31 March 2007

Iran and the 15 captives: let's have a sense of proportion

Great umbrage is being taken by Western politicians and media toward Iran's arrest of 15 British sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf. The umbrage may be justified; however, it should not cause us to lose sight of the fact that the event is trivial relative to the larger events taking place in the vicinity. Not trivial, certainly, to the 15 captives and their loved ones, but trivial to the victims of that same British military and its American accomplice waging an illegal war against Iran's neighbour. Trivial to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and their loved ones, to the millions of refugees, and to all those Iraqis who see their country being utterly destroyed. While Western politicians demand UN Security Council action against Iran, they are mute about action against Britain and the U.S. for its vastly more aggressive behaviour in Iraq. They lack any sense of proportion.

Iranians have suffered over a hundred years of bullying by the British, so it isn't surprising they are deeply apprehensive about British troops on their doorstep. This history includes an invasion in 1941, the imposition of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as shah, the overthrow of the democratically elected Mossadegh government in the 1950s, and support for Saddam Hussein in his 1980-88 war of aggression. The British claim their personnel were still 1.7 nautical miles outside Iranian waters when they were taken -- lots of room for the Brits, too damn close for the Iranians.

The Iranians see the British everywhere they look: fighting a war on their eastern border, fighting a war on their western border, prowling ominously in the Persian Gulf. They must wonder if the sun will ever set on the British Empire.

28 March 2007

Saudi king lashes U.S.

A critic the Americans don't need -- King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

In his opening speech at the Arab League summit, Abdullah condemned the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation” and went on to say that aid to the Palestinians should resume. When one of America's closest friends and allies in the Middle East strongly condemns two of its major policies in the region, the Bush administration has got to feel the ground shifting under its feet.

Abdullah's distancing himself from the U.S. is due partly to the ground shifting under his feet. Seeing the growth of Shia power in the region, particularly the increasing influence of Iran, and dealing with growing Islamic extremism in his own country, he recognizes the need for Arab unity, particularly the need to defuse the increasingly violent confrontations between Shia and Sunni. He sees the Palestine problem and the war in Iraq as inflaming Muslim radicals while enhancing the influence of the Arabs' Persian neighbour. These sources of hostility and conflict have been aggravated, even caused, by American interference, and therefore that interference has become a threat he can no longer tolerate.

The Sauds are, in themselves, misogynist dictators the world would be better off without. Nonetheless, if they can make a contribution to peace between Shia and Sunni, between Iran and the Arabs, and between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as they genuinely seem to be trying to do, they will at least have made themselves useful.

As for the Americans, t
his is not a friend they can afford to alienate. It has, after all, the world's largest reserves of oil.

27 March 2007

Hell freezes over

The Quebec election reflects the real Canadian division

The Quebec election illustrates the real dividing line in this country, not the only one -- we have many -- but the principle one in electoral politics. It isn't East vs. West, or even Quebec vs. the rest, it's town vs. country. In the case of Quebec, as Lysianne Gagnon wrote in The Globe, the election represents rural revenge against the "city slickers from Montreal."

Despite the Parti Qubecois' declared allegiance to the customs and values and heritage of old Quebec, in reality it has always been the preserve of urbane Montreal intellectuals. Did they actually believe rural and small town Quebecois would rally behind a gay cocaine-smoker? To social conservatism, the dominant ethos in the hinterlands, Andre Boisclair is the devil personified.

The PQ have never really connected with this ethos, but they were the only nationalist show in town so they captured the rural vote anyway. Now Mario Dumont comes along, a man who really shares those down home values, and rural voters flock to him like the electoral messiah he is. Finally, a guy who "gets" them.

We see this across the country. In Saskatchewan, for example, almost all the rural seats go to the Saskatchewan (conservative) Party while almost all the urban seats go to the NDP. And of course federally, Dumont appeals to the same voters as Harper and for similar reasons.

A century ago ago, we were a rural country, 80% of us lived on farms and villages. Now we are an urban country, 80% of us live in towns and cities. In the last century, we didn't so much urbanize as suburbanize. In this century, many of the inner suburbs are becoming increasingly urban as growing towns circle the outer suburbs. It's a fluid dynamic, but one thing seems certain. We can expect the rural populace, with its social conservatism and ethnic homogeneity, to continue to decline -- and to continue to resent that decline. On Monday, they struck back.

26 March 2007

Could this be as big as Nixon in China?

Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, signaling the normalization of relations between the two powers, was considered one of the great diplomatic breakthroughs of the last century. Is it remotely possible that the Bush administration's new approach to the Palestine problem will lead to a similar breakthrough?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced yesterday the intention of the United States to enter into
negotiations for a Palestinian state even as Israel continues to boycott talks with the Palestinian Authority. Rarely does the U.S. act independently of Israel. The Americans' unequivocal support for Israel, combined with their insensitivity to Arab grievances, particularly those of the Palestinians, has made settlement of the Palestine problem difficult, if not impossible.

The administration's new approach is no doubt a result partly of desperation as the Middle East situation grows steadily worse for the United States. As Nixon approached China in order to circumscribe the influence of the Soviet Union in Asia, the Americans desperately seek ways to circumscribe the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East. But their motivation is irrelevant if it leads to a solution to perhaps the most toxic problem in the world of international relations.

This is only a small gesture, and may lead nowhere. Hope waxes and wanes in the Levant like the seasons. But if it results in a stable Palestinian state, George Bush could go out on at least one high note on what has been the most miserable presidency in living memory.

21 March 2007

Forget productivity, the challenge is distribution

In an article in the March issue of the CCPA Monitor, editor Ed Finn illustrates that from 1970 to 2005 Canada's GDP per capita almost precisely doubled, in constant dollars. As someone old enough to remember 1970, I can vouch for the fact we were quite capable at that time of providing a comfortable standard of living for each and every Canadian. Now that we are twice as rich, we are capable of providing a comfortable standard of living for each and every Canadian at least twice over.

Yet all we hear from business and the daily press (perhaps I should say business including the daily press) are concerns about a lack of productivity. Never enough wealth, it seems. But to what end? Just to fill our homes with ever more stuff? We can appreciate the business focus on making money, it's what business is all about -- the more sales, the more profit, the more market share, the more successful the business -- but this hardly seems sufficient measure of success for a healthy society. I suspect that for most progressives a fair distribution of wealth is at least as important as producing more, certainly at least when we have at least twice as much as we need to provide the material comforts.

Canadians, it seems, would agree. A recent survey commissioned by The Globe and Mail and CTV indicated over 2 1/2 times as many of us would prefer to see the federal government increase its spending on social programs as would like to see it reduce taxes.

The challenge of creating enough wealth for this country's material welfare was met and dealt with long ago.
On the other hand, we still have a lot of work to do to create a relatively equitable society with a comfortable standard of living for all Canadians. Our poverty levels remain much higher than those in most northern European countries. Our native people are particularly badly off, shamefully so in a nation as rich as ours. And then of course there's the Third World, a universe of problems so big they seem overwhelming but which we can be instrumental in helping solve if we are prepared to commit the resources.

Both the magnitude and the ever-increasing nature of our GDP tell us the challenge is no longer how to create wealth but how to share it. This isn't a bad thing to keep in mind at a time when government budgets are so much in the pubic mind.

20 March 2007

Pakistan's military disappear the "poet of Guantanamo"

On February 27th, I posted a piece mentioning the Afghan writer Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, "the poet of Guantanamo." Dost recently published a book entitled The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo about his three years in the notorious prison. The book has become a hit. Too much so for the Pakistani army which it roundly criticizes for illegally turned Dost over to the Americans in 2002. Only weeks after publishing the book, he was abducted by police as he returned from his local mosque. The courts have demanded the military produce him but they have not replied.

What began with operations to pick up al Qaeda suspects after 9/11 has become an all-out campaign against dissent. Hundreds of Pakistanis have been disappeared, none ever appearing before a court. Pakistan's military intelligence agencies have been greatly aided in their iniquitous activities by
equipment, expertise and money provided by the Americans in return for co-operation against al Qaeda.

Collaboration with military thugs has backfired on the United States so often you think they might learn. And they don't pay the price alone.
Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost has paid it twice over.

19 March 2007

Canadians stick together

Conservative icon Margaret Thatcher once famously said there was no such thing as society. Canadians, it seems, disagree. The pages of The Globe and Mail were brightened this morning by news of a poll that showed 50% of us want the federal government to increase spending on social services while only 19% want reduced taxes.

Add this to the support we offered governments for cutting back in the 1990s to balance their budgets and you have an indelible picture of a people who see themselves as a society, as a community. In lean times, we should all make sacrifices, and in good times, we should all share the wealth. Above all, we should take care of each other.

This is rather surprising considering the corporate press constantly indoctrinates us in the mantra of lower taxes. The lie that taxes must be lower to maximize our economic performance has been utterly disproven by northern Europtean countries which are both high tax regimes and the world's most competitive economies. Nonetheless, the corporate press persists in its propaganda. Canadians, however, aren't buying it. This may be frustrating for Thatcherites, but satisfying indeed to those who believe there is such a thing as society after all. And it is alive and well.

16 March 2007

Irena Sendlerowa, reluctant hero

It is rare indeed that even a slender ray of sunshine emerges from the greatest atrocity in history, the Holocaust of the Jews and Roma by the Nazis, yet occasionally one does. Such is the case with the recent honouring as a national hero by the Polish parliament of 97-year old Irena Sendlerowa.

Irena, a social worker with permission to enter the Warsaw ghetto, organized a small group that smuggled out Jewish children, changed their identities, and placed them with Polish families. In 1942 and 1943, they saved 2,500 babies and children by hiding them in ambulances, taking them out through passages that led out of the ghetto, and wheeling them out on trolleys in suitcases and boxes.

Irena did not forget their heritage. She recorded their names
on slips of paper which she sealed in glass bottles and buried in a friend's garden. After the war, the bottles were dug up and the lists handed to Jewish representatives so the children could be reunited with their families. Tragically, most of their relatives had perished in the camps. The children, at least, had survived.

Arrested by the Gestapo, Irena was beaten, her legs and feet broken so severely she has walked on crutches ever since. She rejects the title of "hero," saying she still feels guilty for "doing so little."
She is a hero, nonetheless, a humble, but truly remarkable hero, and she has quite rightly been nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

15 March 2007

Lawyers of the world, unite!

General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, is facing a serious revolt. What, one wonders, has happened. Have the peasants risen up? Are the workers barricading the streets? Well ... no. Actually, the lawyers are running amok.

Last Friday, Musharraf called the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, into his office at army headquarters and asked for his resignation. The judge, who has frequently confronted the government and generally been a thorn in the general's side, refused. Musharraf continues to seek the judge's resignation and the judge continues to refuse. The case is now going, where else, to court. Meanwhile, the legal community has rallied behind Justice
Chaudhry, with lawyers demonstrating in the streets, burning Musharraf in effigy, and battling police.

The judge, who has staunchly supported those persecuted by the regime,
has become a national hero. "He took a lot of strong decisions to free victims of this government. He is very good," commented a local barber. The revolt probably won't get far -- it's hard to defeat a half-million strong military armed only with brief cases -- but it is spreading as other groups opposed to the dictator call their supporters into the streets.

Lawyers leading the revolution. Who would have thought?

14 March 2007

Canadian War Museum: for promoting truth or tribal myths?

Two stories about war and history have caught the public eye recently. One is Japan's difficulty in coming to terms with the use of sex slaves, euphemistically referred to as "comfort women," by its military during WWII. The other is a panel of text in the Canadian War Museum that describes the bombing of German cities during WWII as controversial. Both prompt questions about both war and the use of history.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears unable to make up his mind about the comfort women, first seeming remorseful, then denying coercion was used. Meanwhile, Japanese legislators have had all references to the infamous incident removed from junior high school textbooks. Other nations are deeply unhappy with Japan's historical revisionism. The South Korean Foreign Ministry referred to it as an attempt to "gloss over historical truth." I suspect most Canadians would agree.

We, however, have our own quarrel about our behaviour in WWII. One panel in an exhibit in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa claims the allied bombing of German civilians is controversial. The accuracy of the text is not in question and considering the air raids killed 600,000 Germans, left five million homeless, and included fire-bombings that were nothing less than mass terrorism, claiming the attacks were controversial would seem to be eminently reasonable. Nonetheless, the Royal Canadian Legion insists the text is "insensitive" and is calling for a boycott of the museum.

All this prompts the question of the value of history. Do we learn from it, or do we simply use it to create tribal myths. If it is the former, then teaching history has real value, if the latter, then teaching it becomes downright dangerous. Certainly, we can learn from it. For example, from the allied fire bombings of Germany (and more so from the atom bombings of Japan) we can learn that terrorism is used by good guys as well as bad guys. Furthermore, we can learn that in war, not only the enemy does evil. That we may have to do, or at least believe we have to do, terrible things in order to win is a vital lesson of war. After all, war isn't wrong so much because other people do bad things, but because we do bad things.

But if war history is used -- not learned from but used -- simply to honour our warriors and create tribal myths, it becomes a menace. What better way to enamour young men of war than to instruct them that yes it is dangerous but nonetheless leads to glory for our righteous warriors? Young men love risk and to endure risk in a noble cause -- how attractive, how romantic. And this, I submit, has been the major use of military history down through the ages. We have long been taught that Canada "came of age" during the First World War, a highly arbitrary idea arising from the exploitation of military history for myth-making.

So far, the War Museum is standing firm and leaving the panel in the exhibit. Let's hope it, if you'll pardon the expression, stands by its guns and insists on placing truth over myth.

13 March 2007

Afghanistan: the poppy prevails

Afghanistan's continued economic dependence on illegal opium continues to confound those who would save the country from itself.

One of the more constructive solutions suggested is purchasing Afghanistan's production for medical use. This, unfortunately presents a variety of problems:
  • It would have to be produced in a tightly controlled environment to prevent it being diverted to the black market, and Afghanistan officials are far too corrupt to do that.
  • There is no shortage of medical morphine in the world, and Afghanistan's crop would flood the market, driving legitimate growers in other countries into bankruptcy.
  • And, finally, illicit opium fetches five times the price of medical opium.
No silver bullet here.

The American solution is to spray the poppies with pesticides and offer the farmers alternative crops. This is the preferred approach to the production of cocaine in Colombia, producer of 90% of the North American supply. Unfortunately, it isn't working. The U.S. just completed a 7-year, $4.7-billion (U.S.) anti-drug program in Colombia, of which aerial spraying was a major part. Some of the results are as follows:
  • The purity of the product has risen while the price has fallen dramatically.
  • More land is planted in coca now than when the program began. Over 60% of the sprayed fields have been replanted, and new plots constantly appear.
  • The spraying often kills staple food crops, thus encouraging, if not forcing, farmers to replant coca in order to buy food.
  • In one typical village, peasants have had their crops sprayed at least five times, yet virtually every family still grows coca.
The Americans claim their program has reduced crime and destroyed large farms run by drug lords, so some good may have been done. But the coca plant remains triumphant. For Afghanistan and the poppy, there doesn't seem to be a silver bullet here either.

09 March 2007

Is it official? Is the cold war hot again?

Well, we blew it folks. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we had the best chance since WWII to achieve global peace, at least among the major powers. But it didn't happen. Now it looks like the cold war is heating up again.

Russia's security council has declared that global terrorism is no longer the country's biggest threat. The Western powers are, particularly in the form of NATO. The new policy coincides with Russian fury at
American plans to place missile interceptor and radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Senior Russian military officials are reportedly infuriated by NATO's "relentless expansion" into "post-Soviet space." We can assume that Russia, flush with massive oil and gas revenues, will expand its armaments accordingly.

China has been expanding its military budget with percentage increases in the double digits for some time, by 18 % this year alone, and recently sent a shiver up a few backbones when it shot a satellite out of the sky with a ground-based missile. It now spends over $50-billion officially on defence, probably much more unofficially. All this has caused U.S. Vice-president Dick Cheney to fret about China's military build-up as "not consistent with Beijing's stated goal of a peaceful rise."

And that hypocritical statement gets at the probable core of the matter -- the massive expansion of the U.S. military. While China's defence spending has risen from 1.32% of GDP in 2000 to 1.35% in 2006, American spending has increased from 3.07% to 4.23% of GDP in the same period. The U.S. now accounts for almost half of the world's expenditures on arms. And of course the Americans, along with the other nuclear powers, continue to enhance their missile and nuclear weapons capabilities.

The United States, as the only remaining great power,
had a responsibility to lead the world toward meaningful disarmament. It declined. Now Russia appears eager to regain its status as a great power and China, too, is muscling up. Not surprisingly, smaller nations that want a say in their region's affairs, Iran being a prime example, follow the example set by their big brothers -- might is right.

Perhaps the perceived threat of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons isn't a bad thing after all. Maybe it will make the world, particularly the nuclear powers, wake up to the insanity of endless military expansion. And maybe pigs will fly.

07 March 2007

MPs vote to elect upper chamber

Unfortunately, not our MPs and not our upper chamber.

what House leader Jack Straw termed a "historic step forward," the British House of Commons voted 337 to 227 today for a fully elected House of Lords. They voted earlier, an overwhelming 416 to 163, to keep an upper chamber of some sort, then considered a series of options, culminating in the vote to fully democratize the place. Tony Blair's choice, a 50/50 split between elected and appointed members, was resoundingly defeated.

The vote is only advisory but does give a clear impression of what the MPs feel about the upper chamber. It will now be up to the government to decide whether of not to propose a Lords reform bill to Parliament. Such a bill might propose a change in the name of the chamber and probably propose election by proportional representation.

This is an item worth keeping an eye on, possibly precedent-setting for dealing with our own antiquated upper chamber.