Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

Then and Now0

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk, By other means. . ., Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday December 6, 2006 at 9:30 am)

As Canadian soldiers gripe about the public’s misunderstanding of the Afghan mission, opposition defence critic, Ujjal Dosanjh thinks he knows how things got so messed up:

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh blamed the information vacuum on the Conservatives and their policy of muzzling ministers and officials.
“I have the utmost respect for Gen. Fraser, the work he’s done, and I understand his frustration,” said Dosanjh. “But it’s really up to the government to provide information. And they have not been providing that information.”
Opposition MPs and senators — especially parliamentary defence committees — have “fought tooth and nail” to be briefed on the latest goings on in Afghanistan, he said.

And as the Harper government is well-known for its incommunicado policy, that sounds just about plausible.

But hold on, hasn’t it been only two months since the opposition was confidently assuring Canadians that the mission lacked the very humanitarian efforts which General Fraser now insists are going on? If the opposition wants to blame public misapprehension on the lack of information, how did it come to its own conclusions? Could it be that the opposition’s claims were then as they appeared to be — a disingenuous decision to spread false news rather than inform Canadians?

But don’t take that too heavily to heart. If, as Mr. Dosanjh suggests, it’s the government’s job to inform the public, perhaps the opposition is left with no role to play but to mislead it.

See Iran’s Totally Rad Rods0

Posted by JJ in Bad Press, By other means. . ., Crossroads of Culture (Wednesday October 4, 2006 at 2:57 pm)

The volley from Ahmadinejad’s Iran has a familiar ring to it. They won’t let UN nuclear inspectors examine Iranian research facilities, but they will let tourists wander through their power plants. After all, no one inspects things as thoroughly as random tourists.

This move will doubtless bring full exposure to such burning problems as whether female scientists must wear burqas at work, whether power plants are wheelchair-accessible, and how much hot dogs cost at the Bushehr facility’s snack bar. And of course, debriefing exercises will probably shed much-needed light on the peaceful use of nuclear arms:

INTEL AGENT: “Were they using nuclear material for weapons development?”

FANNYPACK-PACKING TOURIST: “Well, we didn’t see any missiles or anything. They had some fellas in white coats, but that’s about it.”

STRAW HAT-WEARING TOURIST: “Oh, and they showed us the rods, honey. Remember those rods?”

FPT: “I was getting to that, Bernice. Yeah, there were some rods in this big thing behind glass.”

IA: “This is important, folks, I need to you try to remember carefully. Did the rods or anything around you look enriched?”

FPT: “Well, I wouldn’t say they looked enriched. They did ask us not to use tripods, though.”

SHWT: “They said you could use one, Frank. You were just too cheap to pay for the pass!”

CHILD TOURIST: “I got a hat!”

The world can rest easy — the cream of human investigators are on the case.

Iran’s President has decided that a coordinated PR campaign is a way to garner public support and undermine the authority of those opposing him. In the face of continuing domestic problems, he not only needs to focus on generating external threats (see Chavez, Hugo), but to get help from outside to do it.

The question remains: will his efforts be as effective in achieving popular respect as those of his obvious model?

Doomed if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t0

Posted by JJ in By other means. . ., Crossroads of Culture (Saturday August 26, 2006 at 12:59 am)

Syria’s latest foray into Lebanese politics ought to send shivers up the spine of history buffs. Why? The striking parallels with the first and only opponent the United Nations has ever unequivocally sought to “finally destroy”: Nazi Germany.

No, this isn’t some over-the-top claim that Syria is as bad as Nazi Germany, whatever that means; and it shouldn’t encourage presposterous comparisons with Hitler. It’s not even a call to draw attention to the relationship between the Ba’athist regime in Syria and Nazi Germany (though that should be required research for regional commentators).

What it is about is the connection between the present situation and one of Nazi Germany’s earliest aggressive acts: the Rhineland Crisis.

The Rhineland, a German region bordering France, had been set aside as a demilitarized zone under the Treaty of Versailles and confirmed as such by Germany in the more voluntary Locarno Pact. In 1936, small numbers of German troops were moved into the Rhineland. Despite French protests and calls for military force to drive out the as-yet-smaller German army, the League of Nations preferred negotiation, leading ultimately to a promise of peace, and the reality of World War II.

But wait, cry the eager historians! Syria claims that the UN presence would be hostile! Isn’t he France here, and the UN Germany, moving potentially agressive forces into what should be a demilitarized zone?

Ah, but things go back farther still. It was, after all, the Irano-Syrian supported Hezbollah that moved troops and armaments into the area, rather than allowing the Lebanese government to take control of itself or its own territory (and continue to support that state of affairs). Those countries’ interest in fighting a war by proxy (see privateer) meant the movement and use of weapons through Lebanon, a country Syria had been dominating since its devastating Civil War.

So it was largely Syria’s support of Hezbollah both as a proxy for its war with Israel (officially in ceasefire) and as a suitable surrogate for their decreasingly-valid ADF presence in Syria (ended only recently, and that after Hezbollah had achieved domestic political authority, obviating the main rationale for a Syrian presence). Which means that Hezbollah, carrying Syrian hopes, is the occupier of the Rhineland.

There is no precedent for what UN resolution 1701 proposes in the Rhineland Crisis. It is, simply, what France demanded and failed to get in 1936 (which makes France’s present reaction all the more perverse, except, perhaps, as jilted spite). And what Syria vaguely threatens may well be worth remembering: a deployment actually trying to disarm Hezbollah could bring war, not peace to the region. But it’s worth wondering: how much of a fuss could Hitler have righteously kicked up had the League of Nations called him on things? Does Syria really have the right to complain here?

The question may prove to be whether the region is doomed to repeat history or doomed to more conflict; but the past consequences of the failure to act fuel the hope, at least, that action offers an unprecedented and sorely longed-for peace.

The First Rule of Peacekeeping Club0

Posted by JJ in Vague Check, By other means. . ., Golden Tacks, Crossroads of Culture (Friday July 28, 2006 at 3:22 pm)

It’s an excellent club for politicians. They get to make peace instead of making war, and the public at home isn’t usually sure whether you or the United Nations is in charge. That makes it the best of all possible worlds for a government, which can:

  • mobilize a military response, satisfying those moderates with just a touch of warmongering bloodlust but a mortal fear of the actual sight of blood
  • work with the United Nations, satisfying those moderates keen on multilateralism but reluctant to surrender sovereign control
  • help people (people who need help!), satisfying those moderates eager do good but vaguely uncomfortable with the “hippie” politics of some NGOs and utterly ignorant of the Red Cross Society

Which can, in many countries, be a winning coalition. It’s just good politics.

Which is what, one must assume, was the point of Bill Graham’s rebuke to Stephen Harper’s musings on the UN mission in Lebanon: UNTSO. After the Israeli bombing of one UNTSO position left Canadian Major Paeta Hess-von Krudener missing and presumed dead, the Prime Minister questioned the fact that the UN observers had not been withdrawn from the area, given the severity of the conflict.

This prompted the Leader of the Opposition to call the Prime Minister’s comment “completely unacceptable”, as reported in this article:

Graham says Harper seems to have forgotten that Canada has been part of UN missions for several decades.

That seems unlikely. The Prime Minister would be somewhat less likely to ask such questions if he thought Canada had little involvement. In point of fact, questioning the effective deployment of UN forces should really be the least the government does to ensure the safety of Canadians who serve in them, as at least one former observer pointed out.

Then why object so strenuously to the Prime Minister’s reaction? Should there have been greater condemnation of the Israeli army? The Liberals’ own statement on the subject does nothing of the kind, so that seems unlikely. It can only be an attempt to stand up for peacekeeping against those who would oppose it — a conclusion supported by Graham’s complaint that support for the Israeli position undermines Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping nation.

But criticism isn’t always destructive or wrong-headed, any more than peacekeeping is always flawed. What the Liberal Leader is really trying to do is make the connection that, by criticising the conduct of a peacekeeping mission, the Prime Minister proves himself to be against peacekeeping. It’s a variant of the “hidden agenda” argument that’s become so popular in Canada of late.

Hidden agenda theories are popular because of the recent plague of ideological arrogance that has left much of the population, like zombies, aggressive, infectious, and sorely in need of brains. The ideologue can’t comprehend that another position could be valid (or that his could be better) — things are merely right or wrong (a point which all hues of the political spectra cry foolishly). It’s simply too hard to take the fact that an issue is arguable, or that multiple answers could be right, depending on perspective.

The result of admitting no argument is that criticism and counterpoints must be invalid by definition. If so, then they can only be explained in one of two ways. Either the speaker is too stupid to understand that he can’t be right, or she’s making the point for an unknown strategic reason. That unknown reason must be the real agenda, and is divined much as the unknown reason for lightning (a panoply of powerful pushers). Of course, many people who believe in hidden agendas don’t believe that Thor makes thunder; but it might just take a bolt out of the blue for them to make the connection.

What’s worse, given the reality of its existence and the immediacy of threats, debate over the validity of peacekeeping may not be as important as debate over its execution. There are real lives engaged in the activity, and an important way to safeguard them is ensuring that they are properly commanded. It’s not like the mandate for the operation is hard to find (the group in question is presently attached to UNIFIL):

  • Confirm the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon
  • Restore international peace and security
  • Assist the Government of Lebanon in ensuring the return of its effective authority in the area

Which raises the question: what part of the mandate was the group expected to undertake at the time? The UN’s subsequent reorganization of the mission as much as admits the truth of the Prime Minister’s complaint. It’s nothing to suggest that the situation become unsafe following the bombing — it was already unsafe at the time of the bombing, it’s just that either:

  • Command hadn’t realised it
  • or

  • Command hadn’t acted on it

Which of the two is acceptable?

Whether the attack was intentional or not is an argument for another site — the Chilly Wonk just doesn’t know; but it’s not the same issue as a real and important question about the work being done by Canadian soldiers abroad: are the UN missions being properly managed?

The question transcends troop safety and demands to know why the mission has failed at achieving objective 2, despite its frequent reports and demands to both sides? That, too, is an important question.

Asking important questions about the conduct of peacekeeping missions doesn’t go against peacekeeping, doesn’t go against the UN, and doesn’t go against Canada. It just goes against the first rule of political choices: never make the hard argument when the facile one will do.

What’s the Plural of Anecdote?0

Something very special has been threatened with the rise of weblogs, but don’t be worried. It’s simply the natural order of truth and common sense.

One of the most difficult parts of producing online material, as the Frigid Wonk well knows, is properly representing facts. It takes more than merely linking to the source of a particular reference — you must provide context and fairly represent what is said. Leaving it to the reader to discover that the context is deliberately or completely skewed can’t be easily excused.

That’s why a recent report on a serious claim merits fuller investigation than has been given it.

Jurist, a respectable and serious purveyor of online information, has recently run a report on a purported increase in desertions from the British army.

According to Jurist, this increase, reported by the BBC, has reached 1,000 total deserters since the beginning of the campaign, as annually recorded:

A total of 134 deserted in 2003, 229 in 2004, 377 in 2005, and 189 so far in 2006, up from 86 in 2001, and 118 in 2002.

Which looks like a significant change.

The problem is that the numbers aren’t the total desertions, but the total number of deserters still missing, as stated here by the BBC — the very report to which the Jurist piece refers.

The difference is highly significant. Deserters don’t just wander back home and resume a normal life — they have to go on the run. Consequently, one would expect them to be found over time. Hence, a simple application of common sense dictates that if desertion rates remain roughly constant or even drop slightly, the number remaining at large would be higher in later years than in earlier ones.

But ignore that, as well as the fact that war seems likely to increase desertions anyway, because there’s sounder evidence than either common sense or properly labelled statistics. There’s purely anecdotal evidence by interested parties:

An increase in Iraq-related desertions is nonetheless supported by anecdotal evidence from Iraq war resisters in the UK and their associates, including the lawyer for former Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith [JURIST news archive], recently dismissed from the military and sentenced to eight months in prison [JURIST report] for refusing to return to service in Iraq, and former SAS member Ben Griffin [JURIST report], who told the BBC that “There’s a lot of dissent in the Army about the legality of war and concerns that they’re spending too much time there.”

As an old colleague of the Wonk’s once put it: the plural of anecdote is not data.

But surely, a cry goes up, the government, too, is an interested party; and they have an interest in providing false statistics as surely as the war protestors have one in falsely interpreting statistics.

Only too true, but aside from providing a slightly different (and perhaps even unjustifiedly alarmist) headline for the daily dose on the conflict in Iraq (government still defensive, protestors still opposed, if you’re not caught up), the story reveals no new salvo for either side. Morale and recruitment were already known to be down, and the army (an interested party, and the same one denying an increase in desertions) admitted the decline was due to the campaign.

What to do, then? Forget that “pinch of salt” nonsense — it’s not a guideline, it’s a glib line. Use a bit of common sense and realise that there’s nothing new added to the debate by this story.

If you’ve already chosen a side, this story wasn’t that likely to change your mind (if you’re pro-war, it just doesn’t seem likely that you’re swayed by army rebels). If you hadn’t, the story might persuade you. But should people be persuaded by shoddy research? Opponents of the war might suggest that what got the UK into it might just be the best way to get it out (Michael Moore, anyone?) But repeating a mistake-making process just doesn’t square with common sense.

The Frosty Wonk has a different perspective. Bull is bull, no matter how purely intended; and the plural of anecdote is urban legend.

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?

Land of the Midnight Sun0

Posted by JJ in Federal Elections, Bad Press, By other means. . . (Thursday December 22, 2005 at 6:41 pm)

Much ado about 60+ degrees of north latitude, that oft-neglected part of Canada.

Sometimes, it just seems unfair. The arctic showed so very much promise once the Northwest Passage was finally found. But then, it is frozen rather more of the year than the Panama Canal.

But Canadians surely respect the region that gives their nation its special something. Oslo may be farther north, Russia may have more Arctic territory, but Canada has. . .a territory largely administered by and for populations native to the region (and the line “True North strong and free” in the national anthem). That and a hotel located within dogsledding distance of a local tourists’ graveyard.

Small wonder, then, that the party leaders have been spending so very much time on the three seats representing this northern region.

Mr. Layton’s recent visit even attempted to capture some of the magic of Ed Broadbent’s dogsled ride with his wife, back in 1980, which helped the NDP in garnering one of two seats. Though there was a photo-op, the equipment must have malfunctioned, as the National Post ran the 1980 photo on page A6. Either CanWest (still primping to be a national network) didn’t send anyone to cover the event, or the Post decided that not enough readers would care. Probably the latter. Besides which, the 1980 election was more interesting. Anyone for Social Credit?

Mr. Harper, meanwhile, has proposed the acquisition of three heavy-duty icebreakers and the increase of military forces stationed in the Arctic, at a cost of $5.3 Billion over five years. The priority would be to detect and respond to foreign ships and others in the Arctic.

Mr. Martin has gone on the defensive, attacking the Conservative plan with two claims: first, that the icebreakers will cost at least $1 Billion each plus $150 Million per annum to operate; and second, in the words of Defence Minister Bill Graham, that the plan is an expensive response to a non-existent military threat.

Mr. Graham might be having some difficulty in remembering that he took a costly trip to the Arctic not long ago to help reestablish Canadian claims to an island repeatedly “visited” by the Danish army.

Why offer himself up in such hypocrisy? Criticisms tend to sound less partisan when they come out of Ministers’ mouths than the campaigning party leader. Besides which, all parties seem to agree that the region is only going to grow in importance.

As Mr. Layton put it, global warming is likely to make the Canadian north more amenable both to shipping and to exploration for mineral and other natural resources. His proposals, to increase locals’ role in the development and benefit from these resources is a classic strategy for sovereign control (as well as a prudent campaign promise): make sure that the locals have a vested interest in promoting your control of the region.

The prospect of global warming means a harder time for Canadians. Ensuring sovereign control over the Arctic isn’t merely a spitting contest between states — it is the only way to enforce Canadian interests such as environmental protection, resource extraction, and the rule of law. If Canada fails to develop the capacity to enforce its jurisdiction in the North, others will expand their own sovereignty to take on the role.

The Liberals point out that there are presently over 4,000 Army Rangers covering the North; but a quick check shows that only about 1,600 of those are actually in the Territories (and many of those in northern BC and Alberta).

As for the cost question, the United States Coast Guard has just requisitioned $110 Million USD for the acquisition of a new heavy icebreaker for use on the Great Lakes. Is it conceivable that an Arctic version will cost at least eight times as much? Hardly. Arctic-use icebreakers cost the US Coast Guard $11 Million each to operate in 1994. Why would it cost the federal government more than three times as much to operate Canadian icebreakers a mere ten years later? With inflation, we’d expect a 30% increase over that time, not 200%. Isn’t the US military known for overinflated costs anyway? Does the Liberal party have a source for a quotation on icebreakers which it produced in less than a day? It was a fairly quick response. Did they go with the first quote? And were they on the public payroll or the party payroll when they did it?

The question really isn’t whether Canadians need to have the capacity to respond to sovereignty threats and rescue efforts in the vast Arctic region — it’s how much is necessary to achieve that aim. Misleading quotations of troop figures and brash announcements of massive investment do the same thing for the debate: little. A campaign is a poor time to refine policy — it must be at its bluntest to avoid seeming insignificant. The pity is that Canadians may respond to such sweeping statements and genuine needs with indifference; and the North which succours their identity deserves better.

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.

The Battle is Mid-way0

Posted by JJ in Strategic Planning, By other means. . . (Monday November 21, 2005 at 2:50 pm)

If you recall, the federal government recently backed out of a sorely-needed equipment purchase.

As of today, a portion of that purchase looks to be back on.

This is great news for the armed forces, as long as it goes forward.

The sad part remains the price question. The entire original $12 Billion acquisition package was for necessary replacement of equipment, not for expansion or new acquisitions. No one has opposed maintaining the size of the military, and the budget surplusses since 1998 have been more than sufficient to finance the status quo, amounting to $62.7 Billion to 2003/2004. The question has been one of priorities.

New programmes and tax cuts are good and fine; but if Canada is serious about maintaining its international commitments, it can’t afford to let its military fall apart. Replacing necessary equipment is a fundamental prerequisite for meeting our international obligations.

The fact that only some equipment can be replaced because Canadians aren’t willing to foot the higher bill is distressing. Things can’t be done properly by half-measures.

The only question is, which Canadians aren’t willing to foot the bill? Those who would pay the tax, or those who would pay the price?

Wait! Don’t govern!0

Posted by JJ in By other means. . . (Wednesday November 16, 2005 at 10:50 am)

Fine, prove me wrong.

I’d just finished arguing that Prime Minister Martin really does want to govern, even if he’s a recent convert to the idea.

Then he goes and does this.

To recap:

  • The military is in serious need of equipment
  • The government was preparing to fast-track the acquisition of some such equipment
  • The government has decided the political price is too high

Of course there are political costs. But the reason why such desparate need exists is precisely because the government has consistently delayed the necessary acquisitions. The attempt to fast-track wasn’t meant to advantage the military, but to compensate it for a history of toe-dragging which amounts, in the words of Parliament, to neglect.

But let’s make this simple. The government is afraid of the difficulty of defending this action. But that’s precisely what governing must be in a democratic society. Government must defend its choices, and avoiding them can’t be said to be governing.

It boils down, then, to this:

  • The government demands the military have the courage to do what is demanded of them
  • The government lacks the courage to support them adequately in this task

Governing, indeed. For shame.