Polygonic

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

The emperor’s new clothes: North Korea keeps on marching

Sometimes, you just want to give them a hug.

Pyongyang put on this earnest show of transparency around its rocket launch, inviting foreign journalists into the heart of their futuristic Space Control Centres (SCCs).

Witness the marvels of our microcomputers and our, umm, extraordinarily large antennae!

It was one part quaint, one part chilling. The display was clearly designed to flummox Western voices that North Korea has something to hide, and, if lucky, to also alert the world as to the advanced state of North Korean spacefaring, and the military implications of that.

The problem with Pyongyang’s approach is that what they put on display was utter rubbish.

Watch this BBC video – seriously.

At 0:48, foreign journalists are shown the satellite itself – a locally-designed and constructed device to be launched as a spaceborne weather station. Look at it. Look at it. I am not exactly an engineer, but can we all agree that this is a 100W guitar amp with a tin can screwed to the top? Is one of those foil baubles meant to be a camera? Or some means of adjusting its trajectory? Somehow?

It really does appear to be something a precocious seven-year old might duct tape together in his dad’s workshop, and take to Show and Tell as his real, genu-wine, state-of-the-art weather satellite. So absorbed in his own delusions of imagined grandeur, he could not detect any of the snickers coming from around the class.

At 1:02, we are introduced to North Korea’s apparent Space Control Centre. You’d be forgiven for believing it instead to be the set from a community theatre’s stage production of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cue big projection screen showing the rocket, awaiting its command! Cue about twelve scientist-folk looking studiously at Google Earth on their enormous computers!

I’m being ultra-glib. But they’ve earned glibness, haven’t they, and moreover, perhaps they will appreciate a candid critique of their offering? Room for improvement and all that?

The assumption among the North Korean hosts must have been that the visiting journalists (and the Western audiences they feed) are actually somehow quite comparable to their equivalents in North Korea itself – woefully undereducated and easily gobsmacked by technology that looks suspiciously like Robotix.

Perhaps their version of MI7 have gotten lazy, with the success of their internally-directed propaganda depending principally on the religiosity of its people, and not the sophistication of their messages. Perhaps it’s a fortunate irony that North Korea’s propagandists are themselves the product of the same propagandist educational system as the people they now propagandise – a feedback loop of loopiness that renders their narrative almost incomprehensible to foreign ears.

All of this serves to reinforce the Wizard of Oz aspect to Pyongyang’s military prowess. The bluster almost certainly magnifies actual capacity several-fold, and someone atop the KPA will have to know that the failures yesterday have exposed their bravado as somewhat unwarranted.

Unfortunately, they’ll seek to correct that – this embarrassment may shock North Korea into reasserting itself with a more tangible display of power. Whatever the delusion in Pyongyang that it can convince the world that it’s a military space-power, the real power they can wield is closer to Earth – firefights along the disputed maritime boundary would rattle markets, shake China’s image in Washington as a robust regional power, and create conditions for big powers to come back for more talks on more aid.

The emperor may have no clothes, but I suspect he knows it and does not mind it. Because there’s no telling what an angry, naked emperor might do next.

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

La France Forte, or Why You Desperately Need Sarko Standing On the Beach

The French presidential campaign is kicking into high gear, and Nicolas Sarkozy has one key message for his ungrateful people: vote him back in, and he promises to spend his second term standing on the beach, like a magnificant granite Colossus, liquifying overseas demons with the sheer power of his blue-eyed gaze. 

Don’t believe it? Here’s the advert.

Fancy a dip?

It’s been running for about a month, and it’s the subject of some witty (and goofy) send-ups(Franc Fort, Farce Fort, France Morte…). But as I’ve just come across it, what in the dickens is it trying to tell us? He certainly doesn’t look prepared for the beach. 

First off, we ask ourselves – what exactly is this inexpressive poker face meant to project to us? That he doesn’t enjoy his job anymore? Or he has no time for trivial things such as cuddling kittens or chilling with his family?

Perhaps it’s that compassion and empathy are naive, wasteful, hopeless attributes in a world strewn with threatening vagrants? I think so. Here is Sarkozy, steely-eyed warrior, who has achieved a lasting peace with his unenviable duty – the perennial defence of his people against relentless, unspoken nastiness, washing up on the nation’s beaches!

Indeed, beaches. France is a famously geographically diverse country, and his deadened gaze might have been set against any number of natural backdrops. The Alps. A sun-kissed pasture. A mostly-sunny sky with a couple of attractive, clumpy clouds you just want to bite into.

But this vast, flat grey sea. No sign of waves, islets, boats, or features of any kind. The eye is drawn to nothing but the horizon. And what lies over France’s oceanic horizons?

Fear, in two tiers. 

Firstly, amongst the Marine Le Pen fans and other xenophobes of the far right (of whom there are too many), nothing matters more than immigration and foreigners. Take heart, hard-asses – when Granite-Sarko stands on his Mediterranean coastline, he looks outward towards North Africa with a sober resolve to smite so much as a dodgy looking raft drifting his way. Sure, Granite-Sarko seems cold, but it is because he fully understands the scale of the threat bursting northward from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mordor itself, overflowing with writhing masses of non-Christian refugees and non-conformist asylum seekers keen to exploit the nourishing teat that is the French Republic.

Sarko stands on guard. France’s teat is not for their suckling. Plain and simple.

For the more moderate French nationalists (of whom there are also a great, great many), Granite-Sarko stands not on the Med, and not so much as a merciless bulwark. But he stands on his northern shores, almost within sight of Great Britain, which he regards with the non-plussed demeanour of a dinner host watching an arrogant, drunken guest boast about himself while ladling brown gravy onto his salmon. With a dessert spoon.

Sarko reminds his people, that in the face of Britain’s swaggering self-exceptionalism within the European Union, it is only he who can tell David Cameron, literally, to shut up. Sarkozy will not bend or wither, and will happily dismiss the selfish pleadings of his Anglo-Saxon nemesis and snub his handshakes!

The logic is that London has tried for too long to free itself from Europe’s grasp, yet continues to enjoy coming down to the Continent with wagging fingers and half-assed condescension. Sarko responds by unfurling his middle finger, to the applause of his peeps. In that vein, he is self-respect, he is firmness, he is bold and fair on the European project, and will take no guff from ale-swilling islanders to the north.

This poster, truly, has it all! Nicolas Sarkozy as the great Janus of French conservatism, looking two ways at once to two quite distinct voting constituencies and hoping, dearly, that at least someone, somewhere, in some direction, will take the bait.

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

If only we’d trained Karzai’s assassin into ‘loyalty’

That Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali “Mr. Kandahar” Karzai, has been killed by the head of his own security forces, is one more violent expression of the single greatest Afghan challenge: getting to grips with loyalty.

Bob Rae and Stephen Harper alike maintain the naive conceit that the Afghan army is largely ineffective because they need our training. The Canadian Forces have some nifty fighting techniques that Afghans simply haven’t thought of or been able to employ. Once we show them how to shoot straight, we can leave the job of national defence to Afghans themselves.

Really? Really now.

I’ve posted this way again and again, but to repeat, Afghanistan is a mercenary landscape. Consolidating loyalties and lasting allegiances in the country is, at once, the greatest challenge to Afghan peace, and also the area in which international forces have the least sway and the least understanding. The suggestion that Karzai’s assassin, Sardar Mohammed, could have been trained out of his true allegiance by the Dutch and Canadians etc. would be laughable, if lives were not at stake.

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

Who owns socialism?

With a shrug and a sigh, the NDP have delayed a decision on whether they are socialist, or social democratic. I shrugged and sighed too – this decision was to be a fascinating moment, and they kind of let that pass.

Sure, it’s only language, and a single word-change at that. But the biggest question seemed to me to be, who was motivating this change? Who do the NDP believe owns the word socialist? Is it them, and so what they do with it is very much their own decision? Or is it the Conservatives, who have appropriated it like a weapon with which to beat Layton up over the next four years?

I remember the 2004 U.S. election particularly well, not only for its result (I’m reminded of Dubya’s victory in the face of total incompetence whenever I contemplate Harper’s new majority), but also for one of the more effective political grenades the Republicans were able to lob – the word liberal. Every chance George W. Bush got to call John Kerry a liberal, he would. He’d sneer it. Liberal. Nothin’ but a fancy-pants liberal.

Now, any dictionary definition of liberalism will correspond pretty well to the philosophies at the heart of every Western democracy, with fuzzy margins, but that simply doesn’t matter in electoral campaigns that are more blunt bludgery than nuanced debate. By taking the word liberal and infusing it with satanic undertones, proud patriotic American liberals were left reeling. Their identity had become illegitimate. They scrambled for words like progressive to try and claim territory that wasn’t tainted, and that mad scramble suited (and suits) the American right just fine.

I always found that a uniquely American problem, but clearly it’s North American all told. We heard Dimitri Soudas bleating End-Is-Nigh-style “socialists and separatists” warnings for the best part of two years as Harperian Ottawa set about its root-to-tip demonisation of all opposition. And so, it’s understandable that the New Democrats may want to adjust to the new reality: the word socialist is passé, problematic, and out of their control any longer. The word belongs to Harper, so just let him have it.

In defense of socialism, though, look to Europe. Socialism isn’t just a single word buried in left-wing party constitutions, it is a word worn proudly, out in front, on campaign buttons and ballot papers. The main French Opposition is the Socialist Party. The Germans pre-Merkel were governed by the Socialist Party. Spain is governed by the Socialist Party, as is Greece and, till lately, lately Portugal. The second largest bloc of European MEPs in Brussels is the Socialist bloc. Even Tony Blair called himself a socialist, and he wasn’t an angstrom further to the left of Michael Bloomin’ Ignatieff.

The right may point to Europe’s woes as the product of all this damn socialism, which is mostly wrong and also besides the point. Modern European “socialism” is really no more radical than anything advocated by Canada’s Liberal Party, or Obamaesque wings of the American Democratic Party. The word doesn’t need cotton padding, because Europeans aren’t cowed by dark nightmares of Young Pioneers, or snooping Stasi, or state management of love lives and sugar intake, every time a socialist takes to the stump. The scare-mongering doesn’t work as well, perhaps because Europeans know what actual authoritarianism looks like – and Ségolène Royal ain’t it.

North America’s left has a greater challenge to manage its identity in the face of a more broadly suspicious media and a more brutalist political class. That’s a reality, and it leaves me torn on the NDP’s big question. I am all for New Democrats doing what they can to get MPs in seats and to encourage steady fundraising, and cleaning up their constitution can be a part of that.

But they must be careful to ensure it is they who define those changes, and they who define their language. Reclaiming language from those who use it negatively may demonstrate greater confidence than reaching for the Thesaurus of Friendly Words. It’s sensible to do what you can to beat back a Right which will inevitably come snarling with accusations of radicalism. But perhaps a reclamation of socialist virtue is still a way to do that.“Socialists? Maybe we are. And here’s what it means.”

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

Libya exists. Is that our policy?

I’ve been very keen to see how John Baird handles his massive new brief (I did not say massive briefs) and, with the 41st Parliament’s first Question Period now behind us, I’ve already got a question. Enter this short exchange:


Hon. Dominic LeBlanc (Beauséjour, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, France and Italy have recognized the Libyan National Council as that country’s legitimate government. Can the Minister of Foreign Affairs clarify Canada’s position on this?

Hon. John Baird (Minister of Foreign Affairs, CPC): Mr. Speaker, in Canada we recognize states, not particular governments.



Uhhhhh….. I may not have ascended to Bairdist thinking on the concept of sovereignty, but I worry that he’s talking borderline impossible here. It’s akin to saying “In Canada, we recognize marriage, not husbands or wives.” Sorry, but unless you recognise the role of husband or the wife, then where in the world is the marriage?

When Canada refused to recognise the presidency of Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast, after challenger Alassane Ouattara had won the election, we were taking a position on legitimacy. It wasn’t saying “We think the Ivory Coast exists.” It was saying “We think the responsibility for running this territory falls to Government X.” Making those decisions and determinations is at the heart of what Foreign Policy is.

It’s not easy. States are not like the Canadian Shield, or the Moon, which exist whether you like them or not, and which exist outside human institutions and imagination. States explicitly require government, and this means the entire establishment of governance. The civil service, the armed forces, the whole elaborate apparatus of collective control. When two separate sets of this apparatus vye for overall control of a recognised territory, it does not do for us to suggest that we “recognise Libya to exist.” Eh? So what?

States require governance, and legitimate statehood requires both the consent of the governed, and the assent of other, peer governments, such as our own. Sometimes the balance there isn’t fair – often it’s not realistic. But that’s the big question Dominic LeBlanc was asking, and Baird fluffed it.

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

Some summit perspective

G8 times are here again! And France gets its day in the sun as host, which clearly heralds the ascent of a new French Order in Europe and the world. It will inevitably send their newspapers and TV chat hosts into a month-long tizzy of neurotic self-congratulation and overblown patriotism. Nicolas Sarkozy will almost certainly cite this as evidence that France has matured into a really, really respected power – respected, and loved, and more than capable of organising big dinner parties. Right? Right??

Or is that kind of parochial identity anguish a particularly Canadian phenomenon? Sigh.

We remember it well. Last year, the Canadian media universe (i.e. the Globe and Mail), and the Harper Government together, each treated our hosting of the G8 as though it was the victory in a highly competitive popularity contest. It was the culmination of years of leadership on the world stage. That ill-founded conceit was hyped not only directly from the PMO, but also in copy-and-paste form in the columns of that critical eye, that investigative journalistic powerhouse, Jane Taber. Canada had suddenly become a strong, bold, respected international player, because, well, it was our turn to host a big dinner party. One which happens every year, somewhere in the world.

Harper is still talking about it as though it’s some kind of lasting evidence of his global leadership. Let’s compare world leaders on this – does anyone think Nicolas Sarkozy (and Le Monde) are so insecure about France’s accomplishments in the world that they’ll weep tears of joy this week because they’re in the international news? Equally, will the world look to France as being somehow “bolder” because they’re hosting the thing?

If the answer is “no” there, then sadly, it was always “no” here too.

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

Carts, horses, and Libyan liberation

Perhaps it’s a hasty enthusiasm for revolution, but France is the first country to drop recognition of the Gaddafi regime. Paris now recognises the rebellion movement, the National Libyan Council, as the legitimate Libyan government, exiled temporarily to Benghazi as it may be.

It’s a fascinating development – European MEPs have been calling for the EU, as a foreign policy making body in its own greater right, to do the same thing, and recognise the NLC as the new recognised power. Britain and Germany have jointly called on Europe to demand Gaddafi step down, while falling short of outright recognising the NLC at the moment.

Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs seems to be shrugging off the suggestion that the EU even could, saying obliquely that “she was not mandated to take such a step herself.”

Isn’t she? Here we were, thinking that the role of High Representative was defined in vague latitudes in the Lisbon Treaty because EU superelites wanted to expand Brussels’ sphere of influence on the sly, not retreat from it? Hum.

Anyway, my desire for Ashton and the EU to take themselves more seriously is another debate for another day. Whatever mandate she thinks she does or doesn’t have, she does raise a legitimate question as to whether recognition of the NLC at this stage in the game is wise. Yes, it sends a powerful political message to Gaddafi, and may have a domino effect across Europe and the world which could enable NATO or the UN Security Council to get tougher, faster, and that’s for the good (although NATO committing military hardware to anything new right now seems unlikely). It also, I suppose, opens the door to France (and others) trading directly with the NLC: delivering aid, and delivering, one assumes, arms (how soon would Britain follow suit? Not sure whether it’s comedy or tragedy to see Gaddafi and the rebellion, each of them firing UK-made missiles across a smoky Mediterranean sky).

But, but, but. The NLC was first conceived on 27 February 2011 – less than two weeks ago. Is there enough certainty whether the NLC is in a condition at this moment to deliver good government? Is it composed of the right people? Is it unified by anything coherent beyond opposition? Unless I’m mistaken, they don’t have a “prime minister” or a “secretary of the interior” or an alternate civil service devising national policy in the wings. If they do, it’s very, very early days. Diplomatically, what is it Sarkozy’s recognising?

We can applaud his boldness in not just waiting to meekly follow the global consensus after it’s been crafted (cough * Harper *), but this feisty energy might be best applied to helping the UK-German proposal succeed (however unpopular “Anglo-Saxon” solutions may be). Better, perhaps, to support the NLC’s role as a body facilitating leadership transition – rather than to imagine that they are already rightly governing, or should, having not yet been through an electoral process of any kind.

To enable Libyans to bring about a post-Gaddafi world, there are more practical things we can do:

Britain believes there are four priorities for the Nato meeting. These were agreed by David Cameron and Barack Obama in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. They are: surveillance of Libya as a possible precursor to a no-fly zone; humanitarian assistance; work on a no-fly zone; and a tightening of the arms embargo on Libya aimed at members of Gaddafi’s regime.

It’s the place to start. If it works, we can fly the black, red, and green Libyan independence flag as a meaningful symbol of a new Libya, rather than of one which doesn’t yet exist.

Filed under: International, Politics, UK, , , , , , , , ,

What can you protect for two billion bucks?

$2 billion. It’s a familiar figure to anyone who was aware, and critical, of the G8/G20 summit security costs in Toronto.

Now, an equivalent mound of moola is considered more than adequate, and indeed excessive, regarding the entire security bill for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

The Russian authorities haven’t revealed how much they are spending on Olympic security: the figure is a state secret.

Some reports in the Russia media have suggested the total cost will be around $2bn, although Vice Premier Dmitry Kozak says that figure is inflated.

So, the Russians consider $2 billion “inflated” when talking about securing, for two full weeks, the world’s largest multisport cavalcade, right on the Abkhazian border, in the heart of the restive Caucasus. Whilst, last year, Ottawa considered $2 billion a reasonable cost for a three-day summit on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Which is worse: that Canada is more afraid of its university students than Russia is of its Chechen suicide bombers? Or that Team Harper considers itself a sober steward of our precious tax dollars? I’m awash in a swirling double-helix of nausea.

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

Apparently there were no WMDs in Iraq

The machinery of deceit is built of many cogs, and oops, one’s come loose!

Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, codenamed Curveball by German and American intelligence officials who dealt with his claims, has told the Guardian that he fabricated tales of mobile bioweapons trucks and clandestine factories in an attempt to bring down the Saddam Hussein regime, from which he had fled in 1995.

The CIA and Bush-Blair-era policymakers assert to this very day that they weren’t lying about Iraq’s WMD potential – they were simply ill-informed. They mistakenly used bad intelligence.

“Bad intelligence.” What is that? Is it intelligence which is misspelt? Is the date missing? Is it villanous intelligence, like what Gargamel had?

No, bad intelligence is a bunch of lies. It was never realistic to say that MI6 and the CIA are incompetent jobsworths who completely confused and misunderstood what they were hearing in Iraq. No, intelligence agencies were told lies by self-interested sources, and these lies resonated politically at the tops of ministries and around cabinet tables. Convenient lies, as opposed, I guess, to inconvenient truths.

As for Janabi’s reflections on the causation between his tall tales about Saddam’s biological weapons cache, and the 100,000 dead in Iraq today, he is a mite impenitent:

“I tell you something when I hear anybody – not just in Iraq but in any war – [is] killed, I am very sad. But give me another solution. Can you give me another solution? Believe me, there was no other way to bring about freedom to Iraq. There were no other possibilities.”

*cough * cough * Egypt! * cough!*

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

Why we back Mubarak

Two reasons: Israel and the UAE.

Harper and Cannon simply can’t fault Binyamin Netanyahu (even that “coalition of losers” that he leads to govern Israel doesn’t perturb our coalition-phobic PM), and when Bibi says he wants a secular strongman in power in Cairo, democracy be damned, well of course we offer no criticism. Our foreign policy principles in overdrive.

There are no surprises there. But Netanyahu isn’t the only one who wants Mubarak in power: every undemocratic Arab strongman in the neighbourhood will fear that they’re next should Mubarak be the second Arab president in a month to be forced from office through popular revolt.

The bosses in Saudi, in Yemen, in Morocco, in Algeria, in Qatar, will be gasping to see a Western leader come out and say “we prefer stability to democracy. We endorse these big bosses first and foremost, and the people should just be more patient.”

And Harper’s their man. It’s a useful way for the PM to try and wipe away the fallout from our bungling of the UAE file, which became a contagion of anti-Canadian sentiment in the corridors of Middle East power. Canada had all the ingredients to fail in our UN Security Council bid already in place, but offending every Middle Eastern power broker through the UAE spat nailed our coffin shut. Perhaps, it must be thought in Ottawa, backing Mubarak against the Egyptian popular will can help to lead some of those strongmen back into our warm embrace.

A shame it does nothing to bolster our credentials as “tireless advocates of democracy” or somesuch.

UPDATE: And, now Mubarak’s resigned! So it’s Harper on the wrong side of history in a big, big way. Invade Iraq, Support Mubarak…. someone’s skipped all his classes on Middle East power politics. He was the only Western leader to actively shrug and dismiss the scale, and even the legitimacy, of the Egyptian protests, hoping that regional strongmen would thank him for it. But it’s The People 1 – Strongmen 0. Nice work, Egyptian peeps. 🙂

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

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