Monday, August 27, 2007

American Napoleon?

Even George Bush's strongest supporters were surprised last week when he chose the Vietnam analogy to buttress his argument that there should be no draw down of troops in Iraq. Actually, he was using an argument that has long been a favourite of American conservatives, starting with Ronald Reagan. That argument is that America lost in Vietnam because it lost its nerve, once congressional Democrats -- taking advantage of the disarray following Richard Nixon's resignation -- stopped funding the war. Mr. Bush claimed that, if American troops leave Iraq, there will be a replay of helicopters leaving the roof of the U.S. embassy, accompanied by scenes of military equipment being pushed into the sea or being abandoned in the desert.

However, the Vietnam analogy is fraught with problems for Mr. Bush. To begin with, there is the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the argument -- which historians generally agree was a trumped up case -- for the escalation of the war. Recalling Lyndon Johnson's rationale for widening the war brings up echoes of those weapons of mass destruction and the mushroom cloud conjured up by National Security Advisor Condi Rice. Then there are Mr. Bush's and Mr. Cheney's personal histories, where -- by student deferments or family connections -- both men managed to avoid service in Southeast Asia, while others had no such option. It reminds people that those who serve in Iraq bear an unequal burden. Now most citizens, like Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, can choose not to serve. Finally, there is that black marble wall in Washington, which is a reminder of those who died in the service of a failed policy.

There are more negative parallels between Vietnam and Iraq than positive ones; and Mr. Bush has given his critics lots of ammunition to use against him. Writing in his blog on August 22nd, Robert Reich -- Bill Clinton's first Secretary of Labour -- concluded, "The apparent stupidity of this man -- or his assumption of the stupidity of the American people -- is unfathomable."

But perhaps the Vietnam analogy really doesn't fit. In an article in The Nation for the week of September 10, Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian History at the University of Michigan, argues that the real echo of Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq is Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. "There are many eerily familiar resonances between the two misadventures," Cole writes, "not the least among them that both began with supreme arrogance and ended as fiascoes. Above all, the leaders of both occupations employed the same basic political vocabulary and rhetorical flimflammery invoking the spirit of liberty, security and democracy while largely ignoring the substance of these concepts."

Cole is not alone in seeing the similarities between the French Invasion of Egypt and the American invasion of Iraq. In a report on May 17th, 2004, CBS News correspondent Tom Fenton pointed out that two prominent historians saw Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq as folly. Henry Laurens, who Fenton called "an eminent specialist on the Arab world," noted that,"the French went in posing as liberators, proclaiming their goal was to free the Egyptians from the yoke of the Ottoman Empire. Impoverished, backward Arabs would welcome French soldiers and the revolutionary ideas they brought." But, even though Bonaparte's campaign began well, "remnants of the old regime began a guerrilla campaign in the countryside, and in the cities several insurrections had to be harshly repressed. The war widened, and the French finally lost Egypt against the forces of the British and the Ottomans." Harvard historian Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, saw the American invasion of Iraq in similar terms. He claimed that "the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq has spread, rather than contained the war;" and, he concluded, the war against the Iraqi people was a struggle which the United States would "never win."

The final paragraph of Cole's article is a cogent summary and comment on the parallels between Mr. Bonaparte's and Mr. Bush's forays into the Middle East. It bears repeating:

"It is no accident that many of the rhetorical strategies employed by George W. Bush originated with Napoleon Bonaparte, a notorious spinmeister and confidence man. At least Bonaparte looked to the future, seeing clearly the coming breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the likelihood that the European Powers would be able to colonize its provinces. Bonaparte's failure in Egypt did not forestall decades of French colonial success in Algeria and Indochina, even if that era of imperial triumph could not, in the end, be sustained in the face of the political and social awakening of the colonized. Bush's neocolonialism, on the other hand, swam against the tide of history, and its failure is all the more criminal for having been so predictable."

Monday, August 20, 2007

Government by Logical Fallacy

Teachers of rhetoric are fond of enumerating and explaining several logical fallacies, which have become the stock and trade of those who practice mass communication. A favourite example is the loaded or trick question, best illustrated by the query, "Do you still beat your wife?" Anyone who attempts to answer the question puts himself in a double bind. If he answers yes, he admits to being a sadistic monster in the present; if he answers no, he admits that he was such a creature in a past life. Either way, he makes an unflattering comment on his character.

When Stephen Harper shuffled his cabinet last week, he once again put himself in a double bind -- something which he has done since he came to office. Ostensibly, the shuffle was necessitated by Gordon Connor's poor performance as the Minister of Defense. Mr. O'Connor has displayed an ongoing failure to master the facts surrounding the commitment and performance of Canadian forces in Afghanistan -- to the point where he has had to admit that in recent pronouncements he has "misled the house."

Clearly, Mr. Harper needed to make a change. But by placing Peter McKay -- his Minister of Foreign Affairs -- in the defense portfolio, he opened up the foreign affairs post for Maxime Bernier, a man with little political experience and no expertise in foreign affairs. Both men possess the virtue of being bilingual, which will make it easier to communicate with French Quebecers, who are historically adverse to foreign military entanglements -- something which the unilingual O'Connor could not do. But the move underlined what James Travers, in The Toronto Star, and Josee Legault, in The Montreal Gazette, have noted: the downgrading of the Ministry which, in Ottawa, is referred to as Fort Pearson, in memory of former Prime Minister Lester Pearson who, as Canada's Ambassador to the United Nations, helped defuse the Suez Crisis in 1956 -- and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

These two changes necessitated other changes. Jim Prentice, for instance, moved to Bernier's post as Minister of Industry; and by the time Mr. Harper had finished, there were eight cabinet changes. The official reason given for the changes was, of course, to" better communicate" with the people. However, Canadians are well aware by now that all policy announcements are made by Mr. Harper himself, with his ministers standing in the background. If the government does a poor job of communicating with its citizens, the fault lies with Mr. Harper, not his cabinet.

Indeed, that is the point. The problem is Mr. Harper. Canadians have come to understand that he is a logical contradiction. He espouses policies -- such as the recognition of Quebec as a "nation within a nation;" and he attempts to proscribe federal authority with regard to the provinces. But he also centralizes all authority in his office and in himself. He does not trust his ministers to handle their own affairs; yet he claims that the provinces should handle theirs.

He tries to smooth over this contradiction with the firm conviction that his vision is superior to those underneath him. Unfortunately, such faith based administration ignores facts on the ground and, ultimately, leads to broken promises and reversals in policy. Thus, the Tory Clean Air Act was replaced with recycled Liberal environment policy. Harper's promise to not tax income trusts led to his decision to reverse that policy; and his promise to stand four square with his NATO partners by extending the deployment of Canadian forces to Afghanistan for two more years has run smack up against public skepticism about a mission which was poorly executed from the beginning.

Simply put, Mr. Harper and Mr. O'Connor suffer from the same disease. The facts always get in their way. The difference is that Mr.O'Connor has paid for his mistakes. Mr. Harper has not. But Mr. Harper and his party are still mired in the low thirty percent range in the polls. Canadians are not ready to hand the estate over to them. They recognize a logical fallacy when they see and hear it.

Monday, August 13, 2007

It Starts When You're Always Afraid

Canadians were justifiably proud when Prime Minister Jean Chretien refused to join the "Coalition of the Willing" before the invasion of Iraq in 2001. But when previously censored documents were released last week, we discovered that we had no cause to be proud of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service -- or, indeed, of the Chretien government -- after Maher Arar was detained in the United States and shipped to Syria, where he was imprisoned for a year -- tortured -- and eventually released.

Last summer, a judicial inquiry headed by Justice Dennis O'Connor, concluded that the Americans were acting on faulty information provided them by the RCMP. The government awarded Mr. Arar ten million dollars in compensation and set up another inquiry to investigate the role that the Mounties and CSIS played in the affair. But the Harper government also censored sections of O'Connor's report, citing national security, and claiming that release of the censored information could damage relationships with international security agencies, more specifically, the C.I.A.

Last week, the Federal Court of Canada ordered the release of the censored material. And it immediately became apparent why the government had tried to keep the information under lock and key. To begin with, the RCMP had provided misleading information to the judge who granted a warrant to look into Arar's affairs. The Mounties neglected to tell him that the information they possessed had probably been obtained under torture and could therefore be tainted. Most disturbing of all, CSIS suspected that as soon as Arar was handed over to American intelligence officials, he would be whisked out of the country and taken to a site where the kind of interrogation prohibited in the United States could take place.

Two days after the U.S. secretly deported Arar, Jack Hooper -- the second in command at CSIS -- wrote a memo in which he speculated that, "the U.S. would like to get Arar to Jordan where they can have their way with him." This opinion was bolstered by a report from a CSIS liaison officer, based in Washington, who had noted a trend "that when the C.I.A. or F.B.I. cannot legally hold a terrorist subject, or wish a target questioned in a firm manner, they have them rendered to countries willing to fulfill that role."

All of this was known by Canada's police and security services long before The Washington Post reported on "black sites" overseas, which were used to expedite the process of "extraordinary rendition"-- an Orwellian phrase if there ever was one -- which made torture by proxy sound like a new and melodic cover of an old song.

What is most shameful of all is the fact that, knowing all of this, the Liberal government let Mr. Arar languish in a Syrian jail for a year, even though they knew the Syrians considered him more of a nuisance than a critical threat. And, to fuel the fires of cynicism, William Elliot -- the newly appointed commissioner of the RCMP (who was appointed supposedly to clean up incompetence in the national police force) -- revealed at the end of last week that he participated in the censoring of Justice O'Connor's report.

It's clear that when a government (of any stripe) cites national security as the reason for withholding information from the public, chances are that its real motive is to avoid hanging out its dirty laundry. Last week's revelations are a reminder that, in Canada, the judicial inquiry is a critical oversight mechanism, whose purpose is to keep the government of the day honest -- and that paranoia's first target is the judicial system. As Buffalo Springfield reminded us four decades ago, "It starts when you're always afraid."

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Mesopotamian Conversion

Like Paul, two thousand years ago, Michael Ignatieff -- former Harvard professor and presently the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada -- has had his own experience on the road to Damascus -- or, more precisely, on the road to Baghdad.

In an article in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Ignatieff writes about visiting northern Iraq in 1992. "I saw what Saddam Hussein had done to the Kurds," he writes. "From that moment forward I believed he had to go. My convictions had all the authority of personal experience, but for that very reason I let emotion carry me past the hard questions, like: Can the Kurds, Sunnis and Shites hold together in peace what Saddam Hussein held together in terror? I should have known that emotions in politics, as in life, tend to be self justifying, and in matters of ultimate political judgment nothing, not even your own feelings, should be held immune from the burden of self justification through cross examination and argument."

The people who understood what would happen in Iraq, says Ignatieff, asked the hard questions; and they did not "take wishes for reality." They were not foolish enough to assume that "because they believed in the integrity of their own motives, everyone else in the region would believe it too. They didn't suppose that a free state could arrive on the foundations of 35 years of police terror. They didn't suppose that America had the power to shape political outcomes in a faraway country of which most Americans knew little. They didn't believe that because America defended human rights and freedom in Bosnia and Kosovo it had to be doing so in Iraq."

In the end, writes Ignatieff, "Good judgment in politics, it turns out, depends on being a critical judge of yourself. It was not merely that the president did not take the care to understand Iraq. He also did not take care to understand himself. The sense of reality which might have saved him from catastrophe would have taken the form of some warning bell sounding inside, alerting him that he did not know what he was doing. But then it is doubtful that warning bells have sounded in him before. He has led a charmed life, and in charmed lives, warning bells do not sound."

Mr. Ignatieff is something of an expert on the subject of leading a charmed life. Descended from Russian nobility on his father's side, and a descendant of the Grants -- part of Canada's old line aristocracy on his mother's side -- he is no stranger to privilege. He knows how privilege can help one develop a tin ear. Like Mr. Bush, the warning bell did not sound inside Mr. Ignatieff.

The warning bell did not sound inside another scion of privilege, John Kennedy, when he launched his failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. But he was soon forced to confront the fiasco which his lack of judgment had spawned. Allowing that "success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan," Kennedy acknowledged his failure and accepted responsibility for it. Naturally, the man who had been elected by the thinnest of margins, was the target of fierce and bitter criticism. But his response to the Bay of Pigs was, in Kennedy's own phrase, a profile in courage. More importantly, the lessons he learned from that acknowledged failure shaped his response to the Cuban Missile Crisis a year and a half later; and it motivated his work to achieve the first nuclear test ban treaty between the United States and Russia.

Mr. Ignatieff's recent admission and analysis of how and why he got the preemptive strike against Iraq wrong is a similar act of courage. That kind of self criticism is the first step in setting things right.