Wednesday, January 24, 2007

As the Ships Sink

On November 7, the day of the American election, E.J. Dionne wrote in the Washington Post: "The Republican Party no longer has a coherent governing philosophy. Republicans who care about advancing a consistent set of ideals are already at each others throats and are likely to stay there." This past Saturday, Andrew Coyne, writing in the National Post, concluded that, "After a year of Conservative rule it is now clear, conservatism isn't just dying -- it is dead. And it's the Conservatives who killed it." From both left and right, from both north and south of the border, a consensus is forming. The Great Conservative Reawakening of the past generation is about to be buried; and the authors of its demise have been so called conservatives themselves.

I have argued in this space that the Great Conservative Reawakening was never a conservative phenomenon: that its main proponents -- Hayeck, Strauss, Freidman, Thatcher, Reagan and all of their disciples --were really libertarians, not conservatives. This was no great insight on my part -- the late Dalton Camp recognized the trend early for what it was; and until his dying day he railed against what he called the "neo liberal" and rampant individualism which corroded the foundations of social stability. For Camp, an evolving but stable society was the bedrock of true conservatism. He believed that the last Canadian conservatives were Progressive Conservatives. The son of a Baptist Minister, Camp understood that the new conservatism of the Reform Party -- which eventually hijacked the party to which he had devoted his life -- was more akin to a religion, wedded to dogma and convinced of its own moral rectitude.

How does one account for the shipwreck that is now taking place? Well, all governing coalitions get stale; and, as this happens, its members tend to choose incompetent leaders. By 1980 Americans, while acknowledging that his heart was in the right place, came to the conclusion that Jimmy Carter's head wasn't. They saw him -- quite simply -- as a man who was not up to the job. As a result, the old liberal consensus built by Franklin Roosevelt gave way to a man who had been inspired by Roosevelt but whose policies were, in many ways, diametrically opposed to what Roosevelt stood for.

In Canada, Paul Martin met the same fate. Widely viewed as an excellent Minister of Finance, as Prime Minister he was nicknamed "Mr. Dithers," an appellation which stuck. Canadians, too, concluded that he wasn't up to the job.

Which brings us to George W. Bush and Stephen Harper -- two would be allies. As was clear from last night's State of the Union Speech, the American public has figured out that George W. Bush is not up to the job. The two critical policies of Bush's presidency -- the War in Iraq and his response to Hurricane Katrina -- have been unmitigated disasters. And, when faced with the consequences of those policies, Bush's response has been to forge ahead, insisting that no change in course is the mark of strong leadership.

Harper, on the other hand, has proved that he can turn on a dime. Whether the issue is luring the recently elected David Emerson into his cabinet, reversing his campaign pledge on income trusts, declaring that "the Quebecois are a nation within Canada," or hurriedly borrowing the very environmental policies he disparaged in the last election, Harper -- for all his apparent rigidity -- does not have his feet set in concrete.

For true believers, like Andrew Coyne, this amounts to "selling the conservative soul." For ordinary Canadians there is the distinct odour of Brian Mulroney's government. It is worth remembering that Canadians gave Mulroney the largest electoral majority in history. But when his party was finally tossed out the door, they retained two seats in the House of Commons. Mr. Harper was celebrating his party's first anniversary in power two days ago. But there was a skunk at the party.

The skunk is the public's suspicion that they've been had -- that they've been victims of a classic bait and switch. They bought the line that they were electing conservatives when, as Dalton Camp knew only too well, they were being sold a pig in a poke. The public --not quite as early as Camp -- but, nonetheless, like him -- have figured out that the so called conservative ships of state are sinking. And that's as it should be.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

MacArthur in the White House

George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have now informed us that -- despite the results of last November's election, the consistent results of polls for the last two years, the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and congressional opposition from both parties -- they will go ahead with their troop surge.

In the face of such opposition, Mr. Bush likes to see himself as another Harry Truman -- someone reviled in his own day but admired by historians after the dust has settled. In that regard, it is instructive to read what Truman wrote about Douglas MacArthur in his diary on June 17th, 1945, long before Truman fired him on April 11, 1951: "Mr. Prima Dona, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur. He's worse than the Cabots and the Lodges -- at least they talked with one another before they told God what to do. Mac tells God right off."

Mr. Bush has told the people, who clearly disdain his war, that -- as long as he is "the decider" -- their opinions will not influence his policies. The problem is that instead of working for the White House, MacArthur now sits in the Oval Office; and he knows that he and Mr. Cheney cannot be fired. Now, with the hubris one is accustomed to see in a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, they insist that they know better than the people who elected them -- and, who most recently, passed judgment on their policies.

Clearly, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney's judgment has been appalling. Consider the record: They were wrong about Iraq sponsoring the 911 attacks; they were wrong about Saddam possessing chemical and biological weapons; they were wrong about Saddam having a nuclear weapons program; they were wrong about sending enough troops to Iraq; they were wrong about Iraqi oil money paying for the war; they were wrong about being greeted as liberators; they were wrong when they insisted that Iraq was a secular society; and, therefore, there would be no fracturing of the country along religious lines; they were wrong about de -Baathification; they were wrong when they disbanded the Iraqi army; and they were wrong when they proclaimed that there would be no insurgency.

They readily admit that their surge is a gamble. But, they insist, there will be a bloodbath and global instability if they do not make one last attempt to impose a military solution before the Iraqis get down to the business of finding a political solution. However, even their surge is a mere shadow of what was originally recommended. In their original proposal, Fred Kagan and retired General Jack Keene suggested that, to be successful, their proposal would require at least thirty to fifty thousand troops. Bush claims that those other troops will come from the Iraqis.

But three months ago, Bush's own head of the Security Council, Stephen Hadley, wrote a memo to his boss claiming that Mr. Maliki was an unreliable partner because he will not do what he has promised to do. When the memo leaked, Mr. Maliki stiffed Mr. Bush and did not show up for their dinner meeting in Jordan. Mr. Bush has decided to sit down at the roulette table and put all his chips on number 21, 500 and on a guy who Bush can't trust to keep a dinner appointment.

The question is, with the track record Mr. Bush has racked up over the last four years, would you put your life's savings in his hands? And, even if you told him you wanted out of the game, what would you do if his response was, "You're in. . .?"

Much fanfare has been made of the fact that Mr. Bush is the first MBA president. And, in homage to his alma mater, Mr. Bush has made much of the fact that Mr. Maliki and his government will now be held to strict performance appraisal standards; or else, "they will lose the support of the American people." It seems to me that what is fair for Mr. Maliki is only fair for Mr. Bush. The only difference should be that, instead of Mr. Bush holding Mr. Maliki accountable, the American Congress should hold Mr. Bush accountable.

There is precedent. On September 1, 1970, Democratic Senator George McGovern and Republican Senator Mark Hatfield offered an amendment which would have cut off funding for the Vietnam War in fifteen months if the situation did not improve measurably. The amendment was defeated that day; but eventually funding for the war ended after Nixon was told by a bipartisan delegation that unless he resigned he would be impeached. Nixon resigned and the war ended when the senior senator from Arizona led a delegation to Nixon which told him his time was up.

Today the senior Senator from Arizona favours the surge. And no one is suggesting that Mr. Bush resign. But congress ultimately has the power to shut Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney's operation down. However, that will only happen if Democratic and Republican statesmen with the gravitas of Barry Goldwater have the courage to bring the Iraq war to an end.

Those who say that such action is folly have it backwards. Bush's policies are not the solution to the chaos in Iraq; they are the cause of the chaos. There is a conflagration ahead. But Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney only know how to start a fire. Other --wiser-- men (or women) will have to find a way to put it out.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

It's Not Easy Being Green, But. . .

Stephen Harper's second attempt at cabinet making was an interesting exercise. Give the man marks for shrewdness. Perhaps cunning is the more appropriate word. Certainly, those who write him off as being politically dense do themselves and the country a disservice. But the distance between politics and policy can sometimes be a chasm.

Harper's removal of Rona Ambrose from the environment portfolio was no surprise. But, in fairness, the problem was not so much Ambrose as it was Harper's Clean Air Act, which was nothing more than a lot of hot (and dirty) air.

The appointment of John Baird was -- politically -- a masterstroke. If the old adage about the best defence being a good offence is true, then Harper put the right man in the job. First in Ontario and then in Ottawa, Baird has proved himself an able parliamentarian. And he has the political smarts to deal with his critics. The problem is that his critics are right. A government which, despite its brand, is really libertarian is philosophically ill equipped to deal with the problem of global warming.

Conservatism, as practised in North America in the later part of the last century and the beginning of the new one, takes its philosophical bearings from people like Friedrich Hayek and Leo Strauss, refugees from European Fascism and Communism. While they considered themselves classic liberals --Hayek applied the term to himself -- they were really libertarians, as Hayek's fellow faculty member at the University of Chicago, Milton Friedman, aptly described their guiding principles.

Believing that individual self interest and the operation of free markets are the best tools to solve political problems, they disparaged collective action as hopelessly confused and ultimately ineffective. In practise their influence has meant the dismantling of several instruments whose purpose has been to increase global security and stability, starting with the United Nations and its various agencies.

Harper has bought into this school of thought; and, besides Harper, its best salesmen have been Harper's Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty, and his former Minister at Treasury Board -- John Baird. And therein lies the problem. A libertarian government finds it very hard to think in global terms. All solutions are ultimately a matter of individual choice. So, for instance, Mr. Harper has said that the Kyoto treaty is not the appropriate instrument for dealing with the problem of global warming; and to justify Canada's not meeting its Kyoto targets, he asserts that individual Canadians would not agree to heat their homes "one third less of the time."

What he fails to mention, however, is that only twenty-five percent of carbon dioxide emissions come from individuals. The other seventy-five percent comes from industry and government operated power plants.

And it is here that the powers that be need to be confronted. Instead of using government to encourage research, to mandate fuel and emission standards -- and the tax system to provide incentives for green policies -- Harper and his allies are focused on reducing government influence in the lives of Canadians. If these "conservatives" were in office during the Great Depression we would still be there.

What the Great Depression and the Second World War taught us is that some problems are so large that only government action -- and sometimes international cooperation -- can solve them. The environmental crisis is -- in its scope -- similar to the Great Depression. Canadians understand that. The Liberals, when they elected Stephane Dion to lead the party, signaled that they understand that.

Harper's appointment of Baird indicates that he understands where his weaknesses are. Whether or not he knows how to develop policies to deal with the most important challenge we face remains to be seen.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Fueling the Fire

The report from the Iraq Study Group had a short shelf life. It commanded public scrutiny for about a week. Then it disappeared. Of its seventy-nine recommendations, the only one to live on after the report's debut was that of a "surge" of troops as a prelude to withdrawal. Fred Kagan, of the American Enterprise Institute, and retired General Jack Keene picked that one up; and, in an article in the Washington Post, later reprinted in the Weekly Standard, they suggested that an additional thirty thousand troops could secure Baghdad and give the present government time to solidify its position. "The key to success is to change the military mission," they wrote. "[I]nstead of preparing for transition to Iraqi control, the mission should be to bring security to the Iraqi population."

Sounds like an excellent idea. And it was an excellent idea three years ago. If Mr. Rumsfeld and company had bought it then, the conflagration in Iraq would probably not have occurred. After all, there was historical precedent. When the British went into Mesoptamia back in 1917, they did so with four hundred and eleven thousand troops. At that time, the population of the region was one third what it is today; and, even then, the British encountered considerable resistance. During the first Gulf War, the first President Bush assembled a coalition of over five hundred thousand troops and those troops did not march on Baghdad.

The problem is that the situation has changed. American soldiers now find themselves in the middle of a Civil War -- something Mr. Bush and his advisers still refuse to recognize -- and, to make matters worse, the people of the Middle East are staring into the abyss of a much wider regional war. The mission is no longer bringing security to the Iraqi population.

Moreover, the surge proposal ignores the logistical and personnel problems associated with adding an additional thirty thousand troops. In an article in The American Prospect, Lawrence Korb, a former Undersecretary of Defence in the Reagan administration and Max Bergmann, of the Center for American Progress, argue that Kagan and Keene's plan is "unrealistic and dangerous" for a number of reasons. To begin with, they say, "there are no active or reserve army combat units outside Iraq and Afghanistan that are rated as combat ready." They do not have the equipment needed to train for such a mission because all of that equipment is already in Iraq. Other equipment could be scrounged from places like Korea and National Guard units in the United States; but,"this would leave the country dangerously exposed, without sufficient force strength to deter adversaries from possible aggressive action."

Finally, say Korb and Bergmann, the surge proposal ignores the reality on the ground. They point out that when the British entered Northern Ireland in 1972, to put an end to sectarian violence there, their troop to population ratio was equivalent to having 750,000 troops on the ground in Iraq. To those who claim that people like Korb and Bergmann don't understand the consequences of failure in Iraq, they say, "they have it backwards. Those who opposed the war from the outset understood the difficulty and scope of the task at hand, while the war's architects are the ones only now coming to grips with the catastrophic implications of a possible civil and regional war." Adding thirty thousand troops at this point will only add fuel to a growing fire.

The Iraq Study Group pointed to a rather messy way out of Iraq. But it requires looking at a much larger canvas. It requires diplomacy. It requires dealing with one's enemies; and it requires building large and diverse coalitions -- all things which the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has difficulty with. He has refused to build coalitions at home, insisting that only legislation which has the support of "a majority of the majority" come to the floor. He has won elections by finding enough votes in strategic states to tip the balance in his favour -- like targeting areas in Iraq with more troops. He claims that dealing with the nation's enemies would be tantamount to abandoning his principles. But he forgets that Ronald Reagan, for all his talk about "the evil empire," dealt with Gorbochov; Roosevelt and Churchill formed an alliance with Stalin; and Nixon went to China.

The recent death of President Ford has reminded us that there was a time when differences of opinion did not call forth the response that "they know what they have to do before we deal with them." The simple truth is that the most powerful man in the world does not play well with others. Things will only change when Mr. Bush grows up -- or when another grown up sits in his chair.