Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics


Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Strategic Planning, Crossroads of Culture (Tuesday March 14, 2006 at 11:05 pm)

It seems like only last year that Canada’s Prime Minister was sashaying his way through a choreographed visit to Asia. Ah, but like a junior high box step, a year’s time hasn’t moved things along very much. The new Prime Minister has made his way to Asia; and though the trips might seem different, the most significant change is the quality of the choreography.


Paul Martin’s Trip vs. Stephen Harper’s Trip

  • Destination: Indonesia/Afghanistan
  • Area’s Woes: Tsunami/Post-War Insurgency
  • Canadian Presence: Troop Deployment/Troop Deployment
  • Canadian Casualties: 260/30

Yes, that last one’s right. Canadian fatalities in Afghanistan (which have reached eleven) combined with injuries are significantly less than the total dead and missing from the 2004 Asian Tsunami. Let’s just ignore the fact that about a third of those fatalities (four) have come from accidents and friendly fire.

There is one crucial difference: the Indonesian mission was a response (effective or not) to a humanitarian crisis. The Afghan mission is follow-up (effective or not) to a war in which Canada was involved. By visiting Indonesia, Paul Martin was associating himself with a sense of Canada as nursemaid to the world. Harper’s visit associates him with a sense of Canada as a policeman to the world.

Law and order vs. health and welfare? Sounds like a traditional display of respective party values, and it largely is. But though these moves might attract different partners, the steps are pretty much the same.

Paul Martin’s trip was closely choreographed. It was quick, made for a select media audience, and rejected both interview questions and independent journalists, as handily documented in famed videography. The only strategic failure was, in fact, the release of that video and the (limited) reaction.

Prime Minister Harper’s trip is, by all accounts, quite different. He’s been photographed extensively interacting with troops, something which Martin kept to a minimum. The visit lasted almost two days, while Martin’s visit was as brief as could be managed (less than a day). But in truth, it’s just as managed (surprise, surprise!)

The quotes splashed across this morning’s National Post, and widely reported were from a planned speech, rather than responses to specific questions. Reporters seeking elaboration had to go through the Prime Minister’s aides, as reported in the Toronto Star’s coverage.

Shocking? Surprising? Not really. Foreign visits, like dance clubs, can be great places to show off; but the risk of foolish missteps rises with the opportunity for success. Politicians can be forgiven for practicing their moves and keeping them tight.

What’s the point?

If Martin’s carefully-crafted Kecak was a metaphor for his overwrought and passionless campaign, Harper’s uptight attan reflects his broader policy on the mission: keep it closed — no debate.

And that’s just wrong in both cases.

In Afghanistan, Harper has a supportive and welcoming posse of soldiers, a clear message, and rock-solid support. Are there really topical questions that can embarrass him under the circumstances? Is any Canadian reporter really going to tear into the mission in front of the soldiers? More importantly, what better response could the PM have than a strong reply with young, cheering servicemen and women at his back? Do what you will with the quality of the response, it plays well to the only groups he can hope to hit with this trip: the pro-military lobby and those who need evidence of his passion.

At home, the Conservatives’ anti-discussion message does two disservices to the armed forces. Peter McKay’s suggestion that debate would undermine troops’ morale is insulting to the very troops the Tories claim to support. The six-month reviews hinted at by Harper would be improved by a meaningful debate, undertaken at the government’s initiative, in which the government makes the case for the current deployment, rather than continuing, weakly, to shift responsibility to the commanding Generals and the decision of the former government.

Granted, there’s nowhere for pro-military voters to go. The worst-case scenario for the Tories is for those voters to stay home, not for them to shift. Those who object to the mission aren’t going to stay mum just because the government doesn’t want to debate with them; and there’s nothing to be done about that but taking the initiative. The Tories are playing it safe by not taking a strong stance on the mission and crying patriotic support in lieu of debate.

Playing it safe isn’t a sound strategy. Voters who decided to try them out in the last election won’t be impressed by inaction or reaction. The Conservatives’ controlled election strategy let them set the agenda and spread a substantive message without fear of contradiction. The current strategy of control leaves the agenda in others’ hands — it hugs the rail. Hugging the rail didn’t work for the Liberals, and it’s hard to see what inroads the Conservatives expect to make by it.

The answer is to do what worked for them in the election — take the initiative. There will be opposition and there will be debate, but if the Tories take a stand, they can frame it to their advantage and still pull out at the end of Canada’s six-month term with the dignity of a job well done. The stand isn’t “no debate”. It has to be about the difference to be made in Afghans’ lives and Canadians’ role in that project. A grateful Afghan President is ready to help make that case; and the Tories should take him up on it.

In other words, it’s time to change choreographers. Hands at sides, shifting weight doesn’t fly in high school — it doesn’t fly in office either. If the Tories want to hang on to government, they need to strut their stuff. Going to Afghanistan shows they know they’re in the show. Let’s see whether they can dance.

Primus Super Pares0

Posted by JJ in Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Monday January 30, 2006 at 12:20 am)

Whether you agree with the Iraqi war or not, it’s led to some interesting revelations.

It may be classically trite to point out that dictators rule for themselves, and not for any other purpose; but this is really the only point worth dwelling on. It’s not absolute power that makes a tyrant, neither is it solitary rule. Debatably, granted, but no one’s ever had the former, and the latter makes both tyrants and beloved monarchs.

The ancients made the distinction closely (as some have tried to point out): a tyranny was a corrupt form of monarchy, in which power no longer served the political community, but rather, the tyrant himself. The tyrant served his own interests, bringing to life the ancient Greek’s vision of the Oriental (read: Persian) potentate, a decadent, self-serving fop.

The tyrant isn’t part of the politics of a community, he stands above it. He commands the community the way a Roman father commands the household. All those within are working for his advancement. What benefit they derive is incidental — he is entitled to their service and they are required to be grateful. He is not part of the household, he is above it. Not part of the community, but outside it, by virtue of his position.

Which is why outbursts like this from Saddam Hussein, former ruler of Iraq, seem telling:

“I want to leave the court,” Saddam Hussein demanded of the judge, who in turn ordered the former leader out.

“I led you for 35 years and you order me out of the court?” the former Iraqi president responded angrily.

Presumably, having led the country entitles Mr. Hussein to some special consideration — he is no longer within the ambit of the law.

This is not the outburst of a criminal who thinks the law is wrong, neither the anger of a man who claims that he is falsely accused or wrongly deposed. It is plainly the indignation of a man who is no subject.

Easy, perhaps, to recognize in the tantrum of a fallen dictator the indicia of tyranny. He refuses to be subject to the law, for no man is subject to his servant, and the law, like everything else in Iraq, was consigned to his service.

Leadership bestows no gifts anymore than being a doctor makes a man wealthy. It is, in point of fact, charging for a doctor’s services that makes a man wealthy. A good doctor makes people well — it is a good biller who amasses wealth; and there have always been those of skill who cannot seem to make a profit from it.

The gifts bestowed on leaders are thanks for good work done. They should not come from having led, though, more and more, it seems acceptable that former leaders should qualify for high honours (a deplorable practice which does little to uphold the value of such honours and much to diminish the accomplishments of the truly deserving).

But to the point: when those who come to power play it for their own benefit do we stop and wonder? Do we ask how far a government can bend the state to satisfy its political supporters? Do we, in short, demand that governments work for the interests of us all, or are we satisfied to see them work for only a few of us?

Do we, or are there tyrants living above us, too?


Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, Crossroads of Culture (Monday January 16, 2006 at 10:40 pm)

And now for something completely different:

Iran will be hosting a conference on the holocaust.

Previously, this kind of spectacle could only be had by watching South African President Mbeki deliver another famous conference speech on AIDS.

Coming soon, a Vatican conference on the death of God.

And now, a man with fire-proof pants.

So Far Away. . .0

Posted by JJ in By other means. . ., Crossroads of Culture (Monday January 9, 2006 at 1:38 am)

Iran, that mideast theocracy and long-time anti-Satan can seem far removed from the interests of the West. After all, the country seems unable to get so much as a loan without someone raising the issue of stoning or some other “barbaric” torture in objection. Trade between Iran and North America is small (most Iranian trade is with Central Europe, Syria, Japan, China, and South Korea.

But recently, the long-time agitator against the US has been giving other countries reason for concern.

Although no proof of an Iranian nuclear weapons program has been found (its explanation for the discovery of enriched uranium was corroborated last year), the United States is still concerned that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons.

But surely that won’t mean a nuclear holocaust. The Iranians don’t believe in holocausts.

If it were only the United States complaining, we might be able to dismiss the hijinks as another case of American overreaction. It’s not, though. Iran withdrew last week from a meeting with the IAEA, the global body responsible for monitoring nuclear activities, prompting an angry response from the body’s head, Mr. El Baradei:

I am running out of patience, the international community is running out patience, the credibility of the verification process is at stake and I’d like - by March - which is when my next report is, to be able to clarify these issues,

Everybody would like to see a regime by which the international community is assured that the Iranian programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes and there are still a number of issues we are looking at.

There is also a consensus that enrichment in … Iran right now is a matter of serious concern.

Iran feigned surprise at this show of concern, pointing out that:

R&D activities will be under the IAEA’s supervision and there is nothing to be worried about.

But then, just maybe, the head of the IAEA knows which things are worth worrying about.

Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (or NPT), a voluntary agreement whose signatories subject themselves to periodic monitoring of their nuclear operations by the IAEA. If the IAEA isn’t pleased with compliance, there’s a problem.

Now, Iranian non-compliance may just be a religio-national point of pride aimed at maintaining public support for what some claim is a totalitarian regime; but in this case, neighbours share some of these concerns.

In part, these concerns are shared by other non-democratic regimes fearful of the threat posed by would-be theocrats within their own borders. Iran’s ruling elite has elements supportive of exporting their theocratic islamic government abroad. These government’s self-interest notwithstanding, it’s far from clear that creating more Taliban-era Afghanistans would be a good thing.

Is this just so much anti-Iran harangue? Overreaction?

No. It shouldn’t be. It’s a call to make sure that international agencies do what they’re supposed to. If the head of the IAEA isn’t satisfied with Iran’s compliance, it’s time for governments to stand behind him. Russia is offering a face-saving solution, where they would oversee and control any enrichment programs for the Iranians, but will also block any attempt to use the Security Council to impose conditions on Iran — both Russia and China want to maintain positive relations with the country.

Should other countries be concerned? Absolutely. It doesn’t get much more dangerous, potentially, than nuclear arms; and even if the threat of MAD isn’t the top-ten item it once was (no, not MAD, MAD), it shouldn’t just drop off the radar.

If people are engaged in positive debate and understanding, we might just avoid knee-jerk reactions which fail to achieve their ends. That’s something those opposed to Iran’s alleged ambitions really don’t need.

If candidates in the Canadian election feel that Canada needs to play a larger role in global affairs, it might be interesting to know how they propose Canada contribute to this situation. Or will Canada navel-gaze behind the shield it loves to spurn?

Shouldn’t we pay this whole thing a bit more attention?

In Other Elections0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday December 28, 2005 at 11:49 pm)

While the Green Party has at times had difficulties in fielding a slate of candidates, we can be grateful that they haven’t resorted to armed insurrections.

No, not grateful. Indifferently unsurprised. If they did, we’d be apoplectic. Or so the cold Wonk hopes.

Gracefully as ever, The Toronto Star declines to delve much into the nature of the problem. Reuters offers a bit more:

The gunmen, who spent years battling Israel but sometimes felt marginalised within Fatah because of the dominance of an Old Guard leadership, fear they will not be fairly represented on Fatah’s ticket unless the primaries are repeated.

Fatah’s younger generation is also concerned that if Old Guard leaders hand-pick the candidates, rather than allowing them to be elected in popular primaries, the ruling party will be less able to fend off a Hamas challenge at the polls.

It’s not everyday, mind you, that armed gunmen have this sophisticated a political nit to pick, so it might be worth considering. Is the political structure of Fatah so impassable that no younger representative can rise? It would seem the sort of poor political (and richly self-interested) approach of which the gunmen speak to avoid promoting at least a few of the Young Turks, if only to keep the rest of them from wasting bullets on their own policemen. If so, the point is well-taken. But then, no one called Fatah a party, did they?

More to the point: if armed violence is the only political solution the “young guard” could devise, what makes them think they’d do any better in the elections? Aren’t they confusing politics with war again? If they’re not, and the elections are to be won by violence, what difference does it make who runs for Fatah, so long as the movement intimidates the population as one? A different candidate won’t change the number of guns they have on call.

Could the outcry be no less self-interested than the corruption it opposes?

Politics Confused0

Posted by JJ in By other means. . ., Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday December 14, 2005 at 12:26 am)

Politics is a dangerous game, make no mistake. In some places, it’s even more dangerous.

Some time ago, some Palestinians determined that the most effective way to achieve their political demands (a Palestinian state) was by targeted terror activities. The success of that approach may be judged by the status eventually accorded to one terrorist group’s leader, Yasser Arafat, by both Palestinians and the international community.

But political choices always come with consequences. Sometimes the consequences are ignored, and sometimes they are accepted as necessary costs; but they are inevitable.

The consequence of using terrorism to advance a political end is clear: it legitimises the use of terror as a mode of political activity.

The result is what we’re seeing now: armed groups attacking electoral officials as the result of infighting among political candidates.

Not to be blind, in times before the imposition of the secret ballot in other countries, intimidation by party-run gangs was a strong possibility. But this did not emerge from a legitimized use of such methods, and objections to this process played a role in the development of the secret ballot.

The present attacks are different. There is a secret ballot in Palestine. The attacks are meant to intimidate election workers and voters alike, to undermine the authority of the elections themselves, and with it, those in charge of the nascent state.

This should not be taken to mean that Palestinians are anti-democratic, or that they prefer violence to other political options — far from the truth. But it does demonstrate the severity of the challenges they face in erecting a functional system of politics to deliver the benefits of an organized society: overcoming a dangerous confusion between politics and warfare.

The Palestinian Authority has promised to respond with increased security for electoral officials, but this will not resolve the underlying problem. Since terrorism is intertwined with the road to their statehood, they cannot villify violent action so easily; and without deligitimizing violent action as a means of political action, there will be no end of those who resort to it.

This is a difficult problem: to be a victim of one’s own success. The ability of Palestinians to find a solution is crucial to their state’s future success.

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