Monday, August 25, 2008

The Music Man

In Meredith Willson's perennially popular musical comedy, The Music Man, a slick con man -- who calls himself Professor Harold Hill -- travels the country selling musical instruments to simple, good hearted folks. He promises he will set up youth bands in every town he visits; but, of course, once the instruments arrive and he collects his money, he skips town -- leaving his victims in a cacophony of confusion, ignorance and noise. For, in truth, Professor Hill is a phony. His success rests in knowing when to leave before the storm hits.

Stephen Harper -- Toronto-born, but with his feet now firmly planted on the prairies -- can spot a snowstorm long before it hits. And, as his former colleague and nemesis Garth Turner has written in his blog, the coming storm is going to be a real blizzard: "There are fewer true barometers of how an economy is doing than jobs, houses or the stock market. . . . Last Friday came news that 55,000 jobs were lost last month, leading a senior economist at BMO to say the economy is 'flat on its back.' . . . .Monday came more bad news about real estate. . . . Not only are resale numbers crashing and the national housing price falling for the first time in 17 years, but the pace of new home construction is cooling fast. Annualized national starts, economists said, would be 210,000 in July. Instead they were 186,500." As for the stock market, "at just over 13,000, the TSX is off 2,000 points from its 52 week high -- and that was just one month ago."

But, unlike Harold Hill, Mr. Harper does not intend to leave town. In true Canadian fashion he wants to build an igloo, in the form of a majority government, and ride out the storm -- even as the less fortunate freeze along the fence lines. He is prepared to break his own pledge of having fixed election dates, if it will help him find shelter. Thus, he claims that Parliament has become "dysfunctional" and it is time to send it to oblivion.

But, as Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail on August 16th, the Tories have long had a plan to make a shambles of government. "Last year," he wrote, "the governing Conservatives prepared a secret handbook on how to disrupt parliamentary committees and create chaos. No mere pamphlet, the book ran to 200 pages." The problem was the plan was supposed to stay within the confines of the Conservative caucus. Someone had the audacity to leak it. We have witnessed that plan in action recently, as Tory campaign strategist Doug Finlay showed up two days early before the House Ethics Committee, insisting he be heard on his own terms, only to be escorted by security gaurds -- while Finlay protested loudly -- out of the room. Next came reports that other government witnesses had been instructed not to appear before the committee.

As Thomas Frank makes clear in his new book, The Wrecking Crew, neo-conservatives have not arrived at this place by accident. "They have wrecked established federal operations," Frank writes, "because they disagree with them, and they have deliberately piled up an Everest of debt in order to force the government into crisis. The ruination they have wrought has been thorough; it has been a professional job." Americans are facing the consequences of that debacle as they choose their next president. In Ontario, we faced those consequences six years ago when voters tossed out the Harris government -- a government which was populated by Harper's retreaded ministers Jim Flaherty, John Baird and Tony Clement.

Americans and Ontarians know how this story ends. And so does Preston Manning. In his book, Think Big, Manning writes of his souring relationship with his young protege. Harper consistently put his own interests ahead of his party -- and he left when he couldn't get his way. Harper was no man of the people: ". . . he had serious reservations about Reform's and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions." But Manning's most important insight into Harper's personality is contained on page 74 of that book: "Stephen had difficulty accepting that there might be a few other people (not many, perhaps, but a few) who were as smart as he was with respect to policy and strategy."

And, once again, frustrated that he can't get his way -- true democracy has been set up to frustrate the desires of those who insist that they are the smartest guys in the room -- Mr. Harper claims that it is his responsibility to save the country from the fools in the opposition parties. If Canadians give him his majority, they will experience what Americans and Ontarians have already experienced. In The Music Man, Harold Hill is saved by the ministrations of a good hearted librarian. Mr. Harper appears to be beyond redemption. An early member of the Reform Party, he has proved to be beyond Reform. One hopes the country can move beyond Mr. Harper.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Illusions of Grandeur

In two recent articles, Andrew Bacevich -- a graduate of West Point and Princeton, a retired US Army colonel and a veteran of Vietnam with a doctorate in American diplomatic history -- has focused on the illusions which spawned the War on Terror, and the illusions which persist in the rubble of its failure. "Valor does not offer the measure of an army's greatness," he writes in Illusions of Victory, "nor does fortitude or durability nor technological sophistication. A great army is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his Global War on Terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard."

Bacevich does not blame the soldiers on the ground. They have, he says, displayed more than their share of fortitude and durability. At the heart of America's failure lie three great illusions: the first is the misplaced belief that, in the 1980's and 90's, the United States reinvented military conflict. During this period, those in charge of the American military began to believe that, "by employing these new military techniques [like precision guided weapons] the United States could eliminate an obstreperous foreign leader and his cronies, while sparing the population over which that leader ruled." This confidence in new technology, says Bacevich in a second article, Is Perpetual War Our Future? Learning the Wrong Lessons from the Bush Era, trumped old truths -- particularly those of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote two centuries ago that, "War is the realm of chance. No other human activity gives it greater scope: no other has such incessant and varied dealings with this intruder."

Bacevich says that the second great illusion was that both the officer corps -- and, more importantly, the civilian leadership of the armed forces -- had learned this lesson in Vietnam; and that it had found expression in the Powell-Weinberger Doctrine of overwhelming force: "Henceforth . . . the United States would fight only when genuinely vital interests were at stake. It would do so in pursuit of concrete and attainable objectives. It would mobilize the necessary resources -- political and moral as well as material -- to win promptly and decisively." But Mr. Rumsfeld, who had flown Navy jets in peace time, had no experience of the "realm of chance" which was the chief hallmark of military conflict. And his deputies, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, had no military experience at all. Most tellingly and most tragically, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had both worked very hard to stay out of Vietnam. Cheney, in particular, had claimed in a Congressional hearing years ago that he had "other priorities" at the time.

The third and last illusion was that the division between the military and the American public -- which had been exposed so painfully during Vietnam -- had been healed by the new All Volunteer Force. By professionalizing the military and by getting rid of the citizen soldier, those who disagreed with American policy would be marginalized, not having a personal stake -- like a member of the family-- in it. The problem was that, while the All Volunteer Force may have dampened criticism of the war, it placed an unequal burden on the troops.

These illusions persist in the wake of America's failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is those illusions which Bacevich is at pains to dispel. What are the real lessons which we should learn from this monumental failure? The first hearkens back to Von Clausewitz: "War's essential nature is fixed, permanent, intractable, and irrepressible. War's constant companions are uncertainty and risk. . . . War remains today what it has always been -- elusive, untamed, costly, difficult to control, fraught with surprise, and sure to give rise to unexpected consequences. Only the truly demented will imagine otherwise."

The second lesson is that, "As has been the case throughout history, the utility of armed force remains finite. Even in the information age, to the extent that force 'works,' it does so with respect to a limited range of contingencies."

The third lesson is the futility of the so called Bush Doctrine of preventive war. "History has repeatedly demonstrated," writes Bacevich, "the irrationality of preventative war. . . . For principled guidance in determining when the use of force is appropriate, the country should conform to the Just War tradition -- not only because that tradition is consistent with our professed moral values, but also because its provisions provide an eminently useful guide for sound statecraft."

The fourth and final lesson, says Becevich, is not to confuse strategy with ideology. "The president's freedom agenda, which supposedly provided a blueprint for how to prosecute the Global War on Terror, expressed grandiose aspirations without serious effort to assess the means required to achieve them. . . . The political elite that ought to bear the chief responsibility for crafting grand strategy instead nursed fantasies of either achieving permanent global hegemony or remaking the world in America's image. Meanwhile, the military elite that could puncture those fantasies and help restore a modicum of realism to U.S. policy fixates on campaigns and battles with generalship largely a business of organizing and coordinating materiel."

To some, Bacevich may sound like a wild eyed radical. However, he defines himself as a "Catholic conservative;" and he has urged conservatives to vote for Barack Obama. What he brings to the argument is historical perspective and his experience in Vietnam. More than that, he brings the tragedy of a father's personal and private grief. A year ago, his son -- a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army -- was killed in Iraq. Bacevich is a much wiser man than the man who currently sits in the Oval Office.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

'Tis the Season

Summer is a time for family reunions. This is particularly true in Canada where, anytime from November to April, a snow storm can bring the major thoroughfares to a halt. For those of us who live on the shores of the Great Lakes -- where what we call "lake effect" can bury a town and leave the hamlet down the road untouched -- this phenomenon is a daily fact of life.

During the last two weeks, we attended two family reunions -- one for my wife's family, and one for mine. There are five of us: we have three children. But at the two events there were, at last count, fifty-six attendees. At one level, the turn-out served as an example of what economists call "exponential growth." At the very least, it served as testimony to the importance of procreation.

But the context was as important as the numbers. At the first event, we found ourselves caught in a deluge -- the summer rendition of lake effect. The organizers, however, had taken the trouble to rent a tent; and, somehow, there was room under it for all thirty-five of us. At the second event, we managed to cram twenty-one people -- grandparents, children, spouses, grandchildren and great grandchildren -- into one small apartment.

The logistics of getting all of these people under one roof were not easily accomplished. While most of us live in the triangle between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, both sides of the family have Western branches. My wife and I have relatives in Calgary; and my sister and her children live just outside Los Angeles. Add to that grown children who are on their own -- our son, for instance, has just returned from South Korea -- and, not to put too fine a point on it, getting everyone -- or almost everyone -- there was a considerable accomplishment.

For some, family is a thicket of dark motives and broken promises. But, in the end, every family represents the triumph of hope over experience. When an extended family overcomes the barriers of space, time and background to come together under the sky or someone's roof, the event reminds us all that, like it or not -- regardless of skin colour, religious affiliation or ethnicity -- we are all part of the family of man. That is the indissoluble bond which ties us together. When the weather gets nasty -- or when the planet gets crowded and the logistics get difficult -- the number of people who can gather under one roof is truly remarkable. And, as my Irish grandmother -- a widow who raised six kids in the midst of the Great Depression -- used to say, "There's always room for one more."

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Taking Government Private

In a recent article, The Military-Industrial Complex: It's Much Later Than You Think, Chalmers Johnson hearkens back to Dwight Eisenhower's last speech as president. "We have been compelled," said Ike, "to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions . . . We must not fail to comprehend its grave implications . . . we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

"Since 1961," writes Chalmers, "there has been too little study of, or discussion of, the origins of the military-industrial complex, how it has changed over time, how governmental secrecy has hidden it from oversight from members of Congress or attentive citizens, and how it degrades our constitutional structure of checks and balances."

Chalmers then goes on to trace -- making reference to the work of Thomas Frank and Sheldon S. Wolin -- how modern neo conservatives have sought "to discredit 'big government,' while capturing for private interests the tremendous sums invested by the public sector in national defence." He gives particular attention to Wolin's analysis. "The privatization of public services and functions," Wolin argues, "manifests the steady evolution of corporate power into a political form, into an integral even dominant partner with the state." It turns our democratic institutions into "one[s] where the remaining democratic elements of the state and its populist programs are being systematically dismantled."

This trend has been going on for some time now -- with both supposedly liberal and conservative governments hopping on the contracting bandwagon in the name of efficiency. But, as tales of how the Iraq War has been executed with the help of private contractors -- there are as many of them on the ground as there are soldiers; and, as the Harper government rebuilds the Canadian Armed Forces -- it is worth remembering that Harper's first Minister of Defense earned his living as a lobbyist for arms manufacturers before he entered government -- the need for careful and critical oversight becomes paramount.

Without such oversight, writes Chalmers, we "heighten the risks of war by accident, or by presidential whim." And any government which seeks to obstruct access to information is suspect. Mr. Bush and Mr. Harper have not been particularly cooperative with those constitutionally established bodies whose job it is to act as the people's eyes and ears. That, I suggest, is no accident.