Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Canute Complex

There was a time when all Canadian school children studied British history. That was a long time ago; and I would hazard a guess that most students do not look back on the experience with a great deal of fondness. However, there was one incident which I am sure any student of British history remembers vividly. That is the story of King Canute's attempt to stop the ocean dead in its tracks.

According to legend, Canute had his throne bearers transport his throne -- with their master seated atop it -- to the seashore, for the purpose of providing his subjects with a demonstration of his divinely anointed status.

Sitting on the throne and raising his hand, he commanded the waves to cease and desist. Unfortunately, they had the audacity to ignore him. In the short term, Canute's failure didn't do his public image a lot of good. In the longer term, it did nothing to enhance his career prospects. In fact, the story is usually considered one of the first steps on the road to the Magna Carta.

I remembered Canute the other day when I read a small story in the Toronto Star. Stephen Harper had agreed to appear on the Mercer Report. But when the Harper team discovered that Mercer and Company had hired Dave Chan, a photographer who has worked for The National Post, The Globe and Mail and other newspapers for twenty years, they insisted that Chan be dropped from the project. It seems that during the recent evacuation of Lebanese Canadians from Beirut, Mr. Chan had offered the opinion that, if all media personnel were banned from the Prime Minister's plane, that ban should include the Prime Minister's personal photographer. After all, if the purpose of the ban was to clear as many seats as possible for the refugees, the PM's picture taker could fly back to Canada using other means.

Besides, said the Prime Minister's Office, they could provide the CBC with all the pictures they required. In fact, this strategy is part and parcel of the Prime Minister's press operation. Earlier in the year, Harper's office insisted that it had the right to choose, before any press conference, which reporters and which questions it would deal with. When the Parliamentary Press Gallery refused to operate by these rules, Harper simply stopped answering their questions.

The assumption that the Prime Minister's Office has the right to control the flow of information to the public is particularly arrogant. Behind the assumption is the conviction that if you keep feeding the public the same line, they will eventually believe it. But in this age of rapidly expanding communication technology, it is also a profoundly foolish assumption. If you shut down one method of communication, another will take its place.

Harper need look no further than his neighbour to the South. The Bush Administration has tried mightily to control the information coming out of Iraq and the government bureaucracy. And for awhile they succeeded. They refused the press's request to photograph the flag draped coffins of soldiers being shipped home for burial. And they leaked information to reporters from Time Magazine and The New York Times in attempts to silence critics of the war. But as Bob Woodward's new book, as well as recent books like Fiasco, by Tom Ricks and Cobra II, by Micheal Gordon and Bernard Trainor illustrate, trying to control and restrict information is like trying to control the oceans. The information always finds an outlet, even when it has been pent up for a long time. It either trickles out or bursts its levees in a flood of destructive proportions.

The new breed of conservative seems to operate in a fact-free universe. In such a universe, the act of articulation is tantamount to telling the truth. Saying so makes something true; and commanding that a policy be implemented gives it legitimacy. That seems to be the thinking underlying The Clean Air Act, a particularly Orwellian title, given the fact that, under its provisions, the government will not set standards for industrial pollution before 2050. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Monahan said, in response to a senatorial colleague who stood steadfastly on his right to hold to his opinion, "You have a right to your own opinion; you do not have a right to your own facts." Likewise, Mr. Harper has no right to ignore the facts. King Canute tried that 1300 years ago. Like Canute, Mr. Harper's career prospects get dimmer with each passing day.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Say What, Steve?

Stephen Harper's recent observation regarding the bias of Liberal leadership hopefuls against Israel is so patently absurd, as well as demonstrably untrue, that one wonders what the man is really up to.

While it is true that a liberal backbencher was recently censured by his colleagues for his strong criticism of Israel, and while it is also true that Micheal Ignatieff's unbalanced comments about Israel's actions in Lebanon suggest that the Liberal front runner is not ready for prime time, to paint all the Liberal leadership hopefuls as bigots is -- well -- stupid. Or maybe there is some cynical calculation behind it.

The last twenty-five years has seen the rise of wedge issue politics. The idea is to use issues and policies as wedges to split your opposition. The political strategists calculate that such an approach will destroy old voting blocks and peel off enough support to build functioning majorities. The Harris government used this approach in Ontario during the 90's and the present American administration continues to use it in the current election cycle. It does not take a lot of imagination to see Mr. Harper's musings as a transparent attempt to siphon off the votes of Canadian Jews, who in the past have overwhelmingly preferred the Liberal Party to the Conservative Party.

Such a strategy also has the advantage of making its proponents look like people of principle who are not willing to sell their souls for the sake of a few votes.

But when you read Mr. Harper's statement, and his refusal to rethink what he said, you have to wonder just what principle he is standing on. In fact, his statement is all of a piece with what appears to be his election strategy. Having calculated that he can garner no more support in Ontario and the nation's larger cities, Harper has decided to troll for votes outside the island of Montreal, thus gaining enough seats in Quebec to achieve a parliamentary majority.

What is wrong with that calculation is that even in Quebec's rural ridings many of Harper's policies won't fly. Rural Quebec is miles away, both geographically and politically, from rural Alberta. His refusal after the Dawson College shooting spree to dismantle the long gun registry -- despite Jean Charest's opposition to just such a move -- shows how out of touch Harper is with the political landscape of Quebec. And, if his much touted environmental policy matches what he sold the country in Vancouver last week, Quebecers will quickly conclude that he is not one of nous autres.

The truth is that if Harper wants to win a majority government, he will not only have to appear to move to the left, he will actually have to do so. The problem with Harper's recent remark is that it fuels suspicion that, when the rubber hits the road, these folks are what their forebears in the Reform Party were perceived to be -- hard right Conservatives. And, as I've suggested in a previous post, (see The Right Man) centre right -- even more so, hard right -- coalitions are just not viable in Canada.

The late Dalton Camp went to his grave railing at the fact that Canada's new Conservative Party had been purged of its Red Tories. I suspect that, come the next election, the majority of Canadians will side with Camp.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Regarding Henry

Bob Woodward's new book arrives at no new conclusions. What it does offer is an astonishing amount of evidence to support previous conclusions. Beyond that, however, it does contain one startling revelation and one candid quotation which Woodward attributes to Colin Powell.

Both the revelation and the quotation assume a tragic irony when considered within the context of Dwight Eisenhower's foreign policy. Eisenhower was both remarkable for the battles which he chose to fight and the battles which he chose not to fight.

When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Fu, they asked Ike for American support. Despite his distaste for propping up old colonial regimes, he sent General Matthew Ridgeway to scout out the situation. After all, it was Eisenhower's Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who was then on an international crusade to stop the march of Communism; and, to that end, he had spearheaded the creation of SEATO (the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization.)

Ridgeway returned to the White House and told Eisenhower what American support would cost in terms of ordinance, money and human lives. Eisenhower told the French, "Non, merci." Likewise, when the French and the British sought American support during the Suez Crisis of 1956, Eisenhower refused to be drawn in. Instead, it fell to the United Nations to resolve the crisis; and Lester Pearson, the Canadian ambassador to the UN, eventually received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in that direction.

When it came to evaluating the use of military force, Ike's experience gave him a cold eyed cost-benefit sense of whether or not military intervention was a wise course of action.

Which brings me back to the Woodward book and the revelation that Henry Kissinger has been offering continuous counsel to the present administration on the conduct of the Iraq war.

Kissinger has always felt that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because it lost its nerve; and Woodward reports that he has repeatedly told Bush and company that it is critical that America not lose its nerve in Iraq. While it is true that Kissinger was not around for the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, he was there as the Nixon administration widened the war into Cambodia and -- secretly -- into Laos.

And therein lies the problem. What Kissinger has always failed to understand is that the American people never lost their nerve. What they lost was faith in their government, something in which Kissinger played a pivotal role. Whether the information came from the White House in Washington or from the Five O'Clock Follies in Saigon, people began to cotton on to the fact that they had been lied to -- repeatedly and consistently. "Credibility Gap" was the diplomatic term of the day.

To counter that perception, Nixon sent his vice president, Spiro Agnew, out to attack the critics of the war. "Effete snobs," Agnew called them, misinformed "nattering nabobs of negativism." When that strategy began to fail and much more sober internal reports, like the Pentagon Papers, began to leak to the press, Nixon hired a group of "plumbers" who set up shop in the White House basement. Their job was to plug the leaks; and -- well -- we all know how that story ended.

The Bush administration does not use the phrase "loss of nerve." Instead, they use the term "cut and run." And, as the Woodward book makes clear, they bury internal reports which do not offer optimistic scenarios. And, like the vice president thirty-five years ago, Dick Cheney is leading the charge against the war's critics, while Bush stands, like Horatio at the bridge, as cheerleader-in-chief, defending the bulwarks against the "nattering nabobs of negativism."

Which brings us to Colin Powell. He told Woodward that the problem with the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate is that none of them, "have been in a bar fight." Bush and Cheney managed to artfully avoid Vietnam; and Rumsfeld flew Navy fighter jets during peace time. While there is nothing wrong with that per se, it does suggest that who you choose to advise you in a time of war is critical. It is interesting to note that Powell was informed of the decision to invade Iraq after the fact; and Bush never consulted his father about the decision, claiming instead that he sought the advice of "a higher father." The two men who were closest to the first Iraq war -- men who have been in combat and who tended to evaluate decisions with the hardheadedness of an Eisenhower -- were left out of the loop. Instead, they turned to Henry.

Why? I suspect that, at the heart of the matter, is Bush's, Cheney's and Rumsfeld's shared conviction that when it came to marching on Baghdad, Bush the Elder and Secretary Powell lost their nerve. Time, as it did for Eisenhower's decisions, has proven the wisdom of their decision. And, in the present, it has meant that an old story has been retold. It is a story about people who didn't know what they were doing insisting that things be done their way. And the theme of the story is George Santayana's old maxim: Those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Right Man

The Liberal Party has chosen the delegates to its convention in Montreal and we are down to four possibilities. To no one's surprise, Micheal Ignatieff is in first place, followed by Bob Rae, Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy. The good news is that they will provide the foundation for a strong front bench and creative policy alternatives.

The conventional wisdom is that Ignatieff is the choice of the party's aristocracy. However, past history has shown that receiving their blessing is not necessarily the path of wisdom. John Turner or, of late, Paul Martin offer cautionary tales.

The prime directive of Canadian politics is that, while all political coalitions eventually implode, centre-right coalitions are counter intuitive to the Canadian experience. Over reliance on market solutions and socially consevative public policies do not fit a country whose geography is immense but whose population is the size of some southeast Asian cities. Centre right coalitions did not give us Medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. In fact,they didn't even give us a flag.

Canada's survival as a nation has depended on the kinds of public policies to which the Amerian economist Jered Bernstein has assigned the acronym WITT (We're in this together.)

So the question is, which of the four candidates can build the most geographically diverse and most stable centre-left coalition? The answer is that Bob Rae is the best choice for the Party. His time in the NDP provides him with a track record on social policy. And, while some claim that is his prime weakness, I would argue that it is that background, as well as his attempt to think outside the tradionally socialist box, which indicate his ability to build a viable, stable coalition. He will lose some support in Ontario. Strong unionists, who remember his Rae Days, will reject him for breaking contracts. Committed conservatives will lambast him for simply not downsizing a bloated provincial labour force. In fact, his policy was an attempt to cut expenses in the face of rising costs and shrinking revenues while keeping people at work. He left the NDP because he came to believe that its traditional economic and fiscal policies were increasingly out of joint with the times. And, for that, he carries alot of political baggage. On the other hand, his history indicates a rare kind of courage. While Ontario is admittedly problematic, he will draw support from the prairies, from British Columbia and the Maritimes. He has spent a lot of time on the constituional file, is fluent in French and understands what runs deep in Quebec politics -- qualities Mr. Harper simply doesn't possess.

Add to that wit and a refusal to take himself too seriously and you have an antidote to the "heroic" leader who takes Napolean, or perhaps, more accuately, George Armstong Custer, as his model. He is a man who is suited to the job. And, if the Liberals do not win a majority in the next election -- a distinct possibility -- Rae will be there for the long haul.