Monday, 21 July 2014

One day we'll all star in an episode of COPS

Policy body cams are all the rage. Robert Muggah explains:
....... there is heavy criticism of the use of mobile cameras by police forces. Critics believe they presage a dystopian future where “everyone is under suspicion” and Big Brother is watching. They have a point. If unchecked, there is a risk that crime prevention turns into pervasive surveillance. 
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California – a regular critic of police abuse – has come out in favour of the technology. Along with the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, they have argued that with the proper controls – including regularly deleting videos and keeping them private except for prosecutions – the gains in accountability outweigh privacy concerns. 
Also from the column - too be filed under never get arrested in Brazil - we learn:
Between 1985 and 2002 one in every 23 people arrested by Rio de Janeiro’s police force was killed before making it to trial. Compare that to the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) record – 1 in 37,000. Rio’s police kill some 80 civilians a month, making them among the most violent anywhere. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Politicizing air disasters

Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was apparently shot down in Ukrainian airspace leading to the deaths of all 298 people on board. Vox has a good summary of what we know and don't know. Mark Galeotti writes about what this means for Russia and its proxies if they prove to be responsible. Because this tragedy occurred in Ukraine it is likely that there will be a through investigation. 

My own question: Why would this tragedy be any different than previous air disasters caused by errors of judgement by military personnel? Remember:

Each case triggered a crisis in America's bilateral relations with a rival state. However it's doubtful that either event changed the long term trajectory of American foreign policy. Within three years Gorbachev and Reagan were beginning the process of ending the Cold War, while the existing enmity between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the U.S. continued (or perhaps continues is more apt.)

The current crisis will be exploited to gain a political advantage in the Ukraine – the downside risks are obviously looking much greater for the Putin regime, which will probably looking for a means to end the conflict – but the medium to long term  quality of US-Russia relations will be affect by matters closer to America’s foreign policy priorities. 

Monday, 14 July 2014

Explaining Israel's tactics in Gaza

The Israeli approach to war with Arabs is best explained by how Israeli understands to key terms: deterrence and proportionality.

Deterrence as it was developed in the context of the academic literature focuses on the use of threats to prevent the target of deterrence from taking undesirable action. Deterrence works because nothing happens, which is why deterrence often seems like a dubious concept. Israeli policymakers see deterrence as requiring actual punishment, often through the application of destructive force, to dissuade the target from continuing with an action or repeating it in the near future. You'll often hear an Israeli policymaker speak  of "reestablishing deterrence" . The Israelis believe that they cannot have "quiet" until they have killed enough militants to intimidate the rest into passivity. 

Proportionality as a legal principle requires that an actor balance the risk of civilian casualties with the value of achieving its military objectives. Israelis whether they admit it or not have applied a different understanding of proportionality, namely the ratio of Jewish Israelis to Arabs in the Middle East. At it's worst this was seen in the actions of the relatively young Ariel Sharon during the Qibya Massacre. Today, it manifests itself in the belief that Arabs have a higher tolerance for fatalities - after all, suicide bombers come from Gaza - or so it goes. 

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Germany: Too big to ignore, too distant to trust

According to the German tabloid Bild (as reported by Deustche Welle), the CIA has recruited more than a dozen spies within the German government.  (I would suggest that German intelligence had recruited at least 9 of Brazil’s stating 11 at the World Cup but that’s another discussion).  This adds to earlier revelations of a double agent in German intelligence. The bi-lateral relationship is at a point of crisis. While the revelations of American spying may be a proximate trigger for the crisis, resolving the immediate cause may not itself stabilise the relationship.

Henry Farell believes that
...the declining U.S. hypocrisy reserve will be much likelier to hurt U.S. relationships with democracies — and especially likely to damage relationships with democracies where the public cares about relevant foreign policy issues. Under this analysis, the U.S. relationship with Germany — a democracy which is trying to figure out a new foreign policy role, and which is perhaps the only country in which privacy issues can mobilize mass demonstrations — is almost bound to be extremely difficult. 
While Jacob Heilbrunn sees long term challenges:
The roots of this antipathy to the U.S. rest in what a number of Germans see as the vassal-like status they have occupied toward the U.S. since end of World War II. They want to see Germany strike out a more independent course that returns to the older precepts of foreign policy in which Berlin was an honest broker, steering between East and West and pursuing its own interests. Why get entangled in America’s conflicts? Most recently, many Germans feared that they would become ensnared in a military conflict between Washington and Moscow over the Ukraine.
A Spiegel poll found unsurprisingly that the German public would like a more independent foreign policy. The revelations of American espionage in Germany have come at a time when as Heilbrunn notes, the German public is re-evaluating the direction of its foreign policy.

We should recall the almost unique character of Germany’s relationship with the U.S. I say almost unique because it is for obvious reasons similar to Japan’s however with important differences.

Germany should by mechanistic and materialist accounts of geopolitics be a great power. In practice Germany prefers to cut weight and compete at the lower weight classes.

Nevertheless Germany has provided the U.S. with military basing rights, broad intelligence cooperation and the opportunity to operate NSA installations on German soil. The size of the German economy means that its cooperation is vital in American efforts to isolate it rivals e.g. Iran. Germany’s importance is for these reasons greater than European middle powers like the Netherlands, Denmark or Norway. You’d think this would earn them some respect, yet the Germans find themselves being spied on like a hostile power or even worse: France.

Germany’s reliability is in stark contrast to the fraught relationship that the U.S. has with France; yet unlike the U.K., Canada and Australia, Germany neither participates in anything like the “Five Eyes” community nor does it have the same kind of deeply integrated military relationship that Canada and the U.K. share with the U.S.

Germany is too big to ignore yet too distant to be fully trusted. It’s the relationship that it has chosen to have with the U.S. 

Friday, 11 July 2014

How effective is Iron Dome?

The Israelis claim that it is very effective at least when talking to Canada's most patriotic and pro-Likud newspaper, The National Post:
The number of interceptions may seem low, but the system, designed and built by Rafael Advanced Defence Systems in 2011, is configured to only destroy the rockets poised to hit urban or strategically sensitive areas.
Each interception missile fired is priced at $50,000. In the war with Gaza in November 2012, the iron dome blocked almost 500 rockets — a total cost of $25 million.
There are seven iron dome batteries deployed around the country, and so far they have had an almost 90% interception success rate. Challenges for the system are always changing, with an increased numbers of rockets coming from Gaza with increased destructive range.
Theodore Postol is sceptical (ht Asad Abu Khalil). Appearing on NPR's All Things Considered, Postol had this to say:

SIEGEL: They say it was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. How would - how successful is that system, in your view?
POSTOL: We can tell, for sure, from video images and even photographs that the Iron Dome system is not working very well at all. It - my guess is maybe 5 percent of the time - could be even lower.
SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.
POSTOL: That's correct. And when you look - what you can do in the daytime - you can see the smoky contrail of each Iron Dome interceptor, and you can see the Iron Domes trying to intercept the artillery rockets side on and from behind. In those geometries, the Iron Dome has no chance, for all practical purposes, of destroying the artillery rocket.
Postol appears to be indicating that the warhead is still likely to land intact which means that it can still explode on impact, putting Israelis nearby at risk of injury.  

Daniel Levy on Gaza

Daniel Levy writing in the Guardian
Ask either of the protagonists in this Israel-Hamas flare-up where it ends and they will likely, in private at least and spin notwithstanding, tell you the same thing. Another fragile ceasefire....
.....But in a much destabilised region, three factors are lurking to challenge these business-as-usual assumptions. First, overall developments are trending towards greater radicalisation. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas's brand – peaceful cooperation with Israel – is discredited, having failed to deliver an easing, let alone removal, of Israel's occupation. Other than small-scale exceptions, Palestinians have not succumbed so far to the appeal of radical jihadi groups such as Isis. Partly this results from the continued strength of Hamas as a mainstream nationalist-Islamist force, albeit one that breaks international law by targeting Israeli civilians (still, a more reasonable version of the folks the UK and west are offering to train and arm in Syria).
The Obama administration has offered to mediate an end to the current conflict and a restoration of the 2012 ceasefire. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Terrorism isn't so important says ex MI6 head

Richard Dearlove, a career member of MI6 and the agency's former chief, believes that terrorism is too high a priority for Britain's  national security policymakers. The Guardian reports:
Dearlove said he was concerned about the influence of the media on the government's security policy. It was time to take what he called a "more proportionate approach to terrorism".
MI5, MI6, and GCHQ devoted a greater share of their resources to countering Islamist fundamentalism than they did to the Soviet Union during the cold war, or to Irish terrorism that had cost the lives of more UK citizens and British soldiers than al-Qaida had done, Dearlove noted.
A massive reaction after the 9/11 attacks was inevitable, he said, but it was not inevitable the 2001 attacks would continue to "dominate our way of thinking about national security". There had been a "fundamental change" in the nature of the threat posed by Islamist extremists. Al-Qaida had largely failed to mount the kind of attacks in the US and UK it had threatened after 9/11.
It was time, he said to move away from the "distortion" of the post-9/11 mindset, make "realistic risk assessments" and think rationally about the causes of the crisis in the Middle East.
I would disagree that the media have a primary role in exaggerating the threat posed by designated terrorist entities and other violent non-state actors. Much of the pressure is self-imposed due to the fact that:

  • Only terrorists present a direct threat to the public;
  • Terrorism is seen as preventable; 
  • There is a paucity of other threats to compete for resources. MI5 would have been dividing its resources between the IRA et al and the USSR. 
The U.K's military spending in 2013,measured as a percentage of GDP, was 2.3 % while in 1988 it was 4.0%. I would be quite surprised if spending on intelligence and other "national security" related activities is greater than the decline in defence's share of national income.