That weren't no DJ, that was hazy cosmic jive

Regarding the UAE

I’m not quite gone yet 🙂

Thought I’d highlight one of the WikiLeaks cables in particular, concerning the U.S. relationship with the UAE. It’s a glowing assessment largely, and one that might be used in argument against Ottawa’s dismissiveness regarding the recent utter breakdown of our relations with the Gulf State…

(S/NF) The UAE is one of our closest partners in the Middle East and one of our most useful friends worldwide.

— Al-Dhafra Air Force Base is the high altitude ISR hub for the AOR, and supports 50 percent of aerial refueling in the AOR.

— Ports in Dubai and Fujairah are the logistics backbone for the U.S. Fifth. Jebel Ali (Dubai) is the most frequented USN liberty port after Norfolk.

— Minhad Air Base is a critical hub for Coalition/ISAF partners in Afghanistan, including the Australians, Dutch, Canadians, Brits and Kiwis.

— The UAE is a cash customer with FMS sales in excess of $11 billion. Commercial sales have an equivalent value. An additional $12 billion of FMS cases are in development with approximately the same volume of commercial sales in the works.

Afghanistan: UAE SOF has been quietly deployed as part of OEF since 2003, and the UAE surged its contribution in 2009 adding a combined arms task force. The UAE’s UAV capability has been a much appreciated force multiplier. On the economic development side, the UAE has pledged about $300 M in assistance, and quietly supported the Afghan Reintegration Fund at the recent London Conference. You should thank MbZ for his leadership in being the first Arab country to send troops to Afghanistan.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, , , , ,

Parliament of puppets

As I prepare for a month-long trip to South America this week, I thought I’d leave you with a little puppet show I put together last year to commemorate the prorogation of Parliament. Harper, Ignatieff, Layton and co. all have their chance to shine in what served as a little alternative House of Commons, established in a shoebox in my kitchen. Even better than the real thing 🙂 Enjoy!

I’ll try to update the blog with travel-related bits of interest while I’m away, but will probably leave any of the normal political bits and bobs until January, when the lure of mountain treks and dinners of steak and riojas have become but distant memories. Sniff.

Adios till then!

Filed under: Canada, Politics, Travel, , , , , , ,

Polygonic’s going polly

I’ve just created a new Polls page on the blog, in which you are cordially invited to participate. The method will not be scientific, the results will be largely meaningless. But in the spirit of our own current electoral system – who cares?

Just click Polls in the Pages menu to your right, or follow through here.

First question concerns Stephen Harper’s retirement. We can’t know whether he’ll eventually leave in a Danny Williams fashion, or (as may be more likely) with a less-flattering Gordon Campbell motif. But however he goes, he must go one day. When??

Filed under: Canada, Politics, Uncategorized,

Matchmaking and minefields

The Commons blog today revisits coalition or merger scenarios, and gratefully, omits the Liberal Party from the speculation. What if the NDP and Greens worked together instead?

I’ve argued the same. The Liberals already struggle with unity inside the cavernous red tent, and adding a ready-made superfaction to that mix would cause any leader difficulties for the foreseeable future. There is common ground already between the GPC and NDP on the environment, of course, and both parties attract disproportionately high numbers of young voters (those who vote, anyway) through an attractive anti-establishment discourse.

Which, in a unity scenario, is one of the problems. What if the anti-establishment party suddenly came within striking distance of becoming the establishment?

As I commented on Scott’s Commons piece, I’d have two main concerns about a GPC/NDP merger scenario.

1) Their vote wouldn’t likely be as big as their combined independent totals suggest. Though the Green and NDP combine for an apparent 27 – 29% of the electorate today, good enough for Stornoway, this would be difficult to sustain once united. They’d struggle to attract from the centre and the LPC, while some hardcore GPC and NDP partisans would feel betrayed and would peel off into the non-voting cloud somewhere. Witness the Conservatives – their support is consistently lower than the combined totals of the Alliance and PC pre-merger.

Also 2) putting the NDP and Greens in a position of real power would stir up lots of unflattering media scrutiny. They’d have to be sure they would be prepared to weather that, clean their closets in advance, and be able to reject people saying “now that they might win, they look too risky,” which would be an inevitable assertion from the galleries.

A “Progressive Party of Canada” (I’ve not trademarked that, so go ahead) would be brilliant in many respects. It would just have to watch its back a lot more carefully as it lunges into quite serious competition with the biggest parties.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , ,

Tanks for nothing

The NDP’s Defence Critic Jack Harris takes on Harperian logic in Afghanistan:

What is really needed in Afghanistan, of course, is aid and assistance to have a strong government that has the respect of the people. What do we have instead? We have in Afghanistan a government that the international transparency watch organization, in its corruption perception index, sees as tied for 176 out of 178 countries in the world for corruption. It is a government that is not respected by the people of Afghanistan and cannot have the respect without a significant amount of long-term work being done in that country.

In fact, that government is held in so much disrespect and disdain by the Canadian government that we had the Prime Minister in Lisbon saying that we will not dispense a dime to the Government of Afghanistan unless we are convinced the money will be spent in the way it is intended to be spent.

The irony of this is a bit shocking. We are saying that we do not trust that government with a dime of our money but we are prepared to give them an army. We are prepared to train and develop a force of up to 300,000 combined police and security officers and hand it over to that government that we do not trust with a dime of our money. That is what we are saying. The irony of that should not be lost on the Canadian public, because that is what the government is saying.

One if the things he seems to imply is: Would you train 300,000 bees in the art of stinging without first ensuring they knew you were a friendly beekeeper?

And there’s a point in that. But the greater point to me is of efficacy. Indeed, for all Bob Rae’s relaxed approach to have “soldiers doing humanitarian work” (which is how the Liberals and Conservatives want this new mission to appear), Rae can’t explain exactly what training is going to accomplish that it hasn’t accomplished over the past 10 years of ISAF working with their national forces.

As I’ve said before, unless “training” is going to mean magically convincing Afghan national troops that the Karzai disaster is worth fighting for, or that Karzai’s is a government they can even “respect,” or that turning down opportunities for lucrative mercenary income will result in actual counter-reward from the state, then what is the use?

Afghanistan’s fractiousness is not down to a chronic inability for Afghanistan to organise itself militarily. That should be greeted with a “duh.” But is it right to withdraw militarily when there are actual security challenges to those seeking to do real humanitarian work? That’s a fair question. All the same, a) we’ve been doing that military job for a decade, and it’s torch-passing time, and b) the best route to Kabul taking its own sovereignty seriously and creating an effective national army of its own is by us handing it to them.

Filed under: Canada, International, Politics, , , , ,

Motion to nowhere

Surprised as I was that Ignatieff said he’d welcome a motion on the new Afghan “behind the wire” deployment, so long as his party didn’t do the actual proposing, I was more surprised that 1) the NDP didn’t take up the gauntlet, and that 2) the Bloc did and did it meekly.

It’s kind of Voltaire in reverse. Instead of “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” we get from the BQ “I disagree with how you say it, but as for what you say, well, I have no strong opinion.”

POGGE has already suggested (with the aptly titled article – Is that all there is?) that the BQ motion is tepid at best. The BQ motion treats the government position a fait d’accompli – no attempt to counteract it, but instead, simply to say the HoC should condemn the fact the decision was made without a vote.

To condemn the voteless nature of the decision is one thing. To disagree with the decision itself is meatier stuff. It shouldn’t be hard. Here’s a motion for you:

Canada should transition to a purely civilian mission from 2011, considering that its Armed Forces has done plenty of good stuff as regards the ISAF mission over the past decade, and a decade is plenty long. In this new decade, we are best able to support the democratic government over there through disabling any *ahem* “potential” dependence it may develop *ahem* “in the future” on NATO. Kabul wants sovereignty, and we think that’s great. The best place to start is by us getting out. Afghan soldiers don’t need training in how to fight, clearly, so our efforts will be directed towards literacy and entrepreneurialism. The Armed Forces will be coming home.

O.K., so that’s a bit of a shitty motion. I’m not actually an MP.

But I’d have expected the NDP (or, I suppose, even the Bloc), to craft a smarter version of the same sentiment. Instead, we get meek criticism of the process of Harper’s/Rae’s decision. Nothing of the decision itself.

Does Parliament really agree in its assembled majority that sleepwalking through three more years in Afghanistan is fine, and that “training soldiers how to shoot” is the best thing Canada can offer?

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , ,

Sabres and rattles

Regarding the Korean clashes today, there is one thing that this does not represent – weird volatility surrounding the accession of Kim Jong-Un as heir-apparent.

The Kim Family hold a spiritualising, legitimising position for the army – it’s a kind of military papacy. But the idea that the military establishment itself has queries or quibbles about Jong-Un’s ascendance is to misunderstand North Korean decision-making. The Kims are now, and will continue to be, figureheads approved by the army, and any skirmish or belligerence we see from the DPRK is down to decisions made by the National Defence Commission and senior generals. Their target is almost always the United States via South Korea.

Last week’s visit by American nuclear physicist Siegfried Hecker to an expanded and modern uranium enrichment facility in North Korea, possibly Yongbyon, is the first chapter in the story of the week. Hecker’s invite was intended to provoke a clear reaction in the United States – the North Koreans are building some amazing stuff, it’s virtually ready to go, it’s extraordinarily scary. Pyongyang wave its hardware around anytime it wants Washington to paddle across the Pacific, pleading for another chance at Six-Party Talks with whatever conditions the North might want.

Hecker played his part correctly, with genuine alarmism at the advanced state of the DPRK facilities. But Washington didn’t. Envoy Stephen Bosworth, who’s just been to South Korea, hardly dismissed the seriousness of the nuclear developments, but nevertheless suggested that, if the North Koreans are pursuing things at that level, the last thing we’re going to do is start to negotiate terms of diplomatic engagement with them. He said “this is not a crisis,” which in diplomatic speak means: “They can fly kites.”

It was the right response, I think. But Pyongyang could not accept it. The serpentine inter-Korean maritime border that snakes within short miles of the DPRK coastline is a natural place for Pyongyang to vent, and vent it did (to be fair, the maritime border is ridiculous. It creates a massive maritime advantage for Seoul and is far, far from equidistant from each states’ coastlines). The message delivered to the U.S. via South Korea is simply “We want new talks. We want some stuff. We are not kidding around!”

Hoping that Washington holds its line, frankly. Korean People’s Army chiefs are brinkmanship tacticians, not utter madmen, and they will be very averse to escalating beyond what they can control.

Is silence an appropriate response? South Korean marines were killed in this shelling.

“Silence,” no. But equally no to a rushed new round of nuclear talks in some attempt to assuage Pyongyang. Not under these conditions. Third-parties such as Sweden, who have a diplomatic presence in Pyongyang, will be useful to deliver that message. But formalised Six-Party Talks are going to have to keep waiting, however Pyongyang fumes.

Filed under: Korea, Politics, , , , , , , ,

What transparency looks like

It’s easy being left-of-centre in Britain until you start comparing David Cameron with Stephen Harper. Suddenly, you find yourself saying strange things like “Wow, thank god we’ve got Cameron!”

Case in point: transparency. While Harper’s entire political career has been built on the campaign rhetoric of “accountable government,” he nevertheless roosts in the PMO as among the most opaque, secretive, and undemocratic Prime Ministers the country’s ever been afflicted with. He’s Nixon with a migraine.

Cameron’s liberal strand of Toryism may be anti-state, but his professed faith in public self-organisation has translated into some evidence of actual accountability. Departments and ministries are now compelled to release virtually every significant expenditure to a public gasping for knowledge about what’s happening to our finances.

The result, as David Eaves writes so brilliantly in the G&M today, is the manifestation of an actual accountable government.

“Spending data for every British ministry on anything over £25,000 (about $40,000) [will] be available for anyone in the world to download. The initial release of information revealed thousands and thousands of lines of data and almost £80-billion (about $129.75-billion) in spending. And starting in January, every ministry must update the data once a month.”

For Canadians, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government is but a distant example of a world that a truly transparent government could – and should – create. In contrast, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives seem stuck in a trap described by Mr. Maude in his opening sentences: “Opposition parties are always remarkably keen on greater government transparency, but this enthusiasm mysteriously tends to diminish once they actually gain power.” Canada’s Conservatives have been shy about sharing any information with anyone. Afghan detainee files aren’t shared with Parliament; stimulus package accounts were not emailed to the Parliamentary Budget Office, but uselessly handed over in 4,476 printed pages. Even the Auditor-General is denied MP expense data. All this as access-to-information wait times exceed critical levels and Canada, unlike the United States, Britain , Australia and New Zealand, languishes with no open-data policy.

Couple this with some of the more compelling initiatives in the British media itself to aggregate and measure spending plans, campaign promises, and delivery timetables. The Guardian today released its mammoth Pledge Tracker, a downloadable and perusable spreadsheet that takes coalition government pledges and tracks their progress, whether they’ve been dumped, delayed, who in cabinet has said what about them, and how to track them down.

So, in the UK, there’s a chicken-and-egg question regarding government accountability. Britain’s media culture nurtures relentlessly investigative journalism – to the point of harassment as regards celebrity, but also to the point of a carnivorous criticism of bad government, and that’s extremely healthy for the state of British democracy. Would Cameron have unleashed so much data if he felt confident no major newspaper would ever seriously chase him up on his warm promises of yesteryear?

Almost certainly he wouldn’t. Indeed, critics of Cameronian transparency say he’s only staging gargantuan, barely-manageable data-dumps that are very difficult to grasp and scrutinise. The task of sifting through and understanding the hundreds of thousands of line items is left to independent think tanks and newspapers in the confidence that the very act of transparency may make the political point, and that few will bother to craft criticisms of what they discover in there.

Either way, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of what the Reformers could conceive of back home.

You can say a lot of things about David Cameron. He’s slick and insincere. He’s shallow, big-headed, and fundamentally out to lunch regarding how to address inequality, poverty, opportunity, Britain’s place in the world, and the British public’s place in its own country. What you can’t say, though, is that he’s an obsessive partisan consumed with nothing more than winning the petty feuds inside the bubble of government.

On balance, I’m slightly nauseous but secure in saying that, compared with Harper, Cameron is a treat and a half.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, UK, , , , ,

Labour’s wobbles and grumbles

The Labour Party riven by factions? Say it ain’t so. But new eruptions simmer, and it does not bode well. It bodes badly, actually.

The self-styled Prince of Darkness, Peter Mandelson, is, unsurprisingly, at the heart of some of this. He clearly isn’t coping brilliantly with life outside the cut-and-thrust of cabinet level politics. His unhelpful, gossipy moaning about the problems with Labour leader Ed Miliband today is probably one part bitterness that Ed pipped his brother to the post, and two parts a longing to just get in front of cameras again.

As I sit and realise that I actually sympathise with Peter Mandelson, I begin to worry that my heart must have finally been replaced with a cindered hunk of lunar rock. I agree that Ed’s been remarkably swift to lead Labour into total drift, and would be totally despondent if they fought an election with him still leading.

Miliband’s bizarre shadow cabinet, defying prediction with Alan Johnson as the chancellor’s opposite number, smelled to me like Ed was trying a bit too hard to appear “his own man,” mixing it up on his own terms, and furthermore, confident enough to appoint a “Davidist” to just about the biggest role in his caucus. O.K., maybe a kind of cackhanded move to foster new unity, but itself not a bad idea. In its execution, however, it’s contributed to a shadow cabinet that is mostly incoherent. Ed and Alan disagree on the most fundamental approaches to economic governance.

Miliband’s showing in PMQs is not very authoritative either, by his own admission:

“Look, you’ve got to be who you are. If I think of what I’ve done – I’ve done a reshuffle to put a team around me that I think is a very good team and I have taken on Cameron in prime minister’s questions in a way in which I am reasonably content. You don’t win every round of it but all of those things are important for a leader of the opposition.”

Reasonably content? I would have thought humourless and withering, unfortunately. It seems unfair, but there remains this huge gulf between his stated aspirations to instigate all kinds of profound change, and the meek, splashless way in which he goes about his arguments. The power to convince is just absent.

So, there’s my agreement with Mandelson. The problem with any recent intervention from Mr. Darkness, though, is of course his position and his motivation. As a party elder, he shouldn’t be so clearly thrilled to wave dirty laundry around whenever he feels he isn’t being listened to, either by the party or by the papers. I don’t know if he can even tell which he’d prefer to influence anymore.

It’s the job of the media (including stupid blogs) to play this kind of game, criticising parties and leaders if they’re asking for it. But it’s not the job of one of Labour’s senior statesmen to do it, whether in documentaries or memoirs or random cold calls to the Telegraph. Labour’s got to fix itself, and Mandelson could have a helpful hand in it if so inclined. But please, leave the kvetching to the rest of us.

Filed under: Politics, UK, , ,

How to drop a ball

Oh dear… when I suggested this, I really wasn’t hoping for this. BC’s NDP have everything to gain right now, and are at real risk of blowing it in stupendous fashion if they don’t keep their eyes on the bigger prize.

Filed under: Canada, Politics, , , ,


November 2010
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