A Successful Debacle

The situation in Syria seems to be one perfectly constructed for a course in International Politics. This unfolding example has all the classic players and circumstances: a dangerous conflict in a volatile region, rational actors making assumptions, potential adversaries waiting to be influenced, superpowers positioning themselves for future leverage.

Will Assad follow the trend of tumbling dictators and finally fall? Who will govern Syria once he is gone? Will the final result embolden or deter Iran?

Looked at in the calculating light of strategy and favorable outcomes, the recent disapproval of President Obama’s handling of Syria seems reasonable. Yet despite a situation that is still fluid and unresolved, overly colorful opinions such as “fiasco”, “disaster”, and “utter debacle” are being tossed around. When looking at things objectively, these expressions of displeasure seem to be disproportionate to the current realities, and so I can’t help but wonder if this stark contrast is motivated by objective analysis or ideological bias? With so much on the line and public opinion affecting what may happen next, you would hope that those with a platform would be responsible with their words. Opinions on fast-changing events involving real-life outcomes should be flexible rather than rigid, and perhaps most importantly, anchored strongly by an empathetic sense of history.

Exaggerated claims of political calamity aside, the specific arguments are worth revisiting. Not enough support given to the opposition rebels in their battle against the Assad regime? Forgetting that inserting yourself militarily into another country’s civil war could be considered itself a “red line” and breaking of international conventions, supporting a leaderless opposition loaded with extreme elements, hardcore religious fundamentalist and ties to Al-Qaeda is not something we should want more of. Choosing a side in Middle East conflicts because you think it a strategic advantage for other potential problems has not worked well in the past(see: the arming and propping-up of Osama bin Laden in the 1980s leading to today’s Al-Qaeda, and the help in overthrowing Iran’s Prime Minister in the 1950s leading to today’s Iranian extremism.)

There are always unintended consequences, always. And after so many years of obvious failure at this sort of military interventionism, with those unintended human consequences now multiplying and intensifying and spilling into the very Syrian conflict we are now contemplating – you would think we would have learned a lesson.

The United States declared its intention to strike Assad militarily, a threat so credible that the world’s focus switched solely to Syria and the Russian’s final stopped ignoring the crisis. The Assad regime went from pretending that they didn’t know what chemical weapons were to agreeing to abide by the Chemical Weapons Convention and turn over their stockpiles for destruction.

Of course the final outcome is not yet known. Of course the Syrian people still live in horrible circumstances and face a dark road ahead. But short of dropping a bomb that neatly knocks out Assad, secularises and centralizes the rebels, and causes no harm to civilians while still thoroughly scaring Iran – any course of action will be imperfect.

A diplomatic solution has presented itself and for now the world has pulled back from another war. How, in any way that measures up to the potential horrors of military escalation, could this be a bad thing?

Have we gotten too used to this? This cowboy foreign policy, this ease with which we will drop a bomb? And when did it become considered a sign of weakness to be patient, to try for diplomacy and fight only when necessary? When did our finger get so close to the trigger?

Debate and criticism are crucial, but to engage in a case as complex as Syria with an already fixed position in mind is counter-productive. Seeing the world as drawn from a classroom blackboard, with a disregard for the human element in the eventual collateral damage, invites more problems than you think you are solving. To believe that you can successfully play chess with human pieces is arrogant folly, a myopia caused when ideology blocks the view.

Hawkish right-leaning folks are quicker to fire and want to play a firmer hand; dovish liberal-minded people will prefer diplomacy or non-involvement – reality lies somewhere in between.

And in specific defence of the Barrack Obama’s handling of the crisis: the citizens of your nation overwhelmingly do not want another war, your elected representatives will not vote for military action, there is no imminent threat to your national security, and you are moving things in a positive direction without getting entangled in somebody else’s civil war. You are flashing your gun without having to fire, without dropping bombs and killing civilians, all the while shining a light on the problem and letting others know that their actions will not go unnoticed. Viewed impartially, that looks more like successful diplomacy than a debacle.

A world leader being thoughtful without being passive, firm without being careless. What a pleasant change.

 

The U.S. presidential election: why we care

English: Seal of the President of the United S...

The election for President of the United States of America is upon us. Across Canadian airwaves, around dinner tables, and throughout our newspapers, the U.S. election has received not only wide coverage but often in-depth analysis. This reoccurring phenomena begs a simple but elusive question – why do we care? Why, with so many pressing issues of our own, do we consistently turn so much of our attention to a political process that has next to nothing to do with us?

You could say that since the U.S. is our largest trading partner that the American election has significant economic consequences for Canada. You could say that since Canada relies on the United States as an ally on the international stage and in foreign policy decisions that the choice of their leader is important to us as a nation.

But that’s not really why we care. Whoever is president, Democrat or Republican, will not substantially change American economic or foreign policy towards Canada; and most major decisions must go through their Congress and thus are not directly in the hands of the President.

So what is the reason for our fascination with their electoral process? Why do our newspapers run opinion pieces on their candidates, why do our political discussions often focus on their issues rather than our own, and why did I get so excited that I threw a “debate party” at my place on the night of the first presidential debate?

The answer is both obvious and abstract. The U.S., despite all that they do wrong, all their divisiveness, and war-mongering, and extreme thinking – is still the center of the Western world. Their sheer size makes them a force we must pay attention to. Their hyper-capitalist mentality pushes everything they do, from Hollywood to their politics, across the globe and into our consciousness. We are caught in their wake, pulled in by their gravity.

As a major force in almost every field, from the arts to the environment, from the military to big business, the United States is the de facto global cultural leader. And this makes what they do relevant. Not because a new President will directly affect our safety or our pocket books, but because the directions that they take matter. Because of the U.S.’s central place in our general culture, the paths they follow will affect the ones available to us. They set the pace. They can stall progress on global warming, or push the world along to new paradigms. They can feed extremism’s fire, or elect an African-American as President and set a new cultural norm for us all.

And what they do is not only responsible for tangible changes in the directions we take, but is also symbolic of where we are as a society. They are that big fat lab experiment there for us all to see. That dysfunctional reality show broadcast on worldwide television. And this is why we care, why we cannot look away. Because they are a measuring stick. A mirror. Onto all that we wish we were and all that we do not want to be.

So I will stay up late on Nov. 6th and watch. Not only because of the specific consequences it may have for our society, but for that bigger view of where we are as a culture. What they do shows me what we are doing.

I won’t tell you who I’m rooting for, but let’s just say I hope that we are moving forward.

9/11

September  11th. 9/11. Every year the same feelings return.

All around are the clear signs of what it is I should be feeling; but for me it is never that simple, is always a disturbing mix of conflicting emotions.

It’s part flashback. The surreal movie-like scenes. Me sitting at my desk as the 2nd tower collapsed. People caught in that unimaginable dilemma and jumping from a burning building.

Part remembrance. The emergency workers running towards the disaster and not from it. People frantically looking for their loved ones. The candlelight vigils held around the world.

And part reflection. Not only on the specific act and its consequences, not only on the lost lives and terrible suffering, but on the greater issues surrounding that day and the days after it. What is to be the legacy of that day? What is the point of continuing to mark this event if we will not take the time to learn from it?

These questions are the sort of thoughts that get in the way of that indisputable feeling I know I should have. I feel the guilt creep in as the speeches begin to fall on my deaf ears and the questions come to the forefront instead. But I can’t help it.

Is it our responsibility only to remember? To give a moment of silence and play back the video footage and write heart-warming updates on Facebook?

How do we truly honour the dead? By waving a flag? By violence and strong words? By regressing instead of progressing?

I know that amidst our everyday lives we must find a practical way to pay respect to such monumental events. And I know that faced with radical people armed with violence that sometimes we must in turn be violent.

But I also know that our duties do not end there.

The true tragedy would be for such a horror to have happened and not to have built something greater from it. That is how we truly honour such a thing.

Yet we are not doing it. We allowed fear to blind us into an invasion of Iraq, costing trillions of dollars and thousands of lives and building a new generation of extreme hate. Cases of violence and abuse against innocent Muslims have increased, causing a new rift between “us” and “them”.  A war-drum now beating to the tune of Iran, that old song bringing us that much closer to more suffering. Our political discourse still mired in divisive and alienating dialogue, caring more about individual gains than the greater good of the nation.

What a shame for so many to have died and so little to have changed.

That is the thought that gets in the way on days like today.

What a shame.

Ohh Canada

Like most young Canadians I know little of our past.

Sure I remember the Plains of Abraham, and Sir John A. Macdonald, and some other random bits from grade 10 history. But to be honest, that’s about it. (and I had to Wikipedia those to refresh my memory).  I could give you a pretty decent summary of the major events of WWII, yet know next to nothing of the role our country played. I have spent countless hours watching and reading about America’s Revolutionary War but have no idea how our own nation was formed.

But I don’t feel bad; I know it’s not my fault. Tom Hanks has never played a quiet but strong Canadian soldier so I have never felt a burning need to learn much of our history. And there’s another reason that I don’t dwell too hard over my patriotic shortcomings – because the things that make me “Canadian” are not meant to be so simple to define.

When I travel the world I always show my passport with pride. Always utter the words “I’m Canadian” knowing it will be met with a pleasant reply. Have always waved our flag high during the Olympics. But why? Why identify myself positively with this country? Because I had a sense that this was a good place. That’s it. That’s all I ever needed to feel proud of where I came from. I did not need a glorious history of rockets red glare or bombs bursting in air. I felt this country had a good heart and that was enough for me.

In an increasingly globalized world, a traditional sense of national identity becomes less and less practical. Divisions based on name have only ever led to short-sightedness and conflict, so the fact that we Canadians do not cover ourselves wholly and blindly in the red and white maple leaf is a good thing. It keeps us open and ready to evolve with the rest of the world.

Yet as I turn on the television and read the paper and go about my life, I see things that trouble me, things that stir in me a desire to step up and defend this difficult-to-define nation of ours. Defend it not from traditional enemies attacking traditional notions of country – but from more elusive adversaries threatening that more subtle definition of our nation.

I see how Canada’s reputation on the world stage is being tarnished by an embarrassing devotion to fossil fuels and big money. How we are building more prisons than schools. How our political discourse has devolved into endless attack ads influenced by special interests. How our media is going the way of Fox News and our American neighbours, with increased partisanship trying divide our nation in two. And how we have allowed corporate advertising to take over public spaces without restraint, turning our cities into clones of suburban Texas strip malls.

Doesn’t this seem impossible? Not here. Not us. Never would we allow money to influence our national welfare. Never would we want the Canadian landscape to become an amorphous replica of a shopping mall. But it’s happening. And it’s happening because we are losing track of the very thing that made us who we are, the only thing that gave Canadians any sort of deep national identity. That this is a good place. That good things happen here. As the world eats at itself over petty disagreements and greed and distorted senses of value – we Canadians could always sit up here, supposedly cold and backwards and living in igloos, and chuckle at how ridiculous they all are. We could recognize the subtle difference that made us special.

So with Canada Day approaching, perhaps this is the one thing about being Canadian that we should remember. Not General Montcalm or the Battle of 1812 or powdered wigs; not making the most money or beating the other side at any cost – but that definition of ourselves as people with some common sense living in a good place we want to keep good. If we keep that in mind as we go forward and drop some of these bad new habits, things just might straighten themselves out.

 

I used to love her, but I had to kill her (lament for American politics)

For a long time I was addicted.

It started with CNN. Was sorta like training wheels, an “Intro to Cable News” 100-level beginner’s course that covered all the basics without getting too specific. The major subjects were there, always with the right graphics and flashing lights, but after a few years the Best Political Team On Television just wouldn’t cut it anymore. The waving flags and constant Breaking News exaggerations began to lose their luster. I kept going back for more and kept leaving disappointed, unfulfilled. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well…well…you know how the joke goes. (ode to W.)

The political fix I was getting from CNN was no longer going to be enough. My cravings had become too strong and I was now too advanced for what this increasingly fluffy network could provide. So I moved onto MSNBC and FOX News, looking for something deeper, a more intense buzz. And it worked. The issues were discussed in finer detail, the opinions more passionate, and there seemed to be an atmosphere of not merely presenting fabricated political theater, but actually caring about the big issues enough to roll up their sleeves and get dirty with it.

And that’s what I needed. That’s why I was devoting so much of myself to the subject of American politics – because it was important. It mattered. The US was the “leader of the free world” so what happened in their political world was worth paying attention to. My appetite for big issues, my desire to be a part of the larger debates affecting our world, all pointed me in the direction of the American political spectrum.

Honestly, who cared what happened in my local city politics? Even my national elections didn’t have any substantial consequences. Things up here would be OK, no matter which way things went. But what happened in the US…now that was big, that mattered.

So I stayed committed. Listened to Air America and watched Keith Olbermann and went to bed with the Daily Show. When I needed my raged stroked, I would watch clips of Bill O’Reilly and Hannity and the other archaic hardliners.

I was fully involved, ready to keep on fighting. And at the peak of my addiction, after the New Hampshire democratic primary, as Barrack Obama gave a roaring piece of poetry dressed as speech, I felt goosebumps over my body and tears swelling in my eyes. It was worth it. My energies had not been wasted. My love had been given to the right place.

And, like millions around the world, I did celebrate. Felt part of history.

But like any buzz, it wears off. Quicker and quicker the more artificial the substance.

The longer I watched and the more I learned, the more I began to see. Soon I began to notice that the talking heads all sounded the same. The pundits brought on as experts all delivered identical talking points. It was always Left vs. Right and us vs. them. As I developed a deeper understanding of the issues, and as I became more immune to the flashy presentation and pumped up rhetoric, a sick and deepening realization came to me…

This is disgusting.

Poverty, war, healthcare, income inequality – issues that are literally life and death for millions of people – being used as taglines for a rehearsed and never-ending cycle of posturing and ulterior motives.

I became and am still horrified.

I realize now that most of you don’t actually care about any of the issues you pretend to represent. You care only about your side. You’re a glorified, self-centered cheerleader. Nothing more.  You bicker like 12 year old siblings and keep vital conversation running in circles while people suffer and die waiting for you to fulfill your obligations of public service.

The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.                                                           –Martin Luther King, Jr.

What may be worse, and who may deserve an even hotter place in eternity, are those who are in a position to help and instead look to their own selfish self-interests.

So I am weaning myself off of your glamour. Yes, I still check-in to Morning Joe, and Rachel Maddow, and Bill Maher, because every addict still longs for a fix and these folks seem to have their heart and heads in the right place.

But I am outgrowing you, US politics. The world is moving forward and you are still running in the same old spot. I still believe you can be great. I still hold on to that hope. But until you shape up, throw out the money, and stop being so goddamn focused on your own petty little bubbles…I have to step away. I just can’t let you do this to me anymore. I will not be a part of it.