31 December 2009

To prorogue or not to prorogue

I admit to ambivalence about Prime Minister Harper's extended prorogation of Parliament. As a democrat, I'm offended but not surprised at this contempt for the peoples' business. It is yet another example of the dictatorial powers of prime ministers in our "democratic" system.

On the other hand, I'm in no rush to have more Conservative legislation brought forward. Better it be delayed, hopefully forever. And seeing as our government now simply follows the American lead in key areas such as foreign policy and the environment, there is a limit to what we can expect from them in any case.

The common explanation for the exceptional recess is the government's keen desire to stifle discussion of the torture of Afghan detainees. One can appreciate their desire to suppress that issue because if anyone in the system knowingly handed prisoners over to torturers, they are criminals, and no one wants to rush into adding that to their résumé.

But then the Liberals can use the extra time as well. God knows they have a lot of work to do before they're ready for an election.

Anyway, prorogue it is. A glass half full and half empty.

29 December 2009

America's next war — any bets on Yemen?

It seems the United States needs a new war at least once a decade. Currently they are winding one down and winding another one up. So who is the next lucky country to experience occupation by the empire?

The smart money seems to be on Iran. The U.S. is mightily peeved about the poss-ibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and, always important, Iran is perceived as a threat by Israel. But the smart money may be shifting its bets — to Yemen, a country where in fact the Americans are already militarily involved.

President Obama has taken a close interest in combating al Qaeda in Yemen, issuing a statement in September that proclaimed Yemen's security to be "vital" to the U.S. national security interest. Only Pakistan receives more American dollars for counterterrorism training and support than Yemen. This fall, U.S. and Yemeni government forces jointly attacked al Qaeda training camps in the Arhab district, northeast of the capital. Senator Joe Lieberman has called for immediate, extended "pre-emptive" military action to counter the terrorist threat, and the U.S. Congress has already designated Yemen a "front state" in the war on terror. Evidence that the underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, trained in Yemen will no doubt heighten the American interest.

Yemen is already a violent place. The government has been intermittently fighting an uprising by the Shia Zaidiyyah sect in the north of the country, adjacent to the Saudi border. The Saudi and Yemeni governments accuse Iran of aiding the rebels. Murmurs of secession still occur in the south and the kidnapping of foreign tourists by tribes remains an ongoing problem. Yemen is also becoming a hot bed of al Qaeda activity as jihadis displaced by U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan trek south. Saudi Arabian al Qaeda members are said to be pouring in. Somalia's al-Shabaab Islamist militia has said it will send reinforcements to Yemen in response to U.S. attacks there, and with an estimated 200,000 Somali refugees in Yemen, that's not a threat to be taken lightly. The country's lengthy border with Saudi Arabia has long served as a convenient weapons transit point for Islamist militants fighting the Saudi monarchy. And of course any threat to the Saudis is a threat to American oil interests and that, too, can be a precursor to violence.

Poor, alien, divided by tribal factions and violent, Yemen would pair nicely with Afghanistan. Already, like Pakistan and Somalia, a victim of U.S. covert warfare, it is a likely candidate for something much bigger. Lay your bets.

The U.S. under seige

The United States is under siege by angry Muslims from within and without. In November, U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Malik Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, killing 12 people and wounding 31. On Christmas day, Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up Northwest Airlines fight 253 as it approached Detroit.

What is fueling this madness? It may have something to do with the United States fighting wars in two Muslim countries and supporting Israel as it continues to oppress the Palestinians. If I was a Muslim, I too might be starting to lose my sanity as more Muslims suffered and died from American aggression.

President Obama's reaction to the latest outrage is predictable. "We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat the violent extremists who threaten us ... anywhere where they are plotting attacks against the U.S. homeland." Ho hum. When isn't the U.S. president threatening retaliation and counseling fear? Such is the nature of empire. There is always a threat.

Perhaps it's time they tried another approach. Like not constantly getting in other peoples' faces. Like pulling their troops out of Muslim countries and ending funding of Israeli aggression. Like winding down the empire and minding their own business. Does it not occur to them that their homeland might be threatened because they are constantly interfering in other peoples' homelands?

I'm sure it has occurred to Obama. But what can he do? The leader of a militant empire must strut his militarism or lose face. He, and his fellow Americans, are trapped in a cycle of violence as the madness increases on the other side. According to Nigerian human rights activist Shehu Sani, "There is a serious and growing problem of Islamic fundamentalism in this part of Nigeria. Young people are getting very aggressive and intolerant. Hundreds of young men ... are currently studying in the Middle East. [Abdulmutallab] is a product of this type of hatred and intolerance."

As long as the American empire fuels this kind of hostility, the United States will be under siege. The choice is theirs.

23 December 2009

Is the recession Harper's ally?

For many Canadians, perhaps most, the recession has been a bad thing. But for the Harper government, maybe not so much. Indeed it may offer an opportunity for Mr. Harper to realize his vision for the country.

Stephen Harper is a small government man. Of that, there is no doubt. The problem that he had when he first assumed power was that times were good and it's difficult to reduce government in good times. But then toward the end of 2008, capitalism crashed and times turned sour. The Harper administration was taken by surprise but soon got into the swing of things and joined other governments around the world by funding massive economic stimuli while plunging the country deeply into debt. Suddenly we were into big government, very big indeed, with a deficit this year of $56-billion.

This might look bad for a small government man, but not necessarily. We now have to climb out of deficit and the Prime Minister and his finance minister are making it clear how that will be done. It will be done by economic growth and by shrinking government. Taxes will not be raised, not even to correct the mistake of cutting the GST. Transfers to provinces will not be reduced. Apparently, we are to climb back to balanced budgets largely by allowing the public service to shrink by attrition. Economists and former Finance Department officials have suggested this strategy won't be enough but their views have fallen on deaf ears.

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, warns Mr. Harper, "I hope he realizes that when you cut public servants, you cut public service." Mr. Harper is no doubt fully aware of that.

The only question is what public services are to be cut. Some departments are safe. With their fondness for the military and their punitive approach to crime, the government won't be cutting in those areas. Indeed the top two departments in terms of hiring recently are National Defence and Correctional Service. Public services less favoured by conservative philosophy can be expected to be in shorter supply. And that I imagine is what Mr. Harper has had in mind all along.

22 December 2009

Hopenagen or Nopenagen?

So where are we after Copenhagen? Was it Hopenhagen or Nopenhagen? Is the glass half empty or half full? Is it the beginning of the end or the beginning of the beginning?

There were promising signs. The conference brought together the largest gathering of heads of state in the history of the UN. There was general recognition that we are indeed warming the planet, that deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions are "required according to science," and even recognition of the scientific view that we must keep the warming to within two degrees. The developing countries agreed they too must slow emissions, and the developed nations accepted a responsibility for helping them fund adaption to climate change.

Still, it was nowhere near enough. No binding agreement. Commitments were vague. No agreement on goals for emission reductions in the long term. Not even agreement on whether significant items such as aviation and shipping should be included.

Nonetheless, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was optimistic. "It may not be everything we hoped for, but this decision of the Conference of Parties is an essential beginning ... The importance will only be recognized when it's codified into international law ... We must transform this into a legally binding treaty next year," he said. Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat, was less enthusiastic, commenting, "We need to be clear that it is a letter of intent and is not precise about what needs to be done in legal terms. So the challenge is now to turn what we have agreed politically in Copenhagen into something real, measurable and verifiable.”

And that will be quite a challenge indeed. It is now a race against time. The scientists tell us the threat now isn't a greenhouse gas effect, it's a runaway greenhouse gas effect. We are approaching the point where we can't stop it regardless of what we do. Copenhagen indicated a general realization of the problem but not of the urgency. So I remain pessimistic. I don't yet see that people have the will to do what is necessary and I see leaders doing more following than leading.

As a species we have the intelligence to save ourselves. We know what the problem is and we know how to solve it. We have the intellectual capacity. What we lack is the moral capacity. We are too selfish, too tribal. The other guys should make the first big move, we all have a good reason why it shouldn't be us. And that attitude could prove fatal.

21 December 2009

For your New Year's resolution, support Bill C-463

Sent your MP a Christmas card this year? Probably too late now. But not for a New Year's card. You could, if you believe in fair trade, do worse than send him a little note along with it suggesting he or she support Bill C-463 when Parliament resumes sitting ... whenever that may be.

Bill C-463, tabled by NDP international trade critic Peter Julian, would prohibit the importation of goods that failed to meet the labour standards set by the International Labour Organization. Specifically, those goods "produced, manufactured or assembled, in whole or in part" that contravene the following:
(a) the right of association;
(b) the right to bargain collectively;
(c) the prohibition on the use of any form of forced or compulsory labour;
(d) a minimum age for employment of children; and
(e) acceptable conditions of work with respect to minimum wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health.
Trade agreements have been primarily instruments to protect the rights of international corporations, particularly to freely set up shop in places they find most conducive to profits. Unfortunately that often means in countries where employees work in sweatshop conditions, lacking the basic human rights that every worker deserves. This bill, if given royal assent, would at least assure that such workers were not exploited by Canadians. As Peter Julian has said, we need "a new set of rules to reform the existing one-sided approach to trade." Not only would this ensure Canadians had clean hands, it would help create and protect Canadian jobs, and it would offer us an opportunity to be an international leader again, a role we have been systematically abandoning.

So, if fair trade is your cup of eggnog, resolve to pass along the message to your MP in 2010.

11 December 2009

The taxi driver and the WMDs

Graham Greene or John le Carré couldn't have done it better. Tony Blair topped them both.

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Blair's government produced a dossier that, among other things, claimed Saddam Hussein could unleash weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes, a claim that sent shivers down the spines of people who heard it, including mine. It was, of course, nonsense. Saddam Hussein couldn't unleash weapons of mass destruction in 45 years, never mind minutes. He didn't have any.

So where did this nonsense come from? Wait for it. Britain's MI6 obtained the information indirectly from a taxi driver on the Iraqi-Jordanian border who overheard a conversation between two Iraqi military commanders in the back of his cab two years earlier. Yes, it was on the basis of such evidence as the gossip of taxi drivers that Blair's government frightened its citizens into supporting an invasion of Iraq. Thus does farce descend into tragedy.

An interesting footnote is the career of the man in charge of the "dodgy dossier." Head of the Joint Intelligence Committee at the time, John Scarlett went on to become head of MI6.

Obama's Nobel speech: "just" war or just war?

It may have been the least peace-sounding speech by a Nobel Peace Prize winner ever. U.S. President Barack Obama, this year's winner, attempted to strike a balance, justifying war at the same time as he justified peace. A balance he said between pacifism on one side, exemplified by Gandhi and King, and militarism on the other. In other words, the moderate path between extremes.

This might have been convincing if the United States was on such a path, but it isn't. The United States is waging two wars, has hundreds of military bases around the world, and spends almost as much on weaponry as the rest of the world combined. It is on a path of militarism, and that's the path Obama has inherited and is pursuing. He may be winding one of his wars down, but he's ramping the other one up.

Now the leader of a war nation, Obama may, for better or worse, simply be adapting to that position because he has no choice. Militarism is now so entrenched in the American economy and the American culture that a true man of peace probably can't win the presidency of that nation. Obama must play the warrior, talk some war talk and do some war stuff or lose his credibility.

The real question is where he's going with it. Is it possible that he isn't quite the man the world hoped for and, soaring rhetoric aside, has succumbed to the lure of power? Does he find the role of emperor pleasing and is he becoming increasingly comfortable with massive military budgets and endless war? Has he become a closet militarist?

Or is he playing for time, performing for the warmongers while planning to actually move his country off the militarist road and toward the moderate path he talked about? There are hints. He seems serious in his dialogue with Russia about reducing nuclear armaments. Indeed, he talks about a world without nuclear arms. He is pulling his country out of Iraq, if painfully slowly, and despite the surge he has set a timetable for leaving Afghanistan. Despite his stimulus policies, he seems to understand the United States can no longer afford its spendthrift ways and the fattest budget available for the axe is the defence budget.

To borrow his favourite word, we can only hope. But the United States has a long way to go to shed its militarism: ending two wars, closing dozens of military bases, decommissioning thousands of nuclear weapons, dramatically slashing weapons spending ... a very long way indeed. If Obama can even make a serious start on all this, he will have earned his Nobel.

02 December 2009

The logic of empire: Obama does his Bush impression

"What's at stake is the security of our allies, and the common security of the world." With that ludicrous statement, U.S. President Barack Obama became heir to the neo-con arrogance of empire that fueled the George W. Bush administration's foreign policy. And the speech in which he made this remark was worthy of George W. Bush: start off with the mandatory reference to 9/11, repeat the word "security" ad nauseam, instill lots of fear without providing evidence, wave the flag, and bow out.

In fact, the Americans' chosen enemy, the Taliban, are a threat to no one's security outside of Afghanistan.

As for the dreaded al Qaeda, Obama's own commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has stated they are few in number in Afghanistan and largely limited to non-combat support roles. In other words, even the parasites on the Taliban are no threat from Afghanistan, and even if the Taliban formed a government, it's doubtful in the extreme they would want bin Laden and his troublemakers around. And al Qaeda doesn't need Afghanistan. They've got sanctuaries in Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and god only knows where else. Or will the U.S. invade those countries, too? And maybe Iran for good measure?

In Afghanistan the Americans, with Canadians trotting along behind, are propping up a weak, corrupt, drug-addled government of marginal legitimacy that even they don't trust. In his speech, Obama warned Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, that “The days of providing a blank check are over.” And then he proceeded to sign a very large blank cheque.

God forbid, but I'm starting to wonder who to support in Afghanistan. True, the Taliban are a frightening bunch of religious thugs, but on the other hand they didn't leave 3 million dead behind them in Vietnam, nor did they leave a million dead behind them in Iraq, nor are they backstopping the oppression of the Palestinians. If the Taliban can humble the Americans and thereby encourage them to rely more on soft power in their international dealings rather than their $600-billion military budget and 600 military bases, maybe in the long run it would be for the best.

... What thoughts to harbour!! Yet when even a president like Obama cannot escape the logic of empire, one's thinking does wander.

The people spoke ... and embarrassed their nation

One question that anyone who spends time thinking about democracy eventually encounters is the relative merits of direct and representative democracy. The recent referendum in Switzerland in which the Swiss voted 57 per cent to ban minarets on mosques in that country raises the question once again.

The Swiss are big on referendums and, indeed, referendums are the most popular vehicle for direct democracy. They are not, however, without major weaknesses. Problems arise from their yes or no nature. Yes or no sucks one of the vital ingredients of democracy — compromise — out of the issue. It also divides, creating an atmosphere of us and them, winners and losers. And indeed the Swiss decision has created division, and much hostility.

Few issues are as simple as yes or no. Referendums relieve citizens of the need to think below the surface. Some citizens will research the issue, think it through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Many won’t. The ignorance component of referendums can, therefore, be very high. One of the powerful advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration might be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they simply voted in a referendum.

And then there's the question of just how representative a referendum is. How representative of the Swiss people was the 53 per cent who turned out for this vote? Was it truly representative of the whole population or was it, as referendums often are, dominated by those most emotionally involved with the issue. In this case, that may very well have been the bigots, those most aroused by hate and fear of the other.

Fortunately, there is a form of direct democracy which neatly solves the problems of division, inaccurate representation, and lack of deliberation posed by referendums. It's called a citizens assembly, and consists of bringing a representative group of citizens together to immerse themselves in an issue and discuss it face-to-face. Provided with a comprehensive package of information, access to experts and politicians on all sides of the issue, and ample opportunity to discuss and debate among themselves in small groups, participants can arrive at a thoroughly deliberated decision that incorporates a full range of views. With scientific sampling of a population and mandatory attendance, an assembly can truly represent the people, at least the people in microcosm.

Referendums force citizens to take sides, and the majority hammers the minority. Whereas referendums divide people, assemblies unite them, and unlike a referendum, every citizen involved in an assembly is well-informed. People isolated in their own domains tend to obsess on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their prejudices. Assemblies bring people together to unite and modify their views. Dialogue between participants ensures better decision-making, engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It educates and civilizes. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.

So what would the Swiss have decided if a group truly representative of them had had the opportunity to thoroughly deliberate and discuss their views with each other in an intimate setting? Well, we don't know. We do know that without that opportunity they came to a decision laced with bigotry. We also know that the bigotry has no basis in fact. Muslims make up only five per cent of the population of Switzerland; they are mostly of European extraction, well-integrated, religiously moderate and no mosques have called for sharia law or any other form of political Islam. We know also that the government, the mainstream political parties, the churches, the major newspapers and the business community all opposed the ban. Of course, the people are not obliged to pay any attention to their leaders. And yet the most recent poll showed only 37 per cent of the Swiss people supported the ban, leaving one to wonder if those who voted did represent their countrymen and women. Were they the voice of the people?

In any case, the result was not surprising for the divisive instrument of referendum. If the Swiss had opted instead for a citizens assembly, they might have reached a more enlightened decision and avoided embarrassing their country.