Gordon Campbell on how similar Vladimir Putin is to George W. Bush

Looking back through the names of our Police Ministers down the years, the job has either been done by once or future party Bigfoots – Syd Holland, Richard Prebble, Judith Collins, Chris Hipkins – or by far lesser lights like Keith Allen, Frank Gill, Ben Couch, Allen McCready, Clem Simich, George Hawkins or the lamentable and unlamented Stuart Nash.

This week, the appointment of Hutt South MP Ginny Andersen as Police Minister has been criticised by National’s Police spokesperson Mark Mitchell as if she automatically lacks the necessary attitude, experience and knowledge of policing.

[Mitchell said it sent a signal that Labour had “clearly given up on law and order”. “They’ve appointed a minister with less than two months experience at the bottom of the Cabinet rankings at a time when the country is experiencing the worst crime levels it has ever seen.”

In fact, Andersen is hardly an ingenue. She has had extensive experience with policing and the workings of Parliament. Before entering politics, Andersen worked for eleven years in a policy management role at the Police head office between 2006 and 2017. That work included being a strategic adviser on Maori, Pasifika and Ethnic Services, with a particular focus on reductions in Maori offending.

Andersen then worked in Parliament as a political adviser to four different senior Labour MPs. She is married to a former Police inspector, and chairs the Justice Select Committee. All up, Andersen seems infinitely more conversant with the challenges facing the New Zealand Police than several of Mitchells’ former caucus colleagues who have held the post, such as Paula Bennett and Anne Tolley. In fact, Tolley was demoted to Police Minister from Education Minister, after repeated stoushes with teachers and principals.

Inadvertently, Andersen did face public scrutiny a few years ago over a long standing arrangement going back decades, whereby the Labour Party leased (for $1500 per annum) premises owned by the Firefighters Union, and then sublet the premises back to Andersen for her Hutt South electorate office for $6,000, with the difference going into the parry coffers, courtesy of the taxpayer. This was hardly a scandal. If private landlords had been involved, a similar leasing deal for Andersen’s office space would almost certainly have cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more a year.

Also, the subletting arrangement was known to and approved by Parliamentary Services, who told Stuff in 2020:

“The arrangement you mention has been brought to our attention before. We can confirm that the rent paid for the member’s office is substantially below market value and represents a very good deal for the taxpayer,” said a Parliamentary Service spokesman.

Unfortunately, the job of Police Minister has often involved little more than talking tough on crime, and issuing calls to “lock up the crims” and throw away the key. That’s the Mitchell approach. It has been an expensive failure, socially and economically. Ginny Andersen at least, looks like someone able to conceive of the need for solutions at the top of the cliff, rather than just funding the building of more prisons for people at the bottom.

Dates with destiny

Quite a time for anniversaries. It has been a year since the Russian invasion began in Ukraine, 3 years since the first Covid lockdown,and 20 years since the US invasion of Iraq. A good time to reflect on how Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush are just two sides of the same coin. Both of them launched lawless invasions and left carnage in their wake.

Less than a year ago, George W. Bush accidentally made that point during a speech at his presidential library in Texas. Bush was doing his best to condemn Putin. Instead, he scored a memorable own goal when he denounced “the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq.” Reportedly, the audience chuckled. Oh Dubya, always the fun side of armed aggression.

The similarities between Putin and Bush are striking. Bush likes to dress up. Remember him arriving in Top Gun uniform on a US aircraft to declare “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq? (For the same macho effect, Putin often prefers to dress down.) To justify his invasion, Bush had argued that the government of Saddam Hussein had no legitimacy, and that it harboured weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat to American security. Putin has argued that the government of Vlodomyr Zelensky has no legitimacy and that it harbours neo-Nazis who pose a threat to Russian security. Spot the difference.

Ultimately, both leaders are responsible for war crimes on a massive scale. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost so that Putin and Bush could score political advantages at home. In the case of Iraq, the US invasion has condemned Iraq to two decades of instability and deprivation. American occupation forces committed war crimes in Fallujah, and in the Abu Ghraib torture facility. The same invasion also enabled extremist groups like Islamic State to exploit the vacuum of power that the Amereicans had created, causing further havoc across Iraq and in Syria.

In sum, this week’s anniversary of the March 19, 2003 invasion of Iraq provides an excellent opportunity to dial back the self-righteous rhetoric coming from Western politicians (and media) with respect to Ukraine. As the Washington Post recently pointed out, the Ukraine war tends to be portrayed in terms of stark moral absolutes:

If Putin can succeed with a war of aggression across his borders, the argument has gone, then a dark agenda of territorial conquest and might making right wins out. President Biden has framed the contest as a clash between “all democracies” and Putin’s authoritarian project. Last November, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin described the collective efforts of Ukraine’s Western allies as a reflection of “how much countries around the world value and respect the rules-based international order.”

Yet to many residents of the Middle East and elsewhere, the legacy of Iraq totally undermines the West’s moral posturing over Ukraine:

For many people in the Middle East and elsewhere in the global South, the U.S. invasion is the most glaring recent episode in a long history of Western meddling and U.S. hypocrisy on the world stage.

Saying this is not to lessen the crimes being committed by Russia against the people of Ukraine. Yet it should mean that Putin is not seen to be some unfathomable figure of unprecedented evil. For the same reason, we should not be incredulous that Putin apparently enjoys wide support at home. As was the case with America’s invasion 20 years ago, most Russians support their leader’s Ukraine offensive, which they see as a defence of the homeland.

No surprise about any of that. Bush has not been shipped off to the International Criminal Court. He has been allowed to live out his days as America’s kindly, befuddled old uncle. He goes to ball games with Ellen DeGeneres. He does paintings. Twenty years ago, Bush satisfied the desire of many Americans to kick someone else around in the aftermath of 9/11. Thousands of Americans may have protested, but their voices were easily drowned out:

The Bush administration faced minimal opposition in Congress and received little meaningful pushback from the mainstream media.

As for New Zealand…

Despite our declared support for national sovereignty and for a rules-based international order, New Zealand largely kept its mouth shut about the US-led invasion of Iraq. The best the Clark government could manage was to refrain from openly joining the coalition of the willing. Even after the US blundering and carnage became evident, Clark ended up feeling compelled to apologise to the Bush administration. Remember this embarrassing episode?

Offence was taken in Washington when Helen Clark told reporters in New Zealand she believed the war would not have occurred under a Democratic Al Gore presidency and that the war appeared not to be going according to plan.

This was well before the centre-right discovered free speech. ACT Party leader Richard Prebble (citing unnamed senior sources in the Administration) claimed the President himself had taken offence. The National Party worried about the potential impact on business. New Zealand begged for forgiveness:

[Defence Minister Phil] Goff revealed that New Zealand’s ambassador, John Wood, had delivered a letter to an official attached to the National Security Council. “It said [Clark] was deeply distressed to learn that the comments she had made has caused the US Government to take offence. She said no offence was intended and recognised nevertheless that offence was taken, that she regretted that and wished to apologise for it.”

History has shown that New Zealand had nothing to apologise for. As with Putin’s attack on Ukraine, Iraq was a pre-emptive attack carried out to satisfy a desire to restore US pride and swagger after 9/11. This yearning to shore up an empire in decline is still rife among the Christian fundamentalists who support the Republican Party.

These motivations seem strikingly similar to the nationalist fervour rampant in Russia today. Those feelings too, are grounded in a desire to restore the lost pride and status of Mother Russia, another empire in steep decline. Such sentiments are especially common among the Russian Orthodox fundamentalists who are among the strongest supporters of Putin’s iron rule. Religion has always been willing to lend its blessings to missions of military conquest.

But here’s the thing: The US cannot redeem itself for its sins in Iraq (and before that, in Vietnam) by exorcising the same evil in Ukraine. Last week an article in the Boston Globe eloquently made that point:

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a criminal act of great recklessness. So too was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. [US President Joe] Biden appears to believe that the Ukraine war provides a venue whereby the United States can overcome the legacy of Iraq, enabling him to make good on his repeated assertion that “America is back.” Underneath this expectation is an insistence that war can serve as a means of redemption, healing the wounds that afflict our nation.

In this country, we need to stay sceptical about the redemptive power of war. Currently, New Zealand is under pressure to become a junior partner in an offensive alliance led (once again) by our traditional allies. The AUKUS military pact is arming itself and strategizing for pre-emptive military actions against China. Much of the weaponry involved is for offensive purposes, not defensive ones.

Cynically, the US is already laying out the bait. In the past few days, US envoys have been here to entice New Zealand into a support role within AUKUS by portraying it as merely a technological fix, and a mechanism by which we can upgrade our cyber technology. Yeah, right.

Final point: Ironically, wars of expansion have a habit of diminishing the powers responsible. The longer Russia keeps fighting in Ukraine, the more it becomes a dependent vassal of China. Similarly, America’s invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of its regional decline. Subsequently, the US promoted regime change in Syria, but Russia and Iran prevailed and Assad remains in power. A fortnight ago, China (and Oman) brokered a major peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, thus delivering a major blow to the regional prestige of the US and Israel. War can be karmic.

Almost 35, happy just to be alive

Talking of vengeance and anniversaries… Exactly 50 years ago, Andy Pratt scored a major hit in New Zealand (and nowhere else!) with his song “Avenging Annie.” It hit number one here, but peaked at a lowly number 78 on the Billboard charts. The track was a mixture of hyper-active 1970s experimental rock and Woody Guthrie folk music. Pratt also sang much of it from an abused woman’s POV in a falsetto voice.. “Avenging Annie” was an unusual record, and it clocked in at over 5 minutes long.

Why did this song fail everywhere else except here? Short answer: In 1973, New Zealand radio hadn’t (yet) fallen prey to the US Top 40 radio consultants who soon afterwards came here to dictate the content of our radio playlists as well. By 1975, “Avenging Annie” would never have been allowed on air.

As for Pratt himself… being a critic’s darling and a commercial flop wasn’t a sustainable career. (In a typical example of overkill, Rolling Stone magazine claimed that Pratt’s third album Resolution had changed the face of pop music forever.) Later, Pratt became a Christian and reportedly, he still lives in Boston. This was a one-of-a-kind song, though: