Monday, July 31, 2006

Does Blair "get" Hezbollah?

"It can only work if Hezbollah are prepared to allow it to work." This statement by Tony Blair, referring to any approach to achieving peace between Lebanon and Israel, leapt off the front page of Saturday's Globe. Finally, I thought, at least one of the Blair/Bush duo has recognized that any hope of a stable agreement requires bringing Hezbollah to the table. It contrasts with the spectacle of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice attempting to bring out about a "new order" while refusing to talk to the key players on the Arab side.

Blair may intuitively recognize the reality of the situation in a way Bush cannot. For decades the British government, despite all the resources at its command and the co-operation of its counterpart in Dublin, couldn't rid itself of the IRA. Eventually they had to accept the fact there would be no peace in Britain until they sat down with the rebels and negotiated a deal. It wasn't easy; they despised the IRA and thought of their members as no more than ruthless killers, but they swallowed their pride and dialogued. And they achieved a peaceful solution.

The reason they couldn't crush the IRA was fundamental: the guerrillas had a powerful constituency within the Irish nation. The British could imprison or kill IRA men but their constituency would simply produce more. As Tony Blair apparently recognizes, a similar situation prevails in Lebanon. Hezbollah is of the people, of the Shia of southern Lebanon, a large and devoted constituency. And furthermore, Hezbollah has the support of the Arab street outside of Lebanon, probably more support than most governments in the region. They must, therefore, be a key part of any process to shape a secure and peaceful relationship between Israel and its northern neighbour. Blair seems to sense this. When Bush and the Israelis do, peace will be given a chance.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Just what we need - more nukes

According to Aljazeera, Pakistan is building a nuclear reactor big enough to provide plutonium for 50 nuclear weapons a year. Currently, they only have the capacity to produce two bombs a year. Not enough apparently. One can just never have enough of these things. A Pakistani official said his country's nuclear program has "matured." Right, producing more nukes is really mature.

Oh well, maybe they'll restrict use of the plutonium to peaceful purposes. Like Iran.

Blair in the witness box?

Tony Blair may finally have to answer in court for his decision to go to war in Iraq. Three of the UK's most senior judges have ruled that the families of four British soldiers killed in the war may challenge their government's refusal to hold a public inquiry into Britain's participation. The judges ruled it is "at least arguable that the question whether the invasion was lawful - or reasonably thought to have been lawful - as a matter of international law is worthy of investigation" The families argued the government ought to be held accountable for a war which "breached international law and was based on a series of lies."

The judges warned the families they probably won't be able to force an inquiry; however, they will be able to present their case at an appeal court hearing which means the three defendants - the prime minister, the secretary of state for defence and the attorney general - may have to testify. The onus will be on them to prove the decision to invade was legal.

When, we must wonder, are the Americans going to see Bush in the witness box.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Branding terrorism

Terrorism is a popular military tactic, used by everyone. By everyone, I mean individuals, insurgent and revolutionary groups and nation states, including democratic nation states. Indeed, the worst terrorist attacks in history were carried out by the world's leading democracy. And in the Middle East today, the region's leading democracy is carrying out two terror campaigns, one against the 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, the other against the 3.9 million people of Lebanon.

Its major opponents, Hamas and Hezbollah, are also known for their use of terror. For this reason, even though both are about much more than military action, we formally categorize them as terrorist organizations. Israel, oddly enough, we don't. Our categorization is highly arbitrary, depending it would seem on whether or not we approve of the group or its cause rather than on its actions. This is pure hypocrisy. Terrorism is terrorism, whether used by good guys or bad guys, for good causes or bad causes. It doesn't just become terrorism when it's applied by people we don't like against us or our friends.

Our categorization is not only hypocritical, it is inaccurate. Both Hamas and Hezbollah have been listed as terrorist organizations by the Canadian and U.S. governments, yet their military wings are only a part of what they are. Hamas also has a highly successful political wing and a social wing that provides services more effectively and certainly with less corruption than the Palestinian Authority. That is one of the reasons it was elected to government. Like Hamas, Hezbollah also has both political and social wings. It runs hospitals, clinics, schools and agricultural centres to assist and train farmers, all desperately important to the poor Shias of southern Lebanon. Dismissing Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations makes no more sense than dismissing the United States as a military state simply because it has the world's largest army (although it does seem preoccupied with war).

Beyond being hypocritical and inaccurate, our categorization is foolish. It often prevents us from dealing with critical actors in the world's dramas. Listing Hamas and Hezbollah as terrorist organizations makes both understanding them and communicating with them difficult, yet they are the most important groups on the Arab side in the current crisis. Just as the British had to swallow their pride and sup with the IRA if peace was to be achieved in the British Isles, so will Israel and the United States have to deal with Hamas and Hezbollah if they want to achieve peace in the Levant. They must recognize that these groups have legitimate constituencies. Hamas is the democratically elected government of Palestine for heavens' sake! Ignoring that mocks democracy while insulting the Palestinians' government, and thereby the Palestinians themselves.

Finally, inventing a new category of crime called terrorism was completely unnecessary. If people fly planes into towers, or place bombs in subways or railway stations, they are murderers and the law is more than adequate to take care of them. We have allowed September 11th, 2001, to push us into a hypocritical, inaccurate, foolish and unnecessary invention that offers no benefit but much harm.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Homeless in paradise

As Calgary's population swells with job-seekers reaching for the brass ring, the city's streets swell with homeless. In the last two years, the number of Calgary homeless jumped by a third, from 2,597 to 3,436, while the number sleeping on the street tripled. Many have full time jobs, but can't find or can't afford permanent accommodation. Thousands linger on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

The city may be rich but not rich enough. City officials insist they need the help of the provincial and federal governments. Alderman Bob Hawkesworth wants candidates for the provincial Conservative leadership to make homelessness an issue and wants Ralph Klein to set up a task force to study the problem and set targets. He also suggests the federal government should fast-track affordable housing money.

It all can't happen soon enough. A provincial government swimming in cash that can't, or won't, house its poorest people is an embarrassment, and brings into question the reckless pace of oil sands development.

Israelis oppose assault on Lebanon

One of the myths surrounding the Israeli assault on Lebanon is that Israelis are united in support. This idea characteristically ignores 20 per cent of the population. One in five Israelis is Arab and, according to an Aljazeera story, opposition to the war is understandably strong among this group. Many of the Arabs live in northern areas subject to attack by Hezbollah rockets; nonetheless, they oppose the killing of hundreds of Lebanese and the destruction of that country's infrastructure. "Our lives and our hearts are in Beirut and Gaza - not in Haifa," says Ameer Makhoul, director of Ittijah, a coalition of Arab organizations, "We have been taking extra care because of the bombs but we have very different feelings to that of Jewish Israelis."

That Arab Israelis should protest the invasion is hardly surprising given their ethnic connection to the Lebanese, to say nothing of Israel's refusal to accept them as full citizens. Indeed, many Jewish Israelis, including the Israel Beytenu Party which holds eleven seats in the Knesset, believe they should be deported. Not that they need rejection by their countrymen to justify criticism of their country's appalling behaviour.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Arc of Extremism - yet another feature brought to you by Anglo-American

The "axis of evil" is passé. The new nemesis of the Anglo-American-Israeli compact is the "arc of extremism." The members of this iniquitous arc, the "evil-doers" as George W. Bush might say, are Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

A quick look at this rogues' gallery reveals an intriguing fact. All the members, with the exception of Syria, are in effect creatures of the compact itself. Iran was a democracy until the British and Americans conspired with the Iranian military to overthrow an elected government and replace it with a dictatorship. Hezbollah was created as a reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, an invasion that took thousands of lives. And Hamas arose in resistance to Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and was once even nurtured by Israel in order to undermine the Palestinian Authority, rather like the U.S. once supported the jihadists in Afghanistan to undermine Soviet authority.

So it's true: the chickens do come home to roost.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Has Harper gone soft on terrorists?

Perhaps I'm overreacting, but a sentence in a Globe article this morning almost had me spilling my coffee. The sentence reads "Mr. Harper, who has refused to budge from last week's comment that Israel's actions have been 'measured,' encouraged Hezbollah to come to the negotiating table." [italics added]

Harper is encouraging Hezbollah to come to the negotiating table? But Canada has declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization! So our prime minister now wants to sit down and talk with terrorists? Either the Globe has erred or Mr. Harper has made a subtle but highly significant change of policy.

Recognizing Hamas and Hezbollah as legitimate players in the Middle East is only sensible, of course. They probably have more respect among Arabs than most Arab governments. It's just that I never thought the Conservatives would recognize this reality.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The numbers don't add up

So how long are we going to have troops in Afghanistan? Well, of course no one can answer that question because the entire adventure is rather ad hoc. The usual glib response is, as long as it takes. It appears it may take quite a while.

U.S. Army Major-General Robert Durbin, the man in charge of creating a viable home-grown Afghan army, claims he can prepare a properly trained 70,000-man force in three years. The problem is the Afghan defence minister, Abdul Rahim Qardak, insists an army of 150,000 to 200,000 soldiers will be needed to secure the country. If this discrepancy stirs memories, they may be of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld claimed 50,000 troops could do the job in that war while the American military insisted it would take 300,000. As we now know, the compromise of 120,000 was quite inadequate, not to defeat Saddam but to secure the country.

General Durbin admits even the 70,000 is a challenge, with problems of absenteeism and low re-enlistment. So if we are going to be in Afghanistan for "as long as it takes," we should prepare for the long term. Possibly a very long term.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Right on, Belinda

I have never been a fan of Belinda Stronach. Indeed, I may even have mocked her from time to time for a superficial grasp of policy and inconsistent politics. But I am changing my mind. She has recently brought forth some of the best ideas for political reform since proportional representation and banning corporate donations to political parties.

Among other sensible suggestions, she advocates the election of cabinet ministers, or shadow ministers, by backbench MPs. This would improve politics and government in various ways. It would remove power from the excessively powerful prime minister while enhancing the importance of MPs. As a result, cabinet ministers would be much more connected with and responsible to their party, as opposed to being supplicants to the prime minister. Party leaders would be less elected monarchs and more first among equals in caucus.

This approach is already practiced in the Northwest Territories and by the Labour Partys in Australia and New Zealand.

I suggest going one step further. Instead of just government party MPs electing cabinet ministers, why not all MPs? And indeed why not have them elect the prime minister as well. The MPs are, after all, chosen by all of us, the party leader only by members of his own party. The prime minister would still almost certainly be chosen from the majority party but at least he would have the stamp of approval of all Canadians.

Belinda's proposals are intended for the Liberal Party. The other parties would be wise to consider them as well.

"Measured response"? Has Harper lost all sense of perspective?

Our dear Prime Minister has referred to Israel's recent belligerence as a "measured response." Waging a terror campaign against 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza over the kidnapping of one soldier is a measured response? Initiating a second terror campaign against the Lebanese people over the kidnapping of two soldiers is a measured response? What would the man consider excessive? Nuclear war perhaps?

Harper's intemperate comments do illustrate a couple of points. One, the overwhelming bias of the Canadian (and American) government in favour of Israel. And two, the appalling indifference of Canadian (and American) politicians to the suffering of Palestinians.

And thus the Prime Minister makes his, and therefore our, contribution to the deep and justifiable hostility of Muslims toward the West.

Alberta oil royalties ... a fresh look?

For years, critics have claimed Alberta's take from the oil & gas industry is too low. Comparisons are frequently made to Norway which obtains five times the revenue from a barrel of oil or gas equivalent as Alberta does. Almost half of that is due to Norway's direct investment in the industry, something Alberta doesn't have, but even considering only royalties and other fees, Norway still collects over 2.5 times as much per barrel as Alberta. One result is that Norway has a "heritage fund" of over $165 billion compared to Alberta's $14 billion.

Some of the candidates for the leadership of the Alberta Conservative Party are promising to open up the royalty issue to public debate. "Let Albertans decide if we're getting a fair share," says legislator Ed Stelmach. Jim Dinning, the front runner, believes the issue concerns many Albertans and agrees the public should be fully informed. He talks about "... a factual black-and-white statement ..." to " ... start the review so that Albertans gain a growing sense of confidence around what are the facts ..." A recent government in-house review of the royalty regime recommended only marginal change and produced no public documents.

An informed public debate on the issue of a fair share is overdue. Let's hope whoever wins will insist on it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Buying a schmooze with the top cops

Want to attend a conference with Canada's top police officers? Want the opportunity for "prominent recognition during the conference" and "the unmatched opportunity to reach out to conference delegates"? For only $25,000 you can become a platinum sponsor and gain all that and much more.

The Canadian Association of Police Chiefs is holding its annual conference in St. John's, Newfoundland, August 20--23, and offering five levels of sponsorship to help pay the bills. Curiously, while the association uses telemarketing to solicit funds from businesses, it has called upon police unions to stop using the practice for charitable causes. What is sauce for the top guys is apparently not sauce for the rank and file. "This is business to business," says Executive Director Peter Cuthbert, by way of explanation.

Oh well, we can't complain the sponsorship program won't be properly policed.

Small mercies

According to Aljazeera, Pakistani women awaiting trial on charges of adultery and other minor offences have been granted the right to be released on bail. Previously, they were forced to languish in prison awaiting their trials. A lot of work still has to be done to achieve equality for women in Canada; in Islamic countries the challenge is immense.

Just how immense is indicated by "charges of adultery." Under Pakistani law, to prove she has been raped, a woman must produce four pious, male Muslim witnesses in court. If she can't, she faces a charge of adultery, the maximum penalties for which are 100 lashes or death by stoning. Although such severe punishments are rarely carried out, many women are imprisoned for offending religious laws.

President Musharraf has promised to repeal such laws; however, elections are due in 2007 and, keeping in mind he needed the support of Islamist parties in 2003 to be elected president, reforms may stall. But that's tomorrow. Today, celebrate a little, 1,300 women stand to be freed on bail and return to their families -- a small victory for justice.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Doing some stuff in Afghanistan

A British army officer has summed up his country's mission in Afghanistan with comments that quite nicely capture our adventure there as well. Tim Collins, former colonel in the Royal Irish Regiment and veteran of the Iraq quagmire, is quoted in the Guardian as saying, "We have a British government that has no idea of what it wants to do. It's invited the Army to go to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and do stuff. It would be a bit like giving your keys to builders and say go and do some stuff in my house."

That seems to just about describe what our troops are doing in Afghanistan -- some stuff. Not much in the way of "clear operational strategy with achievable objectives" -- just stuff.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Anti-Semitic or anti-Palestinian?

If I was a conspiracy theorist, I might think The Globe and Mail was orchestrating a campaign against CUPE's and the United Church's boycotts of Israeli goods. But I'm not and I don't. Nonetheless, attacks on the two institutions have been appearing with suspicious frequency: articles by Margaret Wente, Rex Murphy and anonymous editorial writers, and on Monday Lysian Gagnon joined the chorus. Gagnon's effort was particularly nasty, associating the two institutions' actions with a notoriously anti-Semitic French comic. Yellow journalism indeed.

What is odd about Gagnon's piece is that it appears just as Israel is waging a campaign of mass terror against 1.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, an atrocity of biblical proportion and reminiscence. This alone would justify a boycott. Like the other writers, Gagnon seems curiously indifferent to Palestinian suffering; they appear to treat it as nothing more than an opportunity to flaunt their pro-Semitic credentials. European guilt runs deep indeed.

Monday, July 03, 2006

And now for the good news ... a cure for malaria?

Malaria is one of humanity's deadliest enemies, killing between one and three million people a year, mostly children under the age of five. As most of the victims are in Africa, a poor market for pharmaceutical companies, developing cheap, effective drugs to deal with the mosquito-hosted parasite has been a slow process.

Finally, real hope of a cure has appeared. Research indicates the antihistamine astemizole, developed to treat allergies, will kill the bug. It is off patent so can be manufactured cheaply and, as it is already licensed for use on people, requires limited testing. If proved effective, it could be on the market within a year.

Other than a cure for global warming, the news could hardly be better.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

O Canada!

Happy Birthday!

Joyeux Anniversaire!