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Dr. Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. He was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He is a contributing editor to CounterPunch and can be followed at @bkampmark.

Coming Up Against Yellow Vests: Emmanuel Macron’s Fuel Problem

Governments and ruling regimes tend to face revolution in the face of harsh hikes in prices. Margaret Thatcher’s rule in Britain was rocked by the poll tax. In France, the once enthusiastically embraced Emmanuel Macron has decided to leave the ground rich with challenges against his administration. The Yellow Vests, the gilet jaunes, have decided to take up the chance protesting with such intensity it has led to death and serious injury.

The pretext was an old one. An increase in carbon taxes was imposed in 2017 as part of a push to support renewables. “Support for renewable energy,” announced the environment ministry, “will be increasingly financed by a tax on fossil fuel consumption.” In 2018, the amount rose from 30.5 euros to 44.6 euros per ton, rising to 55 next year. Diesel and petrol have been affected, a matter than proves less of a problem for those in city environs, serviced by public transport, than rural areas, where the car remains essential. “Macron has to understand,” came the familiar sentiment from demonstrator Patrick Perez, “that Paris is not France.”

Macron is now being accused of being icily out of touch, a self-conscious creature of arrogance who insists on the dignity of his office even as he attempts to dismantle the pride of others. But his current approval rating – with 25 per cent, according to Ifop, is strikingly accurate, given the share of the vote he garnered in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections. A mere 24.01 percent favoured him, with Marine Le Pen of the National Front breathing down his neck with 21.3 per cent, followed by the Republicans choice of François Fillon with 20.01 per cent and the left wing Jean-Luc Melenchon with 19.58 per cent.

In the second round, France duly divided along the lines of favouring Le Pen or fearing her, hence Macron’s deceptively bolstered victory. The grand centrist was born, a person who had been warned in 2008 by friends that joining the Rothschild investment bank would mar his political prospects. The “Mozart of finance” is finding the job of governing France a far more complex prospect than the cold business of debt restructuring, mergers and acquisitions.

He has shown himself to be a keen moderniser, if a frustrated one, of the French labour market, earning the ire of unions and the spluttering contempt of the French labour movement. Like other French leaders, he has also stumbled into observations more fitting to amateur anthropology, suggesting that the French “Gauls”, by way of example, were a stubborn lot resistant to the influence of other labour models. (He is rather keen on the Nordic example.)

To his Romanian hosts, he explained with the relief of someone away from a troubled home that France was “not a reformable country… because French and women hate reform.” Many leaders had failed in the effort to buck this trend. To his Danish hosts, he was similarly heaping upon the French some manured derision while praising his audience in Copenhagen. “What is possible is linked to a culture, a people marked by their own history. These Lutheran [Danish] people, who have lived through the transformations of recent years, are not exactly Gauls who are resistant to change.”

But part of the issue with tarnished presidential popularity has been a diminishing of a position that always demanded a certain, high-peak majesty. The French president, gravitas and all, was also a European, if not global statesman. Macron’s predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, were also victims of the 2000 referendum which reduced the period of the presidency from seven years to five. (This is not to say these characters were not, in of themselves, defective in character or policy.) Then, as now, the French authorities also faced a national revolt over high fuel taxes.

While seen as a necessary mercy for a modern time, le quinquennat had the added effect, according to historian Jean Garrigues, of encouraging the leader to be seen as temporary commodity, easily purchased, irritably used, then disposed of. “Voters no longer believe in ideology, they consume and then reject their elected representatives, including the President of the Republic.” A clue was in the 2000 referendum turnout: 70 per cent preferred to stay away from the polls. “A little yes, but a big slapdown,” came the observation of le Parisien. As ever, the French, masters of the strike, had initiated something similar at the ballot box.

The Yellow Vest movement is not a Gallic shrug but a shaking roar. The initial target was increased fuel taxes, but the indignation has become a broader church of disaffection on living in general. It is also being given a ringing endorsement by political opportunists who argue that the movement has no political roots. Le Pen has been there, fanning matters while providing Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, a distracting if shaky alibi. “The ultra-Right is mobilised and is building barricades on the Champs-Elysées.” For him, such protests are the work, not of a broad movement but a few casseurs, or troublemakers.

Macron is doing his level best to avoid confronting the movement, but his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is attempting to bribe the protesters into silence, or at the very least a more timorous form of disagreement. Energy subsidies to 5.6 million households, up from the current number of 3.6 million, are being proposed. France’s poorest families will also see fuel credits directed to those whose livelihood depends on car travel. These measures, alone, will be no panacea for Macron’s declining influence.

Bringing God and Finding Death: A Christian Missionary on North Sentinel Island

Curiosity for the undiscovered last tribe, that tantalising moment when eyes are cast upon the previously unseen, remains the anthropological Holy Grail. But to do so would lead to the natural consequences that come with contact and invasion: the foisting of an alien divinity upon others, most probably a monotheistic Sky God, whose grammatically challenged invocations are found in a holy text. Then would come the introduction of terminal disease, the mod cons, and ultimate extinction.

For the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, part of India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands, isolation is both conservation and vulnerability. Encounters have been recorded, though these are unflattering for modern audiences reared on sanitised words. Marco Polo wrote, around 1296, of “a very large and wealthy island called Angaman” populated by men with “heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes also like dogs. I assure you that, as regards their heads, they all look like big mastiffs”. An inventive man, was the cheeky Dalmatian.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four adds to the exotica of terror, with his Dr. Watson describing a villainous Andaman Islander sporting “murderous darts” and a “face [that] was enough to give a man a sleepless night.” He had “features so deeply marked with all bestiality and cruelty.” Never to be outdone, Sherlock Holmes, plucking a volume from his shelf, finds it describing a people, after Polo’s fashion, as “naturally hideous having large misshapen heads, small, fierce eyes, and distorted features.”

Contact with the shy locals has proven fatal, though not always. In 1867, the passengers and crew of the wrecked Indian merchantman, the Nineveh, managed to survive attacks launched by, in the description of the captain’s report, “perfectly naked” men “with short hair and red painted noses… making sounds like pa on ough”.

A more recent display was at hand in August 1981, when the crew of the Panamanian-registered freighter, the Primrose, ran aground on a reef near North Sentinel after enduring heavy weather. Initial relief turned to terror. “Wild men, estimate more than 50, carrying various homemade weapons are making two or three wooden boats,” came the wired distress call from the captain, sent to the Regent Shipping Company’s offices in Hong Kong. “Worrying they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives not guaranteed.”  The crew, armed with piping, axes and a flare gun – kept up a week long vigil till the arrival of both a tugboat and helicopter, courtesy of the Indian Navy.

In 2006, two apparently intoxicated Indian fishermen, Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, were less fortunate in their poaching ventures, meeting their gruesome end after straying into the island’s proximity. Efforts by an Indian Coast Guard helicopter to recover the bodies was foiled by Sentinelese armed with bows and arrows.

The dangers were just as grave to the tribes ringed by the Andaman Sea. Colonialism, fuelled by the penal experiments pioneered by such vessels as the East Indian Company steamer Pluto, put pay to the culture of the Great Andamanese people, their people perishing to measles and syphilis.

A British naval officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, gave the world a highly conventional demonstration about how a new civilisation treats another: You kidnap their members, and observe them in captivity. Essentially incarcerating a select few, adults and offspring, Portman witnessed the adults ail and die. The orphaned children were returned to their abode. He did, at least, have the grim sense to observe in 1899 that, “We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers.”

Efforts to engage the islanders, propelled by insatiable curiosity, have never stopped. As late as 1975, the efforts by a documentary maker for National Geographic attempting to cover North Sentinel resulted in an arrow in the leg. In 2000, historian Adam Goodheart got the bug and ventured to North Sentinel, observing, from a safe distance along the shoreline, figures “facing us, and one of them was holding something long and thin – a spear? A bow? Impossible to tell.” The title of his contribution to The American Scholar was predictably inelegant and suggestive: “The Last Island of the Savages.”

The Indian government has banned travel to the island on penalty, a situation that has had the unintended effect of turning the surviving individuals in question into residents of an open air, inaccessible zoo. That zoo, a natural entrapment of hunter-gatherers, is written about as an existence of finite contingency, a curiosity that must surely meet its demographic, if not cultural reckoning. Sita Venkateswar, writing in The Scientific American, asks how long this “window to our past” will remain open.

A degree of added exoticism that accompanies such moves has also been accentuated by a 2017 ban on the taking of photographs or the making of videos of the protected Jarawa and other tribal communities of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, including the Andamanese, Onges, Sentinelese Nicobarese and Shom Pens. As the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) outlined in a statement last year, “removal of these objectionable video films from YouTube and initiate action on those who uploaded these video clips on social media platforms” was an imperative. Penalties of up to three years imprisonment apply.

John Allen Chau fell for the temptation, wishing to bring his own variant of the Sky God to this population numbering anywhere between 50 to 150 people. Had he been a more cognisant student of the island’s history, he would been aware that those bringing gifts, however well intentioned, are bound to be met by more arrows than sympathy. The crew of anthropologists, armed police and a photographer for National Geographic met just that in 1974 despite, wishing to, according to one of the scientists, “win the natives’ friendship by friendly gestures and plenty of gifts.” History is replete with instances where the gift-giving foreigner ends up doing far more than simply being generous; disease, alcohol, land theft tend to follow, almost always with the god of Christianity thrown in. Chau’s own gifts were more modest: a small soccer ball, fishing line, a pair of scissors.

On North Sentinel Island, the hopeful Chau envisaged, according to his notes, a “kingdom of Jesus” springing up in the community, a proselytising language all too reminiscent of those missionary forebears described by Edward Andrews in 2010 as “ideological shock troops for colonial invasion whose zealotry blinded them”. All Nations, an international Christian missionary group, merely confirmed this sentiment: “John was a gracious and sensitive ambassador of Jesus Christ.”

An unimpressed Dependra Pathak, director general of police of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, steadfastly denied any tourist label for the intrepidly foolish Chau, feeling that he had gotten there under false pretences. (God bothering types can be economical with motives when required.) “We refuse to call him a tourist. Yes, he came on a tourist visa but he came with a specific purpose to preach on a prohibited island.”

The 26-year-old from Washington State became a twenty-first century victim of an old curiosity. He had done so before, some four times, always with the assistance of local fishermen who gave him unheeded warnings. Accounts of these visits, both in terms of frequency and how he got to the island, vary: he is said to have also ventured to North Sentinel by canoe from November 15 on a few occasions, having made contact with the inhabitants. On those occasions, he returned safely, though he was attacked.

Chau showed the quizzical nature of the confused faithful. Why would these tribesmen be aggressive? He, as any truly paternalistic invader, had “been so nice to them”. His faith was sufficiently strong to excuse any death he might suffer. “Do not blame the natives if I am killed.” And killed he was, his dragged body seen on the beach on November 17 by the fishermen who warned him. With a globe now choked by the mantra of mandatory interconnectedness, being an untouched island community is not only a heresy but a crime for the curious. “They are not wanting anything from you,” explained the Indian anthropologist T.N. Pandit, who had made visits to North Sentinel between 1967 and 1991. “They suspect that we have no good intentions.” How logically prescient.

Forgetting Jamal Khashoggi: Donald Trump, Saudi Arabia and Brute Realism

“I never thought I’d see the day a White House would moonlight as a public relations firm for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.” Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), Twitter, Nov 20, 2018.

Accused of being mendacious, incapable of holding to a foundation of facts and indifferent to the world of evidence, President Donald J. Trump has stumped international relations watchers with metronomic regularity. He has also torn away the façade of decent, tolerable hypocrisy that is the “value system” of US foreign policy. In its place is violent and ugly calculation, the allure of unmitigated self-interest.

Students of such policy have traditionally seen the American imperium as a swaying creature: the realist view shuns sentimentality and sees the international environment as a jungle writ large, teeming with power plays; the idealist, who shades into a liberal internationalist, accepts a moral coating, and a certain degree of sanctimony, regarding international institutions, protocols and the like. From the latter came the at times emetic pronouncements of President Woodrow Wilson, who insisted that the United States shoulder the burdens of making the world safe for democracy. (It was often making it safe for business, but the confusion is an accepted one.)

One foreign policy tradition, identified by Walter Russell Mead, is the Jeffersonian strand. The eye here is turned inward, and promoting democracy overseas is a matter best left to others. Within Jefferson, two versions stood out like schizophrenic impulses: the first, keen on seeing the republic remain one of glorious yeomanry freed of imperial obligation; the second, interested to see the Republic embark on its imperial, manifestly deigned mission.

Mead does not stop there. If Trump’s policy can ever find some classification – and here, the schemes are only illustrative, not dogmatic – he might well be part Jacksonian, that tradition Mead claims is hostile to Wilson’s view of international institutions and Alexander Hamilton’s insistence on pure open markets, freedom of the seas, and international financial and legal stability. The followers of Andrew Jackson’s view embrace the military establishment, will use it sparingly, but, when provoked, will be satisfyingly violent.

The disturbing fascination of Trump’s contribution to this babble on foreign policy is his instinctive revulsion of any position that might prevent a worthy transaction. Murdering journalists might be “bad”, but worse is to hold a cashed-up medieval theocracy to account for it. There is no room for the grieving sentimentalist here: Jamal Khashoggi was dismembered, but why let his corpse dictate a change in approach to Riyadh?

Trump has his own bogey states to worry about, and he sees Iran as, in the words of his November 20 statement, “responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen”, behind the deaths of “many Americans and other innocent people”, a destabiliser of Iraq and a state sponsor of terrorism. Then there is the filthy lucre, the “record” amount of $450 billion promised by Saudi Arabia as part of investments in the US.

Trump turns to dreamy fiction on this, imagining that “hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth to the United States” will arise from Kingdom’s deep pockets. The Make America Great Again quotient is satisfied with some $110 billion to “be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and other great US defence contractors.” Besides, Saudi Arabia had been “very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world.”

True, the death of a man deemed an “enemy of the state” by Saudi Arabia (“my decision is in no way based on that”) was a “an unacceptable and horrible crime” but “great independent research” suggested that 17 were directly connected with his death, deserving sanction. “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!”

This turn of brutal honesty does not sit well with the hucksters in the GOP who prefer to hawk the wares of the Republic with counterfeit concerns for human rights and free expression. “When we lose our moral voice, we lose our strongest asset,” argues Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who also claims that the crown prince “has shown disrespect for the relationship”. This is the sort of fabled nonsense that has shielded US power from proper analysis, ignoring the giant’s cool, if often bungling calculations, while hiding in the comforting duvet of an exacting morality. One such stonking bungle featured the Saudi-dominated terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on US soil. To the US, both oil and apocalyptic terrorism.

Others speak of a complex situation, one that requires a ginger approach. This leaves room for much crawling cant. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Chattanooga TV station WTVC that, “It is a delicate situation when we have a long-term ally that we’ve had for decades, but we have a crown prince that I believe ordered the killing of a journalist.”

Corker’s focus is wearingly slanted, finding specific fault in a regime for one savage incident, and clearly ignoring its otherwise extensive butcher’s bill. The brutalities of the Saudi security services, the kingdom’s famine inflicting war in Yemen, are chickenfeed matters relative to the sanguinary fate of Khashoggi. “Everything points to the fact that [the crown prince] knew about it and directed it.” Doing so enables Corker and his like-minded colleagues to ignore the security and economic dimension of the Saudi-US relationship, one that excuses casual atrocity while affecting a broader concern for the human subject, a sentiment otherwise absent in broader strategic discussions.

Such a view is replicated in the Tuesday Global Magnitsky letter to Trump from Corker and ranking member, Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), requesting “that your determination specifically address whether Crown Prince Mohamed [sic] bin Salman is responsible for Mr Khashoggi’s murder.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is more businesslike in tone, suggesting that enough house cleaning has already taken place. The governing Saudi royal family is never mentioned; specific individuals are, a point that keeps the House of Saud distant from the bloody matter. “We’ve sanctioned 17 people – some of them very senior in the Saudi government,” he told KCMO in Kansas City, Missouri.

Rounding off such an approach is the extravagant claim by Trump that he controls the levers, holds the strings, and is captain of the ship. The world is his market, his veritable playground. He can influence interest rates; he can control oil prices. “Oil prices getting lower,” he tweeted. “Great! Like a big Tax Cut for America and the World. Enjoy!”

Khashoggi should be remembered as much as the victim of state-sanctioned murder as one of unjust ennoblement at the hands of his morally infatuated exploiters. Trump’s diminution of his fate is crude but violently frank: the US has preferred a different approach to other states whose governments have seemed fit to suspend arms sales. All will quietly normalise matters in due course, keen to avoid losing market share to competitors. “Enjoy!” as Trump might well toot, followed by triumphant tones of “Told you so!”

Big Mouthed Blue-Eyes: Frank Sinatra in Australia

The demigods are rarely tempered, and Frank Sinatra, who considered himself one, along with a horde of adulating fans, was one who rarely faced the sharp tongue or chastising hand. Accusations about mob connections, thuggery and darker impulses were usually pillowed by an aura. When he visited an Australia coming out of social sclerosis in the 1970s (for one, the first progressive government in almost a generation was in power), he encountered the attention of scavengers desperate for the man and his story.

This was not always so. Sinatra had shown affection for Australia on previous visits, showing a fondness for both audiences and the orchestras. In Sydney, feeling in an ingratiating mood, he once claimed that, “There are three best places for musicians: Los Angeles, London and Sydney, Australia.”

The year was 1974, and the Australian Women’s Weekly wondered, without a trace of prophetic irony, if Sinatra would “keep smiling in Australia”. In the second week of July, Sinatra and his motley crew arrived in Sydney on a 12-seat Gulfstream private jet, courtesy of Harrah’s Casino, Nevada. The schedule involved two concerts in Melbourne and three in Sydney. On getting to Sydney, Sinatra was given digs at the Boulevard. (Drab and unspectacular, Australia’s hospitality could not boast formidable hotel sets, though the Boulevard was considered better than most.) John Pond, the hotel’s public relations manager, was informed about Sinatra’s desire to have kitchen facilities and did his level best to please.

During the trip, it became clear that the press vultures down under were distinctly untutored on matters of a private realm. There was no sense of a cordon sanitaire, nor even a mild acceptance of a celebrity’s privacy. The press crew, scum crusted and emboldened, were not briefed of the Sinatra demi-god status, nor of his desire for solitude. Nor did they have an inkling of his desire to stay on Olympus. He was flesh, quarry and show.

Tabloid allure proved irresistible, and journalists such as Gail Jarvis of Channel Nine are reminiscent of assassins who recount the tale of stalking then slaying their victims. This was, according to Jarvis, a country “starved of personalities”. (No larrikins? No characters worthwhile mentioning?) It made Sinatra necessary dynamite.

There was chase from Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport on the freeway; there were moments of vulnerability for Sinatra in his car at specific points when he might be ambushed. The Australian public were none too impressed either. They were paying to see a performer expected to perform and make room to be accessible. They could not understand why a figure of such stature would issue injunctions on media appearances, or even see the fans.

The tension duly bit. At Festival Hall, Melbourne, Sinatra was unimpressed about the journalist pack. A crotchety diatribe followed. “They keep chasing us. We have to run all day long. They’re parasites who take everything and give nothing.” The dagger was dug in deeper. “And as for the broads who work for the press, they’re the hookers of the press. I might offer them a buck and a half, I’m not sure.” For good measure, Sinatra also described reporters as “pimps’, perennial “bums”, “crazy” and all in need of pox.

Such splenetic views were typical of Sinatra. His first appearance at Carnegie Hall in nine years on April 8, 1974 was not merely a show of mellow tones and performance. It featured salvos of dripping hostility at various members of the press. Barbara Walters and Rona Barrett starred as the targets, the latter deserving special mention: “What can you say about her that hasn’t already been said about… leprosy?” The comments barely registered on the US talk scene; all that mattered was whether the voice remained intact after a brief retirement.

The Australian reaction, in waspish contrast, was venomous. Former ABC journalist Margot Marshall, with white washing hindsight, suggested that all female journalists in Australia at the time were feminists. “Our backs got up and we thought ‘we’re not going to put up with this!’”

Sinatra had to be taught a lesson. The second Melbourne concert was duly cancelled; his private jet at Tullamarine was grounded; and, in joining the plebeian classes in a commercial flight to Sydney, Sinatra found himself besieged in his Sydney hotel. Australia’s unwashed reporters wanted an apology, and three unions obliged in taking the matter up. The Professional Musicians Union and the Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees Association took the position that no apology meant, effectively, no tour. An additional personal apology was also sought for Sinatra’s alleged manhandling, along with his bodyguards, of a cameraman and photographers.

Then, Australia had unions with more than a mild bark. They could frustrate sporting tours by denying services (the use of grounds; ticketing; cleaning; hospitality); they could restrict the movement of undesirables. They could, as it turned out, also ground celebrity singers and performers whose transport they refused to refuel.

The then president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Bob Hawke, was very keen to reach some understanding with Sinatra, though the entire episode seemed to never rise above the puerile and adolescent. “His attack on journalists was bad enough,” expressed a wounded Victorian secretary of the Australian Journalists Association, Graham Walsh, “but what made it worse was the way he used an audience to do it”.

Hawke had a sinister warning during the long imbibing session with Sinatra: “If you don’t apologise your stay in this country could be indefinite. You won’t be allowed to leave Australia unless you can walk on water.” Sinatra was expected to sign some statement, approved by the parties, that he had been in the wrong. Sinatra, in turn, wanted his own set of apologies from the press. A modest compromise was reached. He conceded to having “regrets”, in the process getting Hawke, a future Australian prime minister, suitably inebriated.

The subject of Sinatra’s media siege and rocky tour made it into celluloid format, at least in a fashion. The Night We Called It A Day came out in 2003, with a curiously cast Dennis Hopper playing the harassed Sinatra. (Tom Burlinson more than held up the vocal side of things.) But the wounds healed fairly quickly, and Sinatra found his legs again back home in freedom’s land. At Madison Square Garden that same year, he told his audience that, “Ol’ Blue Eyes is back. Or, as they say in Australia, ‘Ol’ Big Mouth is back!”

Unnecessary Fussing: China, the United States and APEC

The parents on the global stage of power are bickering and now, such entertainingly distracting forums as APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum) are left without a unifying message.  This should hardly matter, but the absence of a final communiqué of agreement is being treated in some circles as the preliminary perturbations to conflict between Beijing and Washington. 

Often forgotten at the end of such deliberations is their acceptable irrelevance.  APEC as a forum was already deemed by former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans in 1993 to be “four adjectives in search of a noun.” Charles E Morrison of the East-West Centre in Hawaii noted another view.  “Some wag described it as an international dating service for leaders.”  On this occasion, the dates failed to reach a merry accord.

Such gatherings provide distractions and fodder for the global press corps to identify trouble, brewing or actual.  They can also supply the converse: that the state of adherence to international norms, whatever they may be, is better because of such meetings.  But in Port Moresby, coarseness emerged with tartness. China and the United States were jostling.

US Vice President Mike Pence, who revealed his interest in the summit by basing himself in Australia rather than staying in Port Moresby, threw down what must have been a gauntlet of sorts.  At the Hudson Institute in October, he was moodily accusing Beijing of pilfering military blueprints, “using that stolen technology” to turn “ploughshares into swords on a massive scale”.

A puzzled Pence seemed to be gazing at a mirror, accusing Beijing of “employing a whole-of-government, using political, economic and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” 

At the APEC gathering itself, Pence made it clear that there would be no warming of relations with Beijing.  Rather amusingly, he insisted that, “The United States deals openly, fairly.  We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.” China’s Xi Jinping, for his part, was also in a mood to impress. “Unilateralism and protectionism will not solve problems but add uncertainty to the world economy.”

The forum was filled with more rumours than a village from the middle ages.  Chinese officials, went one well-flighted suggestion, supposedly forced their way into the office of Rimbink Pato, PNG’s foreign minister, being most insistent on discussing the wording of a section of the proposed communiqué.  A suggested sentence featured in the agitated encounter: “We agreed to fight protectionism, including all unfair trade practices.”  So worded, it was clear what the intended meaning was: Beijing was being singled out as a possible purveyor of unfair trade practices. These were deemed “malicious rumours” by the Chinese delegation.

At the conclusion of the summit, Papua New Guinea, as host, expressed its concerns through a rattled Prime Minister Peter O’Neill: the “giants” had disagreed; the “entire world” was worried.  Other delegates bore witness to the Beijing-Washington tension, and were similarly left disappointed. New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern was tepid in suggesting that there were “some minor differences in the international trade environment”.  She claimed, as did others, that “it was disappointing that we were unable to have a communiqué issued at the conclusion of the APEC meeting… but it shouldn’t diminish from the areas of substantive agreement.”

Former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is one who is pessimistic about such “minor differences” between the powers, insisting that nothing less than an “Economic Iron Curtain” risks coming down upon the globe.  Given Paulson’s stint at that rogue-of-rogue banks Goldman Sachs, such warnings should be treated with due caution, largely because they fly in the face of the ideology of, to use Paulson’s own words, the “free flow of investment and trade”.

Commentators such as veteran journalist Tony Walker did not spare the drama, peering into the implications with the keenness of a history student in search of parallels.  “Port Moresby may not be Yalta, nor, it might be said, is it Potsdam.” (Highly tuned, is Walker’s embellishing antennae.)  “But for a moment at the weekend, the steamy out-of-the-way Papua New Guinea capital found itself at the intersection of great power combustibility.” Yet no bullets were fired, nor vessels launched.

The disagreement is merely the consequence of initiatives that are grating on both powers.  China is getting bolder with its global investment and infrastructure strategy, wooing states with no-strings financing. It is huffing in the South China Sea.  The United States can no longer claim to be the primary occupant of the world’s playgrounds, the bully of patronage, sponsorship and cant haloed by that advertising slogan, “the American way of life”.  Building sand castles is a task that will have to be shared, but bullies tend to eventually let the punches fly.

The result, at the moment, is a trade war of simmering intensity that continues to govern relations between Beijing and Washington.  APEC was meant to supply a forum of diffusion but merely affirmed the status quo. (On January, US tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods will increase from 10 per cent to 25 per cent.)

Countries keen to back both powers find themselves facing split loyalties, though that point is often exaggerated.  China knows where many countries in the South East Asian-Australasia region will turn to if the beads of sweat start to show.  Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was trying to make the obvious sound simple. “It’s easiest not to take sides when everybody else is on the same side.  But if you are friends with two countries which are on different sides, then sometimes it is possible to get along with both, sometimes it’s more awkward if you try to get along with both.”

The next show takes place in Buenos Aires, and that November 30 gathering of the G20 promises another re-run of tensions.  On that occasion, President Donald Trump will be bothered to turn up. Again, such a summit is bound to yield to the law of acceptable chaos and modestly bearable tension.

Charges Under Seal: US Prosecutors Get Busy With Julian Assange

Those with a stake in the hustling racket of empire have little time for the contrariness that comes with exposing classified information. Those who do are submitted to a strict liability regime of assessment and punishment: you had the information (lawfully obtained or otherwise) but you released it for public deliberation. Ignorance remains a desensitising shield, keeping the citizenry in permanent darkness.

Critics indifferent to the plight of Julian Assange have seen his concerns for prosecution at the hands of US authorities as the disturbed meditations of a sexualised fantasist. He should have surrendered to the British authorities and, in turn, to the Swedish authorities. It was either insignificant or irrelevant that a Grand Jury had been convened to sniff around the activities of WikiLeaks to identify what, exactly, could be used against the organisation and its founder.

Cruelty and truth are often matters of excruciating banality, and now it is clearer than ever that the United States will, given the invaluable chance, net the Australian publisher and WikiLeaks founder to make an example of him. This man, who dirtied the linen of state and exposed the ceremonial of diplomatic hypocrisy, was always an object of interest, notably in the United States. “He was,” confirmed Andrea Kendall-Taylor, former deputy national intelligence officer for Russia under the director of national intelligence, “a loathed figure inside the government.”

Whether it was the Central Intelligence Agency, the US Department of Justice, or the specific army of investigators assembled by special counsel Robert Mueller III to weasel out material on the Trump-Russia connection, Assange remains a substantial figure who needs to be captured, sealed and disappeared. Forget any such references to journalism and being a truth teller with obsessive tendencies; for these officials, Assange had become a calculating machine in the information market, a broker in state details and activities, trading and according value to subject matters of his choice.

A gnawing fascination for US authorities persists on whether Assange has a direct, cosy line to the Kremlin. Fashioned as such, it can be used as a weapon against President Donald J. Trump, and a cover for Democratic villainy and incompetence. In terms of scale and endeavour, WikiLeaks has been kitted out in the outfit of a guerrilla information organisation. This exceedingly flattering description may well have given Assange a flush of pride, but it assumes a measure of disproportionate influence. It also ignores the vital issue of how public discussion, which may well translate into voting patterns, can alter policy. (This, it should be added, remains the big hypothetical: does such information induce an altered approach, or simply reaffirm prejudice and predisposition? The flat-earth theorist is hardly going to be moved by anything that would conflict or challenge.)

Both the New York Times and Washington Post revealed last Friday that prosecutors had inadvertently let a rather sizeable cat out of the security bag. (That feline escapee was noted by Seamus Hughes, a terrorism expert at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University.) As with so much with matters of secrecy, errors made lead to information gained. In the filing of a case unrelated to Assange, Assistant US Attorney General Kellen S. Dwyer informed the relevant judge to keep the matter at stake sealed, claiming that “due to the sophistication of the defendant and the publicity surrounding the case, no other procedure is likely to keep confidential the fact that Assange has been charged.”

Dwyer, whose remit also includes investigating WikiLeaks, had bungled. “The court filing,” claimed a meek Joshua Stueve of the US attorney’s office in the Eastern District of Virginia, “was made in error. This was not the intended name for this filing.”

What is not known is the nature of the charges and what events they might cover. Do they date back to the days of Cablegate or feature updates with the Vault 7 revelations showing the range of cyber tools deployed by the CIA to penetrate mobile devices and computers? Or do they feature the trove of hacked Democratic emails which constitute a feature of the Mueller investigation? Charges might well centre on using 18 USC §641, which makes it unlawful for a person to receive any record or thing of value of the United States with intent to convert it to his use or gain, knowing that it was stolen. But even there, the issue of press protections would apply.

Prosecutors have previously flirted with conspiracy, theft of government authority and purported violations of the Espionage Act, but the Obama administration, for all its enthusiasm in nabbing Assange kept coming up against that irritating bulwark of liberty, some would say impediment, known as the First Amendment. Prosecute Assange, and you would be effectively prosecuting the battlers of the Fourth Estate, however withered they might be.

The free speech amendment, however, does not trouble current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who, as CIA director, claimed that, “We have to recognize that we can no longer allow Assange and his colleagues the latitude to use free speech values against us.”

A niggling concern here lies in Justice Department regulations, as amended by Eric Holder in 2015, which cover the obtaining of information and records from, making arrests of, and bringing charges against members of the press. As Susan Hennessey, Quinta Jurecic, Matthew Kahn and Benjamin Wittes point out in Lawfare, one exception stands out with sore attention: “The protections of the policy do not extent to any individual or entity where there are reasonable grounds to believe that the individual entity is … [a] foreign power or an agent of a foreign power”, so defined in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The mania in packaging, ribbon and all, of Assange with those in the Kremlin becomes clear. To make him a foreign threat takes him outside the scope of press protection, at least when it comes to those desperately drafted regulations.

Since US voters cannot be trusted by the country’s corporate owners and the parties of business to act with any degree of maturity and intelligence, it has been assumed by the political classes that they must have been swayed and manipulated by a foreign power. Or fake news. Or news. That assessment obviates any issue as to whether the Clinton machinery within the Democratic Party did its fair share of manipulation and swaying – but then again, quibbles can’t be had, nor hairs split on this point. Keeping it local, and attacking the Great Bear fused with Satan that is Russia, frosted with new Cold War credentials, remains the low-grade, convenient alibi to justify why the backed horse did not make it to the finishing line. To Assange would be small though consoling compensation.

The Jerusalem Tangle: ScoMo’s Recognition Policy Stumbles

Jerusalem, deemed a holy city, and seen as trade item, bargaining chip and bartering tool over the centuries. Sought by the major faiths, despoiled at stages by various empires, revived and chalice of poison in international law. Australia’s Scott Morrison, charmless in his ignorance, has come to realise the problems of relocating the Australian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

International law, feeble as it is, sees the city as contested and for that reason, the subject of resolution only between the relevant parties in dispute. As international law is a creature shunned and derided in Washington (unilateralism is in vogue), the Trump administration has made true a principle accepted by the US congress since 1995: that Israel’s capital be officially acknowledged as such. That the US embassy has taken root on land expropriated by Palestinian landholders is fittingly dark.

Thousands of miles away, however, and Australia’s backwater, opportunity shop politicians were making a similar play prior to the by-election in the federal seat of Wentworth. That particular bit of political real estate had been vacated by the former, and very much deposed Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Suddenly, Jerusalem, or to be more precise, the interests of Jewry, mattered. (A large Jewish vote was potentially at stake in the affluent Sydney electorate.) If Wentworth could be held, the cannibalising Liberal-National Coalition could still claim to have a barely breathing majority.  It was not to be.

During the barnyard scuffles over whether the Australian embassy would be moved to Jerusalem, Morrison suggested he was more than open to the idea. Then came loud voices of demurral from Australia’s neighbours, most notably Indonesia. There was trade to worry about, not to mention the finalisation of a free trade agreement.

As Senator Simon Birmingham, the minister tasked with the trade portfolio, noted in a press release at the end of August, “Australia and Indonesia have successfully concluded negotiations on the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IA-CEPA), deepening our economic and security cooperation with one of our major trading partners.” The only thing missing was the inked signature.

The Jerusalem ploy by Morrison risked, if not scuppering the arrangement, then certainly delaying it. Birmingham, showing the subtle awareness of a blunt, rude instrument, saw few problems. (The Birmingham-Morrison double act is inoculated against the more nuanced signals of diplomacy.) The agreement with Jakarta remained “on track for finalisation this year.”

Morrison, betraying a similar obliviousness, saw little in the way of trouble. “The Indonesian trade minister has made it clear on the public record.” That clarity, based on remarks by Enggartiasto Lukita, was cautious but open-ended – that the agreement would be signed later this year.

This self-interested reading was preferred to the sharper take by Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, who had made it clear that, “Indonesia encourages Australia and other nations to continue to support the peace process and not conduct any action that could undermine the peace process and global security.”

The leak of WhatsApp messages between Marsudi and her Australian counterpart, Senator Marise Payne, put pay to any suggestion that Jakarta was going to be mild mannered about the whole affair. (Money may have no smell, but politics often reeks.) One particular note of sourness on Marsudi’s part had been the timing of Morrison’s Jerusalem change of heart: Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki was visiting Indonesia at the time.

Morrison, finding himself for the first time in the big league at an international meet in Singapore, has had to smooth things over, less with a fine comb than a jagged rake. The reason was simple: Lukita had become more expressive on Jakarta’s position regarding the embassy move. The deal “can be signed at any time but when you will sign it… depends on Australia’s position [on the embassy],” came the words to Indonesian media in Singapore on Tuesday. Lukita also reminded reporters of Marsudi’s own warning: “if Australia insists on moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the signing will be delayed.”

The meeting with Indonesian president Joko Widodo on the side of the East Asia Summit saw Morrison’s attempt to split the issue: the trade deal and embassy review could be considered separable. “They were not conflated, they were not raised together in the meeting yesterday”. Further conversations with Widodo and Marsudi had “been warm and very receptive.” Nor did Morrison feel that his position contradicted the two-state policy.

Some of Morrison’s inner circle seem to be cracking on the subject. Signals of reassurance have been relayed. Defence Industry Minister Steve Ciobo decided to reduce the issue of the embassy move to a matter of improbability. In a conversation between Ciobo and Lukita at a recent defence event held in Indonesia, Ciobo came up with his assessment: “About the possibility, I cannot say 100 percent we will move, but, I guess, the possibility is less than 5 percent.”

When asked on Ciobo’s mathematically predictive remarks, Morrison dismissed them as not reflecting the government’s position. “I am not aware of him even having said that.” The preferable method was dealing with the matter through “a Cabinet submission process”, a review that would be concluded by Christmas. Australia remained “sovereign in determining its foreign policy.” (Marvellous that someone believes that.)

The line on asserting some fictional Australian sovereignty can also be found amongst other government members. The way to Jerusalem is the way to affirm independence. Senator Eric Abetz, chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, has views typical of members who hail from the White Tribe of Asia. “If Indonesia really wants to dictate Aus [sic] foreign policy on the middle east,” he tweeted, “should we rethink the $360 million each year we give them in aid? Instead, how about we calmly finalise this FTA which will lift many Indonesians out of poverty and assist Australian farmers and jobs.”

Another meeting, this time with one of the region’s wiliest and at times ruthless leaders, was even more colourful than that with Widodo. Morrison, Australia’s main bargain basement politician, received a schooling from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The nonagenarian, whose international credits include rebuffing the International Monetary Fund, mocking US presidents and occasional attacks of anti-Semitic rage, warned of violence. Understand the causes of terrorism, he said sagely. “Adding to the cause of terrorism is not going to be helpful. I pointed that out.” The Australian account of the meeting is similarly bereft of context to those of Indonesian officials: Mahathir surely did not mean Jerusalem and the embassy in his conversation. Or did he?

Morrison’s tangle is knotted and inextricable. He has jettisoned decades of a bipartisan policy. To now not go through with recognition will anger the Israelis and show him to be opportunistic and weak. To also change midstream would suggest that Australian foreign policy is made in Jakarta, a true scoff at any notion that Canberra was sovereign in any meaningful sense. Either way, Morrison is for turning.

The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister

The disgruntled former prime minister is a rather large, and growing club, on the Australian scene. The country has become known for its killing seasons, those occasions when spear wielding apparatchiks within respective political parties feel the need to execute (politically speaking) their leaders in hurried fashion. Those leaders, in turn, seek revenge and catharsis. None, it seems, seek obscurity, forever aggrieved by the instigator of their fall.

The latest addition to the club is lawyer, merchant banker, and failed pro-republic campaigner Malcolm Turnbull, who is now without the leadership of his party or a seat in the Australian parliament, one he resigned as the daggers were being sheathed. If he could not have the prime ministership, his party could not have the seat of Wentworth.

Attempting to maximise the effect of his deposition, Turnbull began a campaign of ennobling self-effacement and cleansing. This involved, firstly, evacuating to New York and then extolling his views about a “live-by-the-sword, die-by-the-sword approach.” To a young leadership group in New York, Turnbull explained how “when you stop being prime minister, that’s it.”

His approach to politics would, he argued, be different from his disgruntled predecessors who had similarly been pushed onto their party’s respective swords. “There is no way I’m going to be hanging around like an embittered Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott – well, seriously, I mean, these people are just sort of like miserable, miserable ghosts.”

Rudd was quick on the counter, directing a “quick reality check” to Turnbull in a tweet. “[H]aving told the world you’ve left politics behind, you seem to be in the media every day talking about it.” Turnbull would also do to notice that Rudd left parliament some five years ago. “Why not come over for a cuppa?”

Turnbull, having himself accused his predecessors of irate, narcissistic reflections lengthily bitter, took a very public, generously provided platform from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program Thursday last week to counter that gang of nine behind palace coup.

It was also a display replete with its liberal approaches to what might be loosely called the factual record. The disgruntled former prime minister, by definition, must extol and inflate virtues, making predecessor and successor look poor. A million jobs, he claimed without demur, were created whilst he was prime minister. The figure, more accurately, was 793,783. Business, supposedly, was responsible for that creation; in actual fact, the figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed an increase in public sector jobs during the Turnbull period.

Most blatantly of all, Turnbull, in an act of brazenly adopted innocence, ignored the policy failings that characterised a period of misrule and mismanagement. Despite claiming to be a prime minister of infrastructure, the figures over the 2015-2018 period, as gauged by the Construction Activity: Chain Volume Measures document of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, show mixed results: $95.48 billion in 2015-6; $86.99 billion in 2016-7 and $105.47 billion in 2017-8. Contrast that with engineering construction work totalling $113.63 billion in 2014-5 and $136.07 billion in 2013-4.

Most damnably, Turnbull was left pure and untouched on the issue of his messy and bungling role behind the national broadband network (NBN), a fiasco that will forever dog his period in office. The global credit ratings agency S&P Global Ratings rubbished the entire NBN operation with stinging lashings, claiming that Australia’s governments had “underestimated the complexity of the NBN roll out” warning of the need for writedowns and additional government funding, “potentially in the form of debt relief or direct subsidies.”

In October last year, Turnbull reiterated an approach he had developed when communications minister: heap blame upon the Labor government for putting him in the mess. “Well, it was a mistake to go about the way they [Labor] did; setting up a new government company to do it was a big mistake.” Money invested was money lost.

Simon Jarman, a resident of Northcote in Victoria, was far from impressed with such characteristic Turnbull deflections and ducking. On a task for the World Bank in impoverished Moldova for a time, he reflected on having speeds of up to 100mbps reliably for up to $20 a month. “Back here, for $80 a month,” went his letter in The Age, “I’m forced to work with the technological equivalent of a horse and cart.” That’s innovation for you.

At virtually every significant turn, Turnbull was found wanting, capitulating to the right-wing heavies under the pretext of preserving an open church, yet looking weak and unconvincing for not maintaining the upper hand. On energy and power prices, he faltered; on the issue of environment, he stumbled. In terms of immigration and national security, one could be forgiven for thinking that he had surrendered total control to the behemoth of the Home Affairs department run by his nemesis, Peter Dutton. This, from a legally trained mind not indifferent to the importance of civil rights.

Neither audience nor interlocutor, Tony Jones, seemed too keen on ruffling or disturbing any self-inflicted illusion on the Q&A program. This was Turnbull’s chance to shine in aggrieved wonder and hurt. He accused the right of the Liberal party of intimidation and bullying. He warned his fellow party members that losing the political centre would result in political defeat. There was even a risk, at one point, of feeling pity.

It is ultimately hard to pity a being who profited from the very acts that he accused his counterparts of committing against him. Turnbull’s justification? – his own assassination of Abbott in 2015 had been executed for soundly articulated reasons (the “economy, stupid” line comes to mind); his opponents were mere political suicides without vision and full of malice. “Revenge,” as Sir Francis Bacon famously observed, “is a wild kind of justice; which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed out.” Such lessons are lost on disgruntled ex-prime ministers.

Convenient Demonologies: Stopping Migrant Caravans

President Donald J. Trump has been engaged with berating human caravans, a spectacle that might have been odd in another era. At first instance, it all seems fundamentally anachronistic, a sort of history in reverse. It was, after all, the caravan packed with invasive pioneers that gave the United States its distinct frontier identity, moving with relentless, exterminating purpose in ultimately closing it.

On October 19, some 7,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, made an attempt to cross the bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. “Una necesidad nos obliga,” came the justification of a 20-year old man to the Washington Post. The ultimate destination for most: the United States.

Such a necessity does not merely apply to states in social and political decay. Honduras has historically been an eviscerated client state, its politics those of a marionette of Washington’s interests. In similar fashion, Guatemala continues to bleed before the preying involvement of Washington in its history. The US-owned United Fruit Company craved gangsters for capitalism, and the Central Intelligence Agency obliged in protecting its assets, assisting the overthrow of the Arbenz administration in 1954.

The Mexican authorities made various attempts to repel the human stream with violent though modest success. With the November mid-term elections looming, this small group became electoral dynamite for Trump. It gave him a chance to militarise matters, announcing the deployment of 5,200 troops to the US-Mexico border. (Some 5,600 have currently taken their positions.)

The language of General Terrence John O’Shaughnessy, in describing the proposed plan, resembled a description of an armed operation against an elevated enemy. “Our concept of operations is to flow in our military assets with a priority to build up southern Texas, and then Arizona, and then California.”

In the words of the previous US president, Barack Obama, “They’re telling us the single most grave threat to America is a bunch of poor, impoverished, broke, hungry refugees a thousand miles away.” Film director Spike Lee, presenting his latest effort, BlacKkKlansman, at the Los Cabos International Film Festival in Mexico, was even more unvarnished. “Agent Orange was on the campaign trail for his fellow gangsters and stirring his base by saying the migrant caravan was his invasion.”

If there is something that tickles and engages the populist sentiment, Trump is up for it. His “base”, as it were, is up for rocking, chilling and entertaining. Obama might accuse Trump of being a fan of the “political stunt”, but that is the essence of this administration, a sequence of aggravated rehearsals that have distracted when needed and enraged when required.

Some of these ploys have gone beyond the category of temporary fancy. Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller had demonstrated that policies of indignation can have purchase at chance moments. While Trump is always bound to claim copyright over such ideas, it was Miller who proved influential in sketching the selective Muslim ban and the head-scratching policy of separating children from parents at the border. Immigration is being larded with further, stifling regulations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming that a mere 30,000 refugees for resettlement will be accepted by the US in 2019.

Such cruel exercises are the stuff of modern reactionary politics, notably from governments wishing to remove the clammy hand of international law upon them. Refugees, the outsiders, the marginalised, are ideal fodder to mince and grind. It is the language of Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, in the federal elections of 2001, insisted that the island continent would become an impregnable fortress against the undesirables coming by sea. He illustrated this fact by deploying, much in the Trump manner, soldiers against refugees stranded at sea in August 2001. “We simply cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen around the world as a country of easy destination.” Given Australia’s lethal natural barriers, the remarks were as incongruous as they were fictional.

It was a policy twinned with the feather brained notion, ruthlessly exploited, that terrorist operatives might sneak their way to Australia on leaky vessels, avoiding more salubrious options. As Australia’s defence minister Peter Reith brazenly asserted at that time, such boat arrivals “can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities”. Howard himself added taste to the fear: “you don’t know whether they have terrorist links or not,” he suggested rather casually to Brisbane’s Courier Mail.

Trump would have approved of such laxity, having himself claimed, with an approach immune to evidence, that there might well be “unknown Middle Easterners” heading to the US in these migrant caravans. When probed on the matter by CNN’s now bedevilled Jim Acosta, Trump twisted slightly. “There’s no proof of anything but they could very well be.”

Trump’s language of the demonised caravan is also the language of a host of European leaders who have decided to dust off chauvinistic sentiments long held in the archive and ignore any central, humanitarian approach to refugees. At work here is a species of depraved transatlantic consensus on cruelty propelled by strongman bullying. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán fantasises about Muslim hordes in an Ottoman invasion redux, a positioning that elevates himself as defender of the West against Islam and the dark forces of the barbaric East. “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees,” he snorted in an interview with Bild in January this year. “We see them as Muslim invaders.”

Other states contemplate a further entrenched, barbed wire approach, finding much value in shirking or adjusting the refugee resettlement quota. Poland can add itself to Hungary in that regard, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stating his position plainly to Radio Poland in January that “we will not be allowing migrants from the Middle East and North Africa to enter Poland.” Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not far behind.

Like his Australian and several European counterparts, Trump has deployed the instruments of violence and demonization against refugees with a degree of commitment and, it must not be forgotten, success. It also supplies a fitful reminder how criticising him for doing so remains a more difficult exercise, given the number of states which have gotten a cold regarding refugees. A certain villainy against humanity has taken hold.

Remembering the Peace Makers: What the Armistice Commemorations Forgot

Those in the war industry and the business of commemorating the dead have little time for peace, even as they supposedly celebrate it. For them, peace is the enemy as much as armed opposing combatants, if not more so. Dr Brendan Nelson of the Australian War Memorial is every bit the propagandist in this regard, encased in armour of permanent reminder: Do not forget the sacrifice; do not forget the slaughter. The issue is how war, not peace, is commemorated.

That theme was repeated, for the most part, in Paris on November 11. US President Donald Trump spoke of “our sacred obligation to memorialise our fallen heroes.” French President Emmanuel Macron marked the 100th anniversary of the Great War by having a dig at nationalism, calling it a “betrayal of patriotism” (is there a difference?). The nationalists, he warned, were getting busy, these “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death”. The intellectuals (and here, he alluded to Julien Benda’s 1927 classic, La trahison des clercs) were at risk of capitulating.

But Macron, rather slyly, was hoping that the French obsession with universal values would somehow render his message less parochial: to be French was to be an internationalist, not a tunnel-visioned, rabid nationalist. The soldiers who perished in the Great War did so in the defence of France’s “universal values” in order to repudiate the “selfishness of nationals only looking after their own interests.” Much room for disagreement on that score, and Marine Le Pen would have been a suitable corrective.

The peace activities of the Great War, asphyxiated, smothered and derided in texts and official narratives, are rarely discussed in the mass marketed solemnity of commemorations. The writings of those prophets who warned that any adventurism such as what transpired in 1914 would be met with immeasurable suffering are also conspicuously absent. Jean de Bloc, whose magisterial multi-volume The Future of War appeared in 1898 in Russian, found it “impossible” that Europe’s leaders would embark on a conflict against each other; to do so would “cause humanity a great moral evil… civil order will be threatened by new theories of social revolution”. The end would be catastrophic. “How many flourishing countries will be turned into wilderness and rich cities into ruins! How many tears will be shed, how many will be left in beggary!”

These sceptics were the enlightened ones, scorned for not having the sense of fun that comes with joining battle and being butchered in the name of some vague patriotic sentiment. If human beings are animals at play, then play to the death, if need be – the rational ones were sidelined, persecuted and hounded. They are the party poopers.

Prior to the first shots of the guns of August in 1914, Europe had witnessed a slew of meetings and activities associated with the theme of peace. From 1889, pacifists were busy with Universal Peace Congresses, while the Inter-parliamentary Union made a stab at efforts and ideas to reduce national tensions. The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, with one scheduled to take place in 1915, suggested a certain sensibility, even as the military machinery of Europe was getting ominously more lethal. At the very least, the political classes were playing at peace.

The 1,200 women who gathered at The Hague in 1915 as part of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom feature as sane if forgotten voices before the murderous machine truly got going. Their work involved attendees from 12 countries and the passing of 20 resolutions on war. They worked to convince those engaged in the murderous machine about the folly and were dismissed accordingly as cranks and nuisances.

The peace movement was sundered by the patriotic diseases that engulfed the continent, and such organisations as the International Peace Bureau failed to reach a consensus on how best to quell warring aggressions. In January 1915, its Berne meeting was characterised by division, best exemplified by a resolution denouncing Germany and Australia for egregious breaches of international law.  The vote was divided evenly, and unity was destroyed.

While monuments to the war makers and fallen soldiers dot the town squares of the combatant nations, lingering like morbid call cards for failed militarism, there are virtually none in the service of peace. The tenaciously wise and farsighted Austrian noblewoman Bertha von Suttner, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905 and suspect the motives of governments behind the Hague Peace conferences, hardly figures in commemorative statuary. Nor does Rosa Luxemburg, who began a twelve-month sentence in Berlin’s Barnimstrasse Womens’ Prison on February 18, 1915 for “inciting public disobedience”.

Her crime, committed during the words of her famous Fechenheim address, was to call upon German workers to refuse shooting their French counterparts should war break out. “Victory or defeat?” she would sadly reflect in her anti-war tract, The Junius Pamphlet (1915) written whilst in confinement. “Thus sounds the slogan of the ruling militarism in all the warring countries, and, like an echo, the Social Democratic leaders have taken it up.”

As Adam Hochschild sourly noted in 2014, those who refuse to fight or barrack for war are ignored by the commemorative classes. “America’s politicians still praise Iraq War veterans to the skies, but what senator has a kind word to say about the hundreds of thousands who marched and demonstrated before the invasion was even launched to try to stop our soldiers from risking their lives in the first place?”

Events conspicuously against the spirit of killing and maiming opponents, such as that which took place during the short-lived Christmas Truce of 1914, have only been remembered – and tolerated – because of their public relations quality. These events sell chocolates and cakes; they draw people to sites and commodities. The truce signalled no revolution; it did not challenge the war planners. “It’s safe to celebrate,” commented Hochschild, “because it threatened nothing.” The sovereignty of war, the institution of state-sanctioned killing, remained, as it still does, though selling peace can be lucrative when the shells have stopped falling.

The obscenity here is that conflict, most notably that of the First World War, was meant to be cathartic, a brief bit of masculine cleansing that would end by the arbitrarily designated time of Christmas. It was advertised as a picnic, a brief testosterone outing which would see men return intact. Foolishly, such figures as HG Wells saw it as “the war to end war”, so get it over and done with, minimal fuss and all. (To be fair to Wells, he found disgust and despair subsequently, reflecting upon this in The Bulpington of Blup in 1932.)

This was, truly, as the title of Margaret MacMillan’s work goes, the war that ended peace, and we should not forget the political and military classes, instrumental in dashing off soldiers to their death, who engineered it with coldness and ignorance. Foolishness and demagoguery tend to hold hands all too often, distant from that most moving sentiment expressed by the jailed US socialist activist and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. “I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; and I am a citizen of the world.”

Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power

Soft power was always a term best suited for eunuchs. It relies on persuasion, counsel and an air of seduction. It does not imply actual force as such (often, that side of the bargain is hidden). At its core are the presumed virtues of the product being sold, the society being advertised to others who are supposedly in the business of being convinced. Joseph Nye came up with it in the groves of academe as the Cold War was coming to an end, and every policy maker supposedly worth his or her brief insists upon it. (Since 1990, Nye has done another shuffle, attempting to market another variant of power: from soft, power has become erroneously sentient – or “smart”.)

Nye himself already leaves room for the critics to point out how the concept is, essentially, part of an advertising executive’s armoury, the sort an Edward Bernays of foreign affairs might embrace. It co-opts; it suggests indirectness; it is “getting others to want what you want” by shaping “the preferences of others”; it employs popular culture and concepts of political stability. In a vulgar sense, it inspires envy and the need to emulate, stressing desire over substance.

The Australian Department of Trade and Foreign Affairs is currently chewing over soft power, having been tasked with reviewing it by Julie Bishop when she was foreign minister. Australian think tanks have been all praise for its mystical properties. All rely on fictional measurements and surveys such as The Soft Power 30 index, which sounds awfully like a heavily carbonated soft drink.

The Australian Foreign Policy White Paper from 2017 also does its bit: it reads like a designer product flogged to the appropriate customers. “Australia’s ability to persuade and influence others is underpinned by some enduring strengths. Among these are our democracy, multicultural society, strong economy, attractive lifestyle and world-class institutions.”

This less than modest appraisal should immediately trigger the little grey cells of any sceptic. Australia remains plagued by a policy towards refugees that would rank highly with most despotic states; it maintains, relative to other states, a low GDP-aid percentage and remains almost dangerously cosy to Washington. Then there is that issue of seasonal bloodletting of leaders that led the BBC to call the country the “coup capital of the democratic world.”

In truth, such concepts are frustratingly inchoate, the sort of piffle best kept in obscure management manuals and textbooks chocked with political sloganeering. “Isn’t soft power like Fight Club?” came a seemingly puzzled foreign policy official to Caitlin Byrne, writing for The Strategist of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “And the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club.”

Even Byrne concedes that soft power, in terms of language, is slippery and problematic. “Many equate ‘soft’ with ‘weak’ and ‘superficial’ or, worse still, ‘subversive’. These terms rarely sit easily with those in the business of advancing national interests.” Recipients of such power can also be resentful, co-opted by the venture. (No one genuinely wants to be considered a case for charity.)

But such commentary is convinced there is a story to tell and, in the case of Canberra’s apparatchiks, Australia affords them ample opportunities. “[T]he aim of soft power – to help shape an environment that is positively disposed to Australian foreign policy interests and values over the long term – is not to be dismissed if Australia is to navigate its way in a more contested region.”

Most recently, Australia’s tetchy Prime Minister Scott Morrison (daggy cap and all), has been busy pushing Australian credentials in the immediate region, throwing $2 billion at a new Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific. Another billion is also sought for Australia’s export financing agency.

What is striking in this endeavour is the language of ownership, part proprietary and part imperial. “This is our patch,” Morrison explained to those at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville on Thursday. “This is where we have special responsibilities. We always have, we always will.  We have their back, and they have ours.” These are the vagaries of power. “Australia has an abiding interest in a Southwest Pacific that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically.” Diplomatic posts will be established in Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands, all newly modelled sets of eyes.

In other instances, however, Australian policy makers want to do things on the cheap, showing a characteristic stinginess that praises Australian power and its institutional heft while trimming back services that might supply a “softer” edge. Australia’s broadcasting capacity, notably in the short-wave sense, has diminished. Soft-power, note the propagandists, has been muted.

In January 31, 2017, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ended shortwave broadcasts to the South Pacific, concluding a tradition that had lasted eight decades. “The choice is dumb,” suggested Graeme Dobbell, “because it misunderstands the central role radio still plays in the South Pacific.” This has left the problematic question open as to what other Australian suppliers – of the commercial variety – will do to replace the content of the national broadcaster.

Most of all, and most critically, proponents of soft power in Australia fear a crowding, and crowding out threat: that of China, which operates as the putative cuckoo keen on pushing out the chicks of others. This, aligned to the issue of creating more debt for the region, suggests potential exhaustion in the region.

Australia, ever sluggish and drugged by presumptions of allegiance from its Pacific neighbours (our backyard!), has previously ignored the increasingly important role Beijing is playing with the island states. A growing, even paranoid interest is now being shown towards the presence of Chinese aid and funded projects in the region. There are also measures, tied to US strategic interests, of frustrating the efforts of such Chinese giants as Huawei, from achieving a greater measure of influence.

Morrison’s cavalier volunteering of taxpayer funded projects to lure Pacific neighbours away from Beijing’s “few-strings attached” load and aid program is something that will be looked at with enthusiasm if for no other reason that double dipping will be on offer. From Papua New Guinea to Fiji, the options to milk the greed of powers have never been better, whatever nonsense soft power might entail. The problem of debt, however, will remain the lingering nuisance at the feast.

Politicised Victimhood: Ukraine’s Holodomor, Genocide and Intent

The impression hits you immediately. An opening of an exhibition held to commemorate survivors and families of one of the darker atrocities of human experiments; and it features ample food and wine. The commemorative occasion, however, was in stark contrast to the mass starvation that led to the deaths of millions in the Soviet Union’s drive to collectivise farming in 1932.

Those survivors of Ukraine’s Holodomor, their photos featuring at the SpACE@Collins in Melbourne’s Collins Street, gaze at the audience with varying degrees of feeling, their craggy faces traced and filled by the wearing of age. These are the chronicles of tired flesh told.

The occasion, however, cannot be left to poignancy that is brought from sheer suffering and the cruelty of state policies. That would merely be a concession that the road to utopia on earth is strewn with corpses. This was a chance to be wearily political, and the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations has been busy doing just that. Dr. Ulana Suprun, Ukraine’s acting minister for health, was on hand to open the photographic collection. Victorian state politician and President of the Legislative Council Bruce Atkinson was also present to lend a helping hand of agreement.

Both took little time to bring the cruel privations and deeds of the past into present focus: the culprit, the instigator, is Russia, pure and simple. (Here, a convenient continuum of brutality is insisted upon.) Suprun was keen to remind her audience that the Russians were not only behind the downing of Malaysian passenger flight MH17, but more than suggested they had intended it so. The predecessors of the Putin regime had merely employed other more dramatic methods of terror – that of famine – to make their case. Atkinson was similarly keen to keep matters simple and direct against a specific form of “terrorism”. At no point did either reflect on the dogma of Bolshevik collectivisation that gripped all practitioners of the brutal policy at the time. This is a time of nationalist response and revision.

Intent, as this occasion shows, is always imputed. It supplies certitude, and gets over any impediments. For decades, a campaign has wound its way through various corridors of activism and power: that of declaring the Holodomor an act of state sponsored genocide. To an extent, this is understandable, given the veiling of the disaster in various press outlets at the time, and the demonization of various scribes of verity such as Gareth Jones.

Historians have given the catastrophe much attention, and the field teems with interpretations on intention, knowledge or reckless indifference on the part of Joseph Stalin and his coterie. Robert Conquest holds one side of the argument: that “the famine of 1933 was deliberately carried out by terror”, a point demonstrated “by the figures on the millions of tons of available grain reserves”.

Michael Ellman combs through Stalin’s statements, detecting in the expression “a knock-out blow” as probative of intention to murder. Hiroaki Kuromiya in Europe-Asia Studies offers a different view that provides scant comfort to survivors. “Although Stalin intentionally let starving people die, it is unlikely that he intentionally caused the famine to kill millions of people.” Nothing quite gets close to sheer callousness.

Ukraine itself gave the starvation event its much anticipated genocidal recognition in law N 376-V on November 28, 2006. That same year, US President George W. Bush signed into law Public Law 109-340, authorising the Ukrainian government “to establish a memorial on Federal land in the District of Columbia to honour the victim of the Ukrainian famine-genocide of 1932-1933.”

In October this year, the United States Congress passed a bipartisan resolution solemnly remembering “the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor of 1932-1933” and recognising “the findings of the Commission of the Ukraine Famine as submitted to Congress on April 22, 1988, including that ‘Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against the Ukrainians in 1932-1933’.”

These measures do raise a question: whether the term genocide has been all too readily pressed into usage, when intent to do so must be the only reasonable inference on the evidence. (This salient point was reiterated in the Radislav Krstić case of the International Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia.) Legal concepts can be such finicky things.

The murderous actions of the commissars and the agricultural appropriations in Ukraine that led to mass starvation were ideological and political moves, and deemed as such. Behind famines, argues Amartya Sen, lies the unscrupulous politician.  But even Raphael Lemkin, originator of the term genocide, would have to concede that the UN Genocide Convention was narrower than his own envisaging, despite pressing for the Ukrainian calamity to be so designated as a genocidal one. The acts of destruction, he had claimed more broadly in the American Journal of International Law, “are directed against groups, as such, and individuals are selected for destruction only because they belong to these groups.”

One of the hurdles built into the final, accepted draft of the UNGC was its marked avoidance of the killing of groups based on political and cultural reasons. Unsurprisingly, both the Soviet Union and the United States were particularly influential in making proof of genocide a rather tall order. Exterminating people for political or cultural reasons would have to fall into other categories of atrocity, and by then the very idea that “genocide” might be identified as state policy was cooled before the icy confrontations of the Cold War. The post-Cold War gave the word a renewed and bloody urgency.

Unfortunately, politics is an untidy business marked by vast grey spots of compromise, betrayal and collaboration. Peering into the Russian-Ukrainian past is an exercise doomed to find more similarities than differences, made subsequently absurd by such pointless exercises as identifying what Gogol’s true identity was. Poisonous parochialism has a tendency to afflict all sides, shredding common threads and creating false islands of difference.

Ukraine’s current political orientation has made good use of the Russian bugbear and its rapacity, an effort to isolate and distance a larger neighbour, but history is a cruel teacher. In the choking haze of victimhood, focus vanishes before a forced clarity, and here, a state politician in Australia, and a Ukrainian official, could both come to a happy understanding: that modern Russia was merely an extension of the Soviet Union, a state sponsor of terrorism, unjustifiably interested in the territory of its neighbours and an aggressor keen to relive history.

Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take

President Donald J. Trump has a special, strained take on the world. Defeat is simply victory viewed in slanted terms. Victory for the other side is defeat elaborately clothed. Both views stand, and these alternate with a mind-bending disturbance that has thrown the sceptics off any credible scent. “It wasn’t me being slow,” came Frank Bruni’s lamentation in The New York Times. “It was America.” Dazzlingly unsettling, the results has been tight “but many of the signals they sent were mixed and confusing.”

Those daring to make predictions that the House would fall to the Democrats were not disappointed, even if they could not be said to be spectacular. Losses to the incumbent party in the White House in the mid-terms tends to be heavy, varying between 24 and 30. President Barack Obama’s presidency bore witness to 63 loses to his party in 2010. On this occasion, the GOP yielded ground in Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Senate, just to press home the sheer polarity of the results, slid further into red territory. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who had, in any case, been deemed quite vulnerable in the state, fell to Mike Braun. Braun was one who drank from the cup of Trumpism, a move which seems to have paid off.  Missouri Democratic senator Clair McCaskill succumbed to Republican challenger Josh Hawley. North Dakota also turned red.

The Democrats showed some resurgence in various state level capitols. Key governor’s seats were reclaimed, though their victories in Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin were matched by Republicans clawing on to Florida. The governor’s offices of Arizona and Ohio also remained in the hands of the GOP. The defeat of Republican Scott Walker in Wisconsin was particularly sweet, given his lingering dedication to the abridgment of union rights that resulted in an effective end to collective bargaining for public workers.

Moving aside the gripping minutiae and individual bruising, and the US is a state fractured and splintering, putting pay to such notions as “waves” of any one party coming over and overwhelming opponents. Walls – psychic, emotional and philosophical – have been erected through the country.

Rural areas remain estranged from their urban relatives; urban relatives remain snobbishly defiant, even contemptuous, of the interior. “The midterms,” came a gloomy Mike Allen in Axios AM, “produced a divided Congress that’s emblematic of a split America, drifting further apart and pointing to poisonous years ahead.” The angry voter was very much in vogue, be it with record liberal turnouts in suburbs, or high conservative voter participation in Trumpland.

What Trump succeeded in doing after the mid-terms was implanting himself upon the GOP, grabbing the party by the throat, thrashing it into a sense that their hope of survival in the next two years rests with him. He could blame losses on Republicans who decided to keep him at tongs length, those who “didn’t embrace me”, while Democrats who sided against his choice of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh were duly punished.

Trump could also smirk with excitement that the punditry is still awry about how to assess the US political landscape. Republican pollster Frank Luntz insists in a magical two to three percent “hidden Trump” vote that analysts refuse to factor into their calculations.

The news conference in the East Room provided Trump the perfect platform to spin, adjust and revise. He also reverse heckled, striking out at journalists with brutal surliness. PBS reporter Yamiche Alcindor was accused of asking a “racist question” in pressing for his position on white nationalists. “It’s a very terrible thing that you said.”

He could also weigh heavily into his favourite playground targets, one being CNN’s Jim Acosta. “CNN should be ashamed of itself, having you working for them. You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN.” (The politics of playground fancy also took another turn, with Acosta’s accreditation subsequently suspended “until further notice” by White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.)

As has been frequent, if scattered, the president was not entirely off the message in attempting to reason the results. The “wave” that was supposedly to come from the Democrats had not exactly drowned the GOP, and in terms of performance, he could happily point to a Republican increase of numbers in the Senate.

He then brandished a weapon he has mastered since he became president: the art, less of the deal than the diversion. Within hours of the results coming in, Attorney General Jeff Sessions came another addition to the long list of casualties that has made this administration particularly bloody. Zac Beauchamp supplied a depressed note in Vox: the sacking of the marginalised and mocked Sessions was not shocking, which made it worse, a sort of normalised contempt. “The truth is that Trump firing Sessions, and temporarily replacing him with a loyalist named Matthew Whitaker who has publicly denounced the special counsel investigation, should scare us.”

Trump, for his part, anticipates “a beautiful, bipartisan type of situation” working with Democrat House leader Nancy Pelosi. “From a deal-making standpoint, we are all much better off the way it turned out.” Far from being further rented, the chances for legislation have presented themselves, though the president was just as happy to issue a slap down warning: avoid initiating any investigations. “They can play that game, but we can play it better because we have the United States Senate.” As the dark lord of the Bush era, Karl Rove, surmised with apposite force: “Let’s be clear… Both parties are broken.”

Shark Attack: Fearing Monsters in the Whitsundays

It begins with a gruesome account: a tourist, paddle-boarding and swimming in an idyllic setting baked by sun – in this case, Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays, Queensland – attacked by a shark. He suffers a massive loss of blood; he goes into cardiac arrest. The accounts that follow are just as predictable as the consequences of the shark’s work: a hunt for the animal, a debate about how best to curb future attacks, and an attempt to minimise adverse publicity for the tourist industry.

The death of medical researcher Daniel Christidis sent jitters through dive boat operators in the region. Local dive boat operator Tony Fontes remained philosophical. “People are willing to take the risk of swimming in waters that are potential risk of a jellyfish, using precautions like stinger suits, and I’m sure that tourists will do the same with sharks.”

Marine biologists such as Blake Chapman have also made it into the news with cautionary notes, but there is a feeling that calm heads are about to be lost. “We really need to be smarter than what we have been and actually learn from these things as opposed to just going out and killing animals.” The increased number of attacks could, surmised Chapman, be the result of a range of factors: the movement of shark food sources in the area, increased rainfall or changes in water temperature. According to Inspector Steve O’Connell, the Whitsunday area was not famed for its vicious shark attacks, featuring the odd “minor” nip and bite without more.

So far, Queensland Tourism Minister Kate Jones has resisted caving into demands that permanent drum lines be placed at Cid Harbour, while Fisheries Minister Mark Furner issued an unequivocal warning: “We can’t be clearer – don’t swim in Cid Harbour.”

The shark mauling was Cid Harbour’s third in the last few months (Two took place in September, one on a 12-year-old, Hannah Papps, whose leg required amputation; another, Tasmanian tourist Justine Barwick, who has returned to her home state to convalesce.)

With each attack, calls for further action in what resembles a guerrilla campaign are made. The human tribe, going on ritualistic rampage, demands retribution. The September attacks precipitated an all too familiar reaction: a needless, bloody cull that did little to either address the issue of swimmer safety nor the behaviour of the animals in question.

In 2014, when surfer Sean Pollard lost an arm and his other hand near Esperance, the West Australian Barnett government took little time to implement what it termed an “imminent threat” policy. A shark spotted near a popular beach was essentially fair game, to be preemptively slaughtered irrespective of how many people might be swimming or present in the area at the time. To make matters that much murkier, Pollard himself expressed doubt as to which animal was necessarily responsible for his injuries. Two bronze whalers came to mind.

Such policies, as Christopher Pepin-Neff observes in The Conversation, are based on the slippery foundations of myth: “individual large sharks pose a threat because they are territorial. A shark that bites someone is likely to do it again, and even if there is not an incident now, it is better to kill the shark because it may return.” These are the fictional “rogue” sharks, “problem” animals which supply the stuff of fantasy for confused policy makers more disposed to vengeance than accommodation.

Not being of the cuddly sort, sharks lie in the disturbed archive of the human unconscious, a monster that all too readily becomes a target and focus when an attack is reported. “Myths and monsters,” Marina Warner reminds us, “have been interpliced since the earliest extant poetry from Sumer: the one often features the other.” We are not only fearful, but wish to be entertained by fear. When the more innovative instincts of the human species kicks in, the monster can serve various useful purposes, be it as weaponry or medicine with fictive, healing properties.

In August, the opening of The Meg, an adaption of the first of Steve Alten’s six-book horror sci-fi series, again featured that old monster versus man motif, with the naval captain, Jonas Taylor doing battle with this intimidating resident of the sea, the megalodon. (To give the trope added ballast, Taylor is played by veteran action hero, Jason Statham, “the most fearsome type of human being to have ever lived” muse Luke Holland and Stuart Heritage in The Guardian.) Reduced to celluloid and animation, a remarkable animal becomes the marine nightmare dangerous and nigh impossible to tame, terrifying humans young and old. The obvious point – that humans don’t tend to feature high on a shark’s menu list – is assiduously avoided.

As Vivienne Westbrook of the Oceans Institute based at the University of Western Australia cautions, “fictionalised versions, with their threatening fins, chomping jaws and general grudge against humanity, have tended to blind us to what is truly amazing about sharks in our oceans.” But being blind is actually what the human species is rather good at, relapsing into fits of retribution that serve no purpose other than to satisfy a brief communal lust for revenge. The monster, even one whose predecessors have been on this planet for 450 million years, will be hunted and killed – by the tens of millions, if need be.

Masquerading Reforms: The Tricks of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

The surgical dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi has sent the military establishments of several countries into a tizz. Arms manufacturers are wondering whether this is an inconvenient blip, a ruffling moral reminder about what they are dealing with. Autocratic regimes indifferent to the lives of journalists are wondering whether the fuss taken about all this is merely the fuss endured, till the next bloody suppression. But importantly, those states notionally constituting the West may have to reconsider the duping strategy that the House of Saud has executed with the deft efficiency of the dedicated axeman.

The ranks are closing in around the Saudi royals, notably the purportedly suspicious son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose status has been given an undue measure of inflation from various powers happy to see reform in the air. The measures taken by MBS have been modest and hardly worth a sigh: the cutting of subsidies, permitting women to drive, and restructuring the economy. But like a fake article of purchase at an inordinately expensive auction, the prince’s counterfeit credentials are starting to peer through the canvas.

The Crown Prince has been happy to provide a train of examples to suggest to his Western audience that the roots of a liberal Saudi Arabian past are very much in evidence. To Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, the beguiling royal explained that, “Before 1979 there were societal guardianship customs, but no guardianship laws in Saudi Arabia.”

The tactic is clear: speak of a yesteryear that was jolly and a touch tender, and promise that a current era seemingly harder can emulate it. Goldberg was good enough to make the observation that the Crown Prince had gotten one thing right from the perspective of his sponsors in Europe, the Middle East and the United States: “He has made all the right enemies.”

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mohammed was keen to get a word in to the Trump administration before any firm conclusions could be drawn. His first port of call was President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and national security adviser John Bolton. According to The Washington Post, the call featured one theme of justification: Khashoggi was a dangerous, destabilising Islamist, and any tears shed would be premature.

Publicly, the Crown Prince played along with the conceit that the death of Khashoggi had been “very painful for all Saudis”, being unjustifiable. Khalid bin Salman, Riyadh’s ambassador in Washington, insisted that the slain journalist had been a friend of the Kingdom, “dedicating a great portion of his life to serve his country.”

The powers, regional and beyond, have taken to douching the image of the Crown Prince, hoping to minimise prospects for any rash action. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu might well concede that was happened in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month “was horrendous and should be duly dealt with”, but the broader strategic interests topped anything connected with a mere journalist’s life. When a figure corrupted by power reasons with violently inflicted death, he is bound to embrace that word that forgives and justifies all: stability. “At the same time, it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”

Minor appendages of US power such as Australia also find themselves in a tangle about how best to approach the revelations and claimed royal involvement. Shrouded in history, the officials of distant Canberra also remain gulled, confused, and happy to be led. The Australian defence sector has been placed in the dim light of deals with the Kingdom. As legal advocate Kellie Tanter notes, documents obtained via Freedom of Information laws confirm that, between January 1 2016 to December 31, 2017, sixteen military licenses were procured for export of military equipment from Australia to Saudi Arabia. As is traditional with such freedom of information laws, permit holders, permit numbers and approved goods, consignees, end-users and approved destinations were redacted.

Under questioning from Labor Senator Alex Gallacher last month in a Senate estimates hearing, the Australian Department of Defence was not forthcoming about the nature of the exports to Riyadh. Official Tom Hamilton refused to disclose their value, citing weak “commercial-in-confidence” reasons.

The pickle Australian policy makers find themselves in lies in the obligations of the Arms Trade Treaty, which insists on a ban on exports of weapons to countries where evidence can be shown of use against civilians. The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen against the Houthis, featuring a true orgy of civilian-targeted destruction, qualifies. But Yemen hardly qualifies as a humanitarian disaster in Australian political discourse (distant places have a certain ethical irrelevance to the plodders in Canberra). To make sure her bases are covered, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, in reference not to the war in Yemen but the killing of Khashoggi, suggested that, “All options are on the table”. It is already clear what option Canberra prefers: ignore the complicity of the House of Saud, and keep the procession of defence contracts going.

Khashoggi himself was clear enough about the nature of the Crown Prince: the royal was entirely self-centred, and any reform would take place in a contrived way. Concepts of reform within the Saudi royal court can, at best, only be a limited affair, and have nothing to do with deeper social considerations. Saudi intellectuals, activists and journalists languished in prison even as MBS was being praised for his openness; such projects as the futuristic city of Neom were doomed examples of extravagance rather than forward thinking.

“He has no interest in political reform,” comes Khashoggi, a voice from the grave. “He thinks he can do it alone, and he doesn’t want really any counter opinion or anyone to share those changes in Saudi Arabia with him.” Hardly revelatory, and something bound to do little to turn the ladies and men of the security establishments of the West.

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