbott's sometimes fanciful claims rather than committing to a coherent and sustained argument for the tax.

Even accepting that the Carbon Tax will do little to reduce global carbon emissions, its second aim - a shift from fossil fuels on a whole of economy scale - is worth pursuing.

Peak Oil and the Long Game 
The concept of Peak Oil emerged in 1956 when M. King Hubbert used modelling to correctly determine that US oil production would reach its peak by 1970. Peak Oil models identify the point at which maximum oil extraction can be expected to occur, after which it will enter terminal decline.

Such models have been applied to oil on a global scale with disconcerting results. Optimistic estimates suggest Peak Oil by 2020, while in 2010 a report by the US Joint Forces Command suggested surplus oil may stop being produced by this year. A report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency in 2010 found that peak production of crude oil had already passed in 2006 , though it saw a plateau in production until 2035. It is worth considering the demand globally, particularly from China, will begin to outstrip supply in such circumstances. The realisation has seen a shift toward alternative fossil fuels, such as coal-seam and natural gas, though these too are finite resources and will ultimately 'Peak' as well. 

The reality is that in the coming century, whole economies will be burdened with a need to find sources of renewable, alternative energy sources as fossil fuel resources dry up. There is a dubious record of government-backed direct interventions in this area with small scale interventions and shifting political imperatives bringing programmes to premature halts (Queensland's solar rebate scheme, for example). Inducements to business to seek clean, renewable energy options have generally failed to have effect, frankly because oil is cheaper than developing and implementing effective renewable options. The uncomfortable reality is, however, that oil will progressively become more expensive as supply evaporates and business will be compelled to act - perhaps not before soaring costs create an economic and energy crisis.

At the heart of the ETS is the aim to pre-empt such a crisis by making carbon (and therefore, fossil fuel use) more expensive and therefore less desirable now, while there is still an energy surplus to buffer the effect; and it is designed to hurt. The hope is that when there is a painful bottom-line effect, a "python-squeeze" if you will, for business and industry, it will drive genuine engagement with the problem with more adequate resources. 

In Australia, where three-year electoral cycles colour the way we discuss policy, it seems that trying to keep such long-range goals in mind is difficult. It is hard for politicians and the media to look beyond the Carbon Tax to the Emissions Trading Scheme that will replace it in a couple of years. It seems even harder to remember that its true focus is on an inevitable energy crisis still decades away, but that needs our attention now. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Review: The Newsroom (HBO)

After a sojourn into film with The Social Network and Moneyball, Aaron Sorkin has returned to the small screen with The Newsroom, which aired Sunday on HBO in the US. It is set in the newsroom of News Night, a fictional current affairs hour, presented by jaded anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels). Newsroom begins a character based approach to examining what ground the Fourth Estate occupies in the US today.

The show opens with a panel discussion of journalists. With Sorkin's classic rapid dialogue, the rancour and bile of contemporary political debate in the US is pithily encapsulated. McAvoy, who is painted as impartial, appears increasingly despondent. When finally he is pushed for a response to "Why America is the greatest country on Earth?", the dam breaks and he commits a cardinal American sin by asserting that it isn't. His subsequent tirade, which is captured for YouTube, is scathing of America's standing in the world, laments its widening divisions and loss of national purpose, and while he finishes with a message of hope, the damage is done.

It is a strong opening, which leads into a newsroom in disarray as fallout from McAvoy's outburst has led to a mass exodus of his staff and damage to his reputation. Sam Waterson is introduced as the principled, avuncular news director who hires a veteran war-correspondent from McAvoy's past, MacKenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer), to come on as executive producer and help restore News Night's journalistic credentials.

MacKenzie and McAvoy have been romantically linked in the past, and the relationship's end has damaged the two leads in different ways. MacKenzie took to the field as a war correspondent and returned physically and emotionally scarred from two years in the Middle East. McAvoy, disenchanted with the news business, gradually succumbed to his ego and to the corporate pressures on his trade. The tension between these characters is raw and a good deal of the episode is given over to developing this. MacKenzie is used to bemoan the state of media in modern age, and offers a plea to make News Night a vehicle for McAvoy's journalistic redemption and to "reclaim the Fourth Estate".

When finally some 'news' starts happening, in this case the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the newsroom comes to life with a largely off-the-cuff broadcast. McAvoy, prompted by MacKenzie's urging, delivers an impressive performance during which he pursues the corporate interests behind the spill.


It is difficult to watch a show written by Sorkin without making comparison to the first four seasons of West Wing, which he wrote and co-produced. On a thematic level, Newsroom will bear some similarities as a conduit for him to examine current affairs and the news media. However, stylistically, the show may borrow more from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Sorkins short lived, but very good, behind-the-scenes drama about the cast and crew of a Saturday night variety programme. Studio 60, which came after West Wing, focussed more on development of its troubled characters and their interpersonal entanglements than the weightier topics of the West Wing.

While West Wing had a splendid ensemble of interesting characters, the issues often seemed to drive the show with characters growing gradually. Newsroom will be more character-driven according to Sorkin, and at times he wrestles to find a balance between character and issue. This is most apparent with MacKenzie, as she espouses a quixotic return to impartial journalism and to revivify well-informed American democracy. Her speeches have a set-piece, rehearsed quality that feels overwritten and detracts from their authenticity. Having said that, the characters are sharp-witted and likable; and the dialogue is punchy, particularly between the youthful minor characters, though the staccato cadence of previous Sorkin efforts is gone.  

Daniels is believable as man on the cusp of an ego-fuelled implosion, who retains enough of a skerrick of charm that the viewer wants to see him redeemed. Emily Mortimer's character is interesting and her humour and idealism are easy to warm to; though at times, she struggles with the stilted scripting. John Gallagher Jr., playing Jim Harper, MacKenzie's young senior producer, may occupy a Sam Seaborn-esque space and will create some dynamism amongst the minor characters.

The tension of a live-to-air broadcast is well captured in the episode with a suitably exciting though low-key, score and snappy editing. The rolling walk-and-talk´ scenes of the West Wing are gone and happily, director of the first episode Greg Mottola, has largely resisted hand-held camera work that behind-the-scenes shows so often feel the need to employ.

There is a rich vein for Sorkin to mine thematically, and the challenge will remain for him to walk the tightrope between topical and preachy, cerebral and entertaining. He has created characters that will give the show depth, and I suspect that his initial lumpiness with the dialogue may smooth as exposition gives way to a more organic narrative style.

While polarisation of the media and politics may be more apparent in the United States, as Daniel's character laments - the people not only choose the news they want, "they choose the facts they want"; recent and ongoing events in the Australian media landscape make the thrust of Newsroom all the more interesting for an Australian audience today.  With reading the media section, or watching Media Watch becoming an increasingly demoralising task, a little fantasy may be what the Fourth Estate needs. 

Friday, 30 March 2012

Abbott a'Courting and Conservative? PPL, Nannies and the Nanny State

Tony Abbott has gone a'courting this year with big ticket policy proposals for women voters, and in the process has exposed confused purposes at the heart of Coalition policy formation and an ideological departure that will disappoint conservatives.

The extremely generous proposed Paid Parental Leave (PPL) scheme, and the recently announced plans to extend the child-care rebate to in-home nannies are policies designed to woo women voters to Mr Abbott and the Coalition. Both of Mr Abbott's proposed schemes have their merits and are likely to appeal to voters. But both policies are decidedly 'big government' initiatives, and are at odds with Abbott's attacks on the Government, most notably over the Carbon Tax and the NBN, and more broadly with 'small government' conservatism that underpins Liberal thought.  Recent weeks have produced friction and confusion for the Coalition party room accommodating the growing divide between the tenets of their faith and the approach of their leader. Does this change in policy sit with Abbott's political philosophy, or does it represent a divergence in favour of populism?

Abbott, the Conservative

The Liberal Party in Australia is the custodian of two ideological traditions -  Liberalism and Conservatism. One champions the importance of the individual while the other places faith in the importance of our society's institutions. The contentions of both philosophies create a natural contradiction, which continues to this day.  But with the emergence of socialism, to which both were opposed, a pragmatic union of the traditions occurred in the modern Australian context in the form of the Liberal Party.  Party members still identify as liberal or conservative, known as 'wets or 'dries', with Tony Abbott very much in the latter camp.

Damien Freeman wrote an interesting analysis of the the political philosophy of Tony Abbott in Quadrant in 2010, examining what Abbott saw as the obligations for a conservative politician to justify policy decisions. He notes that Abbott, in his book Battlelines, explains that a conservative is not burdened to produce a unifying ideological justification for policy in the same way as socialists or liberals.

Abbott argues that the other ideological traditions are obliged to impose and justify change based on their philosophical model on how they wish the future to be. He argues that progressive conservatives, rather than opposing change, accept the inevitability of a changing society and need to ensure that this change occurs in deference to the past and its institutions - “achievement is possible because ‘pygmies are standing on the shoulders of giants’”.

Whilst Abbott argues that an all-encompassing ideological justification is not required of the conservative, Freeman does enumerate a few ways Abbott believes policy can be explained. Firstly, the ideological explanation from either a liberal or conservative perspective. Secondly, an 'approach that transcends ideology' and goes to nationalism and the national interest. Thirdly, a purely pragmatic policy approach without ideological abstraction. And finally, what Freeman calls the 'counter-ideological approach' where policy is directed towards frustrating an opposing abstract idea rather than promoting one's own.

When Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, both liberals, for the leadership of the party, he restored a conservative approach to politics and brought with him his political philosophy. Through the prism of Freeman's analysis, one can identify where Abbott would justify his efforts up until this year. He opposes the Carbon Tax on counter-ideological grounds, takes a hard stand on asylum seekers on what he sees as nationalistic grounds and could justify his opposition to pokies reform on liberal ideological grounds. But when one considers recent policy announcements, it is difficult to explain these using Abbott's own methods.

The Nanny Scheme and Paid Parental Leave

This week it was announced that a Nanny scheme would be referred to the Productivity Commission by a new Abbott Government as a matter of priority.  It would entail extending the non-means-tested child-care rebate to nannies, who are not currently covered. The child-care rebate increased under the Rudd Government to 50% of costs to a maximum of $7500 per annum per child with child-care subsidies already costing $3 billion dollars a year. The nanny scheme threatens to increase this burden.

While it is likely to produce some migration of children from centre to nanny care, thus ameliorating the expense, it will still be a costly undertaking for the tax-payer.  Mr. Abbott has said the scheme must come from within the constraints of the "existing budget envelope", but given that he rejected the proposal at the last election due to its sizeable cost, this does not seem a realistic expectation. More recent comments from Liberal sources have suggested that Abbott knows this.

The other key policy announcement by the opposition recently was the PPL scheme, which is more starkly contrary to their aims of minimising government spending. The Coalition's PPL scheme will pay a new mother a full replacement wage for 6 months, including superannuation, of up to $150,000 per annum and is expected to cost $3.2 billion.  Counter-intuitively for the Coalition, it will sting its natural business constituency to pay for it. Under the scheme, a levy of 1.5% tax will be applied on businesses earning over $5 million.

In this sense, it is not dissimilar to the Carbon Tax which Mr Abbott has lambasted as overreaching government interference in the economy, and has routinely warned will drastically increase the cost of living with flow-on costs to consumers. Perhaps this is not lost on some members of the Coalition with the scheme drawing uncharacteristically public opprobrium from the Liberal backbench and mixed signals from the front bench.

Abbott, the Populist

So lets return to Abbott's methods for explaining conservative policy. These policies are contradictory from a conservative point of view with government funding of the family unit via the PPL, only to disband it with incentives for carers to return to work through the Nanny scheme. Neither scheme is easily justified through nationalism, nor pragmatism when there are adequate existing schemes. And they can hardly be described as counter-ideological as each are 'big government' policies which will spend more on these issues than the social-democratic government of the day.

The Abbott opposition has spent much of its tenure attacking Labor for imposing a nanny state on Australians.  Yet now, they have introduced two cornerstone policies, which have been described as close to Abbott's heart, which are closer to socialist in philosophy than liberal or conservative. As Emma Alberici put to Barnaby Joyce on ABC's Lateline programme, if "the Coalition in government would reverse the nanny state,  [why are you] saying the state should pay for nannies?"

The answer lies with Abbott, and a departure from the political philosophy that guided him this point. Perhaps a still personally unpopular Abbott, faced with a re-united Labor Party, even with a recent thrashing in Queensland and abysmal polling at present, senses that he must lift his efforts to personally appeal to voters. The PPL and Nanny scheme are policy for populism's sake, and we may see more of it yet before the next election.

Friday, 23 March 2012

All Subject to the Human Condition

Poignant Shot of Whitlam at Margaret's Funeral. Courtesy: ABC News and AAP 
On the final day of a bitter election campaign in Queensland, and a Twittersphere full of bitterness and occasionally personal hatred towards politicians, it is worth at times reflecting that they too are all subject to the human condition.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Guns,Germs and Spiel - The Coming Immigration Debate

Last week, a 30 year old Postmaster in Sydney was arrested with two others having allegedly illegally imported 220 glock pistols into Australia over the last three months. Police discovered the syndicate's activities after tracing one such weapon used in a shoot-out in Sydney in January of this year. It is believed that the pistols, manufactured in Austria, were being imported from Germany via airfreight into Sydney.The story entered national debate when NSW Police Commisioner, Andrew Scipione said, "this isn't just a border security issue, this is a national security issue", and the cause was taken up by the Coalition in Parliament.

Today's Daily Telegraph published an short Op-Ed piece penned by Scott Morrison, the Opposition's Immigration spokesman. In it, he linked the illegal weapons seizure in Sydney last week to reduced federal Customs funding, and in so doing aimed to attack the Government's border protection credentials. With Border Security returning to the agenda, Scott Morrison is likely to have an increasingly important role in the final year and a half of the 43rd Parliament, and his recent efforts provide insight into the flavour of the debate to come.

The Coming Debate

With the passage of the Clean Energy Bill (Carbon Tax) last year, and the MRRT this week, Julia Gillard allowed herself a moment to "go scoreboard", reflecting on successfully navigating two key policies though torrid political waters.

Irrespective of whether one supported these pieces of legislation, and there are sound arguments why both taxes will not meet their lofty aims, they have now passed in to law.  This will not hinder ongoing Opposition pressure on these issues, however, particularly as it plans to campaign at the next election on repealing both taxes.

Four months after the Carbon Tax has passed the Senate and three months before it its implemented, Question Time this afternoon was still largely given over to Opposition probes into the effects the Tax will have on small business. Tomorrow, a 'Global Warming Hoax Rally' is planned for the lawns of Parliament House to call for its abolition.  After implementation in July, the Coalition will no doubt seize every power bill increase and every job loss as a means to attack the Government over the Tax.

However, it will be Labor's hope that come July 2012, voters will find themselves adequately compensated for expected costs arising from the flow-on effect of the Carbon Tax and the issue will lose some of its political potency for the Coalition. Meanwhile, despite its high-profile detractors and a potential legal challenge, the MRRT is more broadly popular with the public and Labor will expect it to prove less vulnerable politically.

After years of fierce debate on these issues, there is a sense of an impending shift in focus toward other, though no less volatile, concerns; heralded this week by the Coalition's 49th attempt to suspend Standing Orders over the issue of  Border Security.

Border Security

The phrase has been appropriated euphemistically by both sides of politics when responding to voter fears surrounding illegal immigrants, most notably those who arrive by boat. Despite receiving a comparatively small number of asylum seekers by boat each year (in 2009 - Australia received 2726, and Yemen received 77310), the issue carries significant electoral weight, particularly in key marginal seats in Western Sydney and in regional Queensland. It is one of few issues that appears to ignite political passions in Australians, for better or worse, and is therefore a powerful tool politically.

To date, the Coalition has wielded Border Security policy far more effectively. It is generally recognised that John Howard's strong-man response to the Tampa incident helped save his Government in the 2001 election, and later his Pacific Solution consolidated his resonance with Howard Battlers on this issue. Opinion polls routinely continue to report voters trust the Coalition over Labor on border protection. This perception has not been helped by the early Gillard foray into Border Protection policy with the hasty and ill conceived East Timor Solution. More recently, the High Court overturning the proposed Malaysian Solution has left policy progression at a stand still, with all asylum-seeker processing currently occurring on Australian soil.

The major parties have been left circling each other with spurious attempts at compromise. Scott Morrison was busy in Nauru, and urging Gillard to "pick up the phone" to re-activate the detention centre there. Later, Tony Abbott offered Christmas Day talks with Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen over Manus Island; and finally, Bowen produced zealously over-budgeted Nauru costings which could only be rejected. At all times, the debate has been marred by vitriol and emotion, but has until recently, been on the back burner.

Morrison re-enters the fray

Morrison was embarrassed at the beginning of last year after it became public that he had been urging shadow cabinet to make political mileage from community divisions over Muslim immigration. It compounded an already tense situation for him arising from ill-timed questions in the House regarding tax-payer funded compassionate flights for relatives of the victims of the Christmas Island boat disaster. He was criticised by moderates from within his own party for perpetuating 'hysterical rhetoric' and the politics of fear and division.

Looking at Morrison's efforts from the beginning of this year, one can read that he has not changed his approach to immigration politics and that he is liable to once again lower the tone of already pretty tawdry political debate on this issue.


On the 27th of February, Morrison produced a press release entitled 'Typhoid cases on latest boats highlight the risk of Labor's border failures'. In it, he is quoted, "when illegal boats turn up in our waters there will always be the risk that people on these boats will carry serious communicable diseases. The more boats there are, the greater the risk of serious diseases presenting" and goes on to raise fears of an "outbreak on Christmas Island or the transfer of these diseases to the mainland". Finally he lists various diseases and the number of infections detected, including 4 cases of Chlamydia.

It is worth noting the incidence of Chlamydia has tripled over the last decade in Australia, though thankfully Mr Morrison does not attribute this to illegal arrivals. It is a poor reflection on the level of debate this topic engenders that this release was barely mentioned in the press, much less derided as the the grubby spot of fear campaigning that it is.


Question Time on the 14th of this month had focussed on the Sydney weapons seizures and how Government funding cuts had reduced X-ray scanning of airfreight coming into Australia. They drew on Andrew Scipione's comments that an influx of pistols into Sydney could not be stemmed at the state level, and that responsibility lay with the federal Government, where he described it as 'the elephant in the room'.

Indeed, there have been 60 shooting incidents in the year to February in Sydney, a number of hand-guns had been imported and all but one is still unaccounted for. Moreover, Customs was unaware that this had occurred until it was discovered by the NSW Police. At this level, it is a pertinent line of inquiry.

But when Tony Abbot rose to move a motion to suspend Standing Orders on the topic, it became apparent that the Sydney Glocks were a preamble to re-opening the Stop the Boats campaign. Both Abbott and Morrison, when he seconded the motion, concluded (as he did in today's Op-Ed) that "when you cannot stop the boats, you cannot stop the guns". On face value, the attack is focussed at Government funding of the Customs Service, but the implication of its words, reminds voters of the boat people issue and links the fear of guns felt in Western Sydney streets to fear of boat-borne refugees that may end up living there.


Painting refugees as vectors of disease, or implicating asylum seekers in Western Sydney shoot outs is not good policy debate. It will not go to creating a humane and workable solution to our role in a global refugee problem that balances Australians' general compassion with a need for control along our vast borders. As Border Security returns to the legislative agenda, the challenge for both sides of the House is to disavow Morrison's style of divisive politics.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Kandahar Massacre and the Strategic Corporals

There is a concept taught to aspiring officers in military colleges around the globe that puts the state of world affairs in the hands of their most junior leaders. They are often referred to as the 'Strategic Corporal'. The tragic events in Kandahar this week highlight the broader implications of this concept and exposes the fragile mandate on which Western powers rely for foreign expeditions.

Strategic Corporal

The concept of the Strategic Corporal has existed in military thinking for some time, but the phrase was coined in the Marines Magazine in 1999 by General Charles Krulak while examining the concept of a 'Three Block War' and called for a rethink of the way junior commanders in the US Marine Corps were trained. The concept has subsequently been adopted a number of Western militaries.

Krulak recognised the changing nature of international conflict in the post-Cold War period which he described as a "troubling age characterised by global disorder, pervasive crisis, and the constant threat of chaos". The 'Three Block War' idea, drawing on contemporaneous mid-level conflicts in Somalia and Bosnia among others, identified the new requirement for Western militaries to be able to conduct warfighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations all within the space of three contiguous city blocks.

Krulak also acknowledged the implications of increased media, and therefore public, scrutiny of military actions at the tactical level. He identified that in these high-stakes, asymmetrical battlefields, the junior commander, or indeed, rifleman will be required to make quick, sound tactical decisions "that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion". He concluded that "in many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well'.

Events this week in Afghanistan highlight that the individual conduct of soldiers beyond the scope of purely tactical situations is having an increasing effect on strategic goals.

Last in a line

This has been a bad year for US-Afghan relations.

The methodical murder of 16 Afghan civilians, including children, by a US serviceman earlier this week is the last in a series of incidents placing strain on the relationship. In February, copies of the Koran were among seized religious literature burned at Bagram Air Field prompting deadly protests and an apology from the top US commander. And, in January,  a video of US soldiers urinating on Taliban corpses was published on YouTube, again prompting bloody protests in Kabul.

The number of Afghan civilian casualties has been increasing over the last 5 years, with 3021 killed in 2011. The majority of killings have been at Taliban hands (2332), but the largely inadvertent deaths at coalition hands have fuelled growing Afghan foreign hatred and exasperated the Afghan government.

This most recent incident has prompted a stern resolution from the Afghan parliament stating that the government had  "run out of patience with the arbitrary actions of foreign forces" and calling for a halt to further negotiation on the strategic partnership agreement needed to ensure a legal platform for ongoing US operations until the planned withdrawal in 2014.

They went further to "seriously demand and expect that the government of the United States punish the culprits and try them in a public trial before the people of Afghanistan". This unlikely to happen. The military-technical agreement signed with the Afghan government ensures that any US personnel charged with wrongdoing are to be handled under US military law. Moreover, the prospect of a US soldier, regardless of the heinous nature of the alleged crimes, facing trial and capital punishment under the Afghan legal system would be untenable domestically in the US, particularly during an election year.

In an environment where ongoing US-Afghan partnership is under threat, and where even hawkish US politicians were already increasingly pessimistic (or realistic) about their country's involvement in the conflict, this incident may prove a turning point for the viability of ongoing foreign intervention in Afghanistan.

Forming Public Opinion

The task of projecting force into foreign fields is expensive financially, in lives and ultimately in political capital. A recent report published by Brown University placed the financial cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars at nearly $4 trillion and, using conservative estimates, the human cost at 236,000 war dead and 7.8 million people displaced.

Governments have always been beholden to public opinion for ongoing support of foreign military expeditions. Research suggests that the public are relatively tolerant, or at least apathetic, about the benefits versus costs of war provided the cause is perceived to be just. Support has been shown to erode quickly however, if the costs escalate and there is not consensus amongst political leaders in upholding the justness of the cause.

Foreign wars, particularly in the modem context, are not generally wars of direct national defence and so there is the perception of an elective quality to involvement. Governments engaged in costly and protracted foreign military interventions inevitably face the point at which the costs outweigh what remaining benefit there is, and public opinion turns against them.

The role of the war reporting in precipitating this turning point is not new. The Crimean War (1853-1856), which can be viewed as among the first 'reported' foreign wars, heralded intense public reaction to military setbacks. The Snowball Riots in 1855, in which 1500 were dispersed by baton charge from Trafalgar Square, were a response to dissatisfaction with the war, including the failure of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

News of war, however, was slow to make its way home. A public sense of the course of war was based on strategic and operational failures. Sir Douglas Haig's strategy of attrition at The Somme, for example. Or, more recently, the convincing early successes of the Tet Offensive only a month after US General Westmorland had said that the Viet Cong were "unable to mount a major offensive" and invited them to "try something, because we are looking for a fight".

The Three Block War

In the age of the Three Block War, however, with the advent of television and Internet,  more instant and vivid reportage of war takes us to the individual level, and to the importance of the strategic corporal.

The three most reported incidents of the Afghanistan War this year have not been new offensives, heavy casualties, or peace talks; they have been the actions of junior soldiers, acting alone or in small groups, and off their own initiative.

Incidents like these, which in the past, may have been lost in the grubby business of war, are now each strategic way-points in the conflict. Most recently, the Kandahar massacre has derailed strategic talks and promises further instability in the form of protests, which will undoubtedly cost lives. Domestically in the West, each incident dents further the political will and public support for ongoing war.

Ultimately, in a war where it is widely recognised that military victory is unachievable and political resolution unattainable, it is the cumulative cost of the actions of these Strategic Corporals and the ones that follow that will bring this war to an end.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Kony2012's Invisible Millions and Top-Down Populism

The leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony.

Invisible Children's #Kony2012 campaign has been made 'famous' overnight and won praise, but it does it signal an uncomfortable change to the way political interests are championed online. #StopKony is being hailed by some as a continuation of the movement started by the crowds in Tahrir Square, citizen reporters in the streets of the Homs and the Occupy activists; that is, utilisation of the Internet via social media to circumvent the traditionally inaccessible or oppressively restricted political discourse.

An important distinction should be made when it comes to the origin of the Kony Campaign. Progenitor movements have been born of shared adversity and have relied on grass-roots users to collaboratively develop a message; Invisible Children, however, defined a target issue, created a polished marketing campaign to generate awareness and feeling, and developed a (literally) pre-packaged response for people to employ. This 'top-down' method creates a precedent for a populist approach to future issues that is open to corruption and cynical misuse.

The Knowledge Gap

Despite a proliferation of sources available in the last decade, and several foreign conflicts in which Western nations have been involved, public understanding of foreign issues remains superficial. Where much of people's knowledge of international issues come from short TV news stories, or a 3 page 'World' section in the tabloids, there is undoubted virtue in efforts to bring light to sometimes neglected issues, including the actions of the Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

Joseph Kony has been active in Central Africa since 1987 in a conflict border-hopping between the Central African Republic, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. The ease with which he traverses these borders has gone some way to ensuring that he has not been pursued and conclusively defeated. The number of atrocities is well documented, and beyond the victims, and the brutalised and traumatised child soldiers, there is a more broad-reaching humanitarian crisis. In the DRC, since 2008, more than 280.000 people have been displaced by the conflict with many seeking refuge in UNHCR camps. With the Kony2012 video receiving dozens of millions of views and the resultant commentary in the media, there is at least an awareness now of some of the horrors occurring in Central Africa.

One of the criticisms of the Kony2012 video is the oversimplification of this conflict. It does not, for example, describe the conflict in the DRC between 1998-2003 during which 5.4 million people died, mostly from disease or starvation. The import of this conflict become apparent when one considers that among the belligerents in this conflict are Kony's four 'home countries'. Nor does the video volunteer that during the conflict, the Sudan supported the LRA among other militia groups active in Uganda in retaliation for Ugandan encouragement of the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

The stated aim of Invisible Children is to re-arm and upgrade the technology of the Ugandan army. It should be noted that when the Ugandan military last crossed the Sudanese border in pursuit of Kony, it was accused of killing and kidnapping civilians. The idea of unevenly arming one national military in a destabilised region to pursue a target that frequently crosses the border into surrounding, and still wary, neighbours should raise concerns.

For its part, Invisible Children acknowledges that their video cannot give a full account of decades-long  conflict in 30 minutes, but in answering its critiques it writes, 'the film is a first entry point to this conflict for many', and offers links for further information. In an age of dwindling attention spans, it is reasonable to ask how many people will keep reading more into the issue once they've re-tweeted, or clicked 'Like'.

Charity or Lobby Group, or both?

Towards the end of its emotional and uplifting video, Invisible Children implores people to donate a 'few dollars'. One would assume from the flavour of the video that this would flow back to aid projects in Africa. Invisible Children has come under criticism for the distribution of its charitably collected donations. Specifically, that only about one third is actually spent on aid programmes in Central Africa. By contrast, UNICEF managed 90.3% on programme services. The remainder of Invisible Children's funds are spent on awareness programmes, 'awareness products' like bracelets and graffiti aids, and media and management.

There is a suggestion of a false premise emerging from their viral video campaign. Of course, charities need to compete for donations with advertising and well constructed media campaigns, particularly in the current economic climate; and the Kony2012 campaign will no doubt enter the pantheon of marketing triumphs.   Certainly, this organisation conducts good works, but the majority of its revenue is spent on lobbying and awareness products and this is not made explicitly clear in the video.

Donating to a lobbying group has a different connotation to donating to a charity, and before millions of potential donors part with their funds, this should be made more evident. The idea of making money from people's charitable urges is not new, but this is on an unprecedented scale and opens the door for future abuse.

"Crowd-sourcing Intervention"

Jack McDonald in a blog from King's College London, argues well for resisting the urge to 'crowd-source intervention'. If the Kony2012 campaign is successful and there is continued US mentoring of the Ugandan military leading ultimately to the killing or capture of Joseph Kony, what lessons will the world learn?

A cynic may think that irrespective of Invisible Children's efforts, it may have already been in the US interest to develop a presence in Central Africa. It is established that a redux of 1890s Neo-imperialism in Africa is developing, with competing US and Chinese efforts to increase their spheres of influence. A small, but meaningful US military presence in the mineral rich part of Africa is probably not without its benefits geopolitically.  Perhaps not in this case, but campaigns such as these could be well used in the future to develop a 'crusade of convenience' for nations seeking popular support for foreign interventions.

The conduct of foreign affairs, perhaps more than in other areas, is a subtle and nuanced game.  Often conducted in quiet rooms away from the glare of media and public observation, it is often a difficult balance of competing interests and usually guided by the practice of restraint. It is not well served by those driven by purely populist intentions using 'megaphone diplomacy'. By the nature of this campaign, a complex issue has been simplified into a 30 minute presentation, and further still into hashtags and 'Like' clicks.

The concern is that a riled-up and compassionate, though under-informed, public could push an electorally weak government into pursuing a populist aim for political ends. If campaigns like this catch on, we may all be re-tweeting our way to a fresh military intervention.