P.T. Barnum would delight in Trump’s White House run

Published on July 31, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

The metaphor most frequently applied to Donald Trump’s U.S. presidential candidacy is that it sucks up all the oxygen, denying other candidates media attention for their own campaigns.

The media obsession with the self-promoting billionaire and reality show host seems to be having an enormous impact upon the Republican contest, despite hardly anyone taking Trump’s prospects seriously as the eventual winner.

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Days of reckoning arrive in Greece, Iran

Published July 3, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

As June ended, negotiation deadlines in two different parts of the globe lapsed without resolution.

Although the timetable facing Greece’s loan default problems and the Iranian nuclear program are very different concerns, each demonstrates that resolute negotiators extend the process to the final moment — and beyond — to gain maximum bargaining leverage.

The game of “chicken” has frequently been cited to illustrate the practice. Even though the bargaining has effectively been transpiring for more than three years, each side has acted as if it could exact the greatest advantage by extending its rival to the final possible minute, and then some. They can’t all be successful in pursuing this strategy.

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Obama-Netanyahu spat just political game-playing

Published Apr. 11, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

In discussing the future of Middle East peace, it should be stipulated that whether it takes a year, a decade or a century, at some point a partition and “two state” solution of some kind is inevitable.

Unfortunately, the implementation of this is nowhere on the horizon, and in fact prospects have regressed in recent years as the optimistic memories of the Oslo Accord fade. That said, the ramifications of the Barack Obama-Benjamin Netanyahu spat for the future of Middle East peace seem neither as revealing nor as significant as the initial media outburst would suggest.

An important part of Netanyahu’s motivation in criticizing the Iranian nuclear deal was probably an attempt to stiffen the U.S. bargaining position, rather than simply scupper the negotiations, much as he might have wished to do that as well.

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Harper is finally getting his wish — a war

Published March 30, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Back in the spring of 2003, in the waning days of his prime ministry, Jean Chrétien announced the decision for which he will be long remembered. Canada, he told a tumultuous House of Commons, would be not joining the U.S.-led “coalition of the willing” in its war against Iraq.

There are times in politics when a decision not to take a certain step is tougher, yet wiser, than a decision to take that step. In March 2003, Chrétien was under pressure both from U.S. president George W. Bush and from Stephen Harper, the newly minted leader of the opposition in Ottawa, to commit Canadian forces to the invasion of Iraq. If Chrétien had succumbed to their pressure, Canada would have been locked into an unwinnable war that in the end dragged on for eight years, claiming the lives of 4,491 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi troops and civilians. Continue reading

Chrétien said no to Bush because the United States had been unable to persuade the UN Security Council to endorse military action. There was no evidence to support the Bush administration’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Canada, Chrétien said, would honour military commitments to its allies in the then two-year-old war in Afghanistan, but it was going to stay out of Iraq,

There’s not much doubt that if Harper had been prime minister in 2003, and particularly if he had a majority government, Canada would have followed the United States into Iraq. That would have been a huge mistake, as Harper finally and grudgingly admitted five years later, during a leaders’ debate in the 2008 election campaign. By this time, he was prime minister, and as the Green party leader declared in that debate: “We’re only not sending anyone to Iraq because you weren’t prime minister at the time (in 2003).”

So now it is 2015. Harper has a majority government, and Canada has followed the United States into war against ISIL with a bombing campaign in Iraq. Now the Harper government intends to extend its bombing to ISIL targets in Syria.

The situations are different, of course. Saddam Hussein was a brutal despot who deserved to be removed from power. He had thoroughly annoyed the United States, but did not directly threaten Canadian interests. ISIL is a monster of a different order. It is a movement of murderous fanatics who do not hesitate to wreak violence abroad as well as at home. Any polls I’ve seen suggest strong public support for the war against ISIL.

(It’s worth noting that the United Kingdom, which was alongside the U.S. in the “coalition of the willing” a decade ago, and which is part of the current anti-ISIL bombing in Iraq, is not going into Syria. The Cameron coalition government could not win the support of the British Parliament for a Syrian campaign. That’s not an obstacle Harper faces.)

Harper is able to do in 2015 what he wished he could do in 2003. He is going to war with no idea of how long it may last (longer than shorter one suspects) and with no assurance that Canada will be able to avoid committing boots on the ground somewhere down the road. And the government has no exit strategy to turn to if the war proves to be unwinnable.

Last week’s Commons debate produced plenty of partisanship and posturing, but a dearth of clear thinking about the degree of the ISIL threat, the actual need for Canadian military involvement, and the anticipated effectiveness of that involvement.

Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect clear thinking when the country is on the road to an election. Harper needs this war. Back in 2003, he wanted to push the Chrétien Liberals into the Iraq War. Now that he is in power he doesn’t need any pushing. Today, he is jumping of his own volition without knowing where he and the country may land.

Appeal to politics of fear worked for Netanyahu

Published Mar. 19, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

The Israeli election results are yet another reminder of what travails can be produced by a proportional representation voting system in complicating the democratic process.

Even with a minimum threshold of 3.25 per cent support to gain representation, Tuesday’s election produced 10 legislative parties in the new Knesset (Israel’s parliament), none of which receive more than 25 per cent of the vote. This means the task of forming a government requires cobbling together a deal among a wide range of prospective coalition partners, each with their own demands and agendas, which are frequently incompatible with other parties.

For example, a secular party like Yesh Atid has demands that are incompatible with the different Jewish religious parties (Ashkenazi and Sephardic). There is also a party that appeals to Russian immigrant voters, a party to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, and one to the left of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union (formerly Labour), not to mention a newly aggregated bloc of Arab parties that would prefer to see the Jewish state disappear.

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Israel-U.S. ties strong despite leaders’ friction

Published Feb. 25, 2015, in the Waterloo Region Record

Much has been made of the personal animosity between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the two men clearly have had differences and don’t play well together.

However, even if we assume the invitation to the Israeli leader by House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner to address Congress on March 3 — bypassing the president and the U.S. State Department — was a bush league stunt used for partisan advantage, the long-term implications of it are minimal.

American support for Israel in its conflicts with the Arab world was not always as automatic as in recent times. That support grew over the years in the face of Palestinian alignment with the Soviet Union during the days of the Cold War, and then the emergence of Islamic hostility to America, the West, and even modernity, among its extreme elements.

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Letter from a lickspittle

Published Dec. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper
24 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, Ontario.

My very dear Prime Minister:

Permit me, on behalf of a grateful nation, to extend our thanks for your enlightened stewardship and our best wishes for an exceptionally happy Christmas. Your loyal subjects join you in eager anticipation of your re-election next October to a fourth term as PM. Your place in Canadian history is secure; soon you will join the pantheon of world greats.

But you know all this. Let me get to the point. There’s a pile of presents under your Christmas tree, gifts from supporters and favour-seekers. But be careful, Prime Minister, there is one “gift” you do not want to open. It will cause you great distress. It is a new book entitled “Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada’s Radical Makeover” by Michael Harris.

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It is a nasty piece of work, Sir. Very nasty. It alleges that since you took command of the state in 2006, you have endeavored, with considerable success, to make the Conservative party and indeed the entire government accountable to just one person – to you, Mr. Harper. The indictment is lengthy. You insist on controlling everything yet refuse to accept blame when things go wrong. You do not trust science, statistics or any information that does not coincide with your own beliefs or partisan intentions. You have no faith in public servants and diplomats to give you objective advice. You withhold information. You treat Parliament with contempt.

You have changed the country. As Michael Harris writes: “Until that moment (when you became prime minister), Canada had been a secular and progressive nation that believed in transfer payments to better distribute the country’s wealth, the Westminster model of governance, a national medicare program, a peacekeeping role for the armed forces, an arm’s-length public service, the separation of church and state, and solid support for the United Nations. Stephen Harper believed in none of these things.”

Please, Prime Minister, do not assume “Party of One” is some sort of partisan rant, a piece of opposition propaganda in election year. It is much more than that. It is a deeply researched and meticulously documented account of your years in office. I have known Harris for years and I worked with him at the Globe and Mail. He is a superb investigative reporter, one of the best. He specializes in finding slithery things hidden under rocks.

His first book, “Justice Denied,” reported the wrongful conviction of Donald Marshall, a Mi’kmaq Indian in Nova Scotia, who spent 11 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. His second, “Unholy Orders,” ripped the lid off the cover-up of sexual and physical abuse of boys at the Mount Cashel Orphanage in Newfoundland.

He brings the same intensity to his scrutiny of your reign. It’s all there: the robocall scandal and election-spending abuses; the destruction of Linda Keen, the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission; the F-35 folly; your vendetta against Helena Guergis, who was one of your MPs and ministers until you threw her under the bus; your wars against Statistics Canada, the Parliamentary Budget Officer, the Chief Electoral Officer, the Auditor General and even the Chief Justice of Canada; your government’s hypocritical treatment of veterans; and your errors in judgment in trusting high office to people who should be in jail instead. And, of course, there was your signature folly: Mike Duffy and the Senate-expense scandal; Harris probes your complicity in exhaustive detail.

As I advised at the outset, please, Prime Minister, do not read this book. It will make you angry. It will make you want to get even. You may even want to sue the author for being beastly to you.  I wouldn’t do that, Sir. If the case ends up before the Supreme Court, the Chief Justice and her colleagues may remember how you tried to beat her up after the court blocked your appointment of the ineligible Marc Nadon. Judges have long memories.

Your faithful lickspittle,
etc., etc.

Combat could be game changer in next vote

Published Oct. 14, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury.

Whenever an election appears on the horizon, political strategists attempt to frame a “ballot question” to offer voters a bite-sized synopsis of the key issue, as the strategists see it.

For Conservatives planning next October’s federal campaign, the ballot question has been the economy and the Harper government’s wise management thereof since the crash of 2008. A federal surplus is within reach, the economy is growing again (at least a bit), interest rates are low and a brighter future lies ahead, or so it can be argued. Why risk everything by changing horses now?

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For the opposition parties, the ballot question is a hoary one – time for a change. The New Democrats and Liberals will put different spins on the question, but the bottom line is essentially the same: after nine years, it is time to get rid of the aloof, insensitive prime minister and his arrogant Tories who care only about winning and not about the needs, hopes and dreams of ordinary Canadians.

This is pretty predictable stuff. Now, however, there is a new element – two elements, actually. First, will the war against ISIS and Canada’s involvement be what they call a “game changer?” Will it change the way Canadians look at their political leaders and their parties? Will it change their vote next October?

In one scenario, the air war goes well; ISIS is quickly contained, if not obliterated; and Canada is seen to have made a useful contribution. In this scenario, Prime Minister Harper and his Conservatives accept the credit for sound leadership and roll to victory in October.

In a second scenario – call it the Vietnam syndrome – the air war drags on with no end in sight. ISIS warriors take shelter among the civilian population and it becomes apparent it is going to take allied boots on the ground, including Canadian boots, for an indefinite period. Having bought into the U.S.-led coalition, could Canada realistically back out when the going gets tough?

But would the Canadian electorate accept an extended commitment to a war effort in which there is no evident exit strategy? And what happens if Canadian soldiers are killed or taken prisoner, or held hostage and paraded on internet videos? That would be a worst-case scenario for the Tories and could mean a ticket back to opposition.

This is why all parties are hedging their bets. The Conservatives say they signed on to the air war for six months only – a trial period that seems artificial and unrealistic. How do you fight a war with your eyes glued on the exit? The opposition parties are in a similar dilemma. They say they are opposed to joining the air war, but might change their mind later, depending on how things go. It’s a position built on quicksand, betraying both expediency and lack of commitment.

If ISIS is one potential game changer, Justin Trudeau is another. Chosen Liberal leader 18 months ago, Trudeau has enjoyed an astonishingly easy run to the top of the polls. His thin resume and meager arsenal of policies did not hinder his ascent. He has the Trudeau name – if not the steel-trap mind and icy determination of his father – and he generates genuine excitement among younger voters.

Here is an attractive young leader who wants to be prime minister, who seems impervious to Conservative attack ads, who has been forgiven assorted gaffes over the months, and who – importantly – is not Stephen Harper. What’s not to like?

The answer may have begun to emerge last week. The Commons held a debate on Canadian involvement in the ISIS war, the most important debate in the Commons in many months. It was a time for national leaders to step up. Harper and NDP leader Thomas Mulcair stepped up, leading their parties in the debate. Trudeau did not. He left the heavy lifting to other Liberals, and he made matters worse with sophomoric sexual innuendo about fighter aircraft, an attempt at humour that was inappropriate and unfunny in a serious situation.

If Trudeau wants to lead the nation, he is going to have to prove he has what it takes.

Mounting a coalition of the embarrassed

Published Sept. 17, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

In a world that has become increasingly safe for tyrannical aggression to go unchallenged, as evidenced by the Russians in Ukraine, the Crimea and Georgia, and the Chinese in the islands of the South China Sea, the recent expansive activities of the militant group the Islamic State might all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

Most nations, including our own, have appeared to prefer to utter some pious denunciation, then keep our heads down and turn the page. If the United States wants to get involved, so be it, but we have been quick to judge if things go awry, as frequently happens. All this, so long as we are disengaged.

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Western leaders struggle with crises

Published Sept. 15, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are times when one wonders why any sane person would want to be the leader of a nation committed to democratic values. Last week was one such time as Western leaders struggled to navigate their way through at least a trio of crises.

One, of course, was the confrontation with the fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, who are waging war in their own repugnant way – by beheading their captives and doing it on video for the world to see. On Saturday, British aid worker David Haines became the third victim in recent weeks, following the murders of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. “An act of pure evil,” British Prime Minister David Cameron called the Haines assassination.

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There will be more beheadings – ISIS has already served notice of that – leaving world leaders appearing impotent as they confront an enemy that does not observe any acknowledged practices of warfare. ISIS does not negotiate, although it will accept blood money, as it did when the weak-kneed government of France paid to ransom French captives. It does not hesitate to kill its victims, fellow Muslims as well as foreign “infidels,” in the most gruesome manner possible. It does not care what damage it does to the Islamic movement in the world.

It does not worry about retaliation from horrified Western leaders. It knows Western intelligence gathering is weak, probably as weak as it was back in 2003 when George W. Bush led the United States into war against Saddam Hussein on the strength of erroneous intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. ISIS even welcomes retaliation, because for those twisted fanatics retaliation serves to validate their cause and to attract recruit disaffected and misguided youths in the U.S., Britain and Canada, too, to join their struggle.

Of course, ISIS can be stopped. According to Western estimates – which may or may not be accurate – there are only about 30,000 militants in ISIS. That doesn’t seem like very many for the combined forces of the Western allies and sympathetic Arab countries to dispose of. But the movement feeds on publicity and its numbers are growing. They are not soldiers. They are terrorists who are fighting on their own territory with the support and protection of the Sunni population.

They cannot be bombed out of existence without causing incalculable civilian casualties. The only way, as President Barack Obama and other leaders must surely suspect, is with boots on the ground, by sending in soldiers in overwhelming numbers to capture or kill the terrorists. But no one wants another Iraq war. Everyone knows it could drag on for years, as Iraq and Afghanistan did, and might, in the end, solve nothing. And there’s a real risk that ISIS, following the example of Al-Qaeda, would export its murderous ways to the civilian populations in other parts of the world, including Canada.

As if ISIS were not enough crisis enough, political leaders have to deal with two others. One is the Ebola epidemic or pandemic sweeping through several countries in West Africa. There are not enough doctors, nurses, hospitals and medical supplies to contain the virus, let alone the vaccines to eradicate it. Eighty per cent of the people who contract Ebola die from it. Unless it can be stopped, it seems inevitable that it will be carried one way or another to Europe and North America.

The third crisis is posed by Vladimir Putin who seems intent on rebuilding the old Soviet empire, starting with Ukraine. NATO countries will try sanctions and threats, but in the end the world might be looking at another Cold War arms race.

Of all leaders, Britain’s David Cameron has the most worries. His biggest one is this week’s referendum on independence for Scotland. If he loses, which is a distinct possibility, his coalition government may not be around long enough to have to worry about ISIS, Ebola or Putin.

If you’re a betting person, here are some safe bets

Published Sept. 8, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

There are precious few safe bets in politics these days, but here are a few.

Safe bet number one: Stephen Harper will not win the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, for which he is being nominated by his admirers in B’Nai Brith Canada, the group that earlier gave the prime minister its Gold Medallion for Humanitarianism. It didn’t take long, just a few hours, for an online petition to spring up demanding that the Norwegian Nobel Committee reject Harper’s nomination; overnight it attracted 13,000 signatures. Elsewhere, the reaction ranged from outrage (among Palestinian Canadians) to laughter (among most non-Conservatives).

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Safe bet number two: Andrea Horwath will not be the NDP leader when the next Ontario election rolls around in four years’ time. She faces a crucial NDP provincial council meeting this coming weekend – followed, if she survives that meeting, by a formal leadership review in November.

The council will want to know why she forfeited the influence the NDP had enjoyed with the then minority Liberal government by opposing its budget, which was loaded with goodies for the NDP. By rejecting the budget, Horwath precipitated a June election she could not win. She ran a poorly prepared and executed campaign. She alienated the party’s traditional labour base and many of the NDP rank and file with policies that moved the party to the right of the Liberals. The new head of the Canadian Labour Congress described her as a “coward.”

When the dust settled, Kathleen Wynne had a majority government and the NDP was still in third place – now cloutless and bitter. “Andrea is fighting for her life,” a longtime party worker told the Toronto Star. “Among a very large section of the activist base there is little more than comptempt for her.” Ouch!

Safe bet number three: Rob Ford will not be mayor of Toronto for 14 more years, as he says he intends to be. That would take him up to his 60th birthday.

Of course, nothing is “safe” when dealing with the unpredictable Ford. A few months ago, before entering rehab, most people – me included – would have bet against his reelection for a second four-year term. Now the race has changed. He is in second place, the underdog to front-runner John Tory, and underdog is where the populist mayor likes to be. I still don’t think Ford can win again in October, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

But 14 years? Nah, it couldn’t happen. Could it? Make it a small bet against.

But back to Stephen Harper and the Nobel Peace Prize. His supporters are certainly gung-ho, his detractors not so much. “You don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” says Hanna Kawas, the head of the Canadian Palestine Association in Vancouver. “It’s outrageous.”

But Frank Dimant, the CEO of B’Nai Brith, harbours no doubts. He praises Harper’s international leadership and the “moral clarity” he brings to issues of good and evil. “More than any other individual, he has consistently spoken out with resolve regarding the safety of people under threat – such as opposing Russian aggression and annexation of Ukrainian territory – and has worked to ensure that other world leaders truly understand the threat of Islamic terrorism facing us today.”

That’s a much larger and more influential role than most other leaders would concede to Harper. His support of Israel is unconditional and, I think, genuine. It is also good politics at home. But by being so one-sided, it doesn’t allow for Canada to play any useful role in the delicate diplomacy of the Middle East.

When it comes to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Harper roars from the sidelines and shakes his fist at Vladimir Putin. He will do anything for Ukraine, so long as the cost of any Canadian contribution does not jeopordize his pursuit of a balanced budget in time for the federal election in October next year. Unfortunately, deficit elimination is not one of the criteria for a Nobel Prize. Sorry, sir.

Islamic regimes uncomfortable with extremist jihadist groups

Published Aug. 23, 2014, in the Waterloo Region Record.

Whatever outcome results from the on-again off-again conflict in Gaza, Hamas is obliged to declare victory as it did in 2009 and 2012, if only to save face from the debacle they have put their population through.

Whether that “victory” is purely symbolic, as in “Hamas is still standing,” or has some substantive gain, remains to be seen. The rush by some academics to challenge battlefield accounts and definitively declare the conflict as an Israeli defeat depends upon definitions. The perception of any encounter can be revised so that any victory or defeat can be redefined upward or downward to mean anything.

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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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