Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Canada, Afghanistan and the Powell Doctrine

When he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell articulated a new doctrine to guide use of the U.S. military abroad. Fabricated from the wreckage of Vietnam, the doctrine insists certain criteria must be met before force is justified:
  1. A vital national security interest must be threatened.
  2. There must be a clear and attainable goal.
  3. The risks and costs must be thoroughly and honestly analyzed.
  4. All non-violent means must be fully exhausted.
  5. There must be a plausible exit strategy.
  6. The consequences of the operation must be fully considered.
  7. The operation must be supported by the public.
  8. The operation must have broad international support.
The arrogant Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush ignored most of the criteria prior to pursuing their Iraq adventure, and the result begins to look tragically like another Vietnam.

When we ponder our current involvement in Afghanistan, we could do worse than consider the Powell Doctrine. A recent survey sends a clear message that a key criterion, the support of the public, is lacking. Just as we significantly increase our involvement, only a quarter of Canadians support sending troops, a position undoubtedly influenced by the chaos in Iraq. And what about the other criteria? We may wish to pursue more altruistic ends than just defending our national security, but do we at least have a clear goal? Are we participating in the Bush Administration's ludicrous "war" on terror, or are we attempting to help the Afghans stabilize and rebuild their country? Are we confident we have the resources to achieve this goal? Do we have an exit strategy if it becomes apparent the mission is failing? And how do we decide if it's failing? The Canadian people, deeply apprehensive about our commitment, deserve answers to all these questions.

Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor admits he has a big selling job in convincing us our troops should be there. This is why he should do what three-quarters of Canadians are asking him to do: obtain parliamentary approval. Canadians want a thorough debate in the House. Unfortunately, Mr. O'Connor does not.

He thereby runs the risk of having us slip unconsciously into a morass, just as the Americans did in Vietnam.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Judging the judges

So we are to have a parliamentary committee interrogate the next Supreme Court nominee. Presumably, this will enhance the transparency of the process but as for improving the quality of the bench, I remain skeptical.

Selection of the short list is hardly picking names out of a hat. Traditionally, Prime Ministers consult with their Justice Minister, senior judges, the bar associations, provincial governments and prominent citizens, before making their choice. And the choices have been consistently good. All the judges are exceptionally skilled. Four of the nine are women and one of these is Chief Justice, for an essentially perfect gender balance. The politics of the judges is unknown, but overall they seem middle of the road, rather like Canadians. In short, we have a highly qualified, balanced, representative Supreme Court.

It begs comparison to our southern neighbour's institution. There, the skill level is less. I offer Clarence Thomas as an example, a blatant political nominee with qualifications that could best be described as sketchy. Most egregiously, the U.S. Supreme Court includes only one woman. The politics of the judges is much more obvious than ours with a strong Republican tilt even though 50 per cent of Americans are Democrats. The U.S. version is both less qualified and less representative.

In any case, the final decision continues to lie with the PM. The committee can only recommend, not veto, so no real power has changed hands. Nonetheless, Canadians may see this process as more transparent and therefore an improvement, although considering we have far more respect for those who fill the benches of the Supreme Court than those who fill the benches of the House of Commons, perhaps not.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The redundant provinces

The Canadian Council of Chief Executives, an exclusive club made up of 150 CEOs of major corporations, is suggesting a shift of tax power from the federal government to the provinces. No doubt the Council is sincerely attempting to improve Canada's productivity; however, a cynic cannot help but wonder if they are equally interested in transferring power from one relatively strong government to a scatter of weaker ones. Divide and conquer, so to speak.

In any case, transferring power to the provinces is a bad idea. If there is a redundant level of government, it's the provincial one. Chopping the country up into provinces may have made sense 140 years ago, when transportation and communication were slow, and most people lived on farms and in villages, but today, with transportation rapid and communication instantaneous, and most people living in towns and cities, it no longer does. As a nation among nations, we still need a national government, and we need local government to address local issues, but it is increasingly difficult to see the need for anything in-between.

Eliminating provinces would require a major constitutional change, something difficult to achieve, perhaps impossible given the way provincial chieftains jealously guard their turf. Still, giving them more power just entrenches the status quo, better to bleed power off to the point where the redundancy becomes apparent even to premiers.

If we are to devolve powers, let's devolve them to the cities, the new economic and social engines of the country. With all due respect to the Council, let's not distract ourselves from the real challenge.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Waving the wrong flag?

Once again CanWest MediaWorks, publisher of the National Post, reveals its identity crisis with a Freudian slip. They have released the list of words to be studied for their CanSpell National Spelling Bee. The bee is for Canadian students; the words, however, reflect American usage. Included are Dixiecrat, Pentagon and campesino, but not mukluks, poutine or shinny. And of course coloured is spelled colored and savoury is savory. All this is not surprising since the list is drawn up for the American Scripps competition where the lucky winners may eventually compete. Typically, CanWest defers to the American Way.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

A question of priorities

While reading my Saturday Globe, a number caught my attention. An article on pollution reported, "Ontario public health authorities estimate pollution from the United States causes about 2,700 deaths annually." I realized this number was familiar because it's remarkably similar to the oft-quoted number of deaths resulting from the attacks on the twin towers in New York on September 11th, 2001. The difference, of course, is that the pollution kills 2,700 people every year, year after year, not just once.

The gist of the article was that the Bush Administration is proposing to weaken the pollution laws applying to hundreds of the dirtiest coal-fired plants in the United States. This struck me as perverse. The president is waging an international war on terror as a result of the 9/11 deaths while backing off on a far more deadly phenomenon. If American pollution is killing 2,700 Ontarians a year, presumably it must be killing even more Americans. The death toll must be vastly greater than anything resulting from terrorist attacks.

Bush seems to have chosen the wrong war. If his concern is for American lives, to say nothing of Canadian lives, sensibly his target should be pollution, not terrorists.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The feminine touch

The 2006 Canadian Election Study, conducted by the Institute for Social Research at York University, revealed some intriguing differences between men's and women's values.

Outside of Quebec, only 32 per cent of women opposed same-sex marriage while 42 per cent of men did. Men revealed a more vindictive nature with 47 per cent supporting capital punishment compared to only 35 per cent of women. Perhaps reflecting the Bush Administration's belligerent foreign policy, or the U.S.'s lack of Medicare, significantly fewer women than men wanted closer ties to the United States. One woman in two considered health care her most important issue while men were more concerned about corruption. As we might expect, the Conservative Party was more appealing to men, the NDP to women. The Liberals appealed equally to both sexes.

The pattern is clear. Women are drawn toward more socially tolerant, less violent, more caring policies. We might reasonably assume, therefore, a government that included more women would produce a society more informed by these values. In a world threatened by ideological division, weapons of mass destruction and rapacious environmental exploitation, one could argue we desperately need such government. We need the feminine touch.

Unfortunately, that isn't what we got. Women make up only about one in five of the members of the House and the cabinet, and about one in ten of the governing party's caucus.

The political system, created over centuries by men for men is a thoroughly masculine, if not macho, structure. A more humane society requires a system that at least balances opportunity for women and therefore for the feminine. To see how this might be achieved, I humbly recommend my book Confessions of a Matriarchist.

... and what about the birds?

With all this fuss about Dick "Deadeye" Cheney potting his hunting buddy with a load of buckshot, everyone seems to have forgotten the real victims in this sorry tale. I refer of course to the quail, the intended target of Deadeye Dick's marksmanship. Am I the only one who thinks it's pathetic for a pack of well-fed old men to be slaughtering small birds for sport?

Monday, February 13, 2006

The bomb in the turban

I probably disagree with Ezra Levant, publisher of the Western Standard, on nine out of ten issues, or perhaps 99 out of a 100, but I support his decision to print the Mohammed cartoons. He is defending freedom of expression and freedom of expression is a damn sight more valuable than any religion.

He is right, also, to accuse the Canadian press of hypocrisy. The daily papers have not, for example, been reluctant to publish material about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. If Catholics had poured out of their cathedrals and rioted in the streets over adverse commentary, would they have bullied the media as successfully as violent Muslims have?

We all know the overwhelming majority of priests are not pedophiles, but there have been a few, and they have created great problems for the Church, so they are fair game for public comment. Similarly, we all know the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not violent, but a few are extremely so, and they create great problems for their community, as well as for the rest of us, so they too are fair game for public comment.

There is a bomb in the turban. Kudos to the cartoonist for telling that simple truth, and kudos to Mr. Levant for supporting him.

Deadeye Dick

So Dick Cheney finally got to shoot somebody. Mind you, it was only a friend he mistook for a quail, but still he got the shot in and put the poor man in intensive care.

The vice-president of the United States isn't much of a hero. During the Vietnam War, rather than face an angry Viet Cong with a gun, he sought five -- count them, five -- draft deferments. His political colleague George W. Bush used his family's influence to avoid the war via the National Guard route, in effect hiding behind his daddy's money. Yet it was the perfect war for two young, healthy, macho, right-wing Republicans, a war against godless communism; it doesn't get any better than that. Nonetheless, they preferred to run away.

This pusillanimous performance has never hindered their enthusiasm for sending other men to die. And to kill. Their own hands they have kept clean. Until now. Finally Dick managed to put a bullet into a fellow human being all by himself. Too bad it was a hunting buddy.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Hallelujah! Evangelicals go green!

This old agnostic confesses to castigating evangelical Christians as among the worst of environmental sinners. I had pictured them as believing our planet was nothing more than a God-given resource to be exploited at the whims of God's chosen species. I had assumed further they not only didn't care about global warming, but possibly even saw it as part of God's plan: when the Last Judgment descended upon us, true believers would be raptured up to Heaven while the rest of us burned in eternity as the Earth was transformed into another Venus.

And now, to my great delight, it appears I may be wrong. According to Time Magazine, eighty-six evangelical Christian leaders in the United States have launched a campaign to educate Christians about climate change and urge their government to curb global warming.

Actually, I am not entirely wrong. Some conservative Christian leaders oppose the initiative and have demanded their brothers and sisters desist from their wicked ways. Nonetheless, this is a signal moment in our progress toward environmental sanity.

It seems miracles may be possible after all.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Plus ca change ...

"Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely," so said the English historian, Lord Acton. Prime Minister Stephen Harper does not hold absolute power, but he is now the most powerful man in the country, and after only days as PM seems intent in proving the wisdom of Lord Acton's words. Let us count the ways:

A major belief in the Reform/Alliance/Conservative philosophy of government has always been that the Senate must be elected. So what is one of the PM's first acts? The appointment of a good and faithful servant of the Conservative cause to the Senate. And to top that, he appoints him to his cabinet as well. And not just to cabinet but to Minister of Public Works, the ministry responsible for spending many of the federal dollars and a ministry prone to scandal. Sitting snugly in the Senate, Minister Michael Fortier will be spared awkward questions in the House of Commons. This would seem contrary to Mr. Harper's professed passion for accountability.

Speaking of accountability, the new PM has waxed eloquent about proposed legislation to address this very issue. A key article in the legislation will prevent ex-ministers from lobbying for five years after they depart cabinet. Yet Mr. Harper has appointed Gordon O'Connor Minister of Defence, a man who only two years ago was lobbying for defence contractors.

And then there's the amusing case of floor-crosser David Emerson and his elevation to cabinet. Conservatives were scathing toward Belinda Stronach for her similar escapade but gave Mr. Emerson a standing ovation in caucus.

And so it goes. What do the French say? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose -- the more things change, the more they stay the same. Very wise, those French.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Mr. Emerson goes to Ottawa

Shades of Belinda! Just as Ms. Stronach crossed the floor of the House right to left to walk into a cabinet position, David Emerson now crosses the floor left to right to walk into a cabinet position. Needless to say, a number of Mr. Emerson's constituents are a little annoyed. And a number of his Liberal campaign workers are more than a little annoyed after putting in many long hours getting him elected to represent a liberal philosophy and Liberal policies. They, quite rightly, feel betrayed. As for the Liberal Party, it would be completely justified in asking for its campaign funding back. With interest. A class action suit would be in order for all those poor suckers who donated to Mr. Emerson's campaign and have now been defrauded out of their money.

When we vote in this country, we tend to vote for the party, simply because we know the parties, their philosophies of government and their policies, whereas we often have little knowledge of the candidates. This is a major reason why civic elections have such poor turnouts: without party affiliation, voters don't know what the candidates stand for.

But, presumably, Belinda and David felt they could serve their country better decision-making in cabinet rather than filling space on the opposition benches, and of course they are absolutely right. Tough on their constituents and their former parties but, if they are any good, better for the country (other than possibly undermining respect for politicians). One of the vagaries of the party system is that many first class people, cabinet material, have to waste their careers in politics sitting in opposition. Crossing the floor is a way out of the trap.

Too bad for those betrayed but, judging by Belinda's solid re-election, many of the people who matter most, the electors, are willing to forgive the sinners.

Nukes in Iran ... does Mossadegh haunt us still?

As the world agonizes over the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weaponry, it may be instructive to remind ourselves of the folly that set that nation on its current trajectory.

In August, 1953, the United Kingdom and the United States conspired with the Iranian military to overthrow the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and install the Shah as absolute ruler of Iran. Mossadegh's cardinal sin was nationalizing Iran's oil industry, specifically seizing control of the British-owned and operated Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. We all know how the Americans and the British take umbrage to threats against their oil security.

The Shah brought in progressive reforms but he also became increasingly repressive in instituting them, offending both the clergy and democrats. In 1979, he went the way of Mossadegh when he was overthrown by a popular revolt and replaced by a theocracy. Unfortunately, many Iranians have never forgiven the West, particularly the United States, for their mischief. Hostility lingers on toward the "Great Satan."

The ayatollahs undid the Shah's progressive reforms and reduced Iran to something less than medieval. They have been leaders in religious invective against the West. Today they threaten to develop nuclear weapons and the United States struggles to even hold a civil conversation with this member of the "axis of evil," never mind dissuade it.

In March, 2000, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated her regret about Mossadegh's ousting: "The Eisenhower administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons. But the coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America."

We cannot help but reflect on Ms. Albright's comment regarding Iran's political development. What could have been if Iran had been allowed to continue its democratic course? Would it have been the beacon the Bush administration claims it wants to establish in the Middle East? We'll never know. But a particularly nasty chicken has come home to roost and we all have to deal with it.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oh irony!

Apparently the most contentious of the Mohammed cartoons appearing in European newspapers is the one depicting the Prophet's turban as a bomb, implying that Islam is an explosive religion. So how does the Muslim world respond? It explodes, of course. The artist, Kurt Westergaard, has made his point with remarkable prescience.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The progressive Mr. Bush

In his State of the Union address on January 31st, President George W. Bush made the remarkable admission "America is addicted to oil" and declared that his country must "move beyond a petroleum-based economy." None of this is news to friends of the Earth but coming from a boon companion of the oil industry, it is downright revolutionary.

While his concerns seemed rather less about environmental damage (he never mentioned the overwhelming issue of our time, global warming) and more about reducing U.S. dependence on foreigners, nonetheless he emphasized the need for more environmentally sound technologies and committed research efforts accordingly.

If all this translates into less military adventurism and less offence against the planet, we should be thankful. Considering the Bush administration is the most regressive in living memory, we should be very thankful indeed.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

To Hamas or not to Hamas

Oh dear, the Palestinians held an election and the wrong guys won. Rather than the moderate Fatah, victory went to the uncompromising Hamas.

Reaction in the West has been a bucket of hypocrisy. If Hamas doesn't recognize the State of Israel and renounce violence, Western nations, including apparently our own, threaten not to recognize the new government and, as further punishment, to cut off aid. The Palestinians thereby become unique. All other peoples are allowed to resist foreign occupation with violence, but not the Palestinians. All other governments are allowed to decide for themselves what countries they will recognize, but not the Palestinians. The job of the Palestinians is to submit, in effect surrender, and if they refuse, they will be starved into submission. So much for the West's respect for democracy.

It is true Hamas has sent suicide bombers into Israel, but then the Israelis have ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, conquered them, occupied their territory, and continue to humiliate them and steal their land even as I write these words. They surely have a right to respond, but what with? Israel has the best army in the Middle East, they have biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, and they are backed by the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. The Palestinians are naked by comparison. They are forced to resort to the weapons of the very poor, and that means the weapons of terror.

Personally, I am partial to passive resistance against an oppressor and I suspect it would always have been a better strategy than violence for the Palestinians, but, tragically, non-violent methods have limited currency in the world. As I say this, the Americans and the Brits continue to bludgeon Iraq into compliance.

So let's stop pretending there is something uniquely wicked about Hamas and its use of violence. Let's just do the right thing and recognize a government that has been freely and fairly elected.