Why Ukip matters in the Scottish independence referendum

Published April 29, 2014, on The Spectator.

There is now a significant chance that Ukip will top the European election poll in England. But while Ukip are also on course to win an MEP in Wales, if the results of new polling are borne out on 22 May, they would likely not win an MEP in Scotland. Such a result would highlight the political differences between the nations of Britain. The strength of Ukip’s popular support in England draws on something which even they appear not to have fully recognised: the extent to which the party has become the champion of an increasingly politicized sense of English identity.

The Ukip surge that appears in England – where almost one third of voters are intending to back the party in the 22 May elections – is largely absent in Scotland, where only the Liberal Democrats are likely to fare worse.  A new study by academics at Edinburgh and Cardiff universities and the think tank IPPR shows that Scots stand out.

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Everyone’s at fault in Mideast peace talks

Published Apr. 10, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Rumours emanating from the Middle East peace talks suggest things are not going well.

This is hardly a surprise for anyone who has followed the twists and turns of past negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. It will inevitably lead to a bout of finger-pointing as to who is at fault, where sympathizers of both sides will quickly blame each other. However, the truth is everyone is at fault, because whatever narratives are spun, neither side is prepared to make the difficult concessions for a real peace treaty to emerge.

Critics of Israel can and will blame the expansion of settlements in the West Bank as the core reason for the impasse and it is a problem, but Palestinian representatives have never acknowledged the legitimacy of an Israeli state even before 1967, when the entire area in question was in Arab hands.

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Tea party wing dogs Republicans

Published Oct. 16, 2013, in The Waterloo Regional Record.

There are some life lessons to be gleaned from the current ongoing debacle in the U.S. Congress.

First and foremost, one should be advised not to pick fights they can’t win.

This should seem obvious on the face of it, but when people have little self-awareness, and conduct all their conversations in an echo chamber with like-minded individuals, they can lose a grasp on objective reality.

Moreover, when one is involved in a confrontation, they should have
planned out some tactical approach, including an exit strategy if things
don’t go as expected. These observations would be true at any time, but
particularly when the leaders of a movement have from the beginning
clearly stated the impossibility of achieving their goals.

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Tea party no longer an amusing distraction

Published Oct. 7, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record. 

In the early days of the American union, thoughtful commentators, from James Madison to Alexis de Tocqueville, worried about the extremes of democracy. Might the U. S. system evolve into a tyranny of the majority?

That particular concern seems unreal this fall as Washington finds itself trapped in the polar opposite: a tyranny of the minority. A handful of congressmen, no more than 40 of them — less than 10 per cent of the House of Representatives — has seized control of the machinery of government. They have brought Congress to its knees. They have cut off funds for vital public programs and day-to-day operations. Hundreds of thousands of public servants have been sent home without pay. National historic shrines, including the Statue of Liberty, have been closed.

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It’s happened before, most recently back in 1995-96, when congressional Republicans got in a snit with Bill Clinton, the Democratic president, over taxes, spending and relief for the poor. The public was not amused; it re-elected Clinton in the fall of 1996.

This time, the cause is “Obamacare.” The Affordable Care Act, as it is officially known, was the signature legislative initiative of Barack Obama’s first term, the first major overhaul of the health system in a half-century. It was approved by both houses of Congress and signed by the president. Then it was fought over again in the 2012 presidential election with the same result: another Obama victory.

You would think the opponents would concede defeat. They would say, “OK, we still don’t like the law, but Congress and the people have spoken. It’s time to move to on.” (That’s what happened here with the GST.)

But tyrants don’t move on, even when they are a tiny minority. These people are a minority even within the Republican party. Mainstream Republicans want no part of them. Most are affiliated to one degree or another with the tea party.

The tea party began as an amusing diversion on the lunatic fringe of the political landscape — sort of interesting, but not to be taken seriously (hello there, Michele Bachmann). The tea party and its apostles are no longer amusing. They are only too eager to use the arcane levers of Washington power to damage the system — to make it inoperative, to deny taxpayers the services and benefits they have paid for, to cause hardship among those least able to bear it, to deny the majority of citizens the government and leadership for which they voted.

The polls reflect the public’s angst. Even voters who don’t like Obamacare reject tea party tactics (80 per cent disapproval, according to polls) — tactics, which, left unchecked, could do more than damage the system. They could destroy the spirit of goodwill, consensus and willingness to compromise that make it possible for democracy to function.

Canadians watching the battle unfold may feel complacent. It could never happen here, could it? Our parliamentary system protects us from tyrants, doesn’t it?

One might wish. Twenty years ago, a minority party dedicated to the destruction of Canada became the official opposition in Parliament. It was called the Bloc Québécois. It’s still around, though much reduced. Then along came Preston Manning and the Reform Party. After listening to the rhetoric at a Reform convention in 1994, Dalton Camp, the distinguished political commentator, sounded this alarm: “The speechifying gives off acrid whiffs of xenophobia, homophobia, and paranoia — like an exhaust — in which it seems clear both orator and audience have been seized by some private terror: immigrants, lesbians, people out of work or from out of town and criminals.”

Three years later, this Reform party replaced the Bloc as the official opposition in Parliament. It went on to dump Manning, then rebrand itself as the Canadian Alliance. Its DNA survives in the ideological wing of Stephen Harper’s Conservative party.

As prime minister, Harper would have no cause to shut down the government, tea party-style. But he might prorogue Parliament if it got in his way.

Kamikaze Republicans precipitated U.S. shutdown

Published Oct. 2, 2013, in The Guelph Mercury

It has been just over two years since the Republican congressional leadership forced U.S. President Barack Obama to blink in an eyeball-to-eyeball game of chicken between these two branches of the American government.

At that time, the focus of the confrontation was extending the debt ceiling limit, which effectively meant honouring the nation’s debts. Obama conceded at that point, at least to the extent of establishing a commission to agree upon government spending cuts, lest an across-the-board sequestration would be triggered.

We know, of course, that the sequestration ultimately did occur, and that is still a contentious matter for many.

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Putin gives Obama a lifeline over ‘red line’

Published Sep. 18, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record.

Just when it appeared that U.S. President Barack Obama had painted himself into an inescapable corner over Syria’s chemical weapons use, an impromptu comment by Secretary of State John Kerry was picked up by the Russians to hand him a lifeline out of the mess that he had created with his indecisiveness.

One obvious lesson is that the American president should not specify red lines unless he fully plans to act upon them. This has clear implications for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, where Obama has also warned of red lines.

On the matter of Syria’s sarin nerve gas and other chemical weapons, estimated to amount to some thousand tons in total, authorities will be unable to verify their complete whereabouts without Bashar Assad’s full compliance.

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Indifference in the face of atrocity

Published Sep. 7, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

Some 30 years ago in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, when former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger was asked who he supported, his answer was “both sides.”

It was perhaps an unnecessarily lighthearted response to a serious matter, but it’s one that might draw a comparison by some to the current Syrian civil war.

Strategically, there is perhaps no better short-term outcome for the United States than an ongoing conflict between Bashar Assad and his Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah supporters and the rebel Free Syrian Army, including the al-Qaida-inspired al Nusra front. This thinking challenges the old argument that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and suggests that both sides remain enemies of American and Western interests.

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Obama would be wise to reconsider course on Syria

Published Sep. 3, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

The late Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defence under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson — in the days of the Vietnam War — learned a lot about the statecraft of warfare. Among the 11 most important lessons he said he learned was this: be prepared to re-examine your reasoning.

What he meant was that before embarking on a military adventure, a wise leader will take the precaution of consulting his allies. If like-minded nations are not willing to join the war effort, the smart leader will reconsider his course. There may be very good reasons not to proceed.

McNamara’s 11 lessons are set out in The Fog of War, an extended interview with filmmaker Errol Morris, which won the 2003 Academy Award for best documentary feature. Although McNamara was talking about Vietnam, his advice could — and should — have been applied to Iraq (the war began in 2003), and it is certainly relevant to today’s confrontation with Syria.

In McNamara’s view, the United States — never understanding Vietnam’s history or people — made a series of mistakes, beginning with the decision to proceed with precious little international support. Aside from South Vietnam itself, just Thailand, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines joined the ill-fated U.S. effort.
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In the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. was joined by the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland (with a token force of 194). Such staunch allies as France, Germany, New Zealand and Canada refused to get involved; one of Jean Chrétien’s proudest moments as prime minister came when he said “no” to president George W. Bush’s request that Canada join “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to disarm Saddam Hussein of his alleged store of weapons of mass destruction. The war dragged on for eight years and claimed the lives of 4,500 Americans and many times that number of Iraqis.

Fast forward to the summer of 2013, and we see a disconcertingly similar scenario. In place of Iraq, read Syria; in place of Saddam Hussein, read Bashar Assad (the Syrian president and Middle East villain of the hour); in place of weapons of mass destruction, read chemical weapons; in place of George W. Bush, read Barack Obama.

Obama wants very much to attack the Syrian regime and teach Bashar Assad a lesson through the use of drone aircraft and cruise missiles. No boots on the ground, but isn’t that what they said at the outset in Vietnam?

If McNamara were still alive, he would advise Obama to re-examine his reasoning, by checking out the nations willing to line up behind him. He won’t see many. He may be able to cobble together a coalition with France and Syria’s neighbour, Turkey, but that’s likely to be about all. He cannot get international support through the United Nations Security Council as long as Russia is Syria’s patron and weapons supplier.

Obama looked to the United Kingdom, but when Prime Minister David Cameron put the proposition to Parliament last week, his coalition government lost the vote. There was a sense at Westminster that Britain had been sold a bill of goods 10 years ago — no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq — and it would be unwise to embrace another American adventure. Cameron wisely said he would accept Parliament’s verdict. Back-peddling, Obama now says he will seek the authorization of both houses of Congress before embarking on military intervention in Syria.

McNamara would have approved. The delay will give time for cooler heads to prevail, to seek ways to address Syria and the issue of chemical weapons short of embarking on another Iraq-style war.

After speaking to Obama, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he agreed with the president on the need for a firm response, adding that while his government had no present plans for a military mission, Canada would support its allies who choose to use force. What form that “support” might take, we don’t know. What we do know is that Harper does not intend to consult Parliament.

No surprise there.

New hopes for Mideast peace

Published Aug. 12, 2013, in The Guelph Mercury

It has frequently been noted that nobody has ever lost money betting against Middle East peace, which has probably led to it becoming a Holy Grail within the diplomatic community. Without wanting to express an abundance of optimism about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s quest, there are some new factors that provide a changing context for the process.

The conflicts that have broken out across the Arab world ostensibly as a result of the “Arab Spring” awakening, are a distraction to the semblance of Arab unity supporting the Palestinian cause. In reality that support has always been a mile wide and an inch thick, because animosity toward Israel is one of the few issues that can divert Middle Eastern societies from the intense internal cleavages that bedevil them. Their hostility toward the Jewish state, is matched and sometimes even exceeded by their antagonism for rival sects and clans within their own society.

The most lethal fracture is the Sunni-Shia split currently causing tens of thousands of fatalities in Syria but also spreading to Iraq and now Lebanon. In Sudan in the past, casualties were even greater, counted in the hundreds of thousands, as was also the case in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. Another aspect to the divisions is the clash between religious absolutists, and the secular whom they dismiss as apostates and blasphemers.

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Economic challenges beleaguer Egypt

Published July 6, 2013, in The Waterloo Region Record

If it can be said that Egypt’s military intervention this week in its governing process was an abuse of democracy, then it can also be said that Mohammed Morsi’s conduct in the presidency was equally an abuse of democracy.

Morsi, who was ousted by the military Wednesday, never seemed to grasp an appreciation that democracy involves more than just an electoral process, but rather an inclusionary respect for all in society, and a guarantee for the rights of those that didn’t support him.

Apart from reneging on his pledge to reach out to all segments of Egyptian society, he railroaded through an extremist constitution, attempted to place himself beyond judicial review, filled government posts with cronies from his movement, and increased prosecutions for blasphemy.

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