Monday, July 30, 2007

Constitution? We Don't Need No Constitution!

In John Huston's 1948 study of the dark side of human nature, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a group of bandits claim to be federal police officers. Humphrey Bogart and his fellow prospectors ask to see their badges. In a line that has gone down in movie history, the leader of the bandits replies, "Badges? We don't need no badges!" In a Hobbesian world, intimidation and brute force equal legitimacy.

The president and the vice president of the United States live in a Hobbesian world. The forget, however, that the men who founded their nation -- men they say they revere -- were products of the Enlightenment. The American Constitution was a firm and direct rebuke of everything Hobbes stood for.

It is interesting that one of the main sources of opposition to Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney comes from former aides to Ronald Reagan, whose mantle Bush and Cheney have claimed. Last week, in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post, P.X. Kelley (a former commandant of the Marine Corps) and Robert F. Turner (who served as one of Reagan's lawyers) condemned the president's recent executive order, which "interprets" Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

They wrote, "we cannot in good conscience defend a decision that we believe has compromised our national honor and that well may promote the commission of war crimes by Americans and place at risk the welfare of captured American military forces for generations to come." Mr. Bush's order displays a long established pattern of rewriting or simply ignoring laws or treaties he finds inconvenient.

In a recent article in Slate, Bruce Fein -- who also worked for Reagan -- called for the impeachment of Dick Cheney. "In grasping and exercising presidential powers" Fein argued, "Cheney has dulled political accountability and concocted theories for evading the law and Constitution that would have embarrassed George III." Fein then went on to list a number of, what he considered, were impeachable offenses.

Most disturbing of all is Bush's attempt to thwart congressional oversight, which the authors of the Constitution took as axiomatic in any democracy. Alberto Gonzoles continues to serve as Attorney General, despite what Congress sees as his clear incompetence and less than honest stewardship at the Department of Justice. But, in a stunning claim of executive privilege, Bush has forbidden employees and former employees of his administration to testify before the justice committees of both houses; and he has gone so far as to insist that, since U.S. attorneys serve at his pleasure, he will order any government attorney to refuse to expedite any claim of contempt of congress. Finally, Mr. Bush has proclaimed that politicians have no expertise when it comes to running a war. He vows that no decisions will be made about the war in Iraq until David Petraeus reports to Congress in September -- refusing to acknowledge the fact that politicians originally authorized his disastrous invasion of Iraq and -- under the Constitution -- they have the responsibility to declare when the war is over.

As Frank Rich made clear in the New York Times on Sunday, everyone knows what Petraeus will report in September. He has already hinted at what he will say. Patraeus told the Times of London last month that September "is a deadline for a report, not a deadline for a change in policy." Remarkably, a significant number of legislators have given up waiting for Godot, but not for Petraeus. Lindsay Graham has perhaps given the most succinct summary of their position. Speaking on Meet the Press three weeks ago, Graham proclaimed that he would "not vote for anything" unless "General Petraeus passes on it."

In other words, the policy which has been applied disastrously for over four years will not change. Perhaps because Bush and Cheney worked so hard to stay out of Vietnam, they are determined to display their courage now; and they define courage as staying the course. Mr. Bush knows there will not be any change in policy because a majority in the senate is 60, not 51; and, even if that threshold were reached, it would take 67 votes to overturn his veto. So the dance continues. So far, only four Republicans have -- when push came to shove -- voted against Mr. Bush's conduct of the war.

So the burden now falls on those senators -- the old lions of the Republican Party, like Senator Warner and Senator Lugar -- who say they harbour grave doubts about the course this administration has followed. There will not be a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq. Logistically, it will take a lot of time. But, until the withdrawal begins, the bodies will pile up; and the members of the president's party will have as much blood on their hands as Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney. Together they will have to answer the question which John Kerry asked thirty-five years ago -- long before he became a senator, and long before the Swift Boat Veterans impugned his patriotism -- "What do you tell the last man to die for a mistake?"

Monday, July 23, 2007

Lessons from Niagara

My wife, our youngest son and I spent last Friday at Niagara Falls. Our son's science course this year focused on the environment. One of the phenomena he studied was erosion by wind, water and ice. There is no better example of water erosion than Niagara. But having never seen the Falls, our son needed to experience them. So we decided to rectify that oversight.

I have seen the Falls several times -- but always from above or from the caves underneath. However, this was the first time any of us had stood on the deck of one of the several Maids of the Mist. Without a doubt, the Falls are most impressive from below. The sheer amount of water, the roar it creates and the mist and spray which rise in the air, like the steam from some gigantic boiling cauldron, inspire both fear and reverence.

But more than that, when one stops to consider that water from four of the Great Lakes tumbles over the gorge into Lake Ontario and then down the St. Lawrence to the Atlantic -- where it joins the ocean currents constantly circulating in a system which gives us rain in the summer, snow in the winter and life forever in renewal -- one can only pause in admiration.

Niagara is a natural monument to our interconnectedness. It reminds us that, in an age of muscular individualism -- which operates on the principle that Individual Choice is the prime directive -- all of our choices have consequences -- not just for us as individuals, but for all of humanity and for the planet we like to think we own.

One cannot walk the streets of Niagara Falls, Ontario without encountering the planet in miniature. After our ride on The Maid, my wife and son let me park myself on a tree-shaded bench, because my arthritic knees cannot now take the punishment which I once dealt them. While my wife and son went in search of souvenirs, I sat and looked ahead to the American Falls. I found myself at a small convention for Those Whose Knees Are Not What They Once Were. A woman from Colorado sat down beside me. Her family, too, was in search of trophies to take home to Denver. We were joined by a retired cardiologist from Toronto, who trained in Montreal, moved to Houston, but moved back to Ontario to retire. When his family came by and picked him up, a family originally from central China, then Los Angeles and Vancouver, sat down on the bench. This was their first trip to the Falls. Throughout their travels, they said, they had not encountered anything like them.

And there is nothing like them. The world beats a path to Niagara; and Niagara serves to show us the path to wisdom. It reminds us that we are all in this together; and the solutions to whatever problems we face now require international cooperation. We are not alone.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Legacy of Life

Today, my neighbours at BlogCatalog and I are attempting to do a little consciousness raising. Our subject is organ donation. It is something of which we are all aware; however, we really don't give it much thought -- unless it becomes an issue in our immediate family. But it is one of those phenomena where demand far outstrips supply.

In Australia, over 1700 patients are awaiting organ transplants. In Latin America, more than 50,000 patients are waiting; in Europe and the United States the number is 95,000. And in China, more than 2 million Chinese need organ transplants. The demand is so great that in South Asian countries, such as Pakistan and India, perfectly healthy people are willing to sell an organ -- like a kidney -- in the daily battle to survive.

Perhaps we don't give the idea of donating our organs much thought because what precedes it is too uncomfortable to contemplate. However, most of us prepare wills in preparation for that day. As part of that process, we should also consider what donating our usable organs can mean to those who face premature deaths.

We can give the gift of life to those who still have so much to give to life. And there is no greater gift than the gift a of stranger who gives -- not in the expectation of receiving something in return -- but because the need is great.

It is a gift that will be remembered with each new sunrise.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Lord Black and Captain Ahab

Canadians have never felt much sympathy for Conrad Black. Perhaps that's because he never displayed much sympathy for them. Black's disdain for what he viewed as the Canadian inferiority complex -- which he felt made Canada an economic backwater and a land of limited opportunities -- was well known to his countrymen.

But, as the Lord of Crossharbour found himself a convicted felon last week, it is safe to say that Canadians were not above feeling a sense of catharsis. For, like a Greek or Shakespearean tragic hero, Black's tragic flaw was hubris. The problem was that he clearly was no Oedipus or Othello -- because, in the end, Sophocles' and Shakespeare's creations were self critical enough to at least acknowledge their flaws. Lord Black appears to be much more akin to the classic American tragic hero Captain Ahab, in Melville's Moby Dick. And perhaps that is fitting, given the fact that Black frequently extolled the virtues of Canada's southern neighbour, going so far as to write admiring biographies of two of its presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon.

Like Ahab, Black felt that he was the constant target of lesser creatures who insulted his intelligence. And, like Ahab, he exhibited a heightened sense of injury. When Ahab was told by Starbuck, his first mate, that it was "blasphemy" to hunt an elemental -- a force of nature -- Ahab responded, "Speak not to me of blasphemy, man. I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." And, like Ahab, Black appears to feel no sense of remorse. Ensnared in a tangle of legal harpoons -- some of which he threw himself -- his raised middle finger is a gesture of defiance. He will go to the bottom, refusing to acknowledge that there are some fates which should not be tempted.

For, unlike Black, most Canadians live in the shadow of fate -- or of a natural environment which can seal one's fate. This is a land where prairie farmers have been known to tie ropes from the back doors of their houses to their barns -- as life lines to prevent their getting lost in a blizzard. Perhaps, because Mr. Black grew up a child of privilege, he knows little of the life of a prairie farmer and the elementals which are the axioms of his existence. Canadians tend to side with Starbuck. They know that one does not do battle with white whales or the Great White North. Admittedly, such an attitude is not very heroic -- to my knowledge the only legacy Starbuck has left behind is the bequest of his name to a chain of coffee shops. But at least one survives -- and saves one's soul.

None of us is qualified to analyze the state of Lord Black's soul. But, for many Canadians, when Black renounced his Canadian citizenship he was, in effect, cutting the rope from the back door to the barn. And they watched, knowing instinctively that Black was going to be caught -- snowblind -- in the storm.

This is not to say that Canadians would not allow Lord Black to return to Canada -- although his conviction makes his application for citizenship somewhat problematic. However, Canada has a long tradition of accepting refugees. They would insist, though, that he serve his sentence in a Canadian jail -- unless that sentence were overturned on appeal. We may not be a very heroic people (in the sense that we do not go in search of monsters to slay) but we are a tolerant people. In the end, I suspect that Canadians would be willing to give the Lord of Crossharbour a second chance. But they would insist that he acknowledge he made a mistake when he cut that life line.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The Difference Between a Battle and a War

We can learn something from the British response to the recent terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow. British authorities have relied on very good police work and very effective international cooperation. The same strategy paid considerable dividends when suicide bombers hit the London transportation system two years ago.

That insight is critical as Americans begin to call for a change of strategy in Iraq. Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld insisted that what was needed to combat terrorism was a war. And they brought all the technological resources at their disposal to effect "regime change" in Afghanistan and Iraq. But both countries have a history; and history suggests that in both countries a massive military response was -- and is -- counterproductive. The Russians tried that strategy in Afghanistan in the 1970's; and the British tried the same strategy in Iraq in the 1920's. Both Russia and Britain, despite their huge investment in weapons and human lives, failed to change the fundamental character of the region. Instead, they created what the United States has created in Iraq today -- insurgencies.

Why? Because, despite their sheer brute force, Russia, Britain and the United States -- in the tortured language of George W. Bush -- "misunderestimated" their enemy. The British have some experience with this problem. Perhaps that accounts for the way they are dealing with the attacks in London and Glasgow. But in 1776, they lost the thirteen original colonies because, as the historian Barbara Tuchman pointed out in The March of Folly, they failed to see that, essentially, the American Revolution was an insurgency and that their opponents were not ignorant and unwashed country bumpkins.

It is more than a little ironic that the present American administration is so ignorant of its country's history. It is even more ironic that thirty-five years ago the United States faced an insurgency in Vietnam which no amount of carpet bombing could bring to its knees. History -- whether ancient or modern -- has no bearing on their thinking.

The British encountered the same problem in India. When Mahatma Gandhi told the British that they would one day "walk out of India," Winston Churchill declared that he placed no store in the ridiculous assertions of a "naked savage." But Adolph Hitler misread the same Churchill and his countrymen in 1940, when his air assault on Britain produced the exact opposite of what he so confidently predicted. As a strategy, "shock and awe" is counterproductive against a population prepared to wait out the invaders.

In defending their homeland, the British have abandoned shock and awe for intelligence and leg work. Their chief weapon has been information; and they have relied on an international network of police forces and intelligence agencies to generate that information. Information has led them to abandon some of their previous assumptions -- like the enemy are all foreign infiltrators and they are all ignorant barbarians. The medical profession is the last place that any of us would begin to search for terrorists.

It is information, not ideology, which drives their strategy. The tragedy of the last six years is that the Bush administration has got so much backward. Intelligence comes before strategy; tolerance comes before democracy; battles are on going; but wars are -- or at least should be -- rare. And preemptive war is doomed to failure.

What we have needed from the beginning is a battle against Al Qaeda. All out war simply saps resources; and, as the First World War proved, it can obliterate an entire generation. The war we have waged -- including the war Canadians are fighting in Afghanistan -- is fought against an enemy who has better knowledge of the terrain and which is -- in the words of one military analyst -- willing to trade space for time. When things get tough, insurgents simply leave one area and pop up in another. What we have needed all along is a strong homeland defense, which emphasizes good police work, not a crusade to bring democracy to "savages."

Mr. Bush is not the first to misunderstand the world in which he lives and the battles which need to be fought. More importantly, he ignored advice that could have put him in a much different place. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell -- who knows something of war in general and of war in Iraq in particular -- has recently revealed that he spent two and a half hours with Mr. Bush, trying to convince him that his decision to invade Iraq was folly. "I took him through the consequences of going into an Arab country and becoming the occupiers," Powell told the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. Unlike Mr. Bush, Mr. Powell has some knowledge of the limits of military power. Of the civil war the American invasion of Iraq has spawned, Powell says, "It is not a civil war that can be put down or solved by the armed forces of the United States." Unfortunately, says Powell, "It is not going to be pretty to watch, but I don't know any way to avoid it."

The way to avoid it was to do what Mr. Bush was loathe to do -- which was to avoid grandiose dreams and the rhetoric which accompanies them. If Mr. Bush had committed himself and his country to an admittedly long battle with Al Qaeda, which required stellar police work as opposed to smart weapons, he would not face the general revolt he now confronts. Having led his countrymen into a quagmire, they do not trust him to lead them out. Even his once most fervent supporters understand the fundamental miscalculation he made.

He could have won a battle against Al Qaeda. But he has lost the War on Terror.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Tricky Dicky Two

Richard Nixon once famously offered the opinion that "when the president does it, it's not illegal." After reading a series of articles in last week's Washington Post, one could be forgiven for thinking that the ghost of Nixon still stalks the halls of the White House -- or at least for concluding that his ghost has found a home and a kindred spirit in the office of the vice president.

Nixon forgot that the oath he took was not to "preserve, protect and defend" the United States. It was to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States." Mr. Cheney has consistently shown contempt for that document.

Two months after the September 11th attacks, Cheney brought a four page document to Bush which had been "written in strict secrecy by [David Addington] his lawyer." The Post reports that, "In less than an hour the document traversed a West Wing circuit that gave its words the power of command. It changed hands four times, according to witnesses, with emphatic instructions to bypass staff review." Then Mr. Bush signed the document. When Secretary of State Colin Powell heard about this new executive order on the evening news, his reaction was, "What the hell just happened?" Condolezza Rice was reportedly "incensed." Nevertheless, the order stood. Thus, write Barton Gellman and Jo Becker, "foreign suspects held by the United States were stripped of access to any court -- civilian or military, domestic or foreign. They could be confined indefinitely without charges, and would be tried, if at all, in closed 'military commissions.'"

Having got Mr. Bush to agree to a policy which placed detainees in a legal limbo, Cheney next moved on to the question of how they should be interrogated while in custody. The problem was that the Geneva Conventions got in the way of what Cheney called "robust interrogations." So once again, Addington set to work redefining the term "torture," which the Geneva Conventions strictly outlawed.

Addington produced a document (with which the Justice Department concurred) which "prohibit[ed] only the worst forms of cruel and inhuman treatment" but which permitted many other forms of interrogation based on the newly minted concept of torture, which Addington defined as, "equivalent in intensity to the pain of organ failure . . . or even death." A subsequent memo, produced on the same day, outlined a list of approved interrogation techniques -- including waterboarding -- which the United States had prosecuted as a war crime since 1901. Addington's memo was dated August 1, 2002. It only became public knowledge on June 8, 2004. Just as Mr. Cheney had kept the detainee memo close to his vest, he likewise kept the administration policy on interrogation techniques carefully under wraps.

Besides the influence he wielded in the development of policies on detainee confinement and interrogation, it has recently come to light that Mr. Cheney for the last four years has been quietly ignoring his obligation under law to pass on documents on intelligence to the National Security Archive. His rationale for doing so is that he is not a member of the executive branch of the government -- an argument which Mr. Addington has advanced on his behalf.

Finally, just as Americans were preparing to celebrate Independence Day, Mr. Bush commuted the two a a half year prison sentence of Mr. Cheney's former chief of staff, I. "Scooter" Libby. Given his past involvement, it is hard to believe that Mr. Cheney did not have some input into Mr. Bush's decision.

Clearly, the vice president believes that he should obey laws only when it is convenient to do so. When it becomes inconvenient, he believes he has the right, by virtue of his office, to ignore them or rewrite them without congressional approval -- which is precisely what Richard Nixon maintained.

The whole Watergate saga was about who won that argument. Obviously, Mr. Cheney learned nothing from Watergate. What is even more disturbing is the thought that perhaps he believes Nixon was right.

There are those who bemoan the fact that the Democrats lack the votes to force a change of policy on Mr. Cheney and the man who has such confidence in his advice, the President of the United States. What they forget is that Nixon resigned only when a bipartisan group of senators -- led by Barry Goldwater, the godfather of modern neoconservatism -- went to the White House to tell Nixon that the jig was up and it was time to go.

To date, Republican congressmen have -- for the most part -- remained loyal to the administration. A few, like Senator Hegal of Nebraska, Senator Smith of Oregon and, most recently, Senator Lugar of Indiana have broken with the two men at the top. But, until a critical mass of Republican lawmakers have the valor to tell Bush and Cheney that the jig is up, democracy in the United States is in deep, deep trouble. The question is, how many Republicans have the courage of their convictions?